For most people, the twangy sound of the harmonica is familiar thanks to classic Westerns. To this day, harmonica music conjures up images of romantic cowboys sitting by a fire or isolated heroes in deep introspection. For others, casual dalliances with the ‘tin sandwich’ resulted from being gifted a harmonica for Christmas as a kid.
Nearly every family has an old harmonica lying around somewhere, yet most of us are unaware of the instrument’s history and contribution to music. In this short article, we take a look at the harmonica’s origins and celebrate its rightful place in popular music and culture.
The Harmonica’s Origins
It’s thought that the earliest iterations of the harmonica came from China, in the form of the bamboo musical instrument called Sheng. Both the harmonica and the Sheng are free reed wind instruments, which produce sounds as air flows through a vibrating reed through a frame.
It’s thought that the idea of free-reed wind instruments spread through Europe after it was introduced by Jean Joseph Marie Amiot, a French Jesuit who traveled to China in the 1700s. From there, the harmonica’s origin story gets a little hazy.
Although the town of Trossingen in Germany is widely recognized as the home of the harmonica, the instrument first appeared in Vienna in the early 1800s. Other places in Germany and Bohemia (what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) also quickly began manufacturing harmonicas.
One of the first German harmonica-makers was Christian Messner whose nephew, Christian Weiss, would be responsible for inadvertently introducing the craft to clockmaker Mathias Hohner. Hohner became the first to mass-produce harmonicas. To this day, the company remains one of the world’s most popular harmonica brands.
Furthermore, Trossingen—being home to Hohner and other harmonica-makers—now boasts of its unusually high concentration of world-renowned harmonica players.
The Harmonica Comes To North America
When German immigrants came to North America in the 1900s, they brought harmonicas—a little piece of home that they could conveniently carry in their pockets. German immigrants began settling in different parts of the US, playing a key role in introducing the harmonica.
The harmonica’s portability made the instrument easy to import, giving rise to its popularity. It’s estimated that one billion harmonicas were imported from Germany to the US between the 1870s and 1980s.
On top of their portability and popularity, harmonicas were available at low cost. This made the instrument highly accessible for African-Americans who were creating a whole new genre—the Blues. In the early 1900s, the Blues was gaining momentum. The harmonica’s incorporation into this burgeoning new genre would usher new ways of harmonica-playing, quite different from its German roots.
The Birth of Blues Harmonica
African-American musicians are to be credited for developing new techniques in playing the harmonica. The wistful tonal ranges and twangy expressions that they created are now popularly associated with the sound of harmonica music.
Among the most notable and influential musicians who popularized blues-style harmonica playing was DeFord Bailey. A native of Tennessee, DeFord is one of Nashville’s iconic country music and blues stars. Dubbed ‘Harmonica Wizard’, he developed playing styles that imitated sounds from the environment. He is credited for recording the first harmonica blues solo with “Pan American Blues”, a song that imitates the sound of a chugging train. The ‘train rhythm’ pioneered in Pan American Blues is now a staple technique among harmonica enthusiasts all over the world.
Today, harmonica workshops and festivals abound in different parts of the US, most notably in places like that are famous for Blues and Jazz.
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