Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > Is the Harmonica More or Less Relevant Today?
Is the Harmonica More or Less Relevant Today?
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florida-trader
1155 posts
Jul 07, 2017
10:46 AM
There is another thread that is currently running entitled “am I a total snob?” A comment was made by one of our members that caught my attention. I did not want to hijack that thread so I thought I would just start another one.

The comment in question was made by Rustys26. This is not intended to start an argument or pick a fight. Please hear that loud and clear. Rustys26 wrote some thoughtful comments and closed his post with the following: “….especially now that the harmonica is far less relevant compared to what it was 50 years ago”.

I was surprised to read that comment because in my mind, the exact opposite is true. I am of the opinion that the harmonica is surging in popularity and is more relevant today than ever. I confess that I am very biased due to my own personal experience. I could be wrong about this and would love to hear some of your thoughts on the subject.

For the record, I took up the harmonica in 1972 as a college freshman, so I have been playing for a while. I plugged in to the online harmonica community about nine or ten years ago. First came harp-l and the (pretty much worthless) Yahoo Group, then Modern Blues Harmonica and ultimately Facebook. I started Blue Moon Harmonicas nearly eight years ago. There is no doubt that my thinking is influenced by the fact that the harmonica – listening to the music, playing them and building them – has become an ever-increasing part of my life. My perspective could be way off. But from a business perspective, I see the harmonica as an expanding market. In fact, I think it is exploding. I think that due to internet, particularly YouTube and Facebook, more people are attracted to the harmonica than ever before. There is so much information available today about how to play, how to customize, how to repair and different styles of music than ever before. Am I wrong to think that there are a lot of people taking up the harp today that might otherwise never have given it a thought?

What are your thoughts please?

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Tom Halchak
www.BlueMoonHarmonicas.com
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Littoral
1489 posts
Jul 07, 2017
11:23 AM
Yeah, I caught that assertion and ducked like you did. It wasn't the relevant part of the thread anyway so when in doubt, shut up (I have to check myself pretty hard).
Harp is, I think, far more relevant now than it was 50 years ago. The only difference may be that it was considered integral to blues and now it's more optional. Guitar is king. Jackoffs...
See, it's hard for me :)
Meanwhile, harp has become a much bigger presence in other music and really become standard in advertising and TV/Movie soundtracks. I think it's the combs...
nacoran
9511 posts
Jul 07, 2017
11:43 AM
It sure seems to be in a lot of commercials and music in general. I noticed almost exactly when I started playing I started hearing it everywhere!

Of course, that's confirmation bias and the ability to hear the difference between highly distorted harmonica and guitar and between some fast harp parts and fiddle, and the self selecting experience that is the social media experience.

I think harmonica is doing fine. I bet Kesha/Pitbull's Timber has more views on Youtube than any other song with harmonica in it in history.

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Nate
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Irish Soul
26 posts
Jul 07, 2017
12:43 PM
I can say I have never played a harp in public without at least one person and usually more wanting to know how I learned to do it, where could they get one? Is it hard? Things like that.....I think even with the hipsters it is catching on like it did with the beatniks ....but that's just my take on it and personal experiences. Relevant? It's a relative term no pun intended.
slaphappy
289 posts
Jul 07, 2017
1:21 PM
yeah I would interpret that comment most likely as referring to the brief period in the 50s were "if you didn't have a harp player it wasn't considered a blues band"


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4' 4+ 3' 2~~~
-Mike Ziemba
Harmonica is Life!
jbone
2311 posts
Jul 07, 2017
1:38 PM
This has always been an ultimately portable instrument with huge possibilities. Even in an age where so much is possible digitally and electronically, a harmonica is still a viable option to make music virtually anywhere, in a large variety of styles. Man, woman, old, young, whatever continent a person is on or from, these things don't matter. Anyone can learn to play at some level with no special devices.
Harp is also known as the closest instrument to the human voice.
So to be of the opinion that harmonicas have less relevance today than half a century ago is maybe a bit one sided. Else how to explain the huge increase in manufacture and sale of harps? I think too, new niches are found as music morphs.

For me personally, a 45 year veteran of attempting to make music with these things, it has become one of the central focuses in my life. Wherever we go, if Jolene has a guitar and I have a harp, we spread joy. We are fulfilled.
So talk to me about relevance! We've been booking gigs on a walk-in basis from New Orleans to Clarksdale, Illinois to Iowa, Wyoming to northern Cal. Guitar, harp, vocals. And Spirit! Could not happen like this without the tin sandwich.
Today we play a first Friday street gig. In 2 weeks a local inn. 2 weeks ago we walked into a restaurant and played that evening. Part of the reason is we walk in with confidence, part is the simple idea of guitar and harp. Return bookings because we do what we do well and get good response from patrons.
Who would ever think our retirement adventures would be thanks in part to a case of harmonicas?
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Last Edited by jbone on Jul 07, 2017 1:46 PM
The Iceman
3225 posts
Jul 07, 2017
2:36 PM
Perhaps there is an ebb and flow like the tide...

Harmonica was TOTALLY Relevant in the 1920/1930's in the US, up through the 50's and the end of the Harmonicats reign. As it ebbed, it may have started to flow through popularity of the blues, but never reached that pinnacle of the Harmonica Rascals era.

Perhaps it ebbed again with the advent of guitar heroes post Hendrix.....not sure what to make of anything more recent.

Anyways, it is just a fast opinion not backed up by research. Just my personal feeling....
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The Iceman
ejakon
27 posts
Jul 07, 2017
4:48 PM
beatbox harmonica is making a come back in high schools right now which is part of the reason why i took it up. I like to imagine its rhythmatic capabilites will eventually be used by rnb/rap/ trap artists more frequently
MP
3451 posts
Jul 07, 2017
6:51 PM
Via the internet the harmonica is everywhere and far more people know about it all over the world than ever before. Just the existence of this site alone is a drop in the bucket as far as being relevant is concerned.
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Reasonably priced Reed Replacement and tech support on Hand Made Series Hohner Diatonic Harmonicas.

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Garlic Breath
88 posts
Jul 07, 2017
8:11 PM
ejakon struck a familiar chord (pun intended). My 24 year old daughter showed me a cell phone video of one of her fellow students back in college doing beatbox harp. He had some good chops, and it was cool to see him blend these related skills. Made me want to do more work in that area. Tom raises a good point also, as he is part of a growing number of harp techs turning this "toy" into a high performance instrument. Many, like myself, are acquiring the tools and information to service their own harps, as most of these harp builders are often swamped with work, and a serious approach to being a player requires one to learn the mechanical skills and knowledge needed to set up, maintain, and repair your harps. The availability of instruction from some of the world's best players has exploded, due to skype and youtube. As an ever improving player, it's amazing to be able to see someone like Jason Ricci play live, and actually be able to talk to him and ask questions about gear and technique, and be treated like a harp brother, rather than just another adoring fan. I hate to make a religious analogy, but attending SPAH has become to harp players as a pilgrimage to Mecca is to Muslims. The communication explosion caused by the internet has ushered in the golden age of harmonica. Jump in and advance as much as you can, as the one aspect which is not expanding at such an explosive rate is the span of a human life!
Sundancer
123 posts
Jul 07, 2017
8:25 PM
Here's an article that's worth a read, regardless of your instrument:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/lifestyle/the-slow-secret-death-of-the-electric-guitar/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.f52852915b11

The jist of it is that guitar sales are plummeting because the musical tastes of millennials have changed and there supposedly aren't enough guitar heroes for kids to emulate any more. Or sumthin like that.

So I wonder- if guitar bands are going out of fashion, how many young folks are taking up the harmonica? Because most every band that would have a harp player has a guitar player or two.

Last Edited by Sundancer on Jul 07, 2017 8:27 PM
kudzurunner
6287 posts
Jul 08, 2017
3:47 AM
50 years ago was 1967. I was nine years old back then.

In 1967, the Butterfield Blues Band was VERY big. In 1969, in fact, there was a battle of the bands at Madison Square Garden and the BBB and Janis Joplin were declared the king and queen of the blues.

Bob Dylan and his harmonica stylings were also (still) very big among the younger generation. Plus John Sebastian and the Lovin' Spoonful, Manfred Mann, the Rolling Stones. Plus whatever of Jimmy Reed was still current in the culture. Plus, in the UK--I've been talking about America--the aftermath of Sonny Boy's visit in '65.

Tony Glover's BLUES HARP was published in 1965.

It would be fair to say that in 1967, in the aftermath of the folk revival, the British Blues invasion, and the blues revival, harmonica was very big, once again, in America.

The "once again" is important. Harmonica trios and quartets had been very big in America several decades before the 60s, and harmonica was also very big back in the 1920s, when the first recordings were made. So what happened with the harmonica in the 1960s was a renaissance. (I'm sure harmonica historians like Winslow can add nuance and perhaps needed corrections to my impressionistic account. Also, rereading the thread now that I've added my two cents, Iceman has sketched some of these same early-century points; he and I seem to have the same basic sense of the ebb and flow of harmonica's popularity, although I came up with my account before reading his.)

I think that the current explosion, as florida-trader describes it, is different from earlier renaissances, because it's not particularly visible in live music venues. Certainly, though, it's visible on YouTube. Lots of harmonica teachers are churning out videos. But I don't know if the millennials, in America, actually CARE as much about harp as young people did 50 years ago. I suspect not.

Anecdotally: there were 32 registrants, more or less, at the Shared Harvest Farm retreat I taught at in Canada three weeks ago. At most, only two of those registrants were 30 or under. I just reread a copy of the New York Times Book Review from 1967 at my family's summer house up in Maine, where old magazines go to die. The article was called "Why today's youth don't trust anyone over 30," or something like that. It evoked 20 year old hippies and 30 year old over-the-hill types: young marrieds who were hopelessly square. At 30! There was a huge generational divide.

What struck me is that NEITHER group--the 20 year olds or the 30 year olds--had any measurable presence at Shared Harvest Farm. It was pretty much all people between 35 and 70.

That fact is worth thinking about. It could, of course, just be a cost thing: such workshops cost money, and millennials may not have it. But you'd also expect that because the instrument itself is inexpensive, millennials would be flocking to the harp. I don't see that happening.

Last Edited by kudzurunner on Jul 08, 2017 3:51 AM
ted burke
562 posts
Jul 08, 2017
10:21 AM
Worrying about the "relevance" of the harmonica in today's world is to miss the point entirely. The assumption behind the question--is it still relevant--implies that playing the harmonica is regarded more as status symbol than as a tool for the legitimate and humanly necessary pursuit of making music that expresses , in music, the emotional life of the musicians playing. The question degrades the state of the instrument from being a tool to create some space for joy and wonder in the world, a thing that, in itself, should be incorruptible to that foul thing that only furthers our neurotic obsessions with our social standing. If one has survived the fads , concerns and the warring of stale ideologies over a long period of time, decades, say, if you've come to the point where what people think of your harmonica playing is meaningless and merely a reflection of their own sense of irrelevance, then yes, harmonicas are relevant in today's world, your world, the only world that matters, finally, when you put the harmonica on the microphone and let loose with a timeless 1 1V V. Beyond that , worries about whether the instrument still matters seem a species of introspect that arises when there is nothing good on cable tv.
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Ted Burke

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dougharps
1488 posts
Jul 08, 2017
11:09 AM
“Relevant? We ain’t got no relevance! We don’t need no relevance! I don’t have to show you any stinking relevance!”

Just play the damned things!
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Doug S.
florida-trader
1156 posts
Jul 08, 2017
1:11 PM
Adam – interesting observations about the age of your workshop attendees. I know you will be at SPAH this year for the first time in a while. The demographics will be the same. There could be a lot of factors in play but I believe that lack of discretionary income by the younger, less established generation is the primary reason you won’t see a lot of 20-somethings at SPAH.

Ted – your point is well taken. “relevant” is probably a poor choice of words. I used that word in the title of my post mostly because I was quoting from the other thread. What I really meant was popular, as in, is the harmonica more or less popular today than in the past? Like many have said, I seem to be hearing more harmonica music on the mainstream broadcasts – TV and Radio – than in the past, but that might just be because my ear is attuned to it more than in years past. I don’t have access to the sales figures of the major manufacturers, which would be strong empirical evidence, so I am left to speculation. I can tell you that my little niche business has gotten busier and busier but that could just be a result of longevity and developing a decent reputation in the marketplace. I don’t plan to abandon my business regardless of what anyone says but it would be comforting to know that I am part of an ever-expanding universe rather than one that is contracting.

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Tom Halchak
www.BlueMoonHarmonicas.com
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AppalachiaBlues
32 posts
Jul 08, 2017
3:06 PM
Certainly the harmonica was more popular in mid-60s to early 80s, than it is today. During that time, there was a lot of harp being used in mainstream rock music. Yardbirds, Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Dylan, Neil Young, Steppenwolf, Deep Purple, J Geils Band, Steve Miller Band, War, Springsteen, Blind Melon, Black Crows, Aerosmith, etc. So every day on the radio, you would hear songs with harp. The harp played an important signature role in so many songs, from the Beatles "Love Me Do", to the Stones "Midnight Rambler", to Alice Cooper's "Eighteen", to Doors "Roadhouse Blues", etc. As a teenager during the 70s, I usually carried a harp in my pocket, and so did many of my friends. There is a Youtube video where Dylan is on stage (I guess around 1967-1969), and he realizes he needs an E-harp. So he asked the audience: does anyone have an E-harmonica? And you hear 5 or 6 being thrown onto the stage. E-harps! So imagine how many people at the show had a G, A, C or D in their pockets...

Today, I listen to the music of my teenage daughters' generation. Very rarely do I hear any harp. In the past 5 years, I think maybe two songs came across their playlists with harp.

So we can debate the "relevance", but I think the harmonica is certainly less popular (and less common) today, than it was 40-50 years ago. As Adam suggests, that was a magical period for the harmonica in popular music.

I think that today the harmonica community is much more visible, and more internationally connected, thanks to the internet. That makes it feel like there is a surge in interest, at least to those of us who connect and share on-line.

When I tell non-musicians today that I play harp, I get mostly strange looks. But if you could time-travel back to 1973, and join a house party of college students in Boston, where Aerosmith's "One Way Street" is cranked up on the stereo, you would get a unanimous thumbs-up if you started telling people you play harp.

I don't think we should worry about "relevance". I think we should be comfortable in our skins that we play this eccentric instrument, which has a played fabulous role in musical history, especially the blues.

It's really great to have this community, and all that great content on Youtube, etc.

Last Edited by AppalachiaBlues on Jul 08, 2017 3:17 PM
AppalachiaBlues
33 posts
Jul 08, 2017
3:25 PM
Back in the days when a lot of people carried harps in their pockets...

Last Edited by AppalachiaBlues on Jul 08, 2017 3:29 PM
Rustys26
61 posts
Jul 08, 2017
9:38 PM
I didn't put much thought into it when I made that comment, but I didn't think there would be debate about it. I think it's clear when you say "relevant" in that context, it means in regards to pop culture. I honestly can't think of a single example of harmonicas being relevant in 2017. That is not to say anything about harmonica sales. I wouldn't be surprised if Hohner sold more harps in 2016 than in any year before that. That is besides the point; we have doubled world population in the last 50 years and things are far more accessible via amazon.com etc. But I can't name a single artist who regularly plays harp since Blues Traveler or Beck that has been mainstream popular off the top of my head.
jbone
2313 posts
Jul 08, 2017
10:26 PM
Another factor that has weight here is, this generation of baby boomers is much larger in numbers than other generations before or since. More people, more buying of stuff. Like harps. Maybe the interest is no larger percentage-wise but more of us have by sheer numbers made this seem to be a fact.
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MindTheGap
2284 posts
Jul 09, 2017
1:21 AM
I hope it isn't relevant. One of the big attractions was that harp wasn't a popular choice.

The other was how great amped harp sounds on old records. Mostly these were made before I was born, so it's not nostalgia.

Since taking it up, I've been surprised how often harp crops up on modern records, TV theme tunes, ads. Friends and family will go 'oooh listen there's a harmonica on that' but I'm not really interested in someone wheezing away on an acoustic harp to give some authentic flavour. I guess you might call that relevant in that it's used a lot - doesn't mean it's good music.

When my boys were little they liked to watch that Mythbusters program. I didn't notice at the time, but when I accidently saw one years later it really grated with the non-stop blues harp wable bendy thing in the incidental music. Too much of a good thing.

Last Edited by MindTheGap on Jul 09, 2017 1:35 AM
Rontana
417 posts
Jul 09, 2017
4:55 AM
Beware the day that harp gains relevance in relation to current pop culture. If that were to ever happen, we'd probably wake up one morning and learn that the Kardashians had become official Hohner endorsees.

I've no proof of this, but I suspect that Internet technology, the time spent on devices (the latest estimate I saw was that many members of the younger set check their phones 150 times per day) and a general lessening of attention span figures into the ratio of harp relevance and player age.

Learning to play any instrument requires hours/years of practice. Playing Candy Crush does not.

Last Edited by Rontana on Jul 09, 2017 5:20 AM
Goldbrick
1840 posts
Jul 09, 2017
7:32 AM
Is guitar relevant ?

Last Edited by Goldbrick on Jul 09, 2017 7:33 AM
The Iceman
3231 posts
Jul 09, 2017
7:42 AM
If you define relevancy as what the current young generation favors, the last burst of harmonica relevancy occurred with Blues Traveler, which dates back to around 1987.

A whole new generation was turned onto harmonica by John Popper and his "shred style", goosing the harmonica into relevance due to their becoming very popular on mainstream music media.

Since then, haven't seen any new "harmonica hero" emerge.
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The Iceman
MindTheGap
2285 posts
Jul 09, 2017
7:50 AM
Rontana - Right On! What a horrible vision of the future.

Re attention span, I read something just recently by a humourist (Craig Brown I think?) that was joking about middle-aged men taking up an instrument. In brief that, they're not prepared to put the huge numbers of hours to play a 'proper' instrument - so they turn to the electric guitar and the drums for instant gratification! :)

I get that - I'm trying to learn the cornet/trumpet and I've concluded that I'll have to pretend I'm now 'six' in trumpet years and may sound half-decent when I get to 'twelve'. Or possibly when I finally leave home at 'eighteen'. By 'leave home', of course I mean...

Last Edited by MindTheGap on Jul 09, 2017 7:54 AM
dougharps
1491 posts
Jul 09, 2017
8:52 AM
I don't think you have to have a new harmonica hero frontman for harmonica to be popular. Harp can add musical flavor and color to a musical meal without being the main dish.
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Doug S.
The Iceman
3234 posts
Jul 09, 2017
9:06 AM
Hey Doug:

If you want to move the masses, you need a hero. Just adding musical flavor and color are great for folk like us and a few more responsible listening "citizens", but the bulk of the population out there are not into the subtleties that you describe, unfortunately.

I've seen tons of young kids run to the music store to buy a John Popper Endorsed Brand Diatonic Harmonica after a concert.

Have not witnessed traffic like this because Mickey Raphael played a tasteful accompaniment to a Willie Nelson song.
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The Iceman
Sundancer
124 posts
Jul 09, 2017
9:30 AM
Iceman- to be fair, I don't think Willie's fans are running anywhere. Walking at a brisk pace, maybe.

Last Edited by Sundancer on Jul 09, 2017 9:30 AM
Thievin' Heathen
916 posts
Jul 09, 2017
9:38 AM
In my opinion, there has never been a better time to be a harmonica player than this time we live in today. What you or I chose to do with it determines the relevance.

I saw/heard Mickey Raphael last weekend. If I did not already own a couple, I would have stopped to buy a harmonica on the way home. Besides, Sheryl Crow made it look so easy.
The Iceman
3235 posts
Jul 09, 2017
10:28 AM
*cough* *wheeze* huff puff....

Sundancer, you may be right!
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The Iceman
kudzurunner
6288 posts
Jul 09, 2017
12:26 PM
Iceman, the only possible exception to your argument about "no harp hero since Popper" is Yuri Lane. His harp + beatboxing video has accumulated 10 million hits in the decade since he released it. He's a minor YT star, not a live star a la Popper, but he's the one arguable bright light, as far as I'm concerned. He can't blow harp for s--t, but he made a nice video and connected harp with beatboxing in a way that captured people's imaginations:



And of course there will always be Taylor Hicks:

Last Edited by kudzurunner on Jul 09, 2017 12:29 PM
The Iceman
3236 posts
Jul 09, 2017
12:35 PM
Good point, Adam.

I forgot about the internet - To be truly in touch with contemporary reality, the internet is the BIGGEST PLATFORM now and only rising up in validity exponentially while the traditional forms of mass communication (TV, Radio, Cable, Movies) are slowly sinking into the past, slowly being torn from the grip of us older generations who like to hold on to our "tradition". The newer generations grew up with the internet and embrace it 100%. While I was unaware of a 10 million hits of a beat box/harper, there are 10 million younger folks who are very aware of what he does.

So, this ol' guy forgot about this one small piece of REALITY.

Move over old dog, newer dog comin' in.
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The Iceman
ted burke
563 posts
Jul 09, 2017
1:11 PM
No harmonica heroes since Popper? A dubious assertion, frankly. Our good friend Jason Ricci is a glaring exception to the erroneous assumption.
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Ted Burke

tburke4@san.rr.com
The Iceman
3238 posts
Jul 09, 2017
1:31 PM
Jason has been around for a LONG time. He's good, but I don't view him as a hero in the sense that he's reached the general population with the effect of spurring on a resurgence in diatonic interest, so respectfully disagree with Mr. Burke's comment.

(I always enjoy your opinions, Mr. Burke. I don't agree with some of them, but would never call anyone's suppositions specious).

btw, welcome back to the forum, Mr. Burke. Must have been a very short trip!

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The Iceman

Last Edited by The Iceman on Jul 09, 2017 1:47 PM
ted burke
564 posts
Jul 09, 2017
2:18 PM
In the public eye, Jon Popper has been around a bit longer, as the first Blues Traveler album was released in 1990. Jason's first one was released in 1995. So the assertion that there have been no harmonica heroes after Popper is incorrect. Jason is definitely a post-Popper harmonica hero.

In any case, the fact that someone is a hero to many others, players and listeners, does not mean that they are going to enter the mainstream culture as a go-to reference point. There are younger harmonica heros galore, dozens of them; they have followings, they tour, they sell records, they are are well known among the cognoscenti . Hundreds of thousands may know who they are , perhaps even millions in some cases, but for the larger multi=platformed world, they remain anonymous, unknown. There are simply too many other better funded distractions . The same condition, I believe, applies to guitar players--outside the insular worlds where audiences and other players are dumbstruck by the technical and emotional expressiveness of master players, the host of them are unknown to the majority population. All the same, they are heros by the classic definition. To the larger world, though, I think we are fated to forever have citizens reference John Mayall or Neil Young or Bob Dylan when they think of harmonica players.

I used the worlds "dubious" and "erroneous" to describe the statement, terms accurate to my view. "Specious" would do just as well. I meant no offense and I'm sorry if anyone was rankled.

The hospital stay was shorter than I thought. Thanks for the welcome.
Ted Burke

tburke4@san.rr.com
kudzurunner
6289 posts
Jul 09, 2017
2:47 PM
I think that Iceman is probably right about Jason not having quite crossed over to a pop audience the way that Popper did. Clearly he has made his mark in the blues harmonica world! And that R&R HOF performance at Butterfield's induction meant that he's on the radar of those who make decisions in the rock world. I daresay that Jason has had MORE of an effect on contemporary blues harmonica players than Popper had on blues harmonica players of his day, although that's an arguable point. (I definitely remember that when Popper was huge, people who contacted me for studio sessions sometimes requested "that Popper sound." I don't know that they request "that Jason Ricci sound." But I hear a lot of younger players who are clearly listening to Jason.)

Lee Oskar, as a part of war, has his own fan base, I suspect. Rob Paparozzi, who sings and plays with the current version of the Blues Brothers, is putting the music out there to an audience that goes somewhat beyond the blues. Greg Zlap in France, I suspect, has more of a pop audience than any harp players do here. This video DESERVES to make him a pop star:



I'd love to hear from Mooncat about who his audience these days is. It's possible that new audiences are showing up at his gigs.

When I teach at workshops, people always tell me, "You're a legend! I can't believe I'm shaking your hand." The reason I don't buy that hype is that it doesn't translate into people showing up at gigs. They show up at workshops! But they don't show up at gigs. I'm always grateful, BTW, for the few who do show up.

When people show up at gigs, when you can consistently draw crowds, you're a star of sorts. But there's blues stardom and pop stardom. Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Shemekia Copeland: they're stars. Charlie Musselwhite is probably a star, by that calculus. Kim Wilson? Does he consistently draw people to gigs? Can he guarantee 75 paying customers a night, in any room? 100? Satan and Adam used to draw 150 paying, every time we played Philadelphia. But that was one city, at one particular period in 1992-1995 when we'd played the festival there behind heavy NPR radio play. I don't know how it works these days. I'd love to hear more from Mooncat about what sorts of audiences he's getting these days.

Last Edited by kudzurunner on Jul 09, 2017 2:56 PM
SuperBee
4773 posts
Jul 09, 2017
3:09 PM
Hmm, I guess John Mayall was the guy who started me thinking about playing harmonica, but after the 2nd time I saw him (early 82, about to have my 18th birthday), while I didn't buy a harmonica I did buy a couple of his records. There was a song called 'Sonny Boy Blow' on one of those, and the lyrics seemed to be about a harmonica player called Sonny Boy.
I had no idea who that was, but the next week when I saw an album with a picture of bowler hat and harmonica under the name "Sonny Boy Williamson", I bought that record. My ideas about harmonica began to change. My ideas about music began to change.
Last time I saw John was 6 years ago, and I thought he played harmonica rather more than I'd have preferred. I'd probably not have found harmonica interesting if this had been my first exposure to it.
I don't play those John Mayall records much these days. But I still listen to 'Sonny Boy Williamson' fairly often. I carry that record in my head.

So, I dunno if the harmonica is relevant in the sense that it has a prescence in pop music. I mean it almost certainly does not have a prescence in pop music.
But pop music appeals to a niche market. A lot of units sold of course, but increasingly it seems to me that the market for music is more diverse across all demographics.

I don't really care for harmonica outside of a few contexts, just happens that I like some of the styles where harmonica is a good fit.

I know little kids seem to like it, but probably because it's an instrument many of them have had some contact with. Lots of kids who talk to me about it mention their experience with the harp; they have one, or their sibling or another family member or friend has one. I mean little kids; 4-8 year olds mainly. Some bigger kids too, old enough to go to the shop on their own or with siblings.
So kids meet the harp when they're little and then if they see it played as an actual musical instrument they are fascinated because they've mainly only known it as a way to make noise and get attention. Hmm...

Last Edited by SuperBee on Jul 09, 2017 3:20 PM
The Iceman
3240 posts
Jul 09, 2017
4:01 PM
My interpretation of this relevance thread is looking outside of our tiny world and into the public at large.

It was fun to see "one of us" at that R&R Hall of Fame Butterfield induction on TV and we got all excited about the possibilities of this leading to bigger recognition and exposure for Jason, but did that translate into anything more than that one shot? Did new and exciting opportunities come Jason's way? Did Paul Schafer call him for more projects? Did young folk get all excited about that spot and run out and buy harmonicas?

I guess the first few questions only Jason can answer. IMO, the show did not inspire many to run out and start learning to play harmonica, but I have no evidence to back up my opinion.

Then there is always China, Korea and those countries where harmonica is taken seriously - I believe it used to be taught in the schools to youngsters like my generation learned plastic flutophone (recorder)- (I still have my bright white w/red accent sitting in its little case in a box in my garage!)
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The Iceman
MindTheGap
2286 posts
Jul 10, 2017
12:41 AM
Iceman - yes, and look at the effect on us of being made to play the recorder in school. Thirty kids screeching out Frere Jacques on plastic descants was enough to put most people off music for life, and certainly learn to hate the recorder! Whereas proper recorder music is beautiful, and the recorders have so many positive aspects: cheap, portable, convenient, sociable, huge repertoire. And chromatic.

Now the school instrument of choice is the ukulele, maybe that will put a generation off the guitar too.

Sorry to have to be the one to break this news but, from my experience, there are plenty people that actively dislike the sound of the harmonica - with the similar kind of visceral dislike normally reserved for the descant recorder.

I think the best hope for harp relevance is to make your SPAH a secret meeting, take down all those YT vids for a few years, then engineer some rising star to rediscover the blues harp.

Alternatively there's that story about saxophone sales rocketing after Baker Street was a hit. So one of you pros just needs to create a world-wide smash with a cracking harp solo that people want to copy. It's in your gift.

Last Edited by MindTheGap on Jul 10, 2017 12:54 AM
Rontana
418 posts
Jul 10, 2017
4:20 AM
I seem to recall a huge surge in sax popularity after Bill Clinton played with the band on the old Arsenio Hall show (1992). He had a certain "cool factor" going on at the time (forget political positions, this is about successful efforts in personal branding) and lots of folks want to emulate what they perceive as "cool."

That raises all kinds of questions about our culture's obsession with celebrity, but we'd probably have to consult an army of psychiatrists/psychologists to even vaguely understand that one.

Harp would need a similar standard bearer in order to crack the mainstream ceiling. It seems to matter not if a person is truly proficient; public persona, charisma, and popularity matter far more. I'd bet that if Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, and maybe even the Elsa character from "Frozen," were consistently (and consistency is a key factor) shown playing a harmonica, it would become "the next big thing."

That's how trends and fads are created/strategically manufactured, no matter the product (think jeans, shoes, cars, or books endorsed by Oprah).

True, former VP candidate Tim Kaine played harp, but he was light years removed from the concept of "cool." Playing harp only made Kaine look mildly eccentric.

Last Edited by Rontana on Jul 10, 2017 4:44 AM
MindTheGap
2287 posts
Jul 10, 2017
4:56 AM
Rontana, I don't disagree with that. But the 'Baker Street Sax Phenomenomenon' didn't require a standard bearer; the musician didn't become a household name. Yes Gerry Rafferty but not the sax player.

I think that's encouraging - the public heard a good tune and wanted to play it! On this occasion, well done, The Public.

Last Edited by MindTheGap on Jul 10, 2017 4:57 AM
HarpNinja
4257 posts
Jul 10, 2017
8:07 AM
I think harmonica is more popular and accessible in the harmonica world, but I don't think it is something gaining traction in the mainstream.


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Mike
My Website
My Harmonica Effects Blog
kudzurunner
6290 posts
Jul 10, 2017
8:56 AM
If Bruno Mars released a funky danceable song with a video in which he was wailing on harmonica, he'd blow the doors off. That's EXACTLY what the instrument needs. Huey Lewis did that. I can't believe that I'm the first one to mention Lewis in this thread. He was a very important part of bringing blues harmonica into the pop mainstream in the early to mid 1980s:



Huey Lewis harmonica solo, 1988

Last Edited by kudzurunner on Jul 10, 2017 8:59 AM
HarpNinja
4258 posts
Jul 10, 2017
9:05 AM
Over 950,000,000 views and the first sound is harmonica...



...and I bet no non-harmonica player gave a crap it had harmonica in it.

This last week I did a large group beginner harmonica workshop and had ages 5 to adult...the whole gambit and when I referenced this song, no one knew it. I played the lick and like two people remembered it.

That is how fast pop music cycles through. Not to mention that inability of people to even recognize this as harmonica.


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Mike
My Website
My Harmonica Effects Blog
HarpNinja
4259 posts
Jul 10, 2017
9:10 AM
In checking out the guitar dying comments...

What is happening is that, like with harmonica, more people are playing but NOT gigging. There is more playing going on than ever...it just isn't on stages with bands for money.
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Mike
My Website
My Harmonica Effects Blog
dougharps
1495 posts
Jul 10, 2017
11:21 AM
@HarpNinja et al.

Here is a different perspective on this issue:

I encountered some of these ideas by associating with a local musician/ethno-musicologist, Tom Turino, who was a neighbor and with whom I occasionally played music when he still lived here. Recently a friend who had played with Tom in bands brought this idea up to me when I spoke about negative changes in the local music scene regarding low pay for professional musicians. My friend contended that historically, music was largely a community activity. He believed that professional performance was relatively limited until media and recording arrived on the scene.

When I Googled some of these ideas in reaction to this thread, it turns out that my former neighbor Tom Turino wrote a book about it! That book is discussed in this Blog entry I found:

participatory vs. presentational music

My perspective on this work about ways of finding meaning in music is that there is a spectrum of live musical performance ranging from participatory music to presentational music. That participatory vs. presentational music aren't discreet and separate, but define a range of how people find meaning in music

{I am focusing on live musical performance, not recorded music of live performance or studio art, which are another issue and involve a different spectrum.}

Participatory >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Presentational

The community of individuals of varying skill levels all making participatory music as an inclusive community activity is at one end of the spectrum and the value is in the act of creation of music. Harmonica gatherings and other community music making are at this end. Folk music started this way: people getting together to make music and party together.

The professional orchestra/band/star performers on stage, separated from an audience, are at the presentational music end of the spectrum and the meaning is in the appreciation of the quality of the music of separate performers. Some of this occurs at these gatherings, offering inspiration.

In between are a range of music making with various skill levels of players and a range of types of participation and quality of music. There we find performing musicians on stage, but those attending are encouraged to participate in some way, perhaps singing along on choruses, clapping hands, dancing, or even practicing flow arts.

On the extreme presentational end people passively receive the music, but do not take an active part in performance.
_____________________

This fits in with Mike's point above, that more people are playing, but fewer people are working as successful professional performers in clubs. People want to be part of making the music. They seek engagement. They find value in joining into creating music as an alternative to always just listening to professionals.
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Doug S.

Last Edited by dougharps on Jul 10, 2017 2:55 PM
jpmcbride
169 posts
Jul 10, 2017
8:21 PM
One of the advantages of the harmonica not being "relevant" today is the fact that an average player has the opportunity to interact with the best players in the world.

Adam makes himself available to the harmonica world through this forum. Jason will talk harmonica with anyone before of after a show. Dennis G came over to my cabin at a blues festival after his performance and hung out and jammed with us. I met Deak and he asked me to play, then taught me to tongue switch. I could go on for a while ... think any of this would happen if I played guitar?

My point is that the fact that our instrument is not relevant makes all of us, from the pro to the weekend player, something of a community. While it's unfortunate that the world doesn't recognize the brilliance and talent of the best on our instrument, and reward them accordingly, this community we have is not a bad thing.

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Jim McBride
Bottle 'O Blues microphones
www.bottleoblues.com
nacoran
9518 posts
Jul 11, 2017
10:56 AM
"Over 950,000,000 views and the first sound harmonica..." HarpNinja

Mike, yeah, the one thing I wish about that is that instead of a studio player (no offense to the guy, he did a nice job) is that they didn't bring in a showy guy for that who could have been in the video. Can you imagine how much more that would have done for the harp world if a young, charismatic harp player got some cut scenes in the video blowing away?

That would have been huge!

I actually really like how they kept the harp going the whole song, just fading it in the mix when they needed to sing.

Chris Cornell played some harp on his last video, but not in the video itself, and only in the beginning. Not sure how many views the official one had. They pulled it down since there was a hanging in the video which got really creepy after he committed suicide.

You can still find the video, but I don't have the heart to link it today.





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Nate
Facebook
Thread Organizer (A list of all sorts of useful threads)

First Post- May 8, 2009
ValleyDuke
159 posts
Jul 11, 2017
1:40 PM
This harmonica momment just happened:

Coldplay live

Always seems to be a part of popular culture.
Moon Cat
713 posts
Jul 13, 2017
4:42 PM
This isn't an easy question to answer with a yes or a no of course. I looked up the word "Relevant": "-appropriate to the current time, period, or circumstances; of contemporary interest." No to get all existential but I'm not really sure, by that definition, how relevant music is or how the mainstream media representing it are relevant to real musicians and music lovers anymore? The market has changed so much with the onset of the internet and the entire game is played very differently now. Elvis Presely had the 5th best selling record last year! All the same I'll take a stab and chime in a few "answers" since I kinda got asked by a couple of you. Here's my experience and mine only.

I. SALES
A.) Like Tom, Garlic Breath and a few others already said I also think the market alone and wide range of brands and harmonica related products, events etc proves the instrument and it's accessories are selling better than say 20 years ago for sure. Of course it's not like the days of the Harmonicats but as some one else pointed out guitars and other instruments are down in general these days as well. I think the little harps are doing pretty great considering. We got Bullet mics and other stuff in Guitar center. I think the internet is a huge reason and I have seen some amazing personal results and changes in awareness of ALL things not just music as a result of the net.
b.) I use to have a lot of people come up and ask me what I was playing and what that thing was (microphone) I was playing into. Thanks to the internet, time, lots of great players especially Popper, they now ask me who customizes my harps, what pedals I like and other more specific informed questions sometimes even music related ones. So I think in general awareness all around has certainly increased. The fact that major companies are listening to Joe Filisko and Joe Spiers and other customizers as well as artists looks pretty good for us. As has been stated, people are more aware of the nuances of this instrument then EVER before which is a direct result of the internet. I don't think the instrument needs another "Hero" and if it does it "should" be Howard Levy but yeah Adam Gussow, Ronnie Shellist, Christelle and a bunch of us have definitely changed things through youtube, forums like this and social media, there's no denying that and the companies, videos, record labels, and view counts confirm that. It's a welcome change. I also really like what JpmMcBride and otsaid. I kind of don't care anymore about all this stuff but It's fun to talk about.

II Mainstream Media (CD Sales, Television, Radio)
a. (Pop music CD sales, Heroes) To address the John Popper topic. I don't think John's harmonica playing sold that many records, I believe the songs did. I believe John to be a very good player and I think it bites people can't slow their busy minds to hear his beautiful busy melodies. I think the pioneering nature of Popper's marketing and his creation of the Horde tour, hard work, relentless clawing for years and the songwriting after and before "Run Around" hit got that band where they are certainly not his instrument alone. That was really just a cool topic of conversation as a bi-product to those hits. For that matter what guitar player or ANY instrumentalist save Kenny G has ever really made gold or platinum records based on instrumental prowess in the last 50 years? Yet there have plenty of "Heroes" getting attention next to great songs ie: Eddie Van Halen, Clarence Clemons etc... I suppose John Mayer helped the guitar out some more too again but AGAIN his songs and good looks came first. Music and especially Pop music or anything mainstream have always been about the songs. Like Theo said the instruments even on instrumentals were always secondary. Add image, video, marketing, sex appeal and all that and instruments start moving even further back... How many chromatics players has Stevie Wonder made? I really don't know? You'd think a lot more though right? I do know his music effected people and that harmonica is only a component in it. When I think of "Songs in the Key of life" I don't even think about harmonica and I'm a damn player! I think the harmonica community definitely has "it's" heroes and like it or not, and I often don't, I am definitely one of them. I have my own heroes too! I have literally met 100's of people if not thousands by now who have personally told me their lives and playing were changed by Adam Gussow's, Ronnie Shellist, and my youtube videos. We can have heroes in our own community no? I mean Adam's a pro level ping pong player, I bet he knows some Ping Pong legends we don't or won't ever know does that make them less relevant...As a matter of fact the Hero often chosen to spearhead something is often not highly regarded as much as others in their own field whatever that may be...
B.) (TV) I remember watching Conan O'brien and seeing Madison Slim Blowing harp with Jimmy Rodgers. I don't know how much a one time , two time or ten time TV slot did for other people I'll have to ask Slim next time I see him what that gig ever did for Jimmy...I know Fingers Taylor did a lot of TV stuff with Buffet and Kim Wilson has done a few big gigs with Bonnie Raitt and others and I'm really not sure how much a single or even multiple TV appearance changes ANYONE's life overnight. Shit I'm not even sure how significantly (Financially) Portnoy's life was changed (Financially) for recording playing with Clapton! I think people think in terms of absolutes and overnight success's and romantic things like that...This industry sometimes works like that but instrumentalists survive through longevity and every appearance counts and gigs and future offers come 5 minutes and fifteen years after the smallest and biggest shows. You never know which individual or combination of individual performances professional or not is going to matter...They all matter to me and to me only more these days than ever.
Adam asked what's my audience like now. Well they are pretty great, I mean blues fans are getting old, but I often do better at door gigs these days than with Guarantees. I get the young gun, hot shot players and man are they getting good but my newer and some of my older fans and better numbers are really due more LGBTQ, recovered or non recovered addicts, ex-cons, mentally ill folks or those close to peoples with some or all of those issues. The disenfranchised in general. When I sign CD's now more and more the conversations are focused in those areas than with harmonica. That makes me happy and affirms again this stuff is about the music not the instrument we play it on. But yeah it help the harmonica too when I play it on that stuff...It's not my primary purpose anymore...Music isn't even that anymore they are both just vehicles for me to currently express myself. I like when people dig it but I really don't care anymore if they don't and the more vocal/public they are about hating it the better I do! Most my fans love the harp of course but thats becoming less and less the draw. That what Theo Burke was saying a lot more eloquently than me about all art. I'd be happy just talking to people in real life these days, I just do music because people like it and it's wicked cool.
So that went on too long...In the end, Yeah, I think were do for an even greater resurgence of visibility of this instrument. It's taken a village and will take more to put it back to the golden 20's and 30's again but I don't think one "hero" can do it and if so I sure hope it's not me. I love harmonica but my music hasn't been all about that in a while. Theres a TON of young bluegrass, blues and roots based band going back to basics with guitars, horns, banjos, accordions, harps alike. I mean shit theres a damn tuba, upright bass and trombone resurgence happening right now!

Last Edited by Moon Cat on Jul 13, 2017 4:56 PM
Komuso
700 posts
Jul 13, 2017
5:00 PM


Just sayin'

@dougharps Great stuff, thanks for the link to article.
You might like Why Do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution
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Paul Cohen aka Komuso Tokugawa
HarpNinja - Learn Harmonica Faster
Komuso's Music Website

Last Edited by Komuso on Jul 13, 2017 5:09 PM


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