Black Harp Guitar Players

by Gregg Miner
February 2013
Updated February 2021


In this special Players Feature, I wanted to showcase the growing number of historical images we have discovered that feature black musicians performing or posing with harp guitars.

From casual amateurs to part- or full-time professionals, it’s refreshing to see that they appear little different from their 1900’s Caucasian counterparts, even though socially (if not musically) oppressed.

As with the majority of images discovered of all manner of harp guitar players, little to nothing is usually known about those depicted – their amateur or professional status, musical abilities, location or date.  Occasionally, we find a name attached, and some images are dated.  Other timeframes can be deduced by the clothing, and especially by the harp guitar specimens we can identify, often seen in remarkable detail.  Well dressed, in varying styles of suits and tuxedos, these musicians often seem to have ended up with some of the best and priciest American harp guitars produced in the early 1900s. As that is my specialty, that is what I will comment most on.  Otherwise, I’ll generally just let the remarkable images speak for themselves.  If anyone has other information (or social commentary) to add, please contact me.

This page includes all images I presently know of.  I’ll use this page as a permanent archive to add any additional images that come to light in the future as well.   

Todd Jones, c.1921
(Courtesy of Perlista Henry)

We begin with one of the most iconic images of a black harp guitar player known – striking not just visually, and not just because we can easily identify the instrument as a Dyer Style 7, but remarkable in that we have long known the fellow’s name.

The image came first – an old glass negative, found at a swap meet in the 1970’s by a fellow named Mark Austin.  Many years later, the image was used either on the cover of the newsletter of the Music Maker Relief Foundation or in a 2002 MMRF ad in the Oxford American magazine.

I first came across it some ten years ago on the cover of an unrelated CD of Blues music.  I subsequently found it on the web site of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, but only as a small thumbnail, as they were then offering prints of it (I didn't order one at the time, they were not inexpensive).  It was their page (modified, but still here) which explained that an African-American photographer who documented black life in their small town took the photograph.  It also told how a descendant of the unknown harp guitarist spotted the photo and recognized her grandfather, a hotel waiter named Todd Jones.

Meanwhile, harp guitarist Stephen Bennett came across a newspaper article about the photograph, which he subsequently shared with me (and which I cannot now put my hands on).  I remember something about the attributed date being in question (error).

Jump to January, 2006, when Todd Jones’ granddaughter, Perlista Henry, wrote me asking what I knew of the photo (I had the thumbnail duplicated on my website).  She was helping with a new book by Philip Hirsh, called Voices from the Hollow: What happened when the Blue Bloods met the Blue Ridge (2006).  In it, Hirsh tells stories of his life in Bath County, Virginia, where he – a white child of “privilege” – was largely raised by his grandparents’ black maids and servants, especially Alice Fortune, who happened to be the first wife of Todd Jones.

As the couple was divorced during the ‘twenties – long before the author was born – there is virtually nothing in the book about Jones’ musical life, beyond the famous photo.  As for the rather fancy Dyer Style 7 harp guitar, which he may or may not have owned, the trail is also cold.  However, the book is worth reading, if only to get a sense of the area and the (mostly later) times, including the Homestead Hotel in Hot Springs where Todd Jones worked (more on this below), and the abundance of black musicians in the surrounding area.

What scant information we do have comes from the short Music Maker article, as relayed by Perlista Henry:

(Courtesy of Perlista Henry)

"Todd Jones (my maternal grandfather) was born in 1897 in Warm Springs, Virginia. He was the sixth of eleven children born to Albert Sidney Jones and Eliza Brooks. Todd inherited his musical ability from his mother's side of the family. He and his brother, Bernard and older sister Beulah all played instruments. In 1918, Todd married Alice Bolden (Fortune)(1899-1997), who also lived in Warm Springs. He served in the armed services during World War I. The couple had three children. Todd worked as a waiter at the Homestead Hotel at Hot Springs. He also played with a local music group, which included his brother, Bernard and other men from his community.

Todd and Alice were divorced during the 1920's. Todd relocated to Washington, D.C., where he married and lived there until his death on July 13th, 1956. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery."

Perlista Henry kindly supplied this additional photo (at left), saying: “The names of the musicians are: Front row, left to right: Melvin Church with violin, Todd Jones with guitar, James Pullins with mandolin, Bernard Jones (Todd's younger brother) with guitar. Back row: Mozelle Pettus and his brother Fred.”

Sometime after the above was written and published, a gentleman named Larry Black contacted me about some new images.  It seems that he had acquired some glass negatives some forty years ago in the mid-1970's from a co-worker who had brought them back from a flea market in Winston-Salem, NC.  It wasn't until last year, however, that Larry finally had prints made in order to show them to the experts at the Antiques Roadshow.  Luckily for us, Larry passed on the Roadshow appraisers’ offer of consignment (they thought it was Robert Johnson in the photo) and subsequently donated beautiful scans of all the images to

Shortly after his Roadshow visit, Larry learned of the very article you are reading and the well-known image of Todd Jones above.  Larry’s first email to me (sans image) was quite curious: "The photo I have is identical right down to the light colored, bent, upside down v-shaped piece of grass by Todd's right foot. That piece of grass or straw is by the foot of my gentleman, also. But it is definitely a different man, and I think it was taken on the same day."!

One Dyer harp guitar, two brothers: 
Todd (left) and Bernard (right) Jones, c.1921

Amazingly, Larry was right.  It wasn't Todd, but Todd's brother Bernard – posing in the exact same spot with the same Dyer Style 7 harp guitar.  All of the vegetation in the shot (including that telltale piece of bent straw) indicates that the photos were surely taken one right after another.        

His identity was deduced from comparison to the photo of the group above; Perlista Henry and I agreed that it was Bernard.

Bernard Jones, c.1921
(Courtesy of Larry Black)

Perlista received from Larry all eight scanned negatives also, in order to try to identify other faces – as it is likely that these were all taken by the same African-American photographer, in the same area.  So far, Perlista has this to offer: "I can solve the question about the emblem on the baseball player's uniform. The letters are HG for the Homestead Giants team from the Homestead Hotel.  The Homestead had a team until the 1960's.  Some of the players from years back also played with the Negro League.  I am not sure about the building.  I am almost certain that I have seen the photo of the boy and the girl before."
(All image courtesy of Larry Black)
Another fascinating addendum to the Todd (and now, Bernard) Jones story occurred when I learned more about the Homestead Hotel, where he was employed as a waiter.

I was blown away by this next series of photos, kindly shared with us a couple years ago by Stephen Bennett’s friend, Francis Stout.

As remarkable as the Jones photograph is, it turns out that the Homestead Hotel where he worked was a remarkable destination spot, with beginnings in 1766.  J. P. Morgan headed a group of investors who built the modern resort in the late 1800’s.  This burned down in 1901 and was rebuilt (as we know it today).  Several U.S. presidents vacationed there.

As Francis explained these images to Stephen: “The Homestead was the place to vacation for wealthy folks in the late 1800's right into the present. Live music was always a part of the entertainment, even today. A friend happened onto these old photos; all we know is that they were taken with an old glass plate camera at the Homestead in Hot Springs, VA. I noticed the guitarist is wearing cuff links on his spotless white shirt.”

Who were these musicians?  Locals?  Traveling professionals?  Amateurs from regions unknown come to the Homestead Hotel for its potential audiences?  As I highly doubt the Hotel kept a supply of harp guitars for itinerant musicians’ use, these performers must have brought the instruments with them.  And what instruments!  A top-of-the-line Dyer and a ‘teens Gibson, probably the two most expensive harp guitars of their day.  Even if they were obtained secondhand, the musicians would presumably have needed considerable funds to acquire them.  

The Homestead from a 1931 postcard

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Note that our first fellow poses with the Dyer on the very same stump that Todd Jones did, though in a different season or later year, judging from the undergrowth.  Could it be the same photographer as well?  Note also that his is a Dyer Style 8, while Jones’ was a 7.

Next, a different musician poses with the Dyer 8, along with someone playing a triple-course mandolinetto.  We shared these original photos with Perlista Henry, who (with the help of her community) was unable to identify any of these gentlemen.

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aa_gibson-francis_stout.jpg (144026 bytes)

Finally, yet another gentleman poses with a seemingly mint black Gibson.  Oh, to know the stories behind these beautiful photographs!

(Photos courtesy of Francis Stout)

Greater_Invincible_Concert_Company,Kansas_City,Missouri-ebay2.jpg (183028 bytes)

Speaking of expensive Gibson and Dyer instruments, this advertising card includes a spectacular line-up of unusual, high-end instruments: a Dyer Style 7 harp guitar and two Dyer harp mandolins, along with a Gibson Style U (c.1908-1915) and three Gibson mandolins (including an early “3-point” F model).  Mandolin-banjos, violins and brass round out the lineup of the (partially-blind?) quartet of “The Greater Invincible Concert Company” of Kansas City, Missouri.

February 2021: The Story of The Invincible Four!

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Three more photos of well-dressed Gibson players: the first with the larger early Style U, the second and third with the standard ‘teens model.

The last photo was found (thanks to Victoria Johnson) in the book Many Thousand Gone:  Springfield's Lost Black History, with the caption: "Unidentified musicians from Southtown, the black neighborhood around Grant and Grand" - Springfield, MO.

This wonderful series of photos of another unknown Gibson player (with horn attachment!) went for almost $200 on eBay, despite the poor condition. Note that he was a music reader.

(Courtesy of Ken Sargeant)

This photograph might have been just another of those anonymous images without any provenance that turn up here and there. Instead, it came from the private collection of a relative, who was proud to share the musician’s story. Ken Sargeant writes:

“Grampa was born James Foster Sargeant on May 5th, 1884 in Brown Hill, Nevis, British West Indies. He received a high school education on the island and worked as a boatwright there until he emigrated to the United States in 1910, settling in the burgeoning community of emigres from the Eastern Caribbean. A true renaissance man, he was proficient in all mechanical trades, photography, and eventually became immersed in radio and HiFi technology from the 1930s through the 1960s. His music education was by way of correspondence with the Wilcox School of Music and seems (from info on the sheets) to have begun in the 1920s while he resided on Dixwell Avenue in New Haven. My guess is that he was inspired by James Reese Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra which utilized the harp guitar liberally in its arrangements. In later years, after he had achieved proficiency, his three sons were all enlisted to play in a family string ensemble. Grampa was on harp guitar, his son Lloyd (1919) played a Gibson Mandolin, Louis (1921) played a homemade mandolin and Bertram (1924) carried the equipment. The ensemble played at the homes of friends in the neighborhood throughout the 1930s. Grampa bought a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood around 1940, where he served as the neighborhood radio and TV repair technician. He continued to play the Gibson there recreationally throughout the 1950s. He passed away in 1977.”

At left, the Weaver Brothers Trio from Milwaukee, with their Gibson harp guitar player, look like a class act.

And earlier, circa 1904, an unidentified tuxedoed all-Gibson quartet with a rare 12-bass harp guitar.

This is a remarkable photo of a rare and random moment: “Japan Day” at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. 

It was found and donated by Dan Kerlee, who hosted the AYPE Anniversary event featuring Tom Noe and John Doan in 2009.

As we zoom in…

and in…

…we discover a barely discernible pair of performers, with one playing what can only be a Knutsen harp guitar!  Alas, I am unable to identify the exact form (style and year) of it.  Knutsen was undoubtedly present at the fair (if only attending), so his instruments there are not unexpected.
Two more Knutsens – a harp mandolin and a harp guitar, the latter identifiable as a new, distinct specimen for the Archives show up in this photo of the Wang Doodle Orchestra from the University of Washington’s Libraries archives.  The names of all but the harp mandolin player are noted on a duplicate image, though it’s unknown who played the harp guitar.  Frank Waldron (“one of the most important figures in early Seattle jazz [who] influenced local musicians for 50 years”) holds the trumpet and Coty Jones is at the piano.  While the photo is inscribed “1915” on the back, some archivist seems to have decided that the photo is actually from c.1925 (both Knutsens would have been built just before 1915).  How fascinating that an early jazz ensemble would utilize Knutsen instruments!

The next two images show harp guitar versions of an instrument that was seen in the hands of many well-known early black Blues musicians: the 12-string guitar.  In this case, the 12-string neck with 4 sub-basses was a then somewhat common instrument: the Bruno, introduced between 1912 and 1914.

Compare the two historical image instruments with the catalog image and extant specimen (note the distinctive bridge shape).  The gap between the headstocks and joining segments is very three-dimensional and thus highly variable with camera angle.

This group contains a harp guitarist playing what I believe is an extremely obscure maker’s c.1900 instrument. It remained unidentified until I spotted the harp guitar below on eBay (click to enlarge). The label reads:

 G. A. Carlson
Manufacturer of Mandolins and Guitars
741 W. Sixty-Third Street, Chicago, Ill.

The unknown instrument in the historical photo is almost an exact match, even including the same inlaid headstock logo (Carlson's overlapping initials).  The placement of the two necks and the distinctive large and offset soundhole match exactly, as does the curious tapered bridge (widening toward the bass side).  The bass headstock, with its array of 12 zither pins extending at a 45 degree angle and extension affixed in front of the main headstock, is almost an exact match (in the extant instrument, the lower right protrusion does not curve down in the pronounced fashion that the photo specimen does).  I'd attribute this harp guitar to c.1900.  The photo itself came from eBay and has no provenance.

See my additional article on Carlson harp guitars.

Carlson, c.1900

Carlson (att.)

This image, from a fantastic resource site of rare information and 78 recording downloads (The Red Hot Jazz Archive), shows King Oliver's Orchestra in New York, March, 1931.  The harp guitarist is Ernest Meyers.  He doesn't appear to be present on any of the many recordings listed.  Again, it’s interesting to find a harp guitar in a jazz ensemble, though they were undoubtedly some of the louder guitars available even into the late 1920’s.  His instrument is not readily identifiable, though the body shape and distinctive tapered fretboard ends are nice visual clues.  The one instrument in the Galleries that so far seems to match is this Supertone (though the necks aren't as splayed could be a Wurlitzer?).

Sitting center in this 1895 photo is Bismark Ferris, the light skinned African American leader of a minstrel band called “Prof. Bismark Ferris and His Satisfied Boys.”  Due to the presence of the white block on the end of the harp guitar’s fretboard, we are probably looking at a Harwood; if so, perhaps this model or this one.

A unique part of my own Los Angeles’ history is the long-gone “Cotton Club” of Culver City.  Owned by Frank Sebastian, apparently, the "Cotton Club is remembered in part as the place Louis Armstrong was busted for marijuana use. It was also the venue for many great jazz performances, including Duke Ellington's Band.”  This c.1931 photo, from the book Imagining Los Angeles, doesn’t include any harp guitar players, only the curious backdrop, which seems to incorporate opposing double-neck harp guitar decorations.  Looks like a great place!

The seller of this unusual image circa dated it 1910.  I have been unable to identify the harp guitar, though it's bridge and headstocks remind me of this other unidentified instrument with a Dahlman-esque bridge that appears in a photo of a Schrammelmusik group.

(by special permission of the Maryland Historical Society)

Our final photo of black harp guitarists contains not one, not two, but four incredible harp guitars, in an even more incredible group, the Clef Club Orchestra, led by James Reese Europe.  For one 1910 concert (a smaller 1911 show is seen at left), their instrumentation included 27 first mandolins and mandolin-banjos, 10 second mandolins, 8 banjos, 8 violins, 9 cellos, 3 basses, 3 percussions, 10 pianos (!), and 23 harp guitars!

The link below will take you to a choice of a public version (limited image size) or a Members Only page with a thorough biography of the amazing Jim Europe and a detailed study of this incredible photo, and more!

James Reese Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra

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