Bert Amend & the One-Armed Musicians  

Updated March, 2011

by Gregg Miner, as part of

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Without any doubt, these are the most fascinating Knutsen instrument photographs ever discovered! Even more fascinating is the story behind it, and we have the grandson himself, Robin Amend, to tell it.  His own article about his grandfather appears at the bottom.

The man on the right in all four images is Bert Amend, who, as a shake mill worker, lost an arm at the turn of the twentieth century. Determined not to give up music, he ultimately invented several attachments and devices to enable himself and similarly handicapped players to play many different instruments (he was granted a patent for a chord-fingering device for the piano). During the early 'teens his trio was billed as "The Greatest Novelty Musical Act in Vaudeville."
Eventually adding more players - all one-armed individuals - the group played violins, cellos, guitars, piano and drums. 

What has so far been missing from both Robin's story, and the period articles he quotes, is the unique nature of the guitars! While one appears to be some type of unusual six-string (presumably non-Knutsen), there are two very fancy Knutsen 18-course harp guitars discernible in these photographs, with a third 11-course in the possession of Robin.

The two known Knutsen harp guitars are both mid-Seattle-era "Lower Bass Point" models, and are clearly smaller scale instruments (somewhere around 3/4 size). One is right-handed, one is left-handed. Notice that Bert (and his main partner) can either fret or pluck either instrument with their single hand! Robin says that the instrument in his possession has no treble string bank (therefore is not one of these), is "small" also, and has either label SE1 (early Seattle) or SE2 (mid-Seattle). The left-handed instrument in the first photo also appears to have label SE1 (possibly SE2) barely resolvable when magnified. The glare and angle of the face when the photo was taken disguises the black color - this instrument (Inv #HGS43) is the same one that appears in the second and third photos. The pointed lower bout can only be seen on the table in the last photo at far left. Note that after the first photo was taken, the group has omitted every other bass string, leaving three (they also added an extra screw "nut-post" on the bass arm, which tells us the photo chronology). In the images below, The third photo shows the first two instruments side-by-side in scale, suggesting that their scale lengths and other dimensions may be slightly different. I was delighted to notice that the second floating "bridge" rests for the trebles appear to be the same curved, thin bone pieces that were found on the "zither harp guitar" (HGS40)!

Photos ca. 1913-1915
(images c
opyright and courtesy Robin Amend)

The missing part of the story is: Why Knutsens? Why harp guitars at all, and especially Knutsen's 18-course version with the doubled third string and super-trebles? One might expect that standard six-string guitars would have been difficult enough to learn the "two-player" techniques on, but clearly these gentlemen were more than up to the challenge! Not only does Bert "switch hit" on each side of the guitar, but he does so while bowing the cello with his special bow attachment!

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HGS43

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HGS44

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HGS43, HGS44

Here are the two harp guitars taken from the first photo - as they are in scale, they seem to show variations in scale length and proportions.

These instruments have the look of a custom set made specially by Knutsen for this group - all are small, with possibly custom scale lengths, all have very fancy trim and inlay, and they are a right- and left-handed pair - presumably to accommodate the specific needs of the player combinations. Interesting also is that both have the doubled G-string, seen only twice on previous Knutsens. Could it be that Amend desired this double-G for some specific reason and Knutsen obliged? Interesting how these compare with the similarly fancy, left-handed, small-scale, double-G-string HGS25.
Click on each photo to see the full Instrument page.


3/15/2005 UPDATE: I just discovered another rare series of postcards that relate to Bert Amend and tie him again to Knutsen, via a different group of musicians!

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The first photo shows Bert - in about the same time frame as the above photos. The card at right has a pencil inscription of "1917" but the photo may be somewhat earlier. My suspicion is that these photos are from before the series above, Bert not yet having put together his band of fellow one-armed players, nor acquired the fancy Knutsen harp guitars.

In the second photo, we see the same Autoharp player, with an early Knutsen harp mandolin made at the end of or after 1910.

The final postcard depicts the same Autoharp player with a violinist. Clearly, this was a series of postcards / photographs taken for use by this group of musicians.

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Close-up of Amend shows three standard bowlback mandolins. I had my suspicions, and when I received the original postcard, I confirmed it - this harp mandolin survived and is in the Archives! See #HM19.

 (left images from eBay - I was unable to obtain the original postcard. Two images at right copyright Gregg Miner)


4//12/2005 UPDATE: When Robin Amend originally shared his priceless photos and information with me, he also mentioned a surviving harp guitar of his grandfather's that was not one of those pictured - making a total of three Knutsen harp guitars (and possibly the harp mandolin above) owned by Amend and his group.

We finally have an image of it. See HGS51.


(image copyright Amend Music Center, courtesy Brian Alboucq)

3/1/2011 UPDATE: Here is an additional article on Amend and his orchestra I discovered in the Cresendo magazine.  The issue is from November, 1911, and there are no Knutsen harp guitars, only a standard 6-string.  So was the Knutsen-playing period then after this?  Probably - that's what would seem logical, and yet the harp guitars by every characteristic and clue are early to mid-period Seattle instruments - almost certainly built by the date of this issue.  So perhaps this photo was taken before the musicians had begun to work the complicated 18-course Knutsens into their act.

Note the device emerging from Amend's sleeve. This may be the very same device seen below, in the possession of Robin (Bert's grandson), or it is something matching his patent illustration.  I've no idea what the felt wheels are for.  


(image copyright Amend Music Center, courtesy Brian Alboucq)

After re-reading Robin's article on his grandfather, I located the patent he mentions - # 831,920, "Artificial Hand For Playing Chords," applied for in October, 1905 and granted on Sept. 25, 1906.  It is a tricky device to understand, but obviously he got his to work for an entire career!

 

Robin Amend has written a wonderful article on his grandfather; it is a bit difficult to find on their Amend Music Center site, so I have reprinted it below.


This article was printed in Nostalgia Magazine in November of 2000 and gives a little insight into why the Amends have a music store and why they think music is so important for all people.
A Certain Grace by Robin Amend

What he remembered most was the smell. Not the heady, hard to breathe, muggy smell of cedars in the rainforest, but that of freshly cut cedar - the smell of a newly split shake roof.

When the accident happened, his life did not pass before his eyes. He didn't think of his love of wood that had led him into an apprenticeship at the local lumber mill. An apprenticeship that paid wages in wood instead of dollars; wood that he had used to build his first house. And he didn't think of his job in this shake mill in the forests of Washington. He thought of the pain, pain and the smell of cedar.

He sat on the ground surrounded by small mountains of cedar sawdust. His thoughts wandered, and he focused them only when he forced himself to consider his situation. The fact of life that all shake mill workers lived with was the threat of losing a limb. That threat hovered around them during their working lives, like a vulture waiting to take advantage of their slightest slip in concentration.

And now it had found him. It had swooped down and taken his most valued possession. His right arm. The reality of the old saying, "As useless as a one-armed paper hanger" had visited him in all its stark terror.

The irony of his situation was overwhelming. If not for the grinding pain and his friends bandaging what remained of his arm, he might not have believed it was gone at all. He could still feel his fingers moving across the strings of his guitar and melody and harmony lines on his piano. It had not yet occurred to him that the activity that he has always held most dear in his life had abruptly come to an end. The fact that he had not gone to town last weekend and allowed his insurance policy to lapse hadn't yet sunk in. There was a certain grace in his pain that had so far driven out the depression that was to replace it.

Once the pain diminished the apparition of his right arm continued to haunt him. Time had passed and with the passage had come the doubl-edged sword, clarity if thought. Bert was now able to evaluate his circumstances. On one hand, the generosity of his fellow employees to have taken a collection to pay his medical bills was overwhelming. But the other hand held only grief and loss. The hand that had previously held his profession in the lumber mill business and his avocation as a musician was now gone. And with life as it was for one-armed men at the turn of twentieth century, Bert could not be sure whether the spinning saw blade severed his engagement with his true love, Hattie, as well.

But grief and loss are not hopelessness and despair, at least not for Bert and Hattie. After the accident he and Hattie married and raised five children. Bert was able to make a living working in the bookkeeping department of a large hardware store. This would have been a happy enough ending for a story with such an abrupt and life-shattering beginning, but this was not enough for Bert.

Bert's mind whirred with thoughts, ideas and dreams that he could not exorcise. There must have been times that he needed to simply sit by himself and let the world pass by as he allowed the chaos of his thoughts sort into recognizable forms which he could decipher and metamorphose into realities.

Bert spent his free time dreaming about playing music. Prosthetics were virtually unknown at the time, yet his inventive mind could not be restrained by the limitations of his disability. Before long,he had invented several devices that enabled him to play instruments that he had once played. He began by devising a harness that fit snugly over the stub of his arm. The harness was designed to accomodate several attachments that allowed him to play whichever instrument he desired.

One attachment firmly held picks so Bert could pluck fretted stringed instruments such as guitars and mandolins. He then added a jointed connection to this attachment so he could draw a bow smoothly over the strings of violins and cellos. He constructed stands that assisted in holding and quickly transferring instruments. Bert even invented an attachment with finger-like extensions to play chords on the piano. By 1906 he held a patent for the device.

Bert was now able to perform on the musical instruments he so loved, but that wasn't enough for him. He understood that these new devices were a gift from God to be shared with the people who shared his disability. Bert ran advertisements in the newspapers encouraging others whom had lost an arm and were interested in learning to play a musical instrument to contact him. Unfortunately, many had succumbed to the stereotype of the worthlessness of one-armed individuals and had become hopeless alcoholics. Although before long, Bert had gathered a small group of aspiring musicians and had taught them to play using his inventions.

Within a couple of years the group was playing the Pacific Northwest Vaudeville circuit, and they were soon billed as 'The Greatest Novelty Musical Act in Vaudeville.' By 1913 their popularity had spread such that an article in C.G.Conn's Musical Trurh, a national musician's magazine, featured a photograph of the seven musicians playing violin, cello, mandolin, drums, cornet, trombone, guitar and Bert, playing piano with his patented "Artificial Hands for Playing Chords." The trio Bert took on a cross-country, vaudeville train ride to Chicago in 1915 performed on 15 different instruments in towns and cities ranging from Salt Lake City to Mt Pleasant, Iowa, and was billed as the "act that has marveled the musical world."

Music was not Bert's entire life. He studied horticulture and had a successful orchard business. When his vaudeville days were over, he and Hattie concentrated on their orchard. They raised their family, started a family band that played locally and sold their produce in front of their house.

In the 1930's a man had an idea for a newsreel to be played in theatres between movies. He scoured through the patents of the day to find the most amazing inventions, and then he produced a movie called 'Inventions on Parade'. As he sifted through the patents one caught his eye, "Artificial Hands for Playing Chords." The first time Bert saw the newsreel in a theatre, he heard himself being described as the "Eighth wonder of the world," and it made him think back to the horrible day of the accident that had changed his life so profoundly. He thought it was kind of funny, that what he remembered most was the smell. Not the smell of sweat or blood or despair, but the smell of fresh cut cedar.

So why is this lump in my throat, now many years after my grandfather's death? Why do I have such an emotional response to a 60-year old film clip that looks like it had been edited on a butcher block with a two-headed ax? My grandfather, Bert, died more than thirty years ago at the age of 95, and I hold many fond memories of him and of my boyhood visits to his house. But here I am at my parents' house in the foothills of Mount Spokane; here I stand holding a film that does not show the man that I remember. The man in my memories is much older, playing checkers with my uncle, showing me his roll of mint silver dollars that he had saved from his trip west on the train in the late 1800's, showing the soft stub of his arm.

This man in the film is my age. He is performing on the piano and guitar. I have many photographs and have been told many stories about this miracle, but I have no recollection of seeing it actually happen. It is unusual enough that a person of my age has an opportunity to see a grandparent on film, but it is even more amazing to see him involved in the vocation I have based my life around. Perhaps this is reason enough to explain the emotions exploding in my chest. As time has passed, however, I have come to believe there is more to it than that. Some God-given link has chained my spirit to that of Bert Amend in a way that cannot be passed off as mere genetics.

I don't pretend to be an expert on inherited traits, but when thinking back to my college science books I don't recall any shapes on the helix resembling a musical note. Yet it is undeniable that a full musical score has been passed down to me. I was raised in the Spokane Valley and the nearest music store was at the corner of Sprague and Pines, a couple miles away from my home. It was a huge old house that had been renovated to fit the desired purpose. The dining room was the show room and entryway. The living room held sheet music and was the waiting area for students. Behind the living room was another fairly large room, which I remember as always being dark and filled with smoke but was actually the repair shop. Down the hallway off the 'living' room and also up the stairs were studios for private lessons. The owner of the store was a retired band director named Clark Evans, which, coincidentally, was the name of the music store.

The young age I started music lessons at Clark Evans was due, at least in part, to several phone calls received by my mother. The employees of Clark Evans would call to inform my mother that her son, who she thought was playing at the neighbors, had once again hiked the two miles to the music store and was pestering the employees. The logical decision was made to find something for me to do there, so I started taking lessons.

There is a heart-shaped link that ties me to my grandfather, or maybe it is more appropriately called a broken-heart-shaped link. Perhaps Bert's own loss could explain his empathy for other disabled people and his desire to make them 'whole'. As a small boy, I carried home injured animals in a shoe box and was often at odds with schoolmates for befriending the outcasts in playground activities.

As a person who repairs musical instruments, I did have the ability to fix horns. Many musicians consider their instruments an extension of themselves and I felt a true burden for helping disabled people play music years ago when I was given an opportunity to help a student play her clarinet.

My friend, Jane Bateham, was the band director at Libby Junior High School and came to me one day with an unusual problem. She had a student who very much wanted to play the clarinet but had been born with badly misshapen fingers. She could use her fingers but she could not reach all the keys. After several attempts, we were able to modify her instrument so that she was able to play. This small feat of instrument modification opened the door to the musical world for this girl, and many years later, with children of her own, she still plays her clarinet. For me it opened a different door in my heart and in my mind. I could, as a musical instrument repairman, make the lives of disabled people more full. It was possible for me to make a difference in the lives of these people.

In 1990 I was awakened in the middle of the night with a vision. The vision described a device that could take the place of a person's hand whether the hand was totally disabled or completely missing. A year and a half and two grant applications later, I was awarded funding tp build a prototype of this device. A young girl whose hand was missing used the device to play the saxophone, and even a quadriplegic boy can now play the baritone horn.

When I think of this device now, I am thrilled that it can be used to change the lives of prospective musicians who are disabled. I am daunted by the task of getting the device into production and distributing it to the individuals who can most use it. More than these, I am reminded that nearly 100 years ago a young man made a decision to help others while following his dreams. I am reminded of an old film of the 'Eighth wonder of the world'. I am reminded that grief and loss are not the same as hopelessness and despair. And somehow, if I try hard enough, I can even find the smell of fresh-cut cedar.

Robin and Debbie Amend own AMEND MUSIC CENTER at 1305 W. 14th Ave. in Spokane. Their neighborhood music store offers music lessons, instrument repair and sales. They repair band instruments for all of Spokanes school districts.


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