original. acoustic. music.

I Hate the Harmonica

Larry Adler (1914-2001) the self-taught harmonica virtuoso is the only person I have ever heard actually play the thing instead of just breathing through it as most other performers do, and yes, I admit my exposure to harmonica music is not exactly wide-ranging due to the statement I made in the title of this post.

You can hear Larry Adler on Sting's “Ten Summoner's Tales” album, notably on Something the Boy Said. Another virtuoso, Stevie Wonder also deserves a mention for his work on the Eurythmics' song There Must Be An Angel. What sets these two performers apart from other mouth-organ suckers is their ability to play individual notes distinctly, resulting in appreciable melodies.

Many modern rock musicians employ the harmonica to evoke a certain style, to try and lend some kind of rootsy-folk credibility to their songs. However, a badly-sucked harmonica phrase does not an original Delta Blues song make. Often the harmonica is about as superfluous as Incubus' DJ ("Who the hell is Incubus?" I hope you are saying. Yes, indeed), and adds little melodically or harmonically to the song. It just shows that they grew up listening to Bob Dylan or Neil Young who couldn't play the harmonica either (No, that’s not entirely accurate, but just because they play it the way they do shouldn’t be an invitation to wholesale imitation. If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you…?).

I'm not the first to hassle the harmonica-playing fraternity (which I shall continue to call it until someone can point me toward any female harmonica players), Paul Simon's brilliant song A Simple Desultory Phillipic (or How I was Robert MacNamara'd Into Submission) parodies these self-styled folksy pot-prophets twanging on their out-of-tune guitars and sucking on their mouth-organs positioned just-so on specially designed neck-holders. Toward the end of the song Simon blasts away some typically random honks (thankfully the harmonica he uses is in the same key as the song) then you hear a "clunk" and Simon's stoned protagonist calls out to his engineer "I've lost my harmonica, Albert".

When I was at University, I knew people with little other musical talent who would find a harmonica and count themselves among the blessed if they could honk out the opening blasts of Piano Man by Billy Joel or, better still, appear to show some improvisational talent by getting together with a guitarist around an open fire and playing "anything" provided the harmonic phrase was 12 bars long and in the key of E.

But hate is a pretty strong word. Do I really need to heap negativity on an instrument with its own long and colourful history bringing, as it did, music to those less fortunate, comfort to those in need, and the soundtrack to a whole gene pool? Perhaps I ought to step back and examine this from a greater distance. Perhaps I don't hate the harmonica per se, perhaps I just hate blues jams in general that just happen to include a harmonica, and the harmonica being one of the more irritating elements (along with the gravel-voice affectation, the pooched-up face indicative of either the self-indulgent guitarist, or chronic constipation, and the incessant repetition of inane lyrics every two lines) stands out like an erection at Swimming Sports.

The Blues are a public expression of a very personal thing, be it poverty (material or metaphorical), loss, or strong emotion. The original bluesmen sang about what they knew, and influenced others by providing a conduit of expression for those feelings people find the hardest to express. Some enterprising musicians developed the form, when the form became recognisable as such, and a huge portion of popular music grew out of that. And we say thanks, thanks very much indeed with every new album we buy.

The Blues came out of slavery, oppression, Depression, and poverty. These things, unfortunately, still exist, but one must ask: wherefore the grizzled white middle-income git with the gravelly-voice and his mates approaching the third hour of their interminable three-chord jam with about a much to be sad about as a fat man knee-deep in pies at lunchtime? BECAUSE IT'S EASY. Masturbation is also easy, and has similar self-gratifying properties but, mercifully, people tend to do that in private.

Anyone can play the chords and put on the blue face, but not many can really pull it off. Now I like a good jam, I like to be caught up in it. I will suffer a blues jam if sufficiently drunk, but I believe the only way to enjoy it is to be part of it. Like golf, it's not a spectator sport, or shouldn't be. Take note, Drunken Bluesman and get the hell off the stage. Bit of vitriol, but it's been a bit of a tough couple of weeks.