Inhaling the Blues: How Southern Black Musicians Transformed the Harmonica

A conversation with the producer of “Classic Harmonica Blues,” an album that captures a harmonica revolution

Classic Harmonica Blues
“Classic Harmonica Blues,” out on May 21, features 20 tracks by the blues’ greatest harmonica players. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

In the early 20th-century, southern black musicians found the devil in the harmonica. The cheap and portable instrument was made by Germans for use in traditional European waltzes and marches, but when it made its way to America’s Southern neighborhoods, black musicians began to develop a totally new way of playing, which bent the harmonica’s sound (quite literally) to fit the style of the country’s increasingly popular “devil’s music,” or rather, the blues.

In Classic Harmonica Blues, out May 21 on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, producers Barry Lee Pearson and Jeff Place capture the last century’s most talented players on 20 tracks from the Folkways archive and from live recordings made at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Recently we talked to Pearson about the album, and below is an excerpt of our conversation, in which he discusses playing the harmonica backwards, the instrument’s voice-like qualities and the importance of making any instrument speak your own language.

Sneak Preview: Classic Harmonica Blues

What inspired this album?

As a teacher, I found the harmonica to have one of the most interesting traditions. When African Americans picked up the instrument in the 20th-century, they completely transformed it into something it had never been intended to be played as in Europe. To me, that is such a remarkable demonstration of the power of tradition. You don’t just take and play an instrument the way it was built to be played. The music is inside you, and you take that instrument and you try to recreate the way you think music should be played. That’s what African Americans did.

How was the harmonica originally intended to be played?

The harmonica is a transverse reed instrument that was invented in Germany in the 19th-century by clock makers. There are many different kinds, but the one that took off was made by Hohner, who started to mass produce his models. Harmonicas come in a variety of keys, and they are created to be played in those keys—so if you have a C harmonica, you play in the key of C by blowing through the reeds.

What did African American musicians change?

African American traditions use a different scale than European traditions, so they could not play some of their notes on the harmonica. That is, until someone figured out that you could bend a harmonica’s notes. If you play a harmonica backwards—that is, suck air in, in what is now called “cross harp” or “second position”—you can take notes and force them down a pitch or two. It’s really a completely different technique. It coincides with this love for instruments to sound like the voice, to make the instrument say what you say, and to make it warmer, more expressive of the voice’s emotional timbres. In the blues, a harmonica can cry and whoop and holler.

How did you decide which tracks to put on the album?

I’ve always been interested in the relation of Smithsonian Folkways to our region . Other places have better delta blues, but New York really was the center of the local music world, for so many people from North Carolina and places like that. So we’ve got a lot of Piedmont and Appalachian traditions on here. Most importantly, it hit me that a lot of this stuff just hadn’t been heard very much by a new generation. A lot of the folks I hang out with have kind of a jaded attitude towards some of the stars of the past, because they’ve heard them all their lives. But a lot of younger people coming along don’t feel this way at all. So we’ve got the legends on here, like Sonny Terry. Younger listeners will be in awe of these artists, rather than say, “Oh, that’s Sonny Terry, I’ve got all his albums already.” I wanted to put a product out there that would be fresh to a new generation.

What are you hoping this new generation of listeners takes away from these songs?

I hope people might want to think more about the harmonica, and maybe try it out. I also would like them to understand that you can play it in a variety of ways. You can bend an instrument to your cultural preference. If you put your mind to it, you can make an instrument talk for you, in the language that you prefer—in your own cultural idiom.

Any favorite tracks?

I’m very fond of Doctor Ross. I wrote a piece on him in Living Blues back in the 1980s. “Chicago Breakdown,” a Doctor Ross cut , is one of my all-time favorite songs.

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