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The First Polish Musician in America
by Edward Pinkowski
Polish American Journal, June 1994
 

Poles in America know little about Anthony Sadowski. They know more about Christopher Columbus and lesser known explorers than they do the Polish pioneer and Indian trader who was laid to rest in a church graveyard at Douglasville, Pa., in 1736.

Even the Sadowski historical marker on Route 422, unveiled in 1966 adjacent to the graveyard by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, does not list all his accomplishments. One of them is his contribution to American music.

The reason is that no Polish Sherlock Holmes has known until now that Sadowski bought brass jews' harps from England, taught Indians and his own children how to use them, and thus unwittingly entered the music world with three titles, 1.) jews'-harper, one who plays the harp, 2.) trader, and 3.) teacher.

The only evidence that he had jews'-harps to play and sell turned up in an account book of Quaker importer, James Logan, who accompanied William Penn to Philadelphia in 1699 and immediately began to take an interest in the business affairs of Penn's Province. At first most of his time was apparently spent in arranging voyages for the founder of Pennsylvania--shipping cargoes to and from Philadelphia--in partnership with William Trent, a Philadelphia merchant, and Isaac Norris, a speculator in everything he could buy, and saw that Penn got his share of the profits.

Jews'-Harp
By 1710, Logan succeeded Trent and Norris in the mercantile trade. He rented a warehouse on the Delaware River, into which he accumulated goods, mostly furs, and then made up cargoes for England. He also had a store where he retailed, handled a variety of goods, sold slaves, and acted as the political boss of the propriety government.

On May 30, 1718, the Polander of Manatawny, as Logan called Sadowski, bought two dozen brass jews'-harps for seven shillings at Logan's store. He took them to his farm on the Schuylkill River, about fifty miles northwest of Philadelphia, where he has settled in 1712.

One can just imagine the pleasure the musical instruments brought to his children, including two boys, Jacob and Andrew, and three girls, Justina, Ann and Sophia, and introducing them to others. One has to wonder, too, how many Polish songs, if any, the father tried to get out of the funny looking brass thing he put in his mouth and how rapt his children were when they heard the twangs of the mouthpiece.

The instrument, simple in construction, has an elastic metal tongue fixed at one end to a small lyre-shaped frame of brass or iron and bent at the other end at right angles. It is played by holding the frame between the teeth and striking the free end of the elastic tongue with the index finger and making twangy sounds by changing the size and shape of the mouth.

Spread of Twangs


When I discovered the first time Sadowski bought the musical things imported from England, I tried to find out who was the first to bring them to America. Evidently, about 1596, twelve years before English speculators imported several Polish workers to build a glass factory at Jamestown, Virginia, Sir Walter Raleigh landed on the same seaboard, but in North Carolina, and swapped a few times one jews'-harp for two birds with the native
s.

Nothing else turned up for more than a century. In 1704, James Letort, born in France, was imprisoned in Philadelphia, probably because Queen Anne thought he still owed allegiance to his homeland during her war against France, and he begged her minions on the Pennsylvania Council to grant him a furlough so he could collect his debts from 57 Indians who lived on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Among the goods they bought on credit were two jews'-harps.

Eventually, Sadowski became friends with James Letort and his mother, Ann, and Martin Chartier, because he spoke French, their mother tongue, and all had jews'-harps to play and exchange with the Indians for raccoon skins, foxes, or whatever they had trapped in the forests. None of the other Indian traders seemed to be attracted to this merchandise.

Once these four traders carried their twangy wares to the Indian frontier, the market snowballed. For example, in 1749, 120 jews'-harps were traded for land from the Indians at Logstown, Pennsylvania, whither Sadowski had stopped in his travels. One wonders if his spell with a jews'-harp still enchanted Logstown.

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