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Author Topic: Pre-war Harmonica Blues  (Read 8271 times)

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Offline waxwing

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Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« on: December 12, 2004, 05:39:14 PM »
Thought this deserved a new thread, JohnM. Boy, it'd be great if we enticed some of the fine PT blues harpists to join in the fray here, eh?
I guess jug bands are what spring to mind when I think of pre-war harp. Perhaps the many St. Louis and Memphis bands would fall into a slightly more urban blues? (see thread discussing country v. urban)<G>. Really tho', when I think of Noah Lewis (see my avatar) he is country all the way. If you go to the Document site you can do a search by instrument (what I mean about their great contibution as a resource) and there were 124 CDs on the list. Not all strictly pre-war, but several jug bands were represented as well as many 'solo' artist that must have had some blues harp accompaniment. Fuller, of course, but also Barbecue Bob, Broonzy, Big Joe Williams, Blind Joe Taggart, Leecan and Cooksey, Lonnie Johnson, Sleepy John. These were all from the late '20s and early '30s. And there were many, many compilations I didn't investigate. Certainly you are right that most would think of Sonny Terry as the foremost example, but I think there was quite a bit of recorded harp accompanyment, just not so many stars, or long lasting partnerships, perhaps.
You know, this also brings to mind the whole discussion/thread about country blues jams. While most (but not all) of us guitarists are learning arrangements from old 78s the harpists at PT seem to be more concerned with the jam, i.e. learning to work in different harp positions and around different holes. When I was working with my friend, Duncan, it was relatively painless for him to work into the arrangements I was playing. He would fill while I sang or took my breaks and I would just repeat the vocal backing for him to break over.
Anyway, lots to think about in this direction, and I repeat, it would be great to get some pre-war oriented harpists to add to the mix here. Any ideas?
All for now.
John C
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Offline Mike Billo

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #1 on: December 12, 2004, 06:46:34 PM »
Hi John; A lot of the Pre-War Harp Players, played in both first (playing in the key the harmonica is labeled as) and second position (The Blues Cross Harp style most of us are familiar with hearing today).
Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band, Robert Cooksey of Leecan and Cooksey, Noah lewis, Jaybird Coleman and Palmer MacAbee (to name just a few) played extensively in first position (as well as second), which gives the Pre-War Harmonica stylists a somewhat more versatile playing style than most of todays Blues Harp Players, in my opinion.
In listening to the Pre-War guys who played in first position, the lines between African-American Blues and White Hillbilly music can become somewhat blurred.
The only Pre-War Harp players who played exclusively in second position (cross harp) that come to mind are Deford Bailey (an astonishing virtuoso), Sonny Terry and the first Sonny Boy Williamson (who played with Big Joe Williams and Yank Rachell). I'm sure that, given enough time, I could think of others, but the ability to play in different positions definitely used to be more prevalent than it is today.

-Mike Billo
« Last Edit: April 07, 2005, 12:12:50 PM by uncle bud »

Offline waxwing

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #2 on: December 12, 2004, 08:54:37 PM »
That could explain why Duncan seemed to be able to fit in so well with my repertoir. He told me he had learned harp from a fisherman in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and had played 1st position exclusively from about the age of 7 until he first learned a blues song at about 20. He then spent his 20s in local blues bands playing mostly cross harp. He did a little third position, too, on St. James Infirmary Blues. I miss him. He really enjoyed playing in a country style, but I heard him cut loose with a bullet on a couple Third Thursdays with the electric crowd, too.
All for now.
John C.
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Offline a2tom

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #3 on: December 13, 2004, 05:23:27 AM »
very interesting info, Mike.  I am wondering if anyone could post some MP3 clips of blues playing in first vs. second position so  we could hear the difference.  Do they give a different feel to the music?

tom

Offline Slack

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #4 on: December 13, 2004, 08:25:17 AM »
very interesting info, Mike.  I am wondering if anyone could post some MP3 clips of blues playing in first vs. second position so  we could hear the difference.  Do they give a different feel to the music?

tom

Hi Tom,  I think it is pretty easy to tell the diference between 1st and 2nd positions.  A 1st postion song would be "Oh Susana" a 2nd position song would be "Love in Vain".   In 1st position, for the majority of time or most of the melody, you blow.  In 2nd postion you draw.  It is much easier to "bend notes" and get half tones (like flatted 3rds and 7ths) when you draw.

Cheers,
slack

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #5 on: December 13, 2004, 08:36:37 AM »
very interesting info, Mike.  I am wondering if anyone could post some MP3 clips of blues playing in first vs. second position so  we could hear the difference.  Do they give a different feel to the music?

tom

Hi Tom,  I think it is pretty easy to tell the diference between 1st and 2nd positions.  A 1st postion song would be "Oh Susana" a 2nd position song would be "Love in Vain".   In 1st position, for the majority of time or most of the melody, you blow.  In 2nd postion you draw.  It is much easier to "bend notes" and get half tones (like flatted 3rds and 7ths) when you draw.

Cheers,
slack
Hi! Slack,
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Boots

Offline Slack

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #6 on: December 13, 2004, 08:56:34 AM »
Quote
In England we suck, but I guess that's not good for you.  Grin

Boots, I'm the host and must remain polite.   O0

Offline waxwing

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #7 on: December 13, 2004, 10:35:10 AM »
There are also blow bends, which can make first position sound just as bluesy as second position, but the blow bends are in the upper register of the harp, whereas the draw bends are in the lower register. Rather than try to create a blues harp lesson here, Tom, especially since I don't play (yet), I would recommend that you Google < blues harp lessons > and, as I just did, you will find that there is a wealth of info available with audio samples galore. You can also, of course, "go to the Juke" and listen to the great Noah Lewis. There is one listing of Noah Lewis' Jug Band playing Ticket Man Blues and a great selection under Cannon's Jug Stompers. Noah, as Mike pointed out, was comfortable in both positions, and after a while you will be able to hear the distinction.
All for now.
John C.
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Offline Johnm

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #8 on: April 07, 2005, 10:24:29 AM »
Hi all,
I've been listening to a lot of Carolina Tarheels and Ashley & Foster material that Suzy Thompson sent me in preparation for Port Townsend this year (thanks Suzy!) and have had ample opportunity to be reminded what an amazing harmonica player Gwen Foster was.  His numbers "Black Pine Waltz" and the unaccompanied "Wilkes County Blues" must be placed at the same level as the greatest hits of DeFord Bailey, Noah Lewis, "Bullet" Williams, Jaybird Coleman and Ollis Martin.  What is really unusual about Gwen Foster is that he evidently most often played off a rack--he was a really nifty guitar player, too.
I remember the first year that Joe Filisko taught at Port Townsend he blew my mind by playing "Black Pine Waltz".  I can't recall ever being more surprised to hear an accurate recreation of a great historical performance.  Joe said the amount of time it took him to figure out what Gwen Foster was doing was "sick".  I'm certainly glad he hung in there, though!  If you haven't hear Gwen or Joe, and you enjoy great harmonica playing, you may want to check them out.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Cambio

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #9 on: April 07, 2005, 10:44:01 AM »
You're abasolutely right about that John!  Gwen Foster is one of the best.  He definately doesn't get the credit that he deserves.  Partly because I don't think most people realize that he is playing the harmonica on a rack!
Last summer at Clifftop, Nate Layne (who is a fantastic player in his own right) was telling Frank and I that he tracked down Gwen Foster's grave and placed a tape of some of Gwen's stuff there, along with a note saying that he was a big fan.  A few months later he got a letter from Gwen's nephew who invited him down for a visit.  Nate went down and got to see where Gwen was born and where he died.  The nephew also took him to the Ralles (?) Chain, which was an old department store that shows up in the lyrics of Bay Rum Blues.  Gwen's nephew told Nate that some of the drinkers in town, which apparently included Gwen, would show up there on Saturday mornings to tie one on and trade pocket knives.  Apparently, they'd get so lit up that they'd go home with the same pocket knive that they came with.
I believe that Nate was in the process of writing an article about Gwen.  It would be great if there was a compilation of his stuff.

Offline Prof Scratchy

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #10 on: April 07, 2005, 11:50:17 AM »
A lot of great hamonica players have been mentioned already - but my all time pre-war favouite harmonica track has to be Alfred Lewis's 1930 piece "Mississippi Swamp Moan". Haunting, moody, swooping and, well, swampy!
Prof S

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #11 on: April 07, 2005, 12:16:12 PM »
I've been listening to the Memphis Jug Band a fair amount lately and really love Will Shade's playing. It's very melodic, and I really like the way the harmonica and kazoo play together and off each other.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #12 on: April 07, 2005, 02:32:28 PM »
Hi all,
Neat to see the posts.  Glad to hear you are a fan of Gwen's too, Todd, and thanks in particular for that tip on the lyrics to "Bay Rum Blues".  I wouldn't have gotten that Ralles Chain in a million years, I thought he was saying the "rail exchange", which didn't make a hell of a lot of sense!  Boy, those local references in lyrics can really hang you up sometimes.  I'll never forget Rivers, from New Zealand, figuring out that Furry Lewis was saying in a lyric that his woman "won't do nothing but walk that Horn Lake Road".  It's a verse in "Dry Land Blues", and Mark got the name from a Map Quest search or some such thing of Memphis and environs.  And once he suggested it, it was perfectly clear that that's what Furry was saying.  Amazing!  I will look forward to the article by your friend.
You're right, Scratchy, Alfred Lewis was sensational, and Will Shade was great, as you say, Andrew, and a hell of a guitarist.
All best,
Johnm

Offline phhawk

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #13 on: April 07, 2005, 09:40:23 PM »
Howdy, It's good to hear appreciations of Gwen Foster. The Tarhells have always knocked me out. Also, I've always thought Will Shade was over shadowed among collectors by Noah Lewis, Jaybird Coleman, etc., but I've always thought he was a great player.

A couple of others that certainly deserve mention; For great all out exciting harmonica, it's hard to beat Jed Davenport's "Beale Street Breakdown and another favorite of mine is Chuck Darling's "Blowin' The Blues/Harmonica Rag". I'm embarrassed to say, I've never heard the Alfred Lewis sides.

Phil

Offline Mike Billo

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #14 on: April 08, 2005, 09:21:12 AM »
I was never aware that Gwen Foster played using a rack. When using the rack you ususallly have to sacrifice a lot of your note bending and tremolo effects. There's *nothing* lacking from Foster's playing. That's truly amazing to me.

   To my tastes, the all time best Pre-War Harmonica Blues playing is Robert Cooksey of Leecan and Cooksey. Staright Harp, Cross Harp, third position, improvising endlessly without ever repeating an idea. Wow!
  I don't know if the two volumes of Leecan and Cooksey n Document are still in print but if they are, everyone should own them. After all these years, they're still two of my most played CD's.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #15 on: April 08, 2005, 11:09:40 PM »
Hi all,
I agree the Chuck Darling pieces are pretty great, Phil, although I've always been a bit baffled by their inclusion on the Yazoo "Harmonica Blues" album.  In a certain way, the music seems to come more out of Vaudeville than the Blues tradition.  The guitarist on those cuts, Hervey Hoskins, was ultra-sophisticated, and his back-up really makes the tunes come alive for me.  I figured out "Harmonica Rag" a couple of years ago to play with Joe Filisko, and coming to grips with Hoskins's hyperactive accompaniment was pretty sporting.  "Harmonica Rag" has a quality that my friend John Reischman characterizes as a "college fight song".
I definitely need to hear more Leecan & Cooksey.  I really like what I've heard but it has not been much.  I'm a chump for good straight harp playing
All best,
Johnm

Offline Johnm

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #16 on: April 12, 2010, 05:11:18 PM »
Hi all,
I was listening to the JSP "Atlanta Blues" set today, the Georgia Browns doing "Who Stole De Lock", at the suggestion of jopoke, and was interested to hear Buddy Moss, who was playing harmonica on the cut, quote "Yankee Doodle" for his next-to-last solo.  There's a long tradition of playing musical quotes in Jazz-- I remember Sonny Rollins quoting "The Campbells Are Coming" and Eric Dolphy quoting "Pop Goes The Weasel", but it seems much rarer to hear quotes on a blues recording (though "Who Stole De Lock" is not a blues and sounds like it might have minstrel origins).  I wondered if folks could think of other blues recordings where soloists quote altogether different tunes?
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #17 on: April 12, 2010, 08:20:04 PM »
Hi all,
I was listening to the JSP "Atlanta Blues" set today, the Georgia Browns doing "Who Stole De Lock", at the suggestion of jopoke, and was interested to hear Buddy Moss, who was playing harmonica on the cut, quote "Yankee Doodle" for his next-to-last solo.  There's a long tradition of playing musical quotes in Jazz-- I remember Sonny Rollins quoting "The Campbells Are Coming" and Eric Dolphy quoting "Pop Goes The Weasel", but it seems much rarer to hear quotes on a blues recording (though "Who Stole De Lock" is not a blues and sounds like it might have minstrel origins).  I wondered if folks could think of other blues recordings where soloists quote altogether different tunes?

Hi John - One that comes to mind is the Memphis Jug Band's Bob Lee Junior Blues, where they quote Careless Love, in a tango-esque sort of style, but this is done with mandolin and kazoo as lead instruments and played as a set arrangement, not exactly a quote in a solo as one finds in jazz.

Offline banjochris

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #18 on: April 12, 2010, 10:16:01 PM »
A lot of times you'll hear taps quoted in tunes -- Big Bill and Georgia Tom do it in stop time in "Hip Shakin' Strut."

Not sure if this counts but Mance Lipscomb throws some other tunes in the middle of what he's playing -- he does it with banjo-type tunes in "If I Miss the Train" and "Willie Poor Boy", and ends "So Different Blues" with a bit of "Mr. Tom".

One of my favorites (not blues, of course) is Vassar Clements playing the "Dragnet" theme in the middle of "Orange Blossom Special" on the "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" album.

Offline LD50

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #19 on: April 13, 2010, 09:17:24 AM »
My fave prewar harmonica track might be the presumably-white Kyle Wooten's Choking Blues, from Yazoo's 'Harmonica Masters' CD. Completely amazing.

If it's not that, it's the duet on Jaybird Coleman's I'm Gonna Cross the River of Jordan Some of These Days, Deford Bailey's John Henry or perhaps Ollis Martin's Police and High Sheriff Come Ridin' Down.
« Last Edit: April 13, 2010, 09:18:27 AM by LD50 »

Offline dj

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #20 on: April 13, 2010, 09:55:25 AM »
Hi, John.  People seemed to quote Here Comes Peter Cottontail a lot back then.  In my mind's eye, I can hear Robert Lee McCoy sticking that in on some record on which he played harmonica.  Maybe one of Joe McCoy's washboard band records.  Sorry I can't be more definite at the moment.

Offline jostber

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #21 on: April 21, 2010, 08:40:50 AM »
A fine list of early harmonica players here:

http://www.patmissin.com/ffaq/q18.html


Offline Johnm

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #22 on: April 28, 2010, 01:54:45 PM »
Hi all,
I was listening to some Bogus Ben Covington tracks today and yesterday and really enjoyed his harp playing off a rack.  Nothing approaching wizardry, but a great tone and feel to his playing.
All best,
Johnm

Offline BlueInGreen

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #23 on: May 18, 2010, 10:29:15 AM »
Great to see this thread. I've been intereste in prewar harp and have been playing in prewar styles for quite some time now. Regarding the discussion of first vs. second position, you can sound bluesy in either one and you can play Oh Susanna in either one. It it more a matter of what bends you have available and where they are in the scale. Here's Oh Susanna in first and then second position:
http://jamq.org/jamqueuemusic/StLoJ18Q09_OhSusanna_ByBlueInGreen-djazznbluzz_KeyAny.m3u


Here are some other prewar style harmonica recordings I've done. I'm into lots of different players. Hope you enjoy them. Do others here play prewar harp or want to do some collab with harp/guitar?


http://jamq.org/jamqueuemusic/StLoJ18Q09_Solo_1_ByBlueInGreen--_Key4.m3u

http://jamq.org/jamqueuemusic/StLoJ18Q09_ShininlikeaNationalGuitar_ByBlueInGreen-BeelzeBob_KeyG2.m3u

http://www.soundclick.com/bands/page_songInfo.cfm?bandID=605335&songID=7534391

http://www.soundclick.com/bands/page_songInfo.cfm?bandID=605335&songID=7534361

http://www.soundclick.com/bands/page_songInfo.cfm?bandID=605335&songID=7534352

http://www.soundclick.com/bands/page_songInfo.cfm?bandID=605335&songID=7534369
« Last Edit: May 19, 2010, 03:35:31 PM by BlueInGreen »

Offline Slack

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #24 on: May 18, 2010, 12:51:11 PM »
Welcome to WeenieCampbell BlueNGreen!  Nice playing, I'm glad there are some harp players pursuing older styles.  Where are you located, in case there is someone who wants to collaborate?

Offline frankie

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #25 on: May 19, 2010, 04:58:51 AM »
chiming in to include these in here:




Offline BlueInGreen

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #26 on: May 19, 2010, 08:54:47 AM »
Oh Yeah. I've seen Joe's stuff on youtube. Really great playing!!

Offline Johnm

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #27 on: December 15, 2010, 11:17:46 AM »
Hi all,
In the course of listening to the "Ragtime Blues Guitar" CD on Document, DOCD-5092, I really noticed for the first time the six sides by Chicken Wilson and Skeeter Hinton.  Apparently they are biographical ciphers.  They are unusual for their time, 1928, in that all six of their sides were instrumentals without spoken commentary.  
Wilson played guitar really well, with lots of ideas and chord voicings I've not heard duplicated by other players of the era, and Hinton was an expert harmonica player, in addition to playing washboard, bellboard (?), and doing some pretty spectacular raucous kazoo and mouth trumpet playing.  In terms of his sound, Hinton probably is closest to Robert Cooksey of the harmonica players of that period, but is perhaps a bit more "country" sounding than Cooksey.  On "Chicken Wilson Blues", Skeeter Hinton strongly emphasizes notes you don't normally hear blues harmonica players lean on, like the VI note and the major VII.  The last four tunes the duo did, "Chicken Wilson Blues", "House Snake Blues", "Frog Eye Stomp" and "Station House Rag" would all translate really well into Jug/String band settings, and Hinton's harmonica parts could transfer over nicely to fiddle, mandolin or mandolin-banjo (or stay on the harmonica, if you have a player that expert).  This is great raggy material, and you wouldn't exactly have a lot of competition for it.  People in the audience are definitely not going to be saying, "Oh crap, not "Frog Eye Stomp" again!"
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: December 15, 2010, 05:29:19 PM by Johnm »

Offline Pan

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #28 on: July 30, 2013, 04:37:14 PM »
Hi all

A bit of trivia; while searching for the music of Clara Smith, I came by this tune, which apparently is the first recorded blues song with a harmonica in it, played by a Herbert Leonard.



http://www.patmissin.com/ffaq/q5.html

Cheers

Pan

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Pre-war Harmonica Blues
« Reply #29 on: August 09, 2013, 07:45:33 AM »
A couple of others that certainly deserve mention; For great all out exciting harmonica, it's hard to beat Jed Davenport's "Beale Street Breakdown and another favorite of mine is Chuck Darling's "Blowin' The Blues/Harmonica Rag".
Phil

I just recently heard these Chuck Darling tracks. Yikes, that's some good harp. And the guitar playing by Harvey Hoskins is very snazzy, uptown stuff.

 


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