• Pull Up a Chair - The History of The Harmonica By Frederick Folklorist

    “Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe and playing my Hohner harmonica.” – Abraham Lincoln

    The story of the harmonica begins with the Chinese Emperor Nyn-Kwya, who in 3000 B.C. invented (or at least took credit for) a free reed instrument called a “sheng,” which is considered the forerunner of the modern harmonica. The sheng was then brought to Europe in the 18th century by travelers and tradesmen, where the idea of the free-reed principle was used in the creation of the reed organ, the accordion, the concertina, the saxophone, and the harmonica. The modern harmonica was invented in 1821 by a German clockmaker named Christian Bushman, who put fifteen pitch pipes together to create an odd little instrument. At first, harmonicas were produced by clockmakers as a sideline, but in 1857 Matthias Hohner decided to manufacture them on a large scale and went into production in Germany.

    Let me take a minute and talk a little about the Hohner company. Although his name is synonymous with the instrument, Matthias Hohner was not the first to manufacture harmonicas. He wasn’t even a good harmonica player himself. As is often the case, he was simply a great businessman in the right place at the right time. He started his business in 1857. He quickly bought out all his competitors and started exporting the first Hohner harmonicas to the US in 1862. By the turn of the century his company was producing over 4 million harmonicas each year and was employing over 1,000 workers. Hohner’s success made the harmonica much more popular and readily available to new audiences. In addition, Hohner made various improvements to the instrument which were crucial for the use of the harmonica in many musical genres. In 1896, he introduced the classic Marine Band harmonica. It became the “go to” instrument for playing blues and country music. In 1910, Hohner invented the chromatic harmonica with a button on the side you could press which enabled the player to perform music of all keys on one instrument.

    After Matthias Hohner mass produced his harmonicas, they spread all over Germany, and with the mass emigration of Germans in the late 1800s, all over the world. By the time of the American Civil War, the harmonica was well established in the U.S. and many soldiers on both sides played them. They were cheap, easy to learn how to play, and when you were in the field, they fit in your pocket much better than a guitar or piano. At first, the repertory in this country for harmonica consisted of folksongs, fiddle tunes, marches, hymns, and the like, but somewhere along the way, it was taken up by the black man, and its potential as a blues instrument came to light.

    The origins of blues harmonica (or harp) in the South remains unclear. W.C. Handy recalled hearing train whistle imitations played on the harmonica as early as the 1870s. The discovery that the notes could be lowered in pitch by changing the pressure exerted on the reeds was probably an accidental one. But, the “blue” notes of the African vocal scale and the moans and cries of the field hand hollering had been successfully reproduced on a new instrument. By the 1920s the “blues harp” was a common sound in the South.

    After WWII, there was a large shifting of the black population from the rural south to the urban north, especially Chicago. Starting from the late 1930s there were four giants of blues harmonica recording and playing in Chicago. There was Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Walter Horton, Rice Miller, and maybe the best of the best, Little Water Jacobs. Together these men created the sound of the Chicago-style blues harmonica with its various moods and voices. They would range from eerie howls and yells, to whispers and sighs. It was a compelling sound that lured listeners in.

    The advent of rock and roll in the mid-fifties gave the blues themselves the blues. Sales of blues records dropped, and many performers had to seek other work. Even Muddy Waters, whose bands always featured a harmonica player, found that audiences were unreceptive to the slow blues in the nightclubs of Chicago. Meanwhile, the blues were being discovered in Europe, especially England, where young guitarists with names like Clapton, Beck, and Page were wearing holes in their records figuring out the riffs of B.B. King and other American black blues guitarists. The blues-based British rock invasion of the late 60’s re-popularized the blues. But now, the audiences were young whites rather than blacks, who, by then, had moved on to R&B, soul, and jazz. Unfortunately, the creators (blacks) of this style got none of the credit until 1964. That’s when The Rolling Stones appeared on the TV show Shindig along with blues legend Howlin’ Wolf. The Stones got Wolf on the show by refusing to play without him.

    Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and other famous musicians of the 60s all played the harmonica and helped make it not only a blues instrument, but also a rock and roll one as well. With the resurgence of interest in the blues, the fate of the blues harp playing now seemed secure. Throughout its history, most of the great harmonica players have come from the U.S. However, the internet is helping to introduce the harmonica to the world. The next generation of skillful players could come from anywhere...maybe even Frederick, Maryland!!

    Listen now to “Juke” by Little Walter. It’s been called the national anthem of blues harmonica. After this song came out, if a blues band didn’t feature a harp player, they couldn’t get a gig in Chicago. Furthermore, if the harp player couldn’t play “Juke,” he wasn’t considered a real harp player.

  • Singing With Folks

    One of the great achievements of FAME has been the Traditional Folk Song Circle at Dublin Roasters. For six years it has been held at Dublin Roasters on the Second Saturday (from1-3 pm) of every month. On February 10th we will celebrate those six years and look forward to many more. Over those years more than 330 people have attended and we have sung more than 660 songs! The average attendance for the circle is 17. Each month every person gets to choose a song from the Rise Up Singing songbook. Sometimes we get around twice, other times we have the “Lightning Round” where folks just call out a song and a page number. It is always great fun and a wonderful way to get introduced to new songs and new friends.

    I have been performing for audiences for over 50 years now – hard to believe that my first performance was so long ago. But one of the greatest joys I have is when people sing along. Music sung and/or played together is an amazingly unifying experience. To hear other voices or instruments blending with mine fills me with an energy that is hard to describe. And when folks start adding harmony – Lord, have mercy!

    Some folks tell that they really can’t sing, or I don’t want to hear them sing, etc. To which I respond – The more you sing, the better you sing. The same works for an instrument – the more you play, the better you play. It works even better when you are playing or singing with others. The rest of the group helps keep you in tune, on key. I am learning to play fiddle and I really don’t sound so great by myself, but when I am playing with others I improve vastly.

    I encourage you to play with a circle or two. I manage to get at least two in every week. Some of them are weekly jams, others are monthly. It is an opportunity for you to hone your singing or playing, learn some new tunes/songs and meet some really fine people.

    I especially want to thank Tomy and Dori for keeping the Dublin Roasters Traditional Folk Song Circle going. And Caryl does background research on the songs which shows up in our newsletter (and it will be posted in our blog – www.frederickacoustic.org/blog )

    "I have my own particular sorrows, loves, delights; and you have yours. But sorrow, gladness, yearning, hope, love, belong to all of us, in all times and in all places. Music is the only means whereby we feel these emotions in their universality." ~ H. A. Overstreet (1894-1985)



  • Song Circle Celebrates Six Seasons

    The Song Circle Turns 6 on February 10!  Join the celebration at Dublin Roasters 1-3 PM

    Led by Tomy Wright, here's his description of our last gathering:

    Although we only had 18 attendees this month, five of whom were new, our January 13th Tradition Folk Song Circle (TFSC) at Dublin Roasters was a hoot!  We sang thirty songs from fifteen categories of the thirty-five from the Sing Out! Publication, Rise Up Singing: The Group Singing Song-book (RUS). And I’d say, we met the spirit of intent when we started six years ago by creating an all-inclusive, family-friendly fun activity for sharing memories of group sing-alongs and of course, meeting F.A.M.E.’s goals, specifically community outreach. The By-name documentation effort was initiated several months after February 2012 by former Board member Karen Fetters and continues on by Board member Dori Bailin, Song Recorder and attendance tracker of some 312 participants as of last month.

    Seven previously unsung songs of the 1,200 songs from RUS, puts us at 662.  As anyone knows, who comes to the Song Circle, it’s like Forrest Gump’s mother’s famous quote about life, Song Circle “is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” You would have thought it was February already as the Love theme emerged with eight songs in that category, three were actually wedding songs for Ernie Heller, Ed Haser and Rick Hill. Our three Groomsmen led them respectively: Wedding Song, I Know Where I am Going, and Be Thou My Vision.

    Turning to our “Death and Dying” citations, this month, it is only after the referee’s review of the Songs Sung Instant Replay Dori Bailin, added two songs of nuanced degree: Annie Laurie with the prospect of dying on the part of the narrator, “And for bonnie Annie Laurie I’d lay me [down] an d[ie].” (Subtle, eh?) And the controversial Lord of the Dance, where death was the intent, but Resurrection was the result.

    Speaking of song statistics, here’s Dori’s latest endeavor: F.A.M.E. Traditional Folk Song Circle Top Ten Requested Songs Since 2012:

    #1 Country Roads (x27),

    #2 Ripple (x21),

    #3 (Three way tie x19): Dock of the Bay , If I Had a Hammer, Teach Your Children,

    #6 Blowin’ in the Wind (x18),

    #7 (Two-way tie x17), Five Hundred Miles and Goodnight Irene,

    #9 (Two-way tie x15) Edelweiss & Four Strong Winds.

    (You Are My Sunshine (x58) even though it has been requested prior to becoming our official opening song, we don’t count it in the rankings. Goodnight Irene was our official closing song, but not sung since 2016).