Jamming with the Amish…Let the Music Roll

The Old Order Amish of Lancaster County wouldn’t have a radio or television in their home, but that doesn’t mean their lives are without music or entertainment.  Music is very much a part of an Amish person’s life.  Still, the way in which they experience lyrical entertainment is very different from the mainstream society around them.  

Singing is very much a part of Amish life.  They sing at church (though a cappella only, with no instrumental accompaniment) and sing at home.  In church, the songs are from the Ausbund, the oldest protestant hymnal worldwide still in use today (first printed in 1564), and the melodies are drawn out, slowly sung, and nearly chant-like in their droning delivery. At home, at social gatherings, youth functions, etc. the songs are more upbeat, and contemporary hymns and worship songs are common.  

You might expect that the Plain People would eschew musical instruments.  While the Amish don’t use them at church, there is one notable exception some Amish learn to play (some quite well) at home. That would be the harmonica. Many “Fancy” (non-Amish) Americans can recall having plastic toy harmonicas as kids, about as inaccurately tuned as one can imagine. As a kid, it was fun to toot a few bleats on a plastic toy. But real harmonicas, which come in various keys, are quality, expertly tuned instruments capable, in talented hands, of making wonderful music.  

Some Amish become quite adroit at making music with a harmonica, providing entertainment for themselves, friends, or family.  You’d rarely see an Amish person playing the harmonica in public such as in a concert format.  That would be too much spotlight on an individual in a faith that holds up community and conformity in such high regard and avoids too much personal, individual expression as a sign of sinful pride.  

Still, the Amish connection to the harmonica is not hard to find.  Visit an Amish variety store, and you’ll see a nice selection of instruments.  High quality, with a price to match, offerings in various keys. Most of the harmonicas go for well over $100.  At least one Amish enthusiast I know of has harmonicas keyed in A, B flat, B, C, D, E flat, E F, and High-G.  Men, women, and children are all potential players. 

— Clinton Martin