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Presented here for your amazement and entertainment are a selection of vintage harmonica performances recorded in the first half of the 20th century. They are all .mp3 files of about 1MB-3MB in size and you are welcome to save them to your computer, or iPod, or whatever. However, please pay attention to the copyright statement at the bottom of this page.
Bear in mind that these tracks are ripped from very old 78RPM disks, or in some cases from cassette copies of 78s, so the audio quality is not going to be quite as good as the latest Taylor Swift hit, but in most cases it is not too bad.
As mentioned on this page, Pete Hampton was the first African-American harmonica player to be recorded, possibly even the first harmonica player to be recorded. Despite a prolific recording career in the early 1900s, he only seemed to have used the harmonica for one particular song (variously titled "Mouth Organ Coon", "The Mouth Organ Coon" and "Dat Mouth Organ Coon"), although he recorded that song on at least four different occasions. Here is his 1904 recording for Nicole Records:
The Mouth Organ Coon
The harmonica interlude on this version is slightly shorter than on the Edison recording and lacks the simultaneous whistling and nasal harmonica of the earlier performance, but is still very interesting historically, giving a unique glimpse into African-American harmonica stylings of the turn of the 20th century, including vocalising through the instrument and the use of fox chase and train-like rhythmic patterns. Hampton seems to be playing an E diatonic harmonica in first position, but the actual speed of these old recordings could be quite variable.
The man who made the earliest Australian harmonica recordings under the name "Professor Dickens" has been identified as Sydney George Devine (above left - an Australian actor born in 1876, who usually worked under the stage name of Clement May and was particularly well known for his portrayals of characters from the works of Charles Dickens) and as Sydney Dickens (above right - a frequent performer on Australian radio in the 1920s), although it is entirely possible that he was someone else altogether.
Whoever he was, Professor Dickens, recorded two cylinders in 1908 for the Empire Company of Melbourne, Australia. Both pieces are solo performances of medleys of well known tunes of the day, played in first position with heavy use of vamped chords. The first piece was played on an A harp (although the pitch comes out a little flat) and was issued as Empire No. 18:
Mouth Organ Medley
The second piece was played on a G harp and was issued as Empire No. 32:
Mouth Organ Medley No. 2
Austrian-born Arthur Stern (1886-1952), who performed under the name Arthur Turelly (sometimes spelled "Turelli") was a very popular stage entertainer in the US from the early 1900s to the 1930s. In a 1925 newspaper article he was described as "The only harmonica player ever commanded to appear before British Royalty" and he was also Gary Cooper's harmonica coach for the movie "Meet John Doe". According to reviews of his stage appearances, his repertoire included popular tunes of the day, selections from grand opera and showpieces such as the Overture from "William Tell". However, he wasn't above such crowd pleasing stunts as playing without the use of his hands and his performances also showcased his whistling abilities
He recorded four selections for Columbia Records back in March 1915 and as far as I have been able to tell, these were the earliest harmonica recordings released in the US.* The tunes were "Imitation Der Wiener Burghwach Parade", "Tiroler Holzhackerbaum Marsch", "Toreador Marsch" and "Irish Tango". The first two were released as Columbia E2329 and the latter two as E2515. "Tiroler Holzhackerbaum Marsch" and "Toreador Marsch" were later rereleased with English titles as Columbia A2594 and these are the two specimens I share with you here.
Jolly Lumber Jack
Composed by Josef Wagner, this piece has been long been a favorite of accordion players and polka bands. Turelly plays the opening part on an F diatonic in first position, switching to a Bb harp for the middle section, then back to the F again to finish the tune.
Once again, Turelly begins this piece with an F harp, then switches to a Bb harp. However, the Bb harp is used to play a section in G minor, making it an early example of fourth position playing. The Gm section begins at about 48 seconds into the piece, then at about 75 seconds, the key changes to Bb major and Turelly continues in first position on the Bb harp. At the 106 second mark, the key moves back to F major and Turelly finishes off the piece on his F harp.
* There were earlier recordings of the harmonica made in the United States, but to the best of my knowledge, none of these were released. Turelly recorded two pieces for Columbia in February 1915 - "Old Folks at Home" and "Auld Lang Syne". In December 1914, William Sisto, a stage performer frequently billed at "The Italian Statesman", recorded an untitled test recording for Victor, playing harmonica with organ accompaniment. The first American harmonica recordings that I have been able to discover were by Swedish actor and singer Elis Olson-Ellis, who recorded two harmonica tunes for Victor whilst touring the US in 1911 - "Orpheus I Underjorden” and “Svenska Bondlåtar”. For some reason, the spoken word performances from these sessions were issued, but the harmonica pieces were not.
I don't have a lot of information about Mr H. J. Woodall, who might be the first English harmonica player to appear on record. These two tracks were issued on Imperial 1140 - not sure of the exact date, but it would appear to have been some time in the very early 1920s. His style is typical of British harmonica players of the time, favouring enthusiasm over subtlety. A few years later, Woodall took third place in the Mouth Organ League's 1928 national championships.
The Punjaub March
There is some dispute over who composed this tune, being credited to both Charles Payne and Charles Lethière. It was a popular tune with military bands from the late 1800s onwards and Woodall plays it here in first position on an octave tuned diatonic in F.
Irish Jigs and Reels
This selection is played in first position on a diatonic in high G. The label describes it as "Piccolo Mouth Organ Solo", most likely the Piccolo model, made by the F. A. Böhm company. Böhm,makers of the popular Blue Bird brand harmonicas, were sponsors of the Mouth Organ League of Great Britain and Ireland and a testimonial letter from Mr Woodall was published in their 1927 Book of the Harmonica, praising the "majestic tone and harmony" of the Blue Bird brand instruments.
As mentioned on this page, Henry Whitter was the first person to record in the cross harp position and despite being a white musician, he showed a notable African-American influence on his harmonica style. Born in 1892 in Fries, Virginia, Whitter claimed to have made test recordings for Okeh in March 1923, however his first official recording session was in December 1923, in NewYork City. The first three pieces he recorded at this session were all harmonica solos.
Rain Crow Bill Blues
This is perhaps Whitter's most famous harmonica piece and he recorded it twice. This version was released on Okeh 40187 and his 1927 version was released on Victor 20878 (I have transcribed the main theme from the later version on this page). The tune appears to be in the key of Ab, with Whitter playing in second position on a Db harp. However, as Db harps were not generally available back then and his later recording of this tune is in the key of A played on a D harp, then I suspect that this take has been slowed down somewhere in the recording process.
Lost Train Blues
The obligatory train imitation, this one played in first position. It comes out in the key of B, but I suspect it has also been slowed down at some point in the process and was originally played on a C harp.
The Old Time Fox Chase
Back to cross harp again for another staple of the old time harmonica repertoire. Once again, although the tune comes out in the key of F#, I suspect that it was originally in the key of G played on a C harp.
Born Bora Minjevic in the Ukraine in 1902, Borrah Minevitch (shown above in a Hohner promotional photo from around 1923) is best known for his ensemble The Harmonica Rascals. However, his very first recording was as part of a trio put together by Victor Records to record the novelty tune "Hayseed Rag". Billed as The Dizzy Trio, Carson Robison played guitar and the ubiquitous Roy Smeck played banjo, with Minevitch supplying both piano and chromatic harmonica. Recorded in August 1924, this is the earliest commercial recording that features the chromatic harmonica. The recording plays in the key of C#, but I suspect that it has been sped up somewhere along the line and was actually played in the key of C, modulating to F for the piano solo, then back again to C. Minevitch is playing a 10-hole C chromatic in what was called "regular" tuning (ie the same as a standard 10-hole diatonic) which enables him to play the chordal vamping under the melody. Typical of early chromatics, the instrument is unvalved, allowing him to do some diatonic-like note bending.
This was the only piece recorded by The Dizzy Trio and was issued as Victor 19421, the other side being a version of "It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo'" by The International Novelty Orchestra.
Carl Freed is probably best known to harmonica buffs as the leader of the Harmonica Harlequins, one of the harmonica ensembles that rose to fame in the 1930s in the wake of Borrah Minevitch's Harmonica Rascals. However, Freed had already been playing his harmonica on the vaudeville circuit for quite some time, in partnership with multi-instrumentalist Sam Moore. Together they toured with an act entitled "Spooning and Ballooning", in which Freed played the spoons and Moore coaxed melodies from a balloon. As entertaining as that sounds, it doesn't seem to have been preserved for posterity on an audio recording, but some of their other musical specialties were, including this disk from 1924, issued as Vocalion 14865:
Not just any old harmonica blues, but a harmonica and musical saw blues! Actually, the intro isn't very bluesy at all, being a rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" played by Moore on his saw. Before long, however, Freed jumps in with some enthusiastic cross harp on a D Marine Band that may be bit of a surprise to those familiar with his chromatic playing with the Harlequins, finally bringing things to a close with a frantic straight harp version of "When You and I Were Young, Maggie".
The B-side of this disk brings together "Swannee River", "My Old Kentucky Home" (this time without the saw) and the obligatory "Turkey in the Straw", all played in first position on a D diatonic, with some chordal riffing to join the tunes together. This was their second disk for Vocalion (their first one, recorded the previous year, had yet another version of "My Old Kentucky Home" on it!) and it was reissued in 1939 as Vocalion 5131.
The record company didn't even bother to note the first names of the two brothers who recorded these two duets in Atlanta, Georgia back in January 1925. Issued as Columbia 315-D, the disk sold well enough that it was later reissued a couple of times credited to "The Sanders Twins", but the brothers were never invited back to make any more recordings.
Traveling Man's Blues (Train Imitations)
This is, as Columbia helpfully point out on with the parenthetical subtitle, a train imitation played in first position on G harps. Common as train pieces are for both blues and country harmonica players, train pieces played as duets are quite rare.
Mocking Bird (Bird Calls)
Another harmonica duet, "Mocking Bird" is the well known "Listen to the Mocking Bird", one of the most popular songs during the Civil War era. Again played in first position on G harps, one of the brothers also contributes some bird calls to the performance.
Although a competent harmonica player, William J. Haussler (1886 - 1932) was better known as the Vice President and General Manager of Hohner USA in the 1920s and is often credited with the invention of the modern chromatic harmonica and putting together the first harmonica bands. This disk is the earliest example of which I am aware of teaching the harmonica via the medium of recorded sound. Recorded in 1926, it features Haussler playing the harmonica, accompanied by Nathaniel Shilkret (then Director of Light Music for Victor and one of the busiest musicians of the 1920s) on piano, with Douglas Wakefield Coutlee (then business manager of the Charles C. Green Advertising Agency, Hohner's advertising agents for the United States) doing the narration. Issued as Victor 20377, it teaches the playing of the basic scale on a 10-hole diatonic in the key of C:
How To Play The Harmonica - Part 1
How To Play The Harmonica - Part 2
Haussler and Coutlee also taught the harmonica on the radio as part of the Hohner Harmony Hour, a show broadcast by several radio stations during the mid 1920s.
One of the biggest stars of the early harmonica scene is now largely forgotten. English-born Canadian entertainer William Valentine Robinson seems to have toured over most of the English-speaking world during the 1920s, regularly played second on the bill to Sir Harry Lauder (at the time the most highly paid entertainer in the world) and made several very popular recordings. These two tracks come from one of his last 78s, recorded shortly before his death in 1926, issued as Regal G7900:
The Regiment Passes By
"Darkie Dances" is a medley of popular American tunes played on a C diatonic in first position and "The Regiment Passes By" is played on a diatonic in A, also first position. To be honest, Robinson was not a particularly impressive player from a technical viewpoint, although both tunes are quite lively performances with some rather enthusiastic vamping. Gramophone magazine described the latter piece as "a horrid marvel of recording". I am not sure if that is supposed to be a compliment or not! The New Zealand Truth was rather less ambiguous with their review in their June 9th 1927 issue:
Another musician about whom I have been able to find very little information, William W. MacBeth was born in Pennsylvania (in either 1869, 1872 or 1882, depending which census report you believe) and spent most of his life in Dallas, Texas. He was regularly featured on the radio in that area in the 1920s with his Harmonica Harmonists. He recorded for Okeh in 1925, for Vocalion in 1928 and for Brunswick in 1929 and 1930. It is from his 1929 session that the following two tunes were taken, originally released as BR 373.
This selection of tunes is played on a chromatic harmonica in the key of A. Rather than the solo tuning that later became the standard for chromatic harmonicas, this uses the older tuning commonly used on 10-hole chromatics, essentially the same as a standard diatonic with a button to raise all the notes by a semitone. The medley starts with "Casey Jones", played in the key of Bb, with MacBeth holding the button in for most of the tune. He then releases the button to drop down to the key of A for the second part of the medley, "Old Folks at Home".
This is the earliest American recording I have heard that features a minor tuned harmonica (P.C. Hopkinson recorded with a minor tuned harmonica earlier that year in the UK on his tune "Coisley Hill"), although such instruments were listed in dealers catalogs from the late 1800s. It's hard to be sure from the recording whether MacBeth was using a minor tuned diatonic, or one of the so-called minor tuned chromatics that were available in the 1920s - these were 10-hole slide "chromatics" whose button switched between a major tuned set of reeds and a set of reeds tuned in the relative minor. Either way, he is using an Am instrument for the first part of the medley, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again", although the recording plays a little sharp. He then switches to an A chromatic for "Golden Slippers", pushing the button to move to the key of Bb for the next section "The Girl I Left Behind Me", then dropping back down to A once more.
As a bit of trivia, I also managed to find a report from a Southern Oklahoma newspaper called The Daily Ardmoreite about a "Texas vs Oklahoma" harmonica contest run in 1925 by the WBAP Star-Telegram, of Fort Worth, Texas, where MacBeth was pitted against one C.H. Wright, manager of the Madill Lumber Company. Apparently Wright was the winner.
Gwen (or "Gwyn" or "Gwin") Foster is perhaps better known than most of the other harmonica players on this page, recording quite prolifically during the 1920s and 1930s as a member of the Carolina Tar Heels, The Carolina Twins, The Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers, with Clarence "Tom" Ashley, with David Fletcher and as a solo artist, playing both harmonica and guitar. Born in Edgemont, North Carolina on Christmas Day 1903, he was originally inspired to take up the harmonica by an uncle who player, later learning from a neighbouring musician by the name of Marshall Revels, going on to develop one of the most distinctive harmonica styles in the entire history of the instrument. Foster generally played the harmonica in a rack, whilst also playing the guitar. He seems to have tongue-blocked more or less exclusively and one of his trademark sounds is the sideways wiggling of his tongue to give rapid alternation of two notes with one or more holes blocked between them. He also made extensive use of fast trills between the bent and unbent notes in the same hole of the harmonica. Despite his considerable talents, Foster never became a full time musician, working most of his life in the textile mills and dying in 1954 of a heart attack, possibly brought on by his heavy drinking.
Times Ain't Like They Used To Be
Foster recorded a well-known version of this tune in 1933 with Clarence Ashley, but this particular recording was made a year earlier by Foster with singer/banjoist Dock Walsh, released on Victor 23682 under the name The Original Carolina Tar Heels. This tune features some typical playing by Foster, in first position on a G harp.
The vast majority of Foster's playing is done in first position, however he did record a few tunes that showed he was quite comfortable playing cross harp. This piece comes from a 1933 Ashley and Foster session, originally issued on Victor 2611. The song is a standard 12-bar blues in the key of B and Foster is playing an E harp.
Willie "Red" Newman, AKA Syd Newman, AKA Willie "Red" Herman, AKA El Pelirrojo Armonico, was a regular member of the Oklahoma Cowboys, a group lead by fiddler and singer Jack Pierce. He also got the chance to record a few tunes under his own name (or names!) including this gem from Bluebird B-6625, issued in 1936:
St. Louis Blues
This is perhaps not the most subtle performance ever recorded of the W.C. Handy classic, but it does feature some interesting harmonica work. Perhaps most notable is the bending of 1 draw upwards in pitch, as described on this page. Willie is playing a C diatonic in first position. According to his great niece, he was born Sydney Newman in NYC in 1908, one of eight children whose parents had emigrated from Poland. Apparently he worked for one day in a factory, decided it wasn't for him and spent the rest of his life working in show business, both as a multi-instrumentalist performer and later as a booking agent.
Born in the Scottish town of Ballater in 1910, Donald Davidson played harmonica from a very early age. By the late 1920s, Davidson was broadcasting regularly on the Aberdeen radio station 2BD and was heard by a talent scout who signed him up for Beltona Records. Over the next decade, he recorded about 40 sides for Beltona, the two pieces featured here being from his last session in November 1939, issued as BL-2420. These two performances are notable for two reasons. Firstly, they were tunes of his own composition, rather than traditional Scottish tunes. Even more interestingly, they were performed on a chromatic tremolo harmonica he built himself, something his record company felt obliged to bring to their customers' attention.
Frisky Lambs, Dobbin's New Shoes
His tremolo chromatic appears to have been tuned in D major, with the slide raising each note by a semitone, as with a standard chromatic. "Frisky Lambs" is played in Bm, the relative minor to D major. "Dobbin's New Shoes" is played in D major.
This piece is also in D major, but the chromatic capabilities of the instrument are more apparent than on the previous tunes.
Sadly, although he lived until 1987, Davidson never recorded again.
John Sebastian Jr is well known as the founder of the band Lovin' Spoonful, a featured performer at the legendary Woodstock Festival, the composer and singer of the "Welcome Back, Kotter" theme and guest harmonica player on "Roadhouse Blues" by The Doors. Slightly less well known by the general public, but no less respected by harmonica cognoscenti, is his father John Sebastian Sr, one of the first true virtuosi of the chromatic harmonica. However, on these recordings he is demonstrating some utterly basic techniques on the 10-hole diatonic. Recorded around 1940 and released by Schirmer Records as Green Seal 7509 and 7510, they were part of a kit that also included a harmonica and some printed instructions, all for the princely sum of $2. Unless you've never played a harmonica before in your life, you're probably not going to learn much from this one, but I present it as an item of historical interest:
Willie Hood, better known as Rhythm Willie, is one of my favorite harmonica players. There are other pages on this site where I write about him in more depth (here, here and here), so here I will just share a couple of classic Rhythm Willie performances. First is a track that Willie recorded in 1947 with the Earl Bostic Orchestra:
Here, Willie is rocking out in first position on a Bb harp. This is one of four tunes that were recorded for Aladdin Records, but were not chosen for release. This track eventually turned up on a long out of print LP compilation called "Aladdin Rocks and Rolls 'til Midnight", but the other tracks have never been issued.
I Got Rhythm
The Gershwin classic is given the Rhythm Willie treatment, with Willie playing in first position on a C harmonica. This was one of the two tunes recorded at Willie's last session and issued in 1950 on Premium PR-866, with "Wailin' Willie" on the other side. Not everyone was impressed by Willie's skills, however. Here is a less than glowing review from Billboard Magazine, December 1950:
Establishing whether or not an old recording is still protected by copyright can be somewhat tricky, particularly in the case of recordings made in America, where copyright is a matter of state law rather than national law. As far as am I able to determine, all of the above recordings are now in the Public Domain and there should no problem in downloading these tracks for personal use. If anyone has evidence that any of these recordings are still protected by copyright, please let me know and I will remove them as soon as possible.