Is there a sound more heavenly than the harp? The ancient, wing-shaped instrument seems incapable—even in the hands of a clown—of producing anything but the most soothing and somber sounds. The Stoney End Harp Company is headquartered in an old barn in a rustic valley just outside Red Wing. For more than a decade, it has been a quiet presence in an area more famous for work boots and pottery. In the Stoney End workshop, five hundred harps are forged from local oak, cherry, and walnut each year. The atmosphere is hardly bucolic; the harps’ celestial notes are forged in a hellish cacophony of hammering, sawing, scraping, and drilling, with loud modern rock and the occasional yelp of a cussword adding to the auditory frenzy.
Presiding over the din is Gary Stone, who admits he has no musical abilities, but was intrigued by the way harp-making joined the science of acoustics with his love of woodworking. His wife Eve says he has a “tin ear.” But that impairment may be just the thing that compels Stone. Like a tone-deaf Robin Hood spreading euphony, he seeks to bring instruments to people who don’t think of themselves as musical.
Connecting musical instruments and amateurs is why Stone and his wife moved their company from the West Bank of the University of Minnesota to its country home. The old-time, agricultural, make-do heritage of rural Minnesota is in perfect harmony with Stone’s quest to bring folk and ethnic instruments to non-musicians. He says Stoney End harps are not for high-end concert performance or the recording industry. “The main thing we’re interested in is people making music for themselves, for people to enjoy as a life or activity.”
It can still be a serious commitment. A Stoney End harp is a substantial investment: A simple folk harp (with twenty to thirty-six strings) costs between $1,000 and $6,000; a larger forty-six to forty-eight-string pedal harp costs from $13,000 to $50,000. Those are the kind you see in orchestras. They are played by “harpists,” while “harpers” play the smaller folk, or Celtic, harp. Harpers typically have humble aims. Many of them volunteer to play their music for weddings, sick infants in hospitals, or to nursing-home residents.
“We make a good-sounding instrument,” says Stone, “not the most expensive and not the least, not the top of the line or the bottom. Just the best value.”
Stoney End harps have loyal fans all over the world. Though most are sold to British retail shops and distributors, the second largest destination for Stoney End is Japan, where they ship five or six instruments a month.
Stoney End’s former mail order and web business has moved into the second floor of the barn and is open to the public. The shop is also the sole North American location of Hobgoblin Music, a celebrated folk-instrument company that has eight retail shops scattered around Great Britain.
Not only are the beautiful, handmade harps on display. There are also didgeridoos, Peruvian panpipes, bodhrans, bones, lutes, concertinas, accordions, ouds, and bougarabous. For the musically challenged who still want to get in on the campfire tunes, there are egg-shaped shakers and percussion instruments.
The top floor of the Stoney End barn is a performance space, an old hay loft that lets light from the uppermost windows rain down through the second floor. The stage and the concert schedule threaten to make Stoney End the Seventh Street Entry of the folk scene. Why should audiences strap themselves into fixed theater seats to see Riverdance when they can stomp the boards to Curtis and Loretta, Bill Staines, Ann Reed, and traditional Irish musicians Triall Ro-Crua in a historic barn just a bagpipe’s throw from the Mississippi?—Sári Gordon