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A Child Prodigy Harpist, Sold to the Circus, Began Anew in the Ozarks

Lou Wehmer

About 20 years ago, historian Lou Wehmer bought a collection of old negatives from a longtime photographer in Willow Springs.  The negatives were each four-by-five inches, from an antique, large format camera.

And one negative in particular made Wehmer gasp.

“It was a photograph of an older gentleman standing in front of a harp,” Wehmer said.

The historian in Wehmer thought, “Hm. We didn’t have harpists in northern Howell County.”

“We had fiddlers and we had guitar players. But I had never heard of a harpist. So that was a mystery to me,” Wehmer said. 

He filed that mystery away with his other archives for two decades…until he and another historian in Willow

Credit Lou Wehmer / Willow Springs Republican newspaper
Willow Springs Republican newspaper
This newspaper clipping, from the Willow Springs Republican in the early '30s, shows Arell with his family harp.

Springs were exchanging stories.

“And he gave me a folder of newspaper articles. And as I was looking through them to see if anything would interest me, lo and behold, here was that same photograph that appeared in the Willow Springs Republican newspaper in the early 1930s,” Wehmer said.

There was the man, poised and serious, standing next to a tall, beautiful harp. And the local newspaper from the early ‘30s had a caption for the photograph.

“It says, ‘Joe Arell, Willow Springs man, is shown with a harp, 634 years old, which was one of the prize winners at an American Leigon Heart of the Ozarks Reunion here recently,’” Wehmer said.

Before long, Wehmer found an obituary for Mr. Arell.

“In fact, I think his obituary mentioned he was a prodigy. And he was: at a very young age, he was a world-class harpist,” Wehmer said.

Then he found some old newspaper clippings…and an amazing story began to emerge.

“He actually was named Joseph Antonio Zotarelli. So he was an Italian, lived in Italy. And it turns out in the late 1860s, P.T. Barnum was touring Europe and hunting for world-class musicians. And he recruited this young man when he was in his teens, along with his brother who played the clarinet, to be part of his ‘Greatest Show on Earth,’” Wehmer said.

Old playbills and posters advertising P.T. Barnum’s famous circus confirmed there were world-class musicians—the biggest, the most amazing, the oldest of everything—superlatives galore.

Wehmer didn’t know how Arell ended up in the rural Ozarks or what happened to his harp. But he could confirm that the immigrant musician had an extended family.

“Eight children. A lot of grandchildren. Great-grandchildren,” Wehmer said.

Credit Ray Arell / Family archives
Family archives
Martha and Joe Arell fell in love, married, and had eight children together in the Missouri Ozarks.

So, we should disclose that the harp you’re hearing is not the music of Joseph Zotarelli—who changed his name to Joe Arell when he became a naturalized citizen.  But it is another young harpist—my daughter, who volunteered her talents without too much prodding.

I reached out to harp experts across the country to ask them about the instrument in the old photograph.

Lyon and Healy Harps in Chicago took one look and said it wasn’t 600 years old—but it was old. Arell’s harp appears to be a Naderman harp, from the 1700s, handmade in France. Naderman harps were the type commissioned by Queen Marie Antoinette for music in her royal court.

I wanted to find Joe Arell’s descendants to see if they knew more.

US Census records led me to Arell’s death certificate, which led me to old city directories, and to make a long story short, to Facebook. Finally, a phone call to the West Coast.

Ray Arell is the CEO of a consulting firm in Oregon. 

“Joseph Antonio was my great-grandfather,”  Arell said.

Turns out, according to family oral history and documents, P.T. Barnum was traveling through Italy recruiting talent from the old country in the 1860s—he was a fan of Italian opera, Arell says.

Joseph Zotarelli was the tender age of 12. And according to his descendants, the young musician didn’t join the circus by choice. 

At the time, Italy’s economy was stagnant, and times were hard for many Italians. That may have played a 

Credit Metropolitan Museum of Art, The MET / Used with permission
Used with permission
This is an example of a pedal harp made by French harpmaker Jean-Henri Naderman, who supplied musical instruments to the royal court of Marie Antoinette; harp experts say Joe Arell's harp looks remarkably similar to a Naderman harp.

role in the decision his parents made that would alter the trajectory of young Joseph’s path forever.

“His parents worked a deal with P.T. Barnum which translated to, essentially, an indentured servant signed up for a number of years to work for P.T. Barnum. He was brought over to the U.S.,” Arell said.

It appears Arell performed in P.T. Barnum’s home for lavish parties and also in the circus orchestra.

“And during that time, he got past the period which he was supposed to work for P.T. Barnum—and P.T. Barnum didn’t want to let him go.  And so, at the time, from what I gather, this was some place near Missouri or near one of the routes that P.T. Barnum was traveling on, and he decided to run away from P.T. Barnum,” Arell said.

So instead of running off to join the circus, Joe Arell ran away from it. 

And he somehow managed to take his beloved harp with him. Almost overnight, he went from performing underneath gilded chandeliers to trying to find a roof over his head.

He was likely in his 20s, struggling financially somewhere in Missouri, according to family oral history, when he met a young woman who worked at a local restaurant. 

“From what I understood from my Aunt Vera, she felt a little sorry for him, because he was a little bit down and out. And she sort of fell in love with him. And they got married,” Arell said.

Credit Ray Arell / Family archives
Family archives
The Arell family in the Missouri Ozarks.

I ask Arell if he knows what happened to the large harp in the photograph.

“Yeah, that’s a tragic story.  Like most family heirlooms, I think family members don’t fully anticipate or understand how to protect such instruments. And it ended up in a basement of one of my cousins, and they had a flood. And that harp unfortunately didn’t survive the flood,” Arell said. 

Ray Arell says his great-grandfather harbored some resentment toward his parents for selling him into indentured servanthood.

“From what I understand when he came into the United States, there was a couple of different things he passed down to his kids. Number one: he told all of his children, ‘We’re not speaking Italian. We’re gonna speak English. We’re living here in the United States.’  Plus, ‘I don’t like my parents’ kind of slipped out,” Arell said.

Joe Arell and his wife, Martha, lived a long life together, with a heavy focus on family. They tilled the soil and raised livestock. And for Joe’s 72th birthday in 1928, his family surprised him with a birthday party, according to an article in a Willow Springs newspaper.

That article says the harp had been in his family for seven generations, and that Arell had refused “many fabulous sums offered by manufacturers of stringed instruments” for its sale.

In Oregon, Ray Arell said he collects musical instruments, but can only marvel at the musical talent of his great-grandfather.

“Thinking of his abilities, of being able to pick up an instrument and to be able to play it to where someone like  P.T. Barnum would come up to you and say, you know, ‘I want you to come play in my orchestra’ is quite amazing to me,” Arell said.

The Italian immigrant harpist-turned-farmer Joe Arell, formerly Joseph Zotarelli, died in 1936 and is buried near his little patch of freedom in Willow Springs, Missouri.