A popular music renaissance was in the making when suddenly an unexpected anomaly appeared. The tiniest instrument within its gritty ensemble had generated a unique mystique…enter the diatonic harmonica. The blues was rising in popularity and the soul of that genre frequently expressed itself through the emotional voice of the little harmonica. By virtue of the cross position, or blues style of playing, the tiny, shiny instrument became a huge performer. The quaint two-ounce harmonica had taken on an entirely different aura, delivering heavyweight blues magic. Notably, it was those mostly poor, formally uneducated, yet gifted black men that had breathed life into it, creating a twentieth century diatonic prodigy.
That prodigy comes into focus with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, 1912 -1965, a diatonic guru. Sonny Terry, another diatonic sensation, born in 1911 died in 1986. Little Walter, a combination (chromatic, diatonic) musician died in his late forties, February 1968. Big Walter Horton left the material world at age at 63 in 1981. Within a span of approximately twenty years most of the those blues legends were gone. Finally, there was Paul Butterfield, considered by many knowledgeable musicians as the consummate ten-hole diatonic operator of that era. As we look back, it was Butterfield’s amazing display, lowering the curtain on arguably the most amazing epoch of the richter diatonic mouth organ.
For me and many others that lived through some of those years, the mighty renaissance was different after 1987. It’s eerie when one thinks about it. Sonny Boy Williamson and Paul Butterfield, diatonic bookends in a most spectacular period, now relegated by the movement of time to the vast category of memory. Other exceptional players on the blues bookshelf, such as Carey Bell and Charlie Musselwhite, gave us hope that it could last forever. But, as we now know, the epoch’s main magic was manifested in less than half a century.
The mystery of what moves a soul in the art of music is intriguing. If only we could interview the dead for a Q&A. In reality, the old renaissance protagonists are now ghosts. Like vivid images on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we keep expecting them to somehow come alive. Our desires can trick us though, like seeing faces in the clouds and sometimes even conjuring a carnival of entertaining Elvis like impersonators…
The harmonica is inanimate. A mechanical invention. It was in our midst long before any of us were born and like all musical instruments, its continued existence and reputation depend on the people that animate them.
Reading through a few issues of Harmonica Collectors International helped me put things into perspective. We’re all romantics when it comes to the harmonica, whether pre-, present or post blues renaissance players. The source of an instrument’s vitality depends on the musicians. So in closing, is there another harmonica anomaly waiting in our future? Something tells me there is and will be as long as there’s still time…