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Zithers: Memory And Music In Davenport, Iowa

Zithers in action at a rehearsal of the Davenport Zither Ensemble.
Alex Keefe/NPR
Zithers in action at a rehearsal of the Davenport Zither Ensemble.

Michael Hustedde plays the concert zither.
Alex Keefe/NPR /
Michael Hustedde plays the concert zither.
The Davenport Zither Ensemble.
Alex Keefe/NPR /
The Davenport Zither Ensemble.

Every Saturday morning, just as a cuckoo clock chirps 10 times, the members of the Davenport Zither Ensemble gather in the German-American Heritage Center in Davenport, Iowa, to practice. There's a Lutheran minister, an English professor, one woman who keeps the books at a podiatrist's office. But for two hours every weekend, they are united by the zither.

At first glance, the instrument looks sort of like a deconstructed guitar: There's a fret board with tuning keys, as well as a wooden sound box with a hole in the middle. But there are a lot more strings — sometimes more than 40 — that span the length of the instrument.

"The melody's played on the fingerboard," ensemble member Alice Spencer says as her left hand works the frets just like a guitar — only her zither sits on a little table in front of her, as if on a school desk. Her right thumb plucks the strings with what looks like a banjo pick.

What makes the zither truly German is the "oompah" produced by all of those strings. As Spencer puts it, "There are a lot of 'oompahs' in German music, so that's why it was invented that way."

It's Not That Easy To Play

Katherine Bodenbender, another member of the ensemble, says that convincing the fingers of the right hand to play that "oompah" while the right thumb is plucking out the melody takes a little practice.

"You have to play the bass with your fourth finger, and then your accompaniment with your second and third finger," she says. "It's frustrating, in that you know what you want to play, but the fingers don't always play it."

The ensemble was formed — or re-formed — by Don Ockelmann, a retired music teacher, in 2002. Ockelmann says that Davenport's first documented zither ensemble, the Davenport Zither Club, dates back to at least 1885. By the end of the 19th century, he says, there were clubs like this wherever Germans were looking for "any excuse to get together and have fun and drink beer." By 1913, some of the different clubs around the country united and held a National Zither Congress in Davenport.

But World War I sparked anti-German sentiment in the U.S. In 1918, Iowa's governor issued a proclamation making it illegal to speak foreign languages in the state. Shar Goettsch Blevins, a genealogist at the German-American Heritage Center, says that Davenport's Germans stopped getting together to play music.

"If you were afraid of somebody catching you speaking German, you didn't go," she says. "And, of course, shortly after that, Prohibition just did it in entirely."

Deprived of its beer and its language, German culture in Davenport began to fade. All records of the original Davenport Zither Club peter out around 1922.

Bringing The Zither Back

In the late 1940s, British director Carol Reed teamed up with novelist Graham Greene to work on Greene's screenplay, The Third Man. One story goes that Reed heard Anton Karas playing his zither at a party and asked him to come up with music for The Third Man. Karas went to London with Reed and reportedly struggled before finally coming up with the catchy main theme, whose lilting swagger set the stage for the black-market dealings of the film's main character, played by Orson Welles, in post-war Vienna.

The film was a huge hit and won an Oscar for best cinematography. "The Harry Lime Theme," named for Welles' character in the movie, spent 11 weeks atop the Billboard chart in 1950. It made Karas a star and introduced the zither to mainstream audiences around the world. "The Third Man Theme," as it was also known, was eventually deposed by a little ditty called "Mona Lisa," by someone named Nat King Cole. America's love affair with the zither came to an end.

But in many German-American households, people still got together around the zither. Bodenbender's mother emigrated from Germany nearly 80 years ago.

"Her father played the zither," Bodenbender says. "Her oldest brother, Huntz, played the violin. She would sing. They would all get together in their tiny apartment and play for the sheer enjoyment of playing. People would come outside their doors and stand in hallways listening to the Shucke family playing their hausmusik."


Hausmusik — or house music — is less a genre than a cultural phenomenon.

"Everybody that had an instrument or knew how to yodel or dance would meet in people's homes," Ockelmann says.

Ask any member of the Davenport Zither Ensemble, and you'll hear the real reason they get together every Saturday morning.

"The requirement for hausmusik is love of music, Bodenbender says. "And the idea is not perfection; it's to enjoy the music and enjoy the gemutlichkeit — the camaraderie."

Bodenbender is still providing that camaraderie for her mother. At 103, her memory isn't what it once was, but Bodenbender says her singing voice is.

"When I play something that she recognizes, she just joins right in and sings, and she's ... in my mind, she's back in that little family group, and she's hearing her dad," Bodenbender says. "I don't come anywhere close to her dad in playing, but the idea that the zither is being played is something so special to my mother."

Twice a year, during the summer and at Christmastime, the Davenport Zither Ensemble takes hausmusik out of the house, for formal concerts ... sort of. At this year's summer concert, old men in suspenders and ladies in wide-brimmed hats filled the folding chairs in the aerobics room at the local YMCA. Once they took their seats, the members of the ensemble — dressed in white shirts and black pants and skirts, hunched intently over their zithers and began to play.

Smiles of recognition spread throughout the audience as the ensemble launched into "The Harry Lime Theme." The men tapped their loafers. One woman even danced in her wheelchair. Everyone was family, and everyone was at home, even in the aerobics room. After all, this is hausmusik.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex rejoined WBEZ in February 2017 to coordinate the station’s coverage of local, state and federal government and politics.