—Come All Ye Fair and Tender Girls
The musical bow is a simple string musical instrument present in most archaic cultures as well as many in the present day. It consists of a string supported by a flexible stick 1.5 to 10 feet (0.5 to 3 m) long, and strung end to end with a taut cord. Usually made out of wood. Often, it is a normal archery bow used for music rather than as a weapon.
Although the bow is now thought of as a weapon, it is not clear whether it was used in this way originally. Cave paintings in southern France dated to around 15,000 BCE, show a bow being used as a musical instrument, so this use certainly has a long history. Musical bows are still used in a number of cultures today, almost all over the world. The berimbau, a musical bow from Brazil, is quickly gaining players worldwide as a result of its association with the game of capoeira. In the United States, the musical bow was apparently introduced by African slaves. Today, it is primarily found in the Appalachian Mountains, where it is called a mouthbow or mouth bow.
The usual way to make the bow sound is to pluck the string, although sometimes a subsidiary bow is used to scrape the string, much as on a violin. The Onavillu of Karnataka sounds when struck with a thin stick. Unlike string instruments used in classical music, however, they do not have a built-in resonator, although resonators may be made to work with the bow in a number of ways.
The most usual type of resonator consists of a gourd attached to the back of the string bearer. The bow may also be stood in a pit or gourd on the ground, or one end of it may be partially placed in the mouth. This last method allows the size of the resonator to be varied as the instrument is played, thus allowing a melody to be heard consisting of the notes resonating in the player’s mouth. As well as these various forms of resonators, the bow is frequently played without a resonator at all.
The musical bow is generally played on its own, as a solo instrument, although it is sometimes played, amplified, as part of an ensemble in Appalachian old-time music.
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