By The Landlord
“I never imagined I'd meet Berry Gordy, who told me when he first heard me perform, ‘You know, your singing's OK, but I like your harmonica playing better.’ ” – Stevie Wonder
“The harmonica is the world’s best-selling musical instrument. You’re welcome.” – Bob Dylan
“Love Me Do, the first song we recorded, John was supposed to sing the lead, but they changed their minds and asked me to sing lead because they wanted John to play harmonica.” – Paul McCartney
“My father bought me a little cardboard accordion, and when I was three I got this little machine.” – Toots Thielemans
“Two of my favourite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica.” – Abraham Lincoln
“I play the harmonica. If I get my car going really fast, and hold it out the window.” – Steven Wright
Those who play it can look as if, hands clamped, that they’re chowing down on a difficult sandwich. But what comes out are sounds that might mimic a train, or wail with an otherworldly beauty. It’s made of a metal comb, reed plates and cover plates. You can suck and blow it, give it vibrato, play it loud or soft. It can play chords or individual notes across different scales and keys. There are Japanese and other models. They come in different shapes and sizes, bass models resembling a double-decker bus, others resembling a slim flick knife. Depending on when and where you’ve lived in the last century and more, it could easily have been the coolest and most portable accessory to have in your pocket. Slip it out, breath in, and you’re instantly in the band.
On the way out of my house each day I walk or cycle through my local park, and almost every time, perched on a bench, come rain or shine, I pass by and smile at old guy who continually practises his chromatic friend, lost in his own world of jazz, blues, rock and soulful reverie. Last year it sounded like a small, shrill vacuum cleaner, but now it’s beginning to sound something like this, as described by American electric blues harmonica player and bandleader, Charlie Musselwhite:
“The harmonica is the most voice-like instrument, you can make it wail, feel happy, or cry. It's like singing the blues without words.”
So then, this week we’re looking for songs featuring this instrument in all its forms. It might include a solo break, or interspersed with vocals, or prominent musical enhancement to a bigger sound, or even music devoted entirely to it. The harmonica comes up big time in the blues, but also very much in folk, rock, soul, jazz and funk, and often played by singers, and there are even classical interpretations:
But who are the greats of the instrument? “Little Walter was the best harmonica player I ever heard in my life.” says James Cotton. Walter was such a virtuoso he has been compared as equivalent to Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix. Let’s check him out with a selection. Not only technically brilliant, but he had such a distinctive voice – soulful, confident, deeply emotional:
But there are so many more, from Larry Adler, who played jazz and classical, Big Mama Thornton to Captain Beefheart, all the way to Sonny Williamson I. And let’s not forget the folk folk, not just early Bob Dylan, who helped popularise it for white players, but others including Donovan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jesse Fuller, Kim Kwang Suk (a great name for the instrument player if you see what I mean) and Rory Macleod. And of course many rock, country and pop musicians, from Alanis Morissette to Mick Jagger, George Harrison and John Lennon, Ian Gillan to David Bowie and Beck, Bobbejaan Schoepen to Johnny Cash, Robert Plant to Roger Daltrey, Sheryl Crow to Shakira, Stevie Wonder to Van Morrison.
The instrument, relatively inexpensive and small, is perhaps also the most democratic. Another of the greats, Sonny Terry, describes here how as a blind musician, it saved his life:
“In them days I just as soon died – except for my harmonica. It was like a friend who didn't give a damn if I could see or not.”
And so let’s see him in action, with his characteristic hollers and whoops, and showing perhaps the greatest breath control alongside the instrument:
And to finish, some of the finest and most moving film music. This is also there for you to nominate. Just name the player:
So, inhale deeply – it’s time to nominate your harmonica songs across the genres and decades. This week’s hero of the harmonica is the marvellous magicman, taking up the mantle at short notice to hear every breath. Deadline? This Monday at 11pm UK time, with playlists published next Wednesday.
New to comment? It is quick and easy. You just need to login to Disqus once. All is explained in About/FAQs ...
Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.