Photo courtesy of The Southern Folklife Collection
“Seems like everybody back then had a harp laying about the house somewhere,” my grandpa Rueben used to say.
The harmonica, sometimes known as the poor man’s accordion, was king of musical instruments among the blue-collar working class in the North as well as their agrarian counterparts in the South during the 19th century. If ever there was an instrument for the masses, it was the mouth organ; for not only was it the cheapest, it was also the smallest musical instrument around. Today, American history, folklore and mythology have enshrined this humble little music maker. From cowboy culture, railroad lore, and Civil War drama to the earliest days of the Grand Ole Opry, the mouth organ was there. So where did it all begin? What role, if any, did the pocket piano play during the golden years of string band music and blues?
While the instrument’s origins were in China—the Chinese developed the first free-reed instruments—it was in Germany, around 1821, that the harmonica’s story really began. Continuing the work of his organ-building father, Johann Buschmann, Christian Friedrich Buschmann patented the first European mouth organ, then known as the “Aura.” Soon others followed suit, and by 1829 men like clockmaker Christian Messner and his cousin Christian Weiss had begun mass production of harmonicas. By the mid-1800s, demand for the harmonica in the United States began to surpass production, spurring Matthias Hohner (another former clockmaker) to produce 22,000 in 1867, one million in 1887, and eight million by 1911. By 1896, M. Hohner’s Marine Band model was leading the way as the world’s best-selling mouth organ, a standard line of harmonicas that is produced to this day. By 1930, just ten years into the golden era of the harmonica, M. Hohner was producing upwards of 30 million harmonicas a year.
We can only imagine the full range of harmonica music prior to the first recordings. However, looking at early harmonica song folios and instruction manuals, we see that the common repertoire consisted of folk songs, hymns, early dance and minstrel tunes, marches, waltzes, ethnic melodies, and, by the early 1900s, the music of Tin Pan Alley. In the hands of early masters like the Grand Ole Opry’s DeFord Bailey or Dr. Humphrey Bate, the harmonica created one of the most exciting sounds in old-time music.
By 1920 Mamie Smith had made her first blues record, followed shortly thereafter by recordings of fiddler Eck Robertson in 1922, and Fiddlin’ John Carson in 1923. The success of these records was followed by a mad-bull rush among record companies of the day to find “hillbilly” artists of all ilk. The first harmonica player through the door was Virginia mill-hand Henry Whitter. On December 12, 1923, Whitter made history by recording three tunes, which are standard numbers in the repertoire of today’s old-time harp player: ”Rain Crow Bill,” “The Old Time Fox Chase,” and “Lost Train Blues.”
DeFord Bailey, having imitated the sounds around him in Davidson County, Tennessee, while he was growing up, also recorded astonishing renditions of the “Fox Chase,” as well as pieces like “Pan American,” “Muscle Shoals Blues,” “Alcoholic Blues,” “Cow Cow Blues,” “Evening Prayer,” “Up Country Blues,” “Cackling Hen,” and many others. While the Opry’s Crook Brothers and Dr. Humphrey Bate were exceptional harp players, adding driving melody to the dance tunes of the day, most of Bailey’s contemporaries stood in awe of his ability to play the harp with rhythm and melody going all at once. DeFord Bailey told it best when he described to biographer David C. Morton how the harp had to have a vocal quality. “A harp ought to talk just like you and me. All the time I am playing, I am talking.” Chuckling, DeFord also recalled when “Dr. Bate had me open my mouth one time to see why I played like I do, all he found was some old crooked teeth.”
Perhaps in the spirit of Delta bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, and Son House, and their use of the slide, which echoed the sound of the voice on the guitar, the vocal characteristics of the harp would reverberate through the ages as later players like Sonny Terry, Wayne Raney, Salty Holmes, and Lonnie Glosson all went on to wax their own versions of “The Talking Harmonica,” often called “I Want my Mama” or “I Want a Drink of Water.” One could say that the standard of those bygone days still holds true today: a harmonica player has to be able to mimic a train and play a little bit of “Calling my Mama” before he can get in the door.
Inspired by the success of Henry Whitter, countless harmonica-playing songsters donned their harp racks and lit out for New York City. Ernest V. Stoneman was among them, and the 50 Edison recordings that he made between 1926 and 1928 are laced with what might be described as a near-perfect use of the harmonica to color and embellish songs of love, loss, and tragedy. In turn, just listen to old-time songster Dave McCarn’s stellar high-end harp work on the classic instrumental “Gastonia Gallop,” or hear him hit pay dirt on “Let the Poor Man Live and the Rich Man Bust.” All of this was long before Woody Guthrie and Dylan started painting their hard-hitting songs with the murmur of the harmonica, which they too held in a rack holder.
By the middle and late 1920s, Vernon Dalhart’s toe-tapping harmonica sound seemed to be everywhere, as the former light-opera-tenor-turned-hillbilly-crooner recorded many pieces like “Golden Slippers” and the million-selling “The Wreck of the Old 97.” With Dalhart’s recordings, the place of the harmonica in the American home seemed assured—or, as my grandpa Rueben put it, “Everybody back then had a harp laying about the house somewhere.”
The harmonica of the 1920s and ‘30s could then be seen as a rich infusion of various styles, with many players pushing the boundaries of both “straight harp”—playing the harp in the key that it is tuned to, often called playing in “first position” and “cross harp,”—employing the use of flattened notes and bends to achieve a full scale (be it blues or major), often called “second position.” Upon a fair amount of listening, I think it is safe to say that, at least initially, straight harp was the preferred position, both for blues players like Will Shade as well as string band players like Dr. Humphrey Bate. Some, like Noah Lewis of Cannon’s Jug Stompers, seemed equally adept at playing in both first and second position. For example, the classic “Going to German’“ is played in second position, and “Pig Ankle Rag” is in first position. From the techniques of jug band players like Will Shade and Jed Davenport and of hillbilly virtuosos like the Murphy Brothers Harp Band, by the 1930s there was little that hadn’t been attempted on the harmonica. Cajun tunes, reels, polkas, waltzes, country swing, jazz, and blues—all of these forms employed the harmonica in this era. Sit and listen to Gwen Foster and Robert Cooksey’s high-end trills, warbles, and tremolo, or Noah Lewis’s pulsating rhythm, bends, and hand manipulation, and I think you will agree, the harmonica’s golden era of the 1920s and ‘30s provided old-time music with some of its most interesting moments and most syncopated rhythms.
Today, most of my generation (I am 37) seem to think of the harmonica in the context of the Blues Brothers, Stevie Wonder, or the Blues Travelers, while many from my father’s generation recall with fondness 1947’s best-selling record by the Harmonicats, ”Peg ‘o My Heart.” Today’s typical music lover knows little about the days of yore, when a harmonica and a dream could send you out, like Henry Whitter, on the high road to New York City.
In 1986, at about the time that Hohner sold its one billionth harmonica, I stumbled onto a dusty set of 78 and 33 rpm records in a Midwestern record shop. There were many records by the usual suspects, such as the classical harpist Larry Adler and the Harmonica Rascals, but as I dug a little deeper I suddenly struck regional gold, unearthing three 78s of the Plehal Brothers playing tunes like “The Jolly Lumber Jack,” “Springtime Polka, “ “Ellen Polka,” and “The Homecoming Waltz.” I would have though that these records, with Pee Wee King playing in the background, were worth a million, but then again, as they were being sold at a dollar a piece, it was obvious that few in these parts cared much for the sound of the old-time harp on scratchy old 78s. As I walked out the door, I thought of the words of Abraham Lincoln, who, at the Lincoln-Douglas debates, reportedly reached into his pocket and said, “Mr. Douglas brings a brass band, but the harmonica will do for me.”
Lil Rev is a traveling musician and storyteller based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.