The Ugly Duckling

Sep 4, 2008 by

Constantine Markides - Blues Diatonic Harmonica, Bloomsbury Theatre, London

Playing in Bloomsbury Theatre, London, 2008

ONE FRIDAY NIGHT in London some months ago I struck up a conversation on the 29 bus with a man who was heading to play a gig at a blues burlesque bar in Soho. As I had a few harmonicas on hand, he invited me to join the band for a song or two. An hour later I was on stage alongside two dancers in lingerie and nipple tassels who were gyrating to the harmonica solo in front of a crowd of cheering twentysomethings. My only other off-the-cuff performance as memorable as that one took place a few years ago while I was planting trees along a river on a Vermont dairy farm. I had just taken lunch and decided to practice a few blues licks before returning to the digging. Within moments of playing I was surrounded by a herd of Holstein heifers, each of them cocking an ear towards me and staring at me out of an unblinking eye. I am sure few musicians have ever had as attentive and wide-eyed an audience as I did that day.

The portability of the harmonica allows for playing opportunities simply not possible with other instruments. One cannot, after all, slip an electric guitar into one’s back pocket before taking the bus downtown, nor is a tree planter likely to lug a bassoon along with the shovel in case an audience may be grazing among the cow paddies. Yet even though a harmonica can enthrall its listeners (consider the examples just given: in one case a woman undressed, in the other the crowd was left speechless), it is also widely dismissed as amounting to anything more than a novelty item. I find this one of the great musical injustices of our time. For this reason (alongside convenience, which goes without saying) I’ve decided for this month’s entry to include an abridged version of a recent essay of mine on the history of the harmonica. Written as it was for academia, I’ve hacked it down by about fifty percent and removed most quotes and all references from it. So while it may now be highly unsubstantiated, hopefully it will only be slightly Academish.

-Constantine Markides
Photo Credit: Beran Djemal


The Ugly Duckling:
The unlikely evolution of the diatonic harmonica

PASSED DOWN in popular imagination as the musical companion of the train-hopping hobo, the fireside cowboy, and the rambling bluesman, the harmonica has always been the black lamb in the family of instruments, especially when compared to its more stately elders like the violin or piano.  In fact, that may even be too complimentary, considering that for over half a century the harmonica was universally seen as a child’s toy rather than a serious instrument.

Even its inventors designed it to be nothing more than a pleasing novelty item that at its most exulted might be used for chordal accompaniment to European folk music. When blowing on a diatonic harmonica one cannot play out of key: each of the ten reeds, if blown from lowest to highest, will consecutively sound the notes of a major scale across three octaves (the particular scale depends on which key the harmonica is in).  Blowing any cluster of holes on a C harmonica gives a C major chord. The draw reeds, though less uniform, are also arranged around chordal patterns.  In short, the harmonica was organized for playing in key with the utmost ease.

Unbeknownst to its inventors, this arrangement, through a fortuitous coincidence of vibration physics involving the reed placement, would over the next century reveal this juvenile tin sandwich to be among the most musically versatile and technically complex of instruments.  While the harmonica may always remain something of a black lamb in the musical family, its story is that of the ugly duckling.

The German musical instrument maker Christian Friedrich Buschmann is often credited with inventing the first harmonica in 1821, although many argue that the claim is unsubstantiated.  It is more likely the harmonica was established concurrently by a number of German inventors working independently, with Black Forest clockmakers then producing the novelty item as a side profit to their timepieces.  Such vague and diffused origins, by artisans and craftsmen no less, is fitting for an instrument that has made its presence felt in so wide a spectrum of musical genres and cultures thanks primarily to the ceaseless experimentation of its practitioners.

Its reedy whine has rung out from outer space to Mt. Everest’s summit, from cotton field slave shacks to the White House, from the trenches of World War I to the Australian outback, from the back alley bars of Chicago to Royal Albert Hall.  Even harmonica players seem to carry dissimilar elements within them—being one moment a geeky technician adjusting reed gaps and screwing in rivets and the next a brazen showman growling into cupped hands.

The main types of harmonica are the diatonic, the chromatic, the tremolo, and the chord, ranging in length from a keychain-friendly 3.5 centimetres to a formidable two feet. Of all of them, the ‘original’ ten-hole diatonic harmonica has had the unlikeliest musical and cultural evolution.  This development is presently in its most revolutionary stage due to the pioneering work of the diatonic player Howard Levy, who has managed to competently play a complete chromatic scale along three octaves on a diatonic harmonica, thereby opening it up as a serious instrument to previously off-limit forms like jazz and classical.

The tinkering and experimentation that gave birth to the instrument is ongoing after close to two centuries. The diatonic harmonica has flourished precisely because nothing was ever expected of it.  In defiance of the musical community, diatonic players, who themselves are continually surprised at their instrument’s responsiveness and malleability, have continually been pushing its boundaries and surpassing its previous alleged limitations. And because of the affordability and popularity of this ‘people’s instrument’ (it is claimed to be the most widely sold instrument in the world), the harmonica’s development has always been closely tied to the ebbs and flows of popular music culture. The harmonica serves as a weather vane of mass culture; by tracing its history one can learn something about the gusts of social and cultural change.

The harmonica’s branding as the instrument of the underclass, the wanderer and the migrant worker, has become an outdated cliché, but it was not initially so.  Soon after its development in Germany in the early 19th century, the harmonica spread around the world via German migrants, who brought with them the one instrument portable enough to make the journey with them: the mouth organ.

Although the instrument was first globally disseminated through immigrants, it was the innovative marketing efforts of entrepreneurial harmonica manufacturers that entrenched the harmonica as a household staple.  So shrewd was the goliath German harmonica company Hohner that during World War I it established an outlying factory in Switzerland where it made harmonicas for sale to its wartime opponents with cover plates reading “Alliance Harp,” depicting the flags and soldiers of England, France, and other enemy countries. In Australia, the music instrument company J. Albert & Son began marketing Australian brand names like the wooloomooloo Warbler, the Kangaroo Charmer and the Boomerang, which was manufactured in an obtuse-V shape to resemble its namesake.

The 1930s Depression years saw the formation of harmonica clubs and bands, especially in Europe, the U.S. and Australia, to raise spirits and preoccupy the young. One of the most popular U.K. bands was the Red Rhythmics, a Methodist youth harmonica band whose members wore red berets and a concert uniform. This mix of regimentation and ‘sacred music’ was the polar opposite of the harmonica as wailing sidekick of the lonesome drifter as often portrayed in Hollywood movies and passed down in popular consciousness.  Such harmonica bands merely reflected the realities of a Depression-era society seeking order, social cohesion, and control in the face of crumbling economic conditions.

World War II had both a devastating and rejuvenating effect upon harmonica playing.  Only the negative effects were initially apparent.  The war’s outbreak terminated the flow of harmonicas from Hohner—by far the largest international harmonica supplier—to the U.S. and other Allied countries. Wartime conscription deprived Hohner of many of its employees, essential production materials like brass became scarce, and its factories converted in part to arms manufacture.

At the same time, harmonicas were often issued as staple military provision. Hohner sold millions of “Greetings from Home” harmonicas, designed for German troops. Harmonicas often did more than merely raise soldiers’ spirits.  A number of infantrymen in both World Wars owed the instrument their lives after a bullet would lodge into it (harmonicas were often stored in breast pockets), wrecking the instrument but making for a fine war souvenir.

In his memoir, the jazz chromatic harmonica performer Max Geldray recounts a doctor’s surprise at the speed of his recovery after he was hit by a shell blast during a Normandy landing. The lack of collapse or extensive damage to his lungs had confounded the hospital staff until he explained his profession:  “I was a harmonica player and because of that I had enlarged the capacity of my lungs and the strength of the controlling muscles.  The harmonica, if it hadn’t saved my life, certainly helped get me back in one piece.”

It did not take long after the end of the war for Hohner to recover its dominant international position. The millions of returning soldiers, many of whom had busied themselves with the harmonica during army down time, brought their newfound affection for the instrument to their home countries. Some would become world famous performers. For example, the Canadian Tommy Reilly, who would become one of the world’s most acclaimed classical harmonica players, was arrested while studying violin at the Leipzig Conservatory and interned for the next six years in German POW camps. It was there that he trained himself on the harmonica after trading a half pound of Canadian coffee to a German officer for two dozen chromatic instruments.

Time and again, the harmonica’s portability, durability, and affordability enabled its popular promulgation through avenues unavailable to other instruments. In 1958, sixty-six coal miners staged a 203-hour strike one mile underground to protest pending layoffs at a New South Wales colliery.  Union officials and representatives would frequently descend for updates on the miners’ discussions.  After requesting musical instruments, the miners formed, literally, an underground mouth organ and banjo band. When the strike ended, the miners emerged, playing “Waltzing Matilda” on their harmonicas.

In one instance the harmonica ironically gained popular and professional credence as a result of being dismissed as a legitimate instrument.  In a 1947 strike, the American Federation of Musicians ordered a wholesale recording ban.  But because the harmonica Federation did not recognize the harmonica as a musical instrument, the ban did not apply to harmonica players, who promptly capitalized on the newly liquidated recording market.  The Harmonicats’ recording of “Peg O’ My Heart” sold over 25 million copies and was the top bestselling record of 1947, prompting the American Federation of Musicians to declare the harmonica a “legitimate instrument” and extend membership to its players.

Though “Peg O’ My Heart” was the first major harmonica hit on a national scale in the U.S., the instrument was no stranger to American soil.  Despite its Germanic roots, it was immediately embraced as a quintessentially American instrument; no larger than a chocolate bar yet capable of chugging train sounds, bluesy moans, barnyard animal imitations, and wolf-like howls, the harmonica seemed the ideal vehicle for expression and entertainment in a land where railroads connected Southern slave plantations to Midwestern prairie homesteads to Western one-road desert towns.

One way of pursuing the harmonica’s development in the U.S. is through two routes separated both geographically and racially: whites in the West playing the country style and blacks in the South developing the blues form.  The lines were never pure in the first place and would later merge with one another and with other musical styles.  Despite this extraordinary cultural shuffling, the refrain that certain musical forms “belong” exclusively to any one people is unfortunately still often invoked out of preconceived, unwittingly racist, archetype-yearning conceptions (i.e. that only earthy grizzled black men, preferably blind, can play country blues).  But the two avenues do make a diving off point for exploring the harmonica’s history in the U.S., if anything to reveal something of the instrument’s mythical allure that would prove more profitable to its manufacturers than any wily marketing ploy.

Sergio Leone’s film Once Upon a Time in the West offers one of the most interesting presentations, cinematic or otherwise, of the harmonica’s aura as the archetypal instrument of the mysterious lonesome rider of the far west.  The central character, simply referred to as Harmonica throughout the film is a granite-like impassive figure who generally makes his presence known through his wailing harmonica (only after we hear his musical refrain do we see him, cupping his harmonica in the shadowy corner of a desert tavern, behind a departing train, perched on a barn loft, etc.).

Harmonica playing and gun slinging not only come to be almost interchangeable but also come to connote a dying breed of Westerners whose actions are guided not by the quest for power, property or wealth, but by more primeval, albeit brutal, codes of honour, justice, and dignity.  The harmonica represents both the manly man as well as the noble savage, a seductive combination from one marketing perspective, but problematic from another, as its masculine image has led to the harmonica being almost exclusively male-dominated in country and blues.

It was surely no whimsical decision to name the central character after the instrument that represents both his sorrow—as it had been stuffed into his mouth during the murder of his brother—
as well as the vehicle for expressing that sorrow. Once upon a time the West was designed for men like Harmonica but no longer: the industrial era of the railroad has come and the gunslinger code of the old West nears its final death throes as the new capitalist code comes chugging and whistling in.  But while men like Harmonica cannot adapt to the new times, instruments like the harmonica can and did, in this instance by being an emblem of a romanticized past that promises, much like a pack of Marlboros, the macho experience of the Wild West in a small package.

While cowboys and train hobos adopted the harmonica in the West, slaves took up the instrument in the southern plantations. Although the musical parallels between American blues and West African music can be overstretched, it is not unreasonable to state that the ‘imperfect’ sounds of the harmonica share more in common with West African instruments than those available in the South. Drawn to the instrument’s capacity for vocalizing, southern blacks began experimenting with ways of playing the harmonica differently, namely by mostly inhaling instead of blowing. By changing their airflow trajectory, an interaction between the blow and draw reeds caused the inhaled notes on holes one to six to bend down, creating a wailing effect.  Through bending they could achieve the bluesy flattened thirds, fifths and sevenths that formed the backbone of their field songs. This swooping moan would become the harmonica’s trademark sound and would soon be so overplayed during harp jams that the jazz mouth harpist Don Les would lament that “blues players are all learning from each other how not to play the harmonica.” It is an understandable gripe considering the innumerable melodic possibilities the instrument affords.

One could go on endlessly about the early innovators of blues harmonica—from the whooping and throat popping pyrotechnics of Sonny Terry, to the languid phrasing of Rice Miller (a.k.a. Sonny Boy Williamson II) to the dexterous tongue blocking and high-end virtuosity of Big Walter Horton—but the blues harpist seen as most revolutionary is Marion Walter Jacobs, better known as Little Walter.

Although he had become a Chicago sensation in his teens, Little Walter’s reputation has anything but diminished since his early death at the age of 38 after one of his frequent street fights.  In a 2002 biography, Tony Glover claimed that Little Walter was to harmonica blues what Charlie Parker was to Jazz saxophone, Frank Sinatra to pop vocals or Jimi Hendrix to rock guitar. This last comparison is probably the most apt of the three considering that Walter awed the blues world by cupping his hands around a microphone. Through amplification, the harmonica, once drowned out by a band, could roar forth on centre stage with all the stage presence of an electric guitar, one moment warbling with mellow resonance, the next screeching out with distorted ferocity. A microphone opened up the instrument to a dynamic new range of expressiveness.  But Walter was revolutionary not in amplifying the instrument—he was not the first to do so—but in the way he played it. Unlike other players who rigidly played on the beat, Walter toyed with off-beat playing, giving his music a trailing swing feel, and introduced riffs of irregular lengths that culminated in unpredictable but flawless resolutions. He was one of the first to incorporate third-position playing (a mode suited for minor keys). He also managed to create a horn sound with the instrument, in no small part due to his love of jazz and saxophone. The guitarist Luther Tucker once described how people would often come up to Walter after his shows and open his hands to see what was making such a sound.

Like many harmonica innovators, whose creative efforts are often tied to a stubborn independent streak, Walter was drawn to the instrument’s disreputability.  As he later recounted, “[W]hat really made me choose it was that most of the kids, my mother too, tried to dissuade me from playing it.  Of course that made me more interested.” Walter relocated to Chicago and mentored under Sonny Boy Williamson, the pre-eminent blues harmonica player of his time. Sonny Boy’s premature death (after a late night street assault under circumstances that eerily prefigured Little Walter’s death), would mark the beginning of a new era in blues—the chunky Chicago sound that reflected the harsh industrial realities of urban life—of which Little Walter would be a torch-bearer.  Short-tempered and with a propensity for quarrelling with the Chicago police and philandering with married women, Little Walter would repeatedly suffer beatings, stabbings and bullet wounds.  Finally after one of his many street run-ins, he died in bed beside his girlfriend.  His violent life and death on the streets of Chicago never made for biographic romanticism but was nevertheless tragically fitting for the man who introduced to the world the gritty dynamism and punchy possibilities of amplified harmonica.

That said, the purist conceptions of the black dangerous-living gambling Chicago bluesman (or the huggable Delta armchair rocker) and the white unfettered country and western man, aside from being partly the product of nostalgic mythologizing, were never cleanly segregated along racial lines. The finest of the early country harmonica players was a black man, Deford Bailey, who was often forced to perform in blackface, while an early role model of Little Walter was a white rambling gambler, Lonnie Glosson, who played in the primary blues mode of cross-harp position. Musical forms may originate and take shape within racial groups but they cannot be contained by them. Like rap, blues began as the music of the black underclass before expanding into white communities. Rap can in fact be seen as a cultural evolution of the blues. There are many areas of overlap: both were condemned as degenerate; both involve the adoption of performer names (Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters / Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube); both saw some of its most prominent names violently murdered (Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter / Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur); and both have been replete with rags to riches stories, with the riches often ostentatiously displayed through flashy dress and Cadillacs. No surprise then that rap and hip hop has recently incorporated one of the quintessential instruments of blues into its own sound, creating beatbox harmonica.

The latest revolution in the diatonic harmonica, still ongoing, began several decades ago, and is as profound as any in the instrument’s history.  The revolutionary is Howard Levy, whose astonishing application of ‘overbend’ techniques has opened up new melodic realms to the diatonic.  By mastering these difficult techniques—overblows and overbends—one can bring out the ‘missing’ notes of a diatonic harmonica so it can be played chromatically.  It has also spurred a new industry of customized harmonica production, as adept overbending requires tinkering with the harmonica’s reed gaps.

In 2001, the Illinois Philharmonic commissioned Levy to compose a Harmonica Concerto, the first ever written for diatonic harmonica. Levy always astonishes when he plays. Charlie McCoy, a country harmonica virtuoso and the most recorded harmonica player in history, told Levy on hearing him play piano and harmonica simultaneously that he “probably came in from a spaceship somewhere” (I can attest to this. In May I attended a three-day harmonica workshop in Germany with Levy. Spending three days with him left me with as much a sense of futile inadequacy as inspired conviction).

Levy wanted to be able to play all types of music—from Irish jigs to Japanese folk songs to Bach minuets—and so he needed to be able to play chromatically. Drawn to the expressiveness of the diatonic, he stubbornly applied himself until he had literally bent the instrument to his will. In our melting p
ot times of cultural and ethnic spillover, Levy is an appropriate figurehead.

Levy’s influence has inevitably spilled over into the blues, which has now entered what some have called its ‘postmodern phrase,’ where all lines have blurred. No one knows who the next bellwether in the instrument’s history will be. But what is almost certain is that the unlikely evolution of the diatonic harmonica—which has taken so many unexpected twists and turns over two centuries thanks to its portability, inexpensiveness, mass accessibility, and technical versatility—is still in its nascent stages.  Both its practitioners and its manufacturers have always managed to reinvent the instrument to new times, with the result that one can observe the changing tides of popular culture through the instrument’s history.  The diatonic harmonica is a case of Darwinian triumph: neither the biggest nor the most powerful of instruments, it has thrived by being the most adaptable.

Constantine Markides

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  1. umha

    This text just makes me want to learn how to play harmonica! Brilliant catchy study of an unpopular instrument (I do think it deserves some good PR though)!

  2. Nick

    Your piece makes me want to play, and write, more. If I only had the time.

  3. Ruika Lin

    Thanks for pointing me to this post!

    Indeed it is slightly Academish – I took a course in college called the History of Jazz Music and had the opportunity to read quite a lot of articles like this one, only surprisingly, I couldn’t remember learning anything about the role of harmonica in the history of jazz.

    Here are some thoughts:

    1) “The portability of the harmonica allows for playing opportunities simply not possible with other instruments.”

    Well technically human voice can be a portable instrument too. And then again a lot of people claim they can’t sing.

    2) “The harmonica serves as a weather vane of mass culture; by tracing its history one can learn something about the gusts of social and cultural change.”

    If only I could get a grant from some foundation (or a fulbright scholarship) and travel the world to study how music and musical instruments shape people’s lives and perspectives on one another, their own being, and the environment.

    3). “Sergio Leone’s film Once Upon a Time in the West offers one of the most interesting presentations, cinematic or otherwise, of the harmonica’s aura as the archetypal instrument of the mysterious lonesome rider of the far west.

    To the great Ennio Morricone!

    4). “But while men like Harmonica cannot adapt to the new times, instruments like the harmonica can and did, in this instance by being an emblem of a romanticized past that promises, much like a pack of Marlboros, the macho experience of the Wild West in a small package.”

    – Great line!

    5). Two tunes spring to mind, both from the epically fantastic Cowboy Bebop soundtrack:

    Thanks for reading! You need to put some of your recordings up on the site.

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