Many books on the subject of blues harmonica give the impression that, with the exception of Jimmy Reed and the players he directly influenced, "straight harp" (or first position harp, for example, playing a C harp in the key of C) is not common as a blues style. This, however is not true. Straight harp playing has played an important part in both pre-war and post-war blues. Whilst perhaps not as flexible as cross (or second position) harp, straight harp does lend itself to many things not possible in other positions. This is, after all, the way the instrument was designed to be played in the first place! First position is most useful for playing diatonic major melodies and for this reason is frequently encountered in jug band music and downhome gospel playing as well as material influenced by (or stolen from!) white hillbilly musicians. Will Shade from the Memphis Jug Band and DeFord Bailey were competent both in straight and cross harp styles and players such as Robert Cooksey and Herbert Leonard seemed more at home with straight harp to play their jazz/ragtime influenced music.
The ordinary Marine Band style harp has three octaves. The middle octave is the only one with a full diatonic major scale (do, re, mi, etc.), the lower octave having notes repeated and omitted to allow chordal accompaniment to the melody. It is the middle octave that is most often used to play hymns, fiddle tunes, etc and is rarely used to play blues solos. As always in the blues, there are exceptions. Here is the introduction to "Stovepipe Blues", recorded in 1924 by Daddy Stovepipe1. (These transcriptions are intended to give you the gist of the piece rather than being an exact transcription, which would be very difficult to notate as well as being a bit pointless. Always try to hear the original recording and use the transcription as a kind of map of how to get there.)
The lower octave is very useful in straight blues harp. In holes 1 to 4, the only note that isn't available naturally or by bending is the minor third. (Try overblowing hole 1 and good luck!!) This is something of a disadvantage, but the other available notes more than make up for this. Try the introduction to "Out Of Doors Blues" by the brilliant William McCoy, from a 1928 session in Texas2.
The lower octave has also been used by DeFord Bailey, Eddie Mapp and on post-war pieces by John Wrencher and Rice Miller (check out the intro to "Trust My Baby").
The upper octave has been strongly associated with the Jimmy Reed sound, but was already a common feature of blues playing when the first blues harp recordings were made in the twenties (For example the previously mentioned Robert Cooksey and Herbert Leonard as well as rural players such as Freeman Stowers). In this octave, the flat third, flat fifth and flat seventh are all available by bending the blow notes in holes 8, 9 and 10. As a brief illustration I have notated the intro to Lee Brown's "My Driving Wheel" (1939)3. The harp player on this piece has been wrongly identified as Robert Lee McCoy, but it is the same harp player who recorded one session with Peetie Wheatstraw and recorded in 1940 and 1950 under the name of Rhythm Willie (His 1940 session, reissued on Harps, Jugs, Washboards and Kazoos4, is very highly recommended). Very much influenced by Louis Armstrong and similar jazz players, he perfected a style earlier explored by players such as Blues Birdhead.
I hope this has given you a few ideas as to what can be done with straight harp - and never let anyone tell you you ain't playing the blues if you ain't playing cross harp!
1. Reissued on Alabama Black Country Dance Bands 1924-1949 (Document DOCD-5166). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
2. Reissued in its entirity on Texas: Black Country Dance Music (Document DOCD-5162). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
3. Reissued on Complete Recorded Works 1937-1940 (Document DOCD-5344). Click here or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
4.Harps, Jugs, Washboards and Kazoos (RST Records JPCD-1505-2). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
Willie's entire 1940 session is also available on Harmonica Blues 1929 - 1940 (Wolf Records WSE106). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
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