It’s fair to say that pound for pound, no other instrument packs a punch quite like the harmonica, and from its humble origins in the workshops of 19th century Austria and Germany, it has long been an integral part of the blues. Being cheap and easy to carry, it was perfectly suited to the itinerant nature of the blues performer and could be heard easily above a crowd in a solo context, as well as alongside other instruments such as the guitar. Most importantly, it was the downtrodden sounding nature of the blues that leant itself to harmonica players who were able to produce the wrenching bends that have become associated with the blues harmonica style. For a perfect example of its moaning capabilities, just listen to Alfred Lewis’ ‘Friday Moan Blues’ as he merges harmonica and voice into inspired improvisations of soaring rhythmic and emotional power.
Although the roots of the instrument go far back into the mists of time to the free reed instruments of China, the harmonica as we know it was developed in Europe in the early part of the 19th century. By the mid-1870s, mechanization allowed the German company Hohner to produce more than 50,000 instruments yearly, and come 1900, Hohner had become a name synonymous with harmonicas and was pumping out more than 3 million of them a year, with most going to the US.
Before the likes of famed players such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter and Walter Horton became key figures in the Chicago blues scene with their personal amplified pocket brass section, their inspirational pioneers had long since made seminal recordings in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These harmonicists often played without accompaniment, and would commonly imitate trains as well as fox chases, depicting the hunting expeditions with driving, rhythmic chords that propel the chase, punctuated by vocal cries that imitate the hunters calls and yelping dogs. Take a listen to William McCoy’s brilliant example of how he combines the two themes together in his ‘Train Imitations And The Fox Chase’. All these classic early recordings highlight how southern rural players had evolved highly sophisticated styles in the fifty or so years since the instrument became freely available, which although individual, shared many characteristics of technique, style and repertoire.
Leading the way with his mesmerizing opener ‘Man Trouble Blues’ is Jaybird Coleman, who began performing the blues as an entertainer for American soldiers while serving in the U.S. Army. It was during this period that he was given the nickname “Jaybird” due to his independent manner. With his incredibly rich and varied tone, his career as a recording artist only lasted until 1930, after which he performed mostly on street corners throughout Alabama.
The first big star of the blues harmonica was undoubtedly DeFord Bailey, who was born in Tennessee in 1899. Crippled by a childhood attack of polio and unable to work on his parent’s farm, Bailey began to earn a living playing his harmonica on the streets of Nashville. Spotted by a talent scout at a harmonica contest, he was invited to play on a radio show called “Barn Dance” later to be known as “The Grand Ole Opry”, which he opened with a train imitation piece until the early forties. His featured ‘Muscle Shoal Blues’ is a dazzling track influenced by both his blues and country music background, which he referred to as “black hillbilly music”.
Also from Tennessee, Noah Lewis was renowned for being able to generate enormous volume from playing his instrument in both string bands and brass marching bands on the streets of Memphis. He was also noted for his ability to play two harmonicas at once – one with his mouth and one with his nose. A member of Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, his ‘Bad Luck's My Buddy’ is just one of four sides he recorded under the name of Noah Lewis’ Jug Band in 1930. He never recorded again and sadly died in poverty of gangrene brought on by frostbite.
Like Lewis, the careers of many of the early recorded blues artists were fleeting, as in the tragic case of the East Coast bluesman Eddie Mapp, whose wonderful ‘Ridin’ The Blinds’ belies the fact that he was only in his late teens when it was recorded. Sadly, one year later he was found dead on the street in Atlanta.
Light-hearted relief comes from James Simons, also known as "Blues Birdhead" whose ‘Harmonica Blues’ is a fine example of how the harmonica crossed over into the jazz genre. Likewise Jazz Gillum’s comical ‘Sarah Jane’, featuring the guitar playing of the legendary Big Bill Broonzy, is a welcome sojourn into the realms of comedy. Another seemingly unusual, and in this case cross cultural collaboration sees the country duo the Carver Boys team up with guitarist Josh White on the strangely titled and good time ‘Wang Wang Harmonica Blues’.