At the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering in Newport, Pennsylvania, an event that drew nearly 300 autoharp performers, Amy Clarke of Jim Thorpe was selected by the audience as the Favorite Open Stage Performer.
Recently retired, Clarke is returning to her roots as a singer and autoharpist.
"I can't remember when I wasn't singing," Clarke said.
Her dad, Bob Kissell, and mom, Bea Kissell, always sang. Her mother's mother, Jessie Fritz, sang in the Echoes of the Valley.
"My father's mother, Agnes Kissell used to sit and listen to, 'A Faded Coat of Blue' and cry," Clarke remembers.
Clarke's first instrument, at age six, was an unusual steel-bodied guitar, a 1930s-era National Doulian.
"It was so heavy, I couldn't pick it up," she said. "I had to sit in the floor and put it on my lap."
"When I was a little older, I'd visit my grandparents' dairy farm," she continued. "They had a pump organ and a piano. We were allowed to beat on them and create whatever we wanted. Then I would go to the dairy barn and sing to the cows."
Although her main instrument is her voice, Clarke played drums in school, and has since added guitar, organ, bass and the autoharp. She was introduced to the autoharp through the music of Maybelle Carter, the mother of the Carter Family folk music group.
In the late 1970s, Clarke's family formed the Mountain Laurel Bluegrass Band, a group that styled themselves after the Carter Family. Father, Bob played dobro, mom Bea played upright bass, and Amy played guitar. They would often be joined by Maryann Emert on autoharp, and Rodger Hart on banjo.
Before retiring, Amy worked as a construction accountant, a job that took her on the road for about a quarter of each year. While on the road, her best companions were her guitar and autoharp.
"I got myself a 15-chord Oscar Schmidt autoharp for $239-that was my first one. I sat in my motel room and played to keep myself company," she said.
Autoharps are cousins of the zither, a neckless plucked stringed instrument dating to early times. Zithers are mentioned in the Bible, and have been unearthed from ancient China. In the late 1800s, the addition of chord bars, which are used to create chords by dampening the strings that do not belong to the chord, were added to create the modern autoharp.
With the addition of the chord bars, a musician can set a chord with the left hand and pluck a melody progression within the chord with the right hand. Left-handed autoharps are not generally available.
Clarke's autoharps have a trademark heart-shaped sound hole. These autoharps were made by Warren Fisher, a luthier in Selinsgrove, Pa. Her favorite autoharp has a top made from Sitka spruce and a back made from Pennsylvania walnut. Her autoharps have 37 strings, 15 bars and are diatonic-they play in two keys.
Clarke writes several of the songs that she performs, and all of them are "comical songs." For instance, she explained, "I know a preacher who accidentally killed a squirrel with a broom."
"He's telling me the story," she continued, "and I said, 'Please don't tell me anymore.'"
Remembering a Five-Pound Possum song that she heard at bluegrass festivals, Clarke composed a Two-Pound Squirrel song. Its chorus goes:
There's a two-pound squirrel in Snyder's campsite tonight. The kettle for making potpie is hidden out of site. Hand me the broom, Gwenny, everything's gonna be all right. There's a two-pound squirrel in Snyder's campsite, tonight.
For information on Amy Clarke's music, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 570-325-0290.