...."whimsical" in this case meaning: Every now and then I get a letter from one of you that isn't a testimonial so much as a life story that centers in some way on the harmonica, and that deserves to be shared. People inspired by my YouTube videos and music also sometimes send me marvelous images, including alternate headers for this website. So from time to time, I will add to this page.
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A CALIFORNIA HARP PLAYER WRITES:
My personal harmonica history is that I have been noodling around with the harp since I was about 5 years old. My maternal grandfather immigrated to this country during the Russian Revolution after escaping the Cossacks and making his way to America (the legal way) around 1922.
He was a self made man, put himself through medical school and went on to be a doctor and chief surgeon at a couple of big hospitals before he retired. He met my grandmother in medical school. She was from the area around Tombstone, AZ. Over the years, my grandfather became an American West-ophile. He loved all things western. He had been from a horse family in the Ukraine and fell into the Southwestern US as a natural course. He was in love with the history and the American Cowboy of the West. His greatest recreational diversion was hauling saddle and pack horses up into the Sierras or the desert and camping with his buddies and, later with his grandkids. He could hold his own around a campfire with a harmonica, and knew just about every cowboy tune ever hummed. He tried at every opportunity to instill that same enjoyment to us kids. I can't tell you how many harps were received as gifts throughout the years in Christmas stockings.
When I was about 5, he started giving me and all my siblings and cousins harmonicas for Christmas and birthdays. I noodled around like a kid does. I learned some mimicry trying to please the old man. Nothing with any serious understanding or applied learning effort. But, because of the harp, I was always drawn to music like Canned Heat or the J Geils Band. Everyone on my father’s side of the family was very musical. My whole childhood, he played saxophone and clarinet. My mother played piano. All of my life she has continuously surprised both myself and my friends by hammering out piano tunes from the classics to barrelhouse funky butt. I have a younger brother that won banjo contests when he was a kid. Another brother who graduated from Berklee Academy in Boston and can hold his own with any guitarist from Dimeola to Django to Van Halen. . Me? I surfed and generally was a slacker. But, growing up we had music in the house. My parents had jazz and Big Band albums on the turntable virtually non-stop. Despite my grandpa’s urging and music in the family and the house, no one really paid any real attention to the harp beyond Mary's Lamb or Happy Birthday except me.
Part of my leaning to the harp was as much convenience as grandfatherly influence. I grew up in San Diego. In my neighborhood lived three retired USN Master Divers. Spending time in their garages (festooned with exactly the kind of macho crap you'd expect from the genre), they fueled a young boy's wild adventure fantasies. They had all worked around each other in the small community of military diving, and were socially intertwined with barbecues etc. One of them had started a small diving company after retiring. During high school, I worked for him as the lowest man in the operation. When I graduated, I took off in an old Dodge van with two of his divers who were headed for the Gulf of Mexico during a slow period on the West Coast. The rest is what it is. Sitting offshore for weeks and months at a time lent itself to more self-exploration and experimentation with the harp as it is the most convenient instrument for lightweight traveling. That summer, I went offshore and didn't get back to my parents until Thanksgiving. I went back in the Spring and spent the next 12 years working the offshore oil fields out of Louisiana. That's where I began to take harp seriously.After I’d been in Louisiana for a couple of years, I rented my first place on my own, with no roommates on the west bank of the river outside New Orleans. I was an ignorant surf punk from the racially mixed Navy town of San Diego, and didn't really pay attention to the demographics of the neighborhood when I moved in. Since I only spent fleeting amounts of time in from offshore (and much of that was taken up by spending my paychecks in the French Quarter when I was "on the beach”) Shortly after moving in, I was in from offshore while between projects. My little rat hole had no air conditioning and it was a sticky bayou swelter. In my own little world and settling into my nest, I had all the windows open and (in spite of the misery) was digging my new pad. I had the windows open, had my harp out, and was screeching along to some sort of tune on the radio or phono. No doubt at that time it was Johnny Winter, the Allmans or some such blues-tinged rock. There was a knock at the door. It was my neighbor. He introduced himself and invited me over to his house next door. That was the one of the most fortunate days of my life. On that day, I was enlightened to soul. Not "soul" the style of music...."soul" the heart of the music.
The Robinsons were a black family originally from Mississippi, but had been in southern Louisiana for almost 40 years. Mr. Robinson drove a cab in New Orleans the whole time I knew them. Mr. Robinson had had some sort of involvement with jukes and road musicians earlier in his life. During the years I kept a residence next door, there were many times that old friends would drop by. Definitely a planned stop for many travelers. The Robinson front porch was site of many combinations of guitars, banjos, saxophones, trumpets and others. Mr. Robinson and his cronies turned me on to blues, which came as a wonderful gift for a kid who had an environmental pedigree of jazz in his subliminal little pea-brain. Those old dudes stayed on me to get comfortable with a harmonica. Patient and non-judgmental encouragement for a culture-shocked white boy from California. To this day, I play for other instruments, rather than play for other harmonica players. I don’t know positions, I don’t know theory, and I barely know keys. But, I can pretty much duplicate any sound I hear that a harmonica can make. Mrs. Robinson was a great big woman who laughed all the time, took no bullshit from anyone, and set the standard of southern cooking by which I compare all others. Both have been gone for several years, but I still consider their children (now in their 40’s and 50’s) as important to stay in touch with as anyone I’ve ever met. It was Mr. Robinson who introduced me to the Cajun-by-osmosis, Mr. Roy Melton who patiently led me through the formative techniques of playing with others.
Later, when I moved back to California, I was fortunate enough to live a few doors down from a musician’s house where the Red Devils and the great Lester Butler practiced.
Today, I play with other frustrated mid-life wannabes from various professions. I play with street musicians. I divide my time between my office in New Orleans and San Francisco. My home is five hours drive time from the Bay. Consequently, with all that “windshield” time, I get plenty of diatonic practice. When I’m working in the Bay Area I often wander down to People’s Park in Berkley and see if I can find a youngster or two with guitars....