The Harmonica: Blowing In The Wind
When “Blowing in the Wind” was blasted on the airwaves in the early ‘60s, the sound and image of Bob Dylan standing on stage inches away from the microphone, blowing harmonica was burnt into the consciousness of America, and the world, as a whole. So much so that Dylan himself once quipped, “The harmonica is the world’s best-selling musical instrument. You’re welcome.”
But Dylan wasn’t the first to play the harmonica; and the instrument he revitalized had been around for a good long while before Abram and Beatrice Zimmerman even thought of having a child.
The harmonica (often called the “mouth harp” or just “harp” for short) started to develop into its current form in Eastern Europe, most notably in that hotbed city of musical activity, Vienna, in the early 1800s. Advancement took a tremendous leap forward when it transformed from a “blow”-only instrument to one that could play a different pitch when air was “drawn” in the other direction. That development, along with diatonic tuning (the harmonica containing only the notes in a given scale) and mass production resulted in an inexpensive, pleasant sounding, easy-to-play instrument that not only can be used to play single note lines, but chords as well.
This new pocket size instrument caught on quickly, and the image of an immigrant crossing the Atlantic in steerage of a ship blowing out familiar folk songs to entertain his companions, or a lone cowboy using his harmonica to settle the cattle after a hard ride, isn’t too hard to picture. But there’s another image of the harmonica player that comes to mind as well: the one man band.
Since no fingering was required to get specific notes to sound, the harmonica could be (and is) a hands-free device. By simply rigging up a wire to hold the harmonica around one’s neck, the hands are free to play another instrument such as the washboard, snare drum, banjo, piano or, of course, the guitar. This was realized fairly early on and commercially-made harmonica holders were soon in production. The 1897 Sears Roebuck Catalog offered up a harmonica holder for 34 cents. If that was too expensive, the “best cheap harmonica holder” could be yours for just 9 cents! The harmonica itself could be had for about 50 cents back then: quite a bargain for an imported, finely crafted musical instrument.
Since the harmonica was relatively inexpensive, it found favor among the impoverished. In America’s rural South, the harmonica found a home with the blues. And, either by chance or design, cross harp (using a harmonica in a key a fourth higher than the song to obtain the flatted 7th of the original key) was born.
This simple tonal deviation, coupled with pitch bends achieved by regulating how air travels through the chambers, allows the harmonica to imitate the soulful wail of the human voice.
Since most of the great blues harpists tend to be vocalists (Big Mama Thornton, James Cotton) or solely harmonica players (Slim Harpo), their hands are unencumbered with playing another instrument. This allows them to enclose their hands around the back of the harp. By opening and closing their cupped hands, different vowel sounds are accentuated and attenuated. Perhaps this primal vocal quality is what draws us to the blues harp or the sound of the harmonica in general.
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