A former Fairbury man is realizing his dreams of playing the jaw harp to wider audience after keeping his musical talent a secret for 43 years.
Jim Headley, who was the editor at the local newspaper, made the trip to Cottage Grove, Ore., setting out Monday morning with a case of jaw harps, determined to rock the house during the 22 Annual Jew’s Harp Festival. He traveled well over 1,000 miles, taking in the sights in six states along the way.
During his time on the road, Headley reflected on how he first got hooked on playing the jaw harp.
“I was 12 years old when I found the jaw harp. I was on my way to Boy Scout Camp, and on my way to camp, we stopped at the Fort Laramie National Historic Site. There was a reenactor there cleaning this strange-sounding harp outside of the general store there. I really, really liked the sound he was creating,” he said.
Headley decided to buy a jaw harp, known as a Snoopy Harp, a $4 investment that turned into a life of creativity and fun. From the time he bought the instrument, he became enamored with it, practicing every sound and tone it could make. Quickly his collection grew as he stumbled across more and more of the harps at flea markets and garage sales.
It was only within the past year that Headley became comfortable playing the instrument’s music in front of other people. Headley adheres to the Bluegrass genre, though, from time to time he catches himself playing country and even rock.
“I spent years and years, and even decades trying to play this darn thing, and I got pretty good,” said Headley. “I was able to play with some rock and roll, and play with some country, which was fun. But every time I pulled out the jaw harp, they looked at me like I was some kind of circus freak. The noise it makes is just insane, and if you don’t control that noise perfectly, it gets out of control very quickly.
I’ve been playing at home, by myself for 43 years. I never really did venture out in public, but about a year ago I started playing with some other musicians around Hastings. It really brought me out of my shell,” Headley continued.
Even after becoming more and more comfortable with playing the jaw harp, Headley never believed that he would become the headline act at a music festival. He continued working diligently with the harp and discovered the North American Jaw Harp Association, which hosted an annual Jew’s Harp Festival in Oregon. The only problem that the association stopped having the festival, but that changed as jaw harp performers from across the United States, including Headley, showed interest in reviving the event. The Annual North American Jew’s Harp festival was revived by the association for the first time since 2012.
“I always thought that the festival would be really great to go to, but I never thought I could do it. I was able to do it, so I decided to take this trip. It was an incredible moment in my life. I can’t believe that this even happened and that this is real. I am so, so very happy to be here in Cottage Grove,” he said.
He took to the stage on Friday evening as the main performance at the festival, as he played a variety of music with his jaw harp and a washboard. On Saturday, the festival hosted a band scramble, where performers from different bands teamed up to play. Headley explained that it was the first time any of them had played together, since there were performers from throughout the country at the show. They practiced for one hour, which led to an experience Headley believes is life-changing.
“That band scramble was just incredible. We played a half-hour-long song and these people had never played together, ever. It was interesting because two of the people we played with weren’t even at the practice, but they joined us and it went really well. Before this festival, I’ve never been in a room with anyone who could play a jaw harp. Not even once. Then suddenly, I’m on a national stage with some incredible players.
“When we started, we knew we had a song, but we didn’t know where we wanted to go with it,” Headley continued. “It was challenge, but it sounded amazing. It was so good. I’m still blown away by how unique it sounded having these great musicians playing together.”
Headley returned from the festival with a sense of hope for the future. He plans to continue making music with the jaw harp because, as he said, “It’s something I just have to do.”
“I don’t feel so alone anymore. I always felt alone in playing the Jew’s Harp my whole life, but there’s a great community that plays the same instrument, and they play it well! These people are the best of the best. It’s just that incredible. I’m really glad that we made this trip. This trip has been incredible.”
Shaun Friedrichsen, Owner of Fairbury News Now, traveled to Oregon with Headley. If you would like to see photos from their journey, click here.