Whenever I hear a mouth-harp (what most people call a harmonica) I think of my maternal grandfather, who grew up during the early part of the 20th century in an area filled with hard-scrabble farm folks. As was the norm at that time and in that place, he had only a grade-school education, and he spent a lot of years as a tenant farmer but always worked hard to provide for his family, even through the worst years of the depression.
Tenant farmers were a type of sharecropper who worked and lived on farmland that was owned by someone else and then divided the profits. It was a system that was ripe for exploitation and some of the tenants did have bad times, but many landowners knew the value of a good, dependable tenant and acted accordingly. My Granddad raised his family as a tenant farmer, and I never heard him say anything bad about his landlords. Of course, it wouldn’t have been in character for him to complain, but knowing his work ethic I think he probably did OK.
By the time I was old enough to know my Granddad, he was in late middle-age and was no longer farming. My Mother and her siblings had moved out by then, and he and Grandma had moved into a small house that was near the edge of a small village, but still very rural — enough so that they could have a big vegetable garden every year.
Of course, you couldn’t survive on just vegetables, and ex-tenant farmers didn’t have pension plans, so my Granddad still had to work. My first memories of him included his job at that time, and I also remember occasionally going with him while he performed it. I don’t think they had “take your kid (or grandkid) to work” days exactly, but the kind of job he had made it easy. He was a night watchman at a complex of big warehouses in a nearby town, and those warehouses were filled with huge barrels of tobacco. Locals called the place “the tobacco barns”.
I’m not sure why one of the big tobacco companies maintained a storage facility in that area, because as far as I know tobacco wasn’t grown anywhere around there, but that’s where Granddad and I spent an occasional summer night. I was pretty young and usually fell asleep part-way through the night, but for a while I was full of energy as we made his rounds from building to building in the spooky darkness.
He had to punch his time clock at each location and when he noticed me looking up in awe at the rows of huge barrels stacked to the ceiling, he volunteered the information that a guy had been crushed to death by a falling barrel once, so I probably should stay close to him. It made me shiver at the time, and might have even been true, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized that it was a good way to keep me from wandering around in dark areas, getting lost.
Back in the guard shack between rounds, he’d open his thermos of coffee and sometimes we’d talk a little, but what I remember most is that if the mood was right, he’d sometimes get out his old harmonica and play. He knew I enjoyed his mouth-harp (as he called it) but I think he had another reason for playing. He knew I was too young to stay up all night, and after starting with a lively “Turkey In The Straw”, he’d move on to something slower and I’d be sound asleep in no time.
Harmonicas were rural America’s favorite instrument for a lot of years. Coming over from Europe, mostly from Germany’s Hohner company – probably still the most recognizable brand – they permeated America. Relatively inexpensive and if not easy to learn, at least simple enough that you could pretty quickly approximate a familiar melody with one. Harmonicas became very popular during the Civil War. It’s said that Abe Lincoln had one, as did Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid.
Through the years, the harmonica in all its sizes and styles has been an important part of almost every kind of music from country to jazz, and blues to rock. It’s tough to imagine Bob Dylan without a harmonica, and Lennon, Springsteen, and Jagger have all spent some time with one. Even the ladies have gotten involved, with singers as different as Alanis Morissette and Shakira known to take a few turns.
I wish I had a recording of my Granddad playing, but here are a couple of clips that are reminiscent of the Americana style of harmonica music.
“Orange Blossom Special” by Charlie McCoy, and “Ice Water Blues” by Deford Bailey. Both are from the album, Inspiration – Harmonica Performances. I think Granddad would have enjoyed hearing them.