Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Unusual Instruments: After the Gold Rush

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris: After the Gold Rush


...In which Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton meet Benjamin Franklin. Or, more specifically, the instrument Franklin invented in 1761 -- the glass armonica, the first instrument to be invented in Colonial America. The glass armonica comprises 37 chromatically tuned bowls, mounted on a rotating spindle. The armonicist operates the instrument with a foot pedal, and rubs the spinning glass with his fingers. The result is an ethereal, almost spooky, tone. Hearing -- but not seeing -- her husband play the instrument for the first time, Mrs. Franklin said she feared she’d died and was listening to the sound of angels.

Franklin’s invention was particularly well received in Europe. Marie Antoinette was said to have taken armonica lessons. Mozart was inspired to write two works for it. Mozart in turn introduced it to physician Franz Mesmer, who used the instrument’s dulcet tones to help, well, mesmerize his patients. The arminoca’s faint sound made it difficult to be heard in concert halls, and the prolonged exposure to the glass posed health risks to the armonicists. Soon the instrument faded away. The (seriously) glass armonica website estimates there are only a dozen glass armonica players in the world today.

One of those is a fellow named Dennis James, who plays armonica on Harris, Ronstadt and Parton’s cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush." It appears on their Trio II CD, released in 1999. (Ronstadt’s 1992 record, Winter Light, also featured James on armonica.) Even without the armonica solo, it's a strange cover -- the ladies change the lyrics a bit, and Parton later claimed none of them had any idea what the song was about. Still, the accompanying video was quite popular on VH-1 and country music video channels, in part because of the fascinating instrument that managed to one-up the trio’s angelic harmonies. (Watch a performance on David Letterman’s Late Show here; the armonica solo starts at about 3:46.)

blog comments powered by Disqus