The day the mouth harp guy came to town

I was walking along the street yesterday and it hit me: one day in 5th grade, a guy showed up at our school and started playing a mouth harp over the PA system and everyone bought one and played it for precisely 1.5 days and then never played it again.

This guy showed up at our school and I don’t remember exactly what happened because it was 5th grade and do you even remember 20 discrete things that happened to you in 5th grade? Is it weird that entire years of your life are just a handful of blurry moments? Is that just me?

I remember him playing over the loudspeakers into the classroom and we were all like “what strange music is this! behold the twangy melody of the itinerant stranger! we must have it oh we must teacher! make the man teach us his tricks!”

And so it was. The man taught us how to play the mouth harp at a school assembly and we all went home that night to ask our parents for $5 and then we all came in and lined up to buy our own mouth harps.

I remember playing my mouth harp, specifically the feeling of the little metal band wacking against my teeth when I pulled it back too hard.

This guy, this traveling salesman, I have to think that he must’ve sold 200 of these things in a day. At $5 each, he was clearing around $800/day, accounting for COGS.

I really don’t know what to make of all this. Was it educational? A brilliant hustle? Both?

Is this equivalent to those ‘classes’ on cruise ships that teach you ‘how to start an art collection’ and then conveniently have a bunch of bad art to sell you in the next room over? Do people know they’re getting conned when that happens? Did our teachers know?

I imagine mouth harp guy as this itinerant salesman, going from elementary school to elementary school, arranging for some kind of faux-educational presentation, creating a flash fad that infects an entire building, a pop-up mouth harp craze, selling out his wares, and then moving on down the road to the next unsuspecting elementary school.

By the way, I googled “mouth harp” and it’s actually called a Jew’s Harp, which really? Really!? OK, Wikipedia says this:

The common English, apparently anti-Semitic name “Jew’s harp” is avoided by some speakers or manufacturers.

Wikipedia seems unsure whether or not it’s anti-semitic. It seems like there’s no evidence per se of anti-semitism but it SURE DOES SOUND ANTI-SEMITIC.

On the other hand, there’s this: the International Jew’s Harp Society, which doesn’t seem to be ill-intentioned in its naming. I mean if you were founding a society to promote something that you love, you would probably not choose a name that was offensive, right? RIGHT? But then again, sports team names.

I also googled “a guy came to my school and sold us mouth harps” and nothing comes up so maybe I’m the only one. But, I did find this:

For me, it’s really important to arouse people’s interest in the jaw harp”, says Áron Szilágyi. For 20 years, Áron travels the world as a musician, trainer, and initiator of projects. As director of the Leskowsky Music Instrument Museum in Kecskemét – the only one of its kind in Hungary – he gives people access to music on a very basic level: “Me and my colleagues go to schools and conduct workshops. This is a very important mission for me. Our work inspires kids and young people to learn such an intuitive instrument as the jaw harp. They can learn to play it without necessarily going to a music school. They can just give it a try and discover it themselves.”


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