I was working on this very topic last night, but eventually was too tired to go on. Gotta be some sort of syzygy going on somewhere! I know exactly what you’re saying! Here goes:
Play These Tunes and You’ll Be Golden!
It’s interesting to hear and read about other harp players from the world-wide famous to those in bands big and small to those in the living room or on their porch – they all had influence from somewhere/somebody else.
I think the harmonica is about the only instrument that has such an impact. It’s rare that anybody hears another musician play and says to themselves: I want to be just like oh say Liberace, Gershwin, Oscar Levant, and so on. Although I must admit that when I was younger, although never playing a piano or taking any lessons – if I had I wanted to tickle the ivories, I would have liked to have done so in the manners of Chico Marx, Jimmy Durante and Fats Waller. But those ideas never manifested.
Yet in harmonica, even Howard Levy and Jason Ricci still had their influences. The late great Paul Butterfield, for instance, who both mention amongst their inspirations.
Both Tom Ball and Peter ‘Madcat’ Ruth proclaim their inspirations from Sonny Terry. Ball was born on Sonny’s birthday, October 24. And Madcat wanted to learn to ‘whoop, whoop’ like Sonny did when Sonny played.
For myself, I can honestly say I actually didn’t have any real influences except for my dad when I was younger. He taught himself to play guitar, harmonica and the accordion. He’d entertain family and friends alike whenever the occasions called for it. However, he never lived long enough to pass down what he knew to his son. Be that as it may…
I picked up harmonica to just learn tunes. And I’ve struggled with and became a frustrated player for longer than I care to remember. It was only late last year, due to my accident that I decided to pursue harmonica more fervently and passionately again.
I believe most of us have similar-type stories and reasons as to how we found the harmonica, or rather the harmonica found us. Nevertheless…
I started picking up Sonny Terry, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson from Amazon. And just like you I listen to them constantly. Here’s the thing and spoiler alert of one of my Aha-Eureka moments.
I read all the books, watch all the DVDs, listen to all the cds – And try to get down what’s being given. As I say and say again, everything comes in little bits & pieces, little installments. So for me, it can be a struggle getting from point A to B to C and so forth.
But am I discouraged? No! Why? Because albeit challenging at times, whatever I can do and accomplish is rewarding and fun to say the least.
Here’s the good part about it:
David Harp mentions that every harmonica player is different, that’s a given. Yet because of this many try to be the same. Meaning, they want to play like or as Sonny Terry or Little Walter. He says that’s all well and good, however, one should strive to play like themselves.
No matter what style or type of music you want to play – blues, rock, country and so forth – you can surely play Sonny Terry and Little Walter tunes, but the harder you try to be like them the farther away you might find yourself. Meaning, most certainly you can play them note for note and so forth. But it’s more important to find your own voice, your own expressions, your own interpretations of somebody else’s music. Because after all, music is universal.
Case in point: I was listening to Pandora radio one day, and a harmonica tune came on. It sounded just like Sonny Boy Williamson. Figuring as it was one of his songs, and all the styling and phrasing was there – this was just a different recording. I thought cool! Yet when I went to look who was playing – it was somebody I had never heard of before.
Yeah, okay, the guy played the song good. But it wasn’t SBW. At that moment, the bell went off and I understood what Dave was talking about. But that’s not the best part…
I play my harmonicas everywhere; literally out on the street as I’m walking along. I also ride a bike, and believe it or not, I hold it with one hand, steer with the other and play as I go along. Those in hearing range always turn their heads and smile. I do it for me though! It’s fun!!
Here’s the thing: Anyone who picks up a harmonica, even if they start with the ins and outs to get the breathing part of it down, will eventually drift into “something.” I put something in quotes because that “something” is – drum roll please: The Tunes in Their Head!
Yes, check it out!
We all play a little bit differently. We all take our own approaches to the harmonica. What the harmonica does and as our reward for picking it up is it allows us to express what’s inside of us already to begin with!
One of the reasons I like/enjoy harmonica so much is the fact that whatever I hear in my head, in silence, as it were - I can translate and play on the harmonica to hear aloud and out in the open!
It’s sounds self-evident, but really it’s not!
I firmly believe that if we ever met in person, you wouldn’t necessarily introduce yourself with a Sonny Terry or SBW song. No, you’d introduce yourself with your own tune, your own riff, your own music of what you’ve played and played and played in your own head! And surely, I’d be doing the same thing!
Case in point: In the bank last week, I was the only one in line waiting to cash my check. I was standing askew of the rail at the little desk there; then a guy walks in and steps right in front of me. At first glance, I thought him rude. I said I was in line waiting and he apologized. I picked up my Piedmont Bb and walked to the counter playing some of my own riffs.
From behind me, I hear a harmonica playing. Turn around and it was the guy! He was embarrassed; I was ecstatic! We quickly chatted, and the one thing that stood out from our conversation was when he said, “I don’t play songs or anything, I only play what I feel!”
Exacta-mundo! Harpsters and Harpsterettes!!
We exchanged numbers and promised to stay in touch.
The point being and putting the finger on it is: What he does, what you do, what we all do is we play what we feel! Yet those “feelings” are also coming from The Tunes We Hear in Our Head!
And his tunes, your tunes, my tunes, everybody tunes are different! That’s the beauty of harmonica! So play those tunes anytime anywhere and sure as the sun will come out tomorrow – You’ll be golden!
Keep on smiling!
Keep on harpin’!
Thanks for reading!