“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.