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Symphony of sound; Often associated with hobos and the blues, the harmonica also has a sophisticated side

For an instrument so small, the harmonica can sure make a lot of noise.

Especially this time of year.

Mardi Gras celebrates the melting pot of music in New Orleans -- a mix of influences that are African-American, French, English, Portuguese, Italian, German and Irish.

And what do all those cultures share? The harmonica.

In folk music and country, it speaks of freedom and the open road. Bob Dylan and Neil Young make a little go a long way.

In the jazzy playing of Larry Adler, Toots Thielemans or Stevie Wonder, the harmonica can be impressively sophisticated.

In blues, the harmonica soars. Little Walter Jacobs, who played harp for Muddy Waters, used an amplifier, creating swoops and swirls of sound. Delta giant Rice Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson, indulged in dizzying harp derring-do. He could play, it was whispered, with the whole harmonica inside his mouth.

The harmonica, stuck in many a hobo's pocket, became known for imitating the long, lonesome sound of a train whistle.

"The great thing is, harmonicas were transportable," says Charles Mancuso, professor of popular music at Buffalo State College. "So you had all these guys on ships, before even World War I, the Portuguese, the Italians, the rest of those guys, they all played harmonica. Because it was a nice, easy instrument. It didn't need a lot of packaging. It was cheap.

"There's so many different sounds you can create," Mancuso adds. "You can get high pitch, rumbles at the low end of it, and it works in all styles. You don't hear it much in cabaret. But you hear it in jazz, and the blues and folk-oriented music, what they used to call hillbilly."

Be it ever so humble, the harmonica could be called the soul of America.

It only adds to its mystique that, like its big brother the accordion, the harp has its critics. Mancuso suggests that historically, ethnic stereotyping might have had something to do with that.

The Buffalo blues guitarist Mr. Conrad has another theory.

"There's a lot of stumblebums buying harmonicas," he broods one night in the Sportsmen's Tavern. "There's a lot of good guys out there. But for every good guy there's 10 bad ones. And a lot of people only hear the bad ones."

Conrad, who collaborates with a Toronto harp player named Shrimp Daddy, is always on the lookout for good harp players.

"Everyone thinks they can play it," he says. "But it takes a lot of dedication to play it well."

>Learning from others

Dan Harper has that kind of dedication.

Harper -- it's not his real name, but he has had it a long time -- was a boy when the harmonica called to him.

"I think it was my dad that turned me on to Muddy Waters," he says. "I didn't get what it was at first.

"He had a little bicycle store on Elmwood. I used to work in there on weekends, when I was 12 or 13, putting together bikes and fixing stuff. On the way home, I'm walking down the street, I hear this blues band. So I stuck my nose up to the window. It was Spoon. Spoon was a blues player here in Buffalo who was really influential.

"I got a harmonica. I had to. Just a cheap little thing, couldn't figure out what to do with it for the longest time."

Harper learned from listening to Sonny Terry, the great American roots blues player, in "Finian's Rainbow." Larry Adler became his idol as he worked to learn the oversized, challenging chromatic harmonica.

"That's a really tough instrument to get emotion out of," Harper says. "Playing it mechanically is hard to do, like playing piano with your mouth."

He was also mentored by Shakin Smith, the towering Buffalo harp virtuoso and Buffalo Music Hall of Fame member.

"I was always asking him questions, studying his technique," Harper says. "Because he really, really did know what he was doing."

A few years ago Smith left town, as harmonica players do. He now lives in Oklahoma. But his Buffalo roots will always figure in his life. As a kid, Smith would sneak into the old Governor's Inn on Sycamore Street and learn from owner James Peterson and the other blues musicians who played there.

Growing up, he loved Louisiana swamp blues player Slim Harpo, then laid-back Jimmy Reed. "This stuff was commonplace. To catch this on the radio on a so-called black radio station, like WBLK or WUFO, I said, 'Wow, this is great.' Plus the fact that wow, this guy plays the harmonica. I do, too," Smith says on the phone from Oklahoma.

His biggest idol became Sonny Boy Williamson. "Sonny Boy and the harmonica, they were practically inseparable. They were as one," he marvels. "I went nuts. I never lost that passion for that sound."

>Apps and adapting

Smith confesses he rarely plays out any more. Harper, too, occasionally finds his harp silenced.

The scene is not what it was 15 or 20 years ago. College kids, who drive music fashions, are not listening much to blues or folk. The old masters who used to come through town have passed on. And laws involving drinking and smoking, however sensible they may be, have had their effect on night life.

"It in no way resembles the era that created jazz," says Smith. "Unfortunately, that's like any territory. Do you see any Renaissance painters out there? Don't expect it to come back. It's gone. It did what it did."

Still, it is in the harmonica's nature to withstand tough times.

Hohner now offers a $1.99 harmonica app, allowing the player to learn riffs, practice grooves, and peruse a gallery of greats.

And harmonica players, too, will make sure the instrument endures in the new millennium.

Smith is teaching his 7-year-old son.

Harper likes to jam with up-and-comers. One is Dave DeLano, who plays harp with the Blues Dogs. DeLano has a studio in an outbuilding in his Buffalo backyard, and he and Harper can often be found there, jamming.

"Dan is a very good inspiration of mine. He's been doing it for so long," DeLano says.

Everyone's harmonica journey is different, and DeLano's began with Ireland.

"I started playing Irish tunes first, because my mom's uncle was playing harmonica, and that's what he played. Then I started playing blues. I played blues exclusively for years and years. My thought was, I don't want to bastardize my instrument by playing anything else. Now I play for rock groups."

He plays for the original Buffalo rock band Here Come the Comets. "I was just deciding at that point, I could throw my blues into anything."

That could be how the harmonica will thrive -- by adapting.

"I think the harp, it touches people's soul," Harper says. "I don't really understand it. It's very mysterious."

email: mkunz@buffnews.com