Friday, November 2, 2012

The Harmonica

The Harmonica

The harmonica, that most modest of instruments, has ancestors that go back to Asia over a thousand years ago. But the "mouth organ" or "harp" as we know it today dates back only to 19th century Germany. In 1822 an inventor and musician from Berlin named Christian Bauschmann made an experimental instrument with fifteen reeds called the aura, designed mainly as a pitch pipe. It attracted the attention of a local clockmaker named Christian Messner. Because of an economic depression, the clock business was bad and Messner was looking for other ways to make a living. He started making cheap copies of the aura to peddle at local fairs and carnivals, and soon other German craftsmen were getting into the act. Then, in 1857, Matthias Hohner figured out how to mass-produce the little instruments, and soon became the leader in the field. By 1977 he was making over 700,000 harmonicas a year, and over half of them were being exported to America.

Sears Catalog 1912

Americans seem to have taken the harmonica to heart from the very first. They were carried by soldiers in the Civil War, and by1890 were being sold mail order by dozens of catalogue stores. Though the harmonica was one of the few instruments that could not be home-made and harmonica sellers offered instruction books about the "proper" way to play, Americans quickly began to explore unorthodox ways of playing.

Blues musicians learned how to cup their hands over the harmonica to get all kinds of bent and slurred notes; others would "choke" the instrument to get odd, percussive effects. White musicians liked to try the imitations of chickens or trains or a fox hunt.

Harold Courlander, an early collector of African American folk music, has called the harmonica "probably the most ubiquitous of Negro folk instruments." It was featured as a solo instrument by pioneers like Grand Ole Opry star DeFord Bailey, and by Arkansas radio pioneer Sonny Boy Williamson. As the blues moved to Chicago, the harmonica became the major accompaniment for stars like Muddy Waters.




  3. Exciting content. As well as awesome images for me. I want to give a big thanks to you for such a post. I am a real fan of Harmonica. I just collect my Suzuki Harmonica from at PIJ. Its cool and also great as your lovely first image.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      This post was for my nephew, and all of the other 20-somethings, who think that they only need the most expensive recording equipment and instruments to create music. There is a young generation who feels shut-out of the recording industry and therefore they have lost their voices musically. They seem to be under some kinda peer-pressure conformity of "sampling," "cursing," "rapping," without a rebellious innovative spirit.

      Rap and Hip-Hop is a 30 year-old genre, it's old and stale. There is noting new or innovative about it. I thought perhaps, if my nephew could understand that a $1.00 harmonica that was made by a German clock-maker, but played by uneducated sharecroppers transformed the music of the world.

      It fascinates me how people have cross-pollinated and blended American music. I'm sure that German clock-maker (he reminds me of Pinocchio's father Geppetto) never imagined his harmonica could ever even have the dynamic range of sound that Sonny Boy Williamson rendered in "Lonely Man".

      Thanks for your comments.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

    2. Let me get this straight - the problem with rap/hip-hop is that it's 3o years old (closer to 40, actually) and stale, but you seem to praise the blues which is close to 100 years and marked by its adherence to traditionalism?

      No music is new.

      Any popular form has been commoditized. Just like there are a few genuinely good blues artists. Blues has been called overdone and trite. The blues has been called vulgar, reprehensible and ruinous.

      The same can be said of every other popular form of music.

      Hip-hop was born out of youth who used to "who think that they only need the most expensive recording equipment and instruments to create music", but figured out a way.

      The breaks and loops have more in common with mouth harps and the steel guitar than you might think.


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