“It has changed a lot, but it shouldn’t have changed. It should be the same all the way through, ’cause people that comes to see the Grand Ole Opry, they’re coming to see – what they expect to see – is the old-time music. That’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it started out, and it’s not supposed to be a change in it.” – Herman Crook, 1974
Old-time is like the Amish community of music with its baked-in resistance to change (outside of Ithaca and the recent adoption of plucked upright double bass). The music was frozen in time and documented with the commercial recordings of the 20s and 30s and with the field recordings that followed. While Ralph Peer was busy setting the foundation for the Cracker-Barrel country-music industry, the harmonica was reaching its peak in popularity in the homes and hands of millions of real “folk.”
In the strictest of Amish communities, the harmonica is the only instrument allowed. I even tried to infiltrate them, posing as a repentant child returning home from Rumspringa so as to unearth the ancient mysteries of the harmonica. My hands were too soft from a life-long lack of hard labor and I was turned away at the gate. From that failure, I had to turn to the repository of all human knowledge: Hastings Entertainment. There I found nestled deep in the blues section the compact disc “Harmonica Masters” from Yazoo. There were many “old time” tracks on that collection. My goal in playing the harmonica was to understand the techniques of these old masters and to recreate some of their magic. This article distills how the harmonica was used in old-time music during the first third of the 1900s. So you don’t have to hunt on the YouTubes, the superlative prose here is supported by 26 of the most relevant recorded examples. Hopefully a new crop of old-timey harmonica players can repopulate the genre, moderating my ever-growing suspicion that the instrument is simply too difficult for old-time musicians to learn.
Let’s start with a bit of history, written by winners and people of authority and high moral standing in their communities. This little detour should really lay to rest any claims that Bob Dylan’s mouth-breathing was the beginning of traditional harmonica playing. The harmonica was the first device that could promise a thousand songs in your pocket. It was invented in the early 1820s and reached the basic format we know today by 1825. Within five years, the harmonica made its appearance in the United States. Perhaps one of the first harmonicas for sale in this country was advertised in a Philadelphia newspaper as such: “There has been brought to this city, from Paris, a new musical instrument, recently invented in Switzerland, and called Harmonica. It is delightfully sweet and exact, and may be played with ease, and carried in the pocket. Mr. Willig, No. 171 Chestnut Street, has it for sale, at the price of three dollars and a half.” That’s about $94 in today’s dollars, adjusting for inflation. It was soon much more affordable. By 1832, harmonicas were advertised from Natchez to New York, soon followed by the rest of the country. In the early days, it must have been a coveted possession since the first couple of mentions in newspapers outside of advertisements are threats to expose thieves who stole them in Salt Lake City and Nashville. But they weren’t stolen for money, since by then they were often sold brand-new for less than $2.50 in today’s dollars. They must have been stolen for its earning potential. A vagrant with a harmonica is worth a whole lot more than a vagrant without one, submitting Bob Dylan as evidence.
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Circus to Cylinders (1849 to 1904)
Con-man P.T. Barnum acquired a nine-year-old boy by the name of Chris Bathman in 1849 to provide harmonica entertainment during the interludes of Jenny Lind’s European tour (making about two dollars a week). Immigration laws being what they were at that time, Barnum had no trouble importing little Bathman to America and putting him to “work” in his American Museum in New York City. After splitting off from Barnum to join a minstrel troupe, Bathman traveled up and down the Mississippi tooting his harmonica for river town audiences. After a few years, like many unwitting immigrants, he enlisted with the Union during the Civil War. He never parted from his harmonica playing during those years and “organized a minstrel company in the regiment” to entertain the troops [The Music Trade Review, 1911]. Herr Zirom was another harmonica playing import of P.T. Barnum’s menagerie in the mid 1860s. Zirom likely got out of military service due to bone spurs.
Another master, who played from the 1850s to the mid-1880s from St. Louis to Boston, was Herr Moritz Wallach. Herr Wallach gave a concert in 1851 which drew a more detailed description than usual. “Herr Wallach is a recent German resident of Manchester, who for some ten years past has had a musical passion, penchant, or hobby, which has resulted in his elevating the little, rude, wooden harmonica of Germany and Switzerland into a metallic instrument, neat and small, played by placing it to the lips, and capable of considerable musical tone and expression. He has several of these arranged, in different keys, so as to give more variety to his performance; and perhaps the strangest part of it is the way in which by making a sort of artificial bell with his concave hands, he gives swell and diminuendo, the effects of echo and of distance, and in short makes it quite a new instrument. The mund-harmonica, or mouth-harmonica, is also capable, in his hands, of performing a duet, and by means of some skillful method of tonguing, he gives a staccato bass accompaniment to some of his melodies.”
The invisible magic of separating melody and rhythm on this simple folk instrument was revealed to the audience. “Tonguing,” or what the kids these days are calling “tongue blocking:” the melody of a tune is played by exhaling or inhaling through a small hole between the tongue and the corner(s) of the mouth. The tongue is blocking the nearby holes, and when lifted off the wood, air rushes in to create a chord. The chord can be quickly extinguished by reversing the movement. This effect can be repeated and controlled to have rhythm on, off, and between the beats of a simple or syncopated melody.
Meanwhile, a fever of nationalism must have been sweeping the nation because the United States was growing its own crop of harmonica virtuosos, including African American pianist Blind Boone (b. 1864 in Miami, Missouri). As a child in the 1870s he entered the music business, playing from town to town with his trio: Boone on harmonica accompanied by a tambourine player and a triangle player.
For the next few decades, improvements in harmonica manufacturing would see a boom in imports and an eager customer base. Harmonica, French Harp, and Mouth Organ contests began popping up in the 1870s as well. As early as 1885, children were publicly pleading with Santa Claus to bring them harmonicas.
The harmonica was firmly established as a cultural icon by the 1870s, for better or worse: “The youths of Salt Lake are preying upon neighboring settlements under the guise of giving “harmonica” concerts. Bountiful will be afflicted to-night, and if the troupe succeed in getting out of that settlement alive, they will persecute Sandy next week. The harmonica question can only be settled when the city council passes an ordinance defining the possession of one of these instruments of torture a misdemeanor, and punishable by six months.” [Salt Lake Evening Democrat, Utah, 1885] It does take some talent and practice to make the harmonica sound halfway decent, but these basic skills can be had with a mere ten hours of practice.
It was easy enough for even the youngest children. “Well, there is a little three-year-old boy up in Mansfield, Mass., named Charley Shenett, who may one day be even a greater wonder than young Hofmann. He doesn’t play the piano—his performances are all on a simply toy harmonica, but although he is only a baby as yet, he handles the instrument like a master, and plays twenty-eight different tunes on it. And he doesn’t confine himself to the simple melodies of the tunes—he flies off into all sorts of fancy trills and variations of his own composition—the sure sign of musical genius. His playing is said to be remarkable, and the house of his parents is overrun with callers who come to hear him. The only time he has shown any fear was at a Grand Army social. He played “Home, Sweet Home” so well that the old veterans fairly raised the roof with their applause. This so startled the young musician that he could not be prevailed upon to play more that evening.” [The Times, Philadelphia, April 22, 1888] What did the harmonica sound like back before ragtime gave privileged white males like little Charley Shenett something exciting to appropriate? If one is interested in knowing the capabilities of the harmonica in the absence of the refreshing influences of ragtime, one may take the playing of Australian P.C. Spouse as an example of sonorous excellence without syncopation. In 1929, Spouse proved that even a sweet, but boring tune like Old Folks at Home could win a national harmonica contest given enough variations and speedy jig-time conversions.
The fiddle is, of course, the main instrument in old time music. Due to its affordability and sheer quantity, however, it’s pretty safe to assume there were more fiddle tunes being played on harmonica than on the fiddle at some point in our history. In the old-time music world, all one needs is a single piece of anecdotal evidence from a ten-year old to prove that the fiddle was barely available to the poor people of the nation: “I am in the fifth grade and go to the High school building. My teacher told me of you [Santa] the other day. I am very fond of music. Last Christmas my father got me a mouth organ, and I learned to play on it pretty good, but it is broken now. I wanted a fiddle, but my father was too poor to buy it, and when I heard of you I thought maybe you would send me one.” As was common at the time, a fifth grade education coincided with the latter years of school, thus explaining his attendance at the “High school”. This young scholar was likely a sophomore [Evening Star, Washington DC, 18 Dec 1885].
The harmonica by now was played by everyone from paupers to presidents. Due in part to the mobility of the instrument, Kansas was a hotbed for harmonica. In 1887, a reporter saw fit to write: “For several days two small boys have been going around the streets picking up stray nickels to live on by playing a banjo and French harp. The smaller one plays the banjo and he does not look much larger than a good-sized baby. They both play well considering their tender age.” [Wichita Daily Call, Wichita KS, 26 May 1887]
In 1879, an article from Girard, Kansas notes such a scene: “Gay Times in Jail – For about two days last week the little jail back of the court house was filled to its utmost capacity. Among the inmates were two darkeys, one of whom got a banjo, and the other one a mouth organ, while another inmate had a fiddle. All afternoon and evening the jail resounded with music and merriment.” [The Girard Press, Girard KS, 3 July 1879] Quite a lot of harmonica history can be found in jails, including this scene of a multiracial old-time jam.
The harmonica was a common tool to test new audio technologies. Very shortly after the invention of the phonograph and telephone, harmonicas were used to test the devices and market them. Harmonica made its debut in 1894 on-screen in “The Passing Show”: a 25-second scene with three African Americans dancing, one of whom was simultaneously playing the harmonica. This was also the first appearance of African Americans in the moving pictures.
At the turn of the twentieth century when Grand Ole Opry stars like DeFord Bailey and Herman Crook were still young children, the harmonica was “probably the most popular musical instrument,” and in 1904 “twenty million harmonicas were imported into this country. Eight out of every ten went to supply the needs of the small boy, the greatest exponent of harmonica music.” (The Sun, New York, May 28, 1905). This figure indicates one harmonica import per four people in the country at that time. So in 1904, the same year as the first old-time harmonica playing was recorded commercially by Pete Hampton, some millions of harmonicas landed in the Christmas stockings of the century’s youngest generation.
Pete Hampton, an African American (b. 1871 in Bowling Green, Kentucky), was a famous performer in minstrel troupes in the USA and, for more than a decade, in England, Europe, and Russia. He was in the first Broadway musical to be written, directed, and to star an all African American cast [Green, J. P. (1983). “In Dahomey” in London in 1903. The Black Perspective in Music, 11(1), 22. doi:10.2307/1215141]. Pete Hampton had a harmonica style very similar to Dr. Humphrey Bate that appears in each of his recordings of “Dat Mouth Organ Coon,” a tune in which he mimics the harmonica stylings of a stereotypical African American. His harmonica interlude in this song is in itself a thoughtful composition of the different showpiece styles popularly played on the instrument in the late 1800s. His solo is complete with tongue blocking, a sweet melody, a fast breakdown with melody intricacy similar to the style of Dr. Bate, a train whistle or baby crying, a fox chase with vocal hollers, train chugging, another train whistle, and ending with a sweet melody played through the nose while he whistles (as pictured above). While it is impossible to determine whether Pete learned these techniques from his elders and peers growing up in Kentucky, it is known that all of the harmonica techniques used in this recording were ubiquitous across racial lines and geographic boundaries. In addition to being a fine harmonica player and multi-faceted musician, singer, and comedian, Pete recorded commercially more than any other contemporary African American, with over 150 hit tracks. Listeners, omitting the first commercial recording of harmonica in history would mean diminishing Pete Hampton’s lived experience as he came of age in the peak popularity of the “Coon Song” genre.
The two decades following this saw some harmonica recorded when artists were still flirting with the idea that the instrument could be taken seriously by real musicians. These annotated examples are available for listening at Pat Missin’s website (www.pmisson.com) and do include some traditional material.
Radio to Records (1924 to 1931)
The recording generation of players grew up in the heyday of ragtime, early blues, and trad jazz, but would still be well rooted in the oral traditions of their communities. Sousa’s marches would be booming in their ears as well. Sousa’s popularity was in part the inspiration for the branding of the most popular harmonica model of all time: the Hohner Marine Band.
These influences can all be heard in the playing of the harmonica masters of the 1920s and 30s. Ernest Stoneman recalled that, as a child, “I wore out a wheelbarrow load of harmonicas trying to learn to play them.” It was estimated that there were solidly 13 million harmonica “players” around this time, and that number rose to nearly 40 million by the 1960s [M.S. Licht, “Harmonica Magic: Virtuoso Display in American Folk Music,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 24, No. 2 (May, 1980), pp. 211-221].
Shortly after Fiddlin’ John Carson and Eck Robertson recorded, the harmonica would be next in line to record country music starting with Henry Whitter in late 1923. This is the same Whitter that old-time players might recognize from the duo of Grayson and Whitter: “a blind fiddler and a deaf guitar player.”
A generation before the Rat Pack, there was the Old 97 Wrecking Crew. The guitar/harmonica self-accompaniment songster format was recorded by Henry Whitter, Ernest Thompson, Ernest Stoneman, and Vernon Dalhart (Marion Try Slaughter) within months of one another. Though the genre was not perfected until George Jones, country music was born with these elite players. Ralph Peer relied upon Stoneman’s fame and relative fortune ($3600/year) to attract talent to Bristol Tennessee, the site of the “Big Twang”, where the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers made themselves discoverable. Whitter, Thompson, and Stoneman each recorded fiddle tunes on harmonica. Vernon Dalhart, as far as I know, didn’t record fiddle tunes. His connection with traditional music is dubious given his conservatory background and operatic approach to singing country music. Today’s analogy to Vernon Dalhart would be a Suzuki-trained violinist going to a high-dollar music school to learn how to play the “authentic old time.” (https://countrymusichalloffame.org/artist/vernon-dalhart/) Perhaps Dalhart was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame to pave the way for other insurgents like the Canadian Shania Twain or Australian Keith Urban, two artists with stage names conjured up in a board room somewhere in Nashville. And… back to fiddle tunes on harmonica.
Ernest V. Stoneman made it into the Country Music Hall of Fame without having to change his name, accent, or birth country. The first harmonica and fiddle duet on record was recorded in 1925. Ernest Stoneman took fiddler Emmet Lundy with him on a trip to New York City where they recorded two harmonica and fiddle duets with “Piney Woods Girl” and “The Long Eared Mule.” In 1926, he recorded harmonica with fiddle with “Fiddler Joe” Samuels, Hattie Stoneman, and Kahle Brewer. Unfortunately Lundy was upset that the harmonica was too loud in the recording and never made more commercial recordings, but he was recorded in Galax by Lomax in 1941.
In 1925, radio came to Nashville and the first old-time band on the air via the WDAD radio station was led by the harmonica playing of Dr. Humphrey Bate. Dr. Bate, the “Dean” of The Grand Ole Opry, would also make the first appearance on WSM (on a show that would later be renamed The Grand Ole Opry), followed by DeFord Bailey and The Crook Brothers band, a string band featuring duet harmonicas with banjo and two guitars. Between the three of them (Dr. Bate and his Possum Hunters, DeFord Bailey, and The Crook Brothers) 21 78-rpm recordings were issued 1928.
Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters did have a powerful fiddle player on roughly half of their recordings. The harmonica and fiddle were only recorded together once for Dill Pickle Rag, though never playing at the same time, likely due to the unique melodic variations each invented.
Three of the first entertainers on the Grand Ole Opry heavily featured harmonica players with different styles playing old-time fiddle tunes. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, but speaks to the versatility of the instrument in this genre as well as its popularity at that time. DeFord Bailey used to go on tour with Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe because his name would draw the crowds. DeFord’s experiences were captured through interviews by David C. Morton and a great biography was written as a result [D.C. Morton and C.K. Wolfe, DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music, University of Tennessee Press, 1998].
Dr. Bate played on the Opry until his death in 1936, Bailey played on the Opry until he was controversially fired in 1941, and Herman Crook played breakdowns on the harmonica on the Opry for over six decades. At first, he played harmonica duets with his brother for six years and then, when his brother left the band to become a police officer, Herman incorporated a fiddle into the band to share the melody line.
There was plenty of old-time harmonica action happening outside the Opry as well. Like the Crook Brothers, The Arkansas Barefoot Boys and The Murphy Brothers Harp Band were also string bands led by twin harmonicas, although the Arkansas Barefoot Boys had a subdued fiddle playing with them.
The term “cross harp” wasn’t defined until the 1960s in an effort to taxonomize harmonica playing to set “blues” playing apart from standard, “straight harp” hillbilly music. Plenty of old-timers across racial lines could switch back and forth at will. Gwen Foster (of The Carolina Tar Heels and Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers) and Kyle Wooten recorded both ways. DeFord Bailey, Herman Crook, Henry Whitter, Will Shade (leader of the Memphis Jug Band), Noah Lewis (of Cannon’s Jug Stompers), could also switch back and forth between “bluesy” cross position and more melodious standard position.
Some exceptions exist. One was African American Sam “Stovepipe No. 1” Jones, who played fiddle tunes in the cross position while playing guitar, singing, and humming into, presumably, a stovepipe. He switches out of cross position for Fisher’s hornpipe. Sonny Terry also experimented with playing fiddle tunes in cross on an album with Pete Seeger during the folk revival days.
Tunes like “All Young” and “Cluck Old Hen” which have a flatted 7th somewhat require playing in cross position while a tune like Ed Haley’s “Indian Squaw” and “Half Past Four” or The East Texas Serenaders’ “Combination Rag” might be best played with two harmonicas to cover both positions.
Alternate tunings are well utilized on the stringed instruments because, when taken to their extremes, those tunings produce distinctive and impressive abilities. Luther Strong and Bill Stepp come to mind as fiddlers who created masterpieces outside standard tuning. This article has mostly focused on standard tuning in old-time harmonica because, in my opinion, it is the only good way to compete on volume with a strong fiddler.
Like Strong and Stepp, however, there were masterful harmonica players like Freeman Stowers, Sonny Terry, Noah Lewis, and Palmer McAbee, who created masterpieces. These pieces were marketed as “blues,” but certainly were unique to the harmonica and defy simplified categorization.
Quite a few old-time harmonica solos were also recorded. E.F. “Poss” Acree recorded the “Missouri Waltz” and the “Chicken Reel,” Oliver Sims recorded “Hop About Ladies,” several from Henry Whitter like “Peek-A-Boo”. Jim Couch had a medley of “Dill Pickle,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “Swanee River.”
Some more accompanied harmonica players also recorded instrumentals. At Bristol, George Reneau of The Blue Ridge Duo recorded a few fiddle tunes like “Arkansas Traveler,” “Turkey in the Straw” (with dance calling by Gene Austin of “My Blue Heaven” fame), and the early 1900s pop song “Casey Jones.” Jimmy Smith recorded a medley of southern melodies and a “straight harp” raggy piece called “Mountain Blues.”
Other full string bands also incorporated harmonica. In 1916 Berea, Kentucky, one newspaper describes, “a novel musical treat in the form of a string orchestra, consisting of fiddle, harmonica, banjo and guitar, played by Messrs. Steve Johnson, John Finley, Green Bailey and Stewart Farr, respectively” [The Citizen, Berea, Kentucky, Jan 7 1915]. Others include The Blue Ridge Mountaineers (Clarence McCormick), The Blue Ridge Entertainers (Gwen Foster), Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers (Fate Norris), Luke Highnight’s Ozark Strutters (Luke Highnight), The Red Fox Chasers (Bob Cranford), The Floyd County Ramblers (Walter Boone), the Aiken County Stringband (unknown harmonica player), Herschel Brown & His Washboard Band (unknown), the Carolina Ramblers String Band (unknown), the Cherokee Ramblers (Skinny Anglin), Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters (Price Goodson), and Richard Cox & His National Fiddlers (unknown).
North Carolina harmonica players like Gwen Foster, Francum Braswell, and Dave McCarn took straight harp harmonica to new levels with their “raggy” styles. This mastery is best demonstrated with Gwen’s “Wilkes County Blues.”
Of course, this piece falls outside the category of an “old-time” tune, but he did use these techniques to accompany fiddle players on more common “old-time” tunes such as “All Night Long.”
Francum Braswell was also a talented artist and drew a scene of a square dance with a harmonica player accompanied by a fiddler. Other artists capturing American life including Thomas Hart Benton and Norman Rockwell often featured harmonica in their art. There were also plenty of post cards, cabinet cards, and other media showing harmonica as a part of family making music.
Others were able to incorporate syncopation in subtler, yet highly effective ways while still staying true to older, melody and rhythm-centered tunes. Herman Crook of the Crook Brothers certainly found a niche with this and laid track with that style professionally for six decades on the Grand Ole Opry.
In terms of raw talent, power, drive, and rhythm with a solo harmonica, no one was better than Kyle Wooten of Lumber City, Georgia. He wasn’t a star, no known radio play, no newspaper mentions, and made a short trip to Atlanta to record his virtuosity in six pieces for Okeh in 1930 before returning to home life and dying four years later.
This completes the tour of the vibrant life of the harmonica in old-time music. Many recordings and other artists were omitted. A follow-on article ought to detail its decline and the attempts to maintain the tradition: from the Great Depression to field recordings and contemporary players.
Seth Shumate (of Chicago via Arkansas) is an old-time harmonica player and co-founder of The Ozark Highballers (Roy Pilgrim, Aviva Steigmeyer, and Clarke Buehling) and former member of Shout Lulu (Paul and Skye McGowen and Pete Howard). He has cameo harmonica appearances on “The Women Wear No Clothes At All” by The Old 78s (Curly Miller and Carole Anne Rose, Clarke Buehling, Paul McGowen, and Ray and Melanie Palmer) and in a duet with David Bragger in his Old-Time Tiki Parlour and was interviewed by and played tunes with Benjamin Smith for Oldtime Central. In addition to posting ad-free content to YouTube, passing up more than a dollar a year in earning potential, Seth teaches old-time harmonica annually at the SPAH convention under the patronage of the great Joe Filisko (Society for the Preservation and Advancement of Harmonica), various old-time festivals, and remotely upon request. His favorite contemporary old-time harmonica player is Dave Rice of Ohio via Oklahoma. Seth’s great-grandmother played the harmonica (a 1920s Flying Ace from the F.R. Hotz company) and was one of six people known to be recorded playing the quills (a precursor to the harmonica predominantly played in African American tradition).