As well as various trains, fox chases, reels and skipping songs, the traditional harp player usually had a variety of hymns, spirituals and other religious pieces in his repertoire. The simple major key melodies of most hymns fitted nicely onto a harmonica and were a good method of learning one's way around the instrument. Several blues harmonica players recorded religious material. Jaybird Coleman recorded two excellent spirituals under the name Frank Palmes1. Sonny Terry recorded with Blind Boy Fuller and Oh Red as "Brother George and his Sanctified Singers" and pieces such as "Beautiful City" were still part of his regular repertoire years later. Many preachers tried to cash in on the popularity of blues records in the 20s and 30s by recording with blues influenced instrumental backing. For example, Elder Richard Bryant recorded in Memphis in 1928 backed by a jug band with a harmonica player2. (It has been suggested that the group was none other than the Memphis Jug Band themselves - they are almost certainly the band behind The Holy Ghost Sanctified Singers' four tracks recorded a couple of years later, with the unmistakable harp playing of Will Shade, reissued on the same CD.)
The harmonica was (and still is) very popular with "one man band" performers. The harp could be held in front of the face by a holder (occasionally also including a kazoo) leaving the hands free to play another instrument, usually a guitar. This set-up was used by performers of religious material as well as blues singers. As an example, I have transcribed the intro to "On My Way To Heaven" by Blind Roger Hays3, a typical one man band gospel singer. Little is know about him, other than he recorded two tracks in New Orleans, in late 1928. The tune is a rather familiar melody, played in 1st position, in this case key of C on a C harp (the recording plays slightly sharp), and should present no difficulties. Notice how it is played with a tongue-blocking style and Hays occasionally lifts his tongue to provide chords under the melody line. I haven't notated these as it would complicate the transcription; in any case, I think it is more important to get the feel of the tune, rather than recreate it note-for-note.
Cross harp can also be used to play gospel tunes. To illustrate this, I have transcribed the intro to "Lord, Don't You Know I Have No Friend Like You" by Sam Jones, alias Stovepipe No.14. Another one man band, this was one of his first issued recordings, made in 1924. Played on a C harp in second position (key of G, but this time the recording plays slightly flat!), this performance is slightly blusier than the Hays piece, due to the bent notes available in this position (notice in particular the bends on the 3rd hole draw - again these have not been notated to avoid cluttering up the transcription, but on listening to the recording, they should be pretty obvious).
If this has given you a taste for gospel on the blues harp, then you can do no better than to check out the work of the Rev. Dan Smith and my own personal favorite, Elder R. Wilson and Family. His half dozen issued tracks are available on the same album as the Roger Hays material and feature a trio of harps wailing in a solid blues style, behind some classic spirituals. I'm also happy to report than Elder Wilson is alive and still wailing, the last I heard5. Perhaps if you "get right with God" and polish up your gospel playing, you'll keep going as long as him!
1. Reissued on Jaybird Coleman and the Birmingham Jug Band 1927 - 1930 (Document DOCD-5140). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
Since writing this article, I have come to the conclusion that Frank Palmes and Jaybird Coleman were not the same person.
2. Complete works reissued on Memphis Sanctified Jug Bands 1928-30 (Document DOCD-5300). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
3. Reissued on Sinners And Saints 1926-1931 (DOCD-5106). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
4. Reissued on Stovepipe No. 1: Complete Recorded Works (1924-1930) (Document DOCD-5269). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
5. Elder Wilson recorded a critically acclaimed CD in the mid 1990s, This Train (Arhoolie 429), which also includes the six tracks he and his family recorded in 1948. Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
As of 2016, Elder Wilson was still preaching and blowing harp at the age of 105.
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