Although the recording companies in the twenties and thirties made a strong distinction between black and white musicians, the musicians themselves and to some extent, the record buyers of the time, did not seem to observe this distinction quite so strongly - Jimmie Rodgers became popular with black listeners and Blind Lemon Jefferson became popular with whites. Lonnie Johnson and Ed Lang even managed to record together, albeit under false names. As well as blues influenced white guitarists such as Dick Justice and Frank Hutchison, many white harp players were influenced by black players. String band leader Dr. Humphrey Bate remembered learning harp pieces from an ex-slave and, of course, there were many tunes fairly evenly shared between black and white musicians - "John Henry", "Lost John" and the inevitable fox chases and train imitations.
Many white harp players tended to concentrate on the top octave of the instrument, the blues influence just being a few bent blow notes here and there. Gwen Foster, a star musician in anyone's book, took this style and elevated it to a high art, with flutters, bends, trills and I'm pretty sure he played guitar at the same time! There were white harp players who played cross harp too. Born in Virginia in 1892, Henry Whitter played some of the first hillbilly music to make it onto record and played both guitar and harp. "Rain Crow Bill" was one of his most popular pieces - he recorded it in 19231 and again in 19272. Played on a D harp, I have transcribed the main riff as an example of his playing. I have notated just the melody line of the piece - Whitter uses the tongue blocking method to play chords underneath these notes, I'm sure you can add these for yourself after learning the melody. Notice the pauses and broken time that was a main feature of Whitter's harp style. Many black players recorded similar tunes to this - Noah Lewis's "Devil In The Woodpile"3 is one of the first that springs to my mind.
From the fairly well-known Henry Whitter to the relatively obscure D.H. Bilbro. This is probably the same person who recorded both solo and with guitar accompaniment under the name Bert Bilbro. Probably from the Carolinas, I have chosen his "Chester Blues"4 as an example. This track appeared on 78 as the flip side of DeFord Bailey's "John Henry" - the two tunes are rather similar and Bilbro and Bailey played in similar styles. Played on an A harp the tune is built from variations of the riff I have transcribed.
As well as Whitter and Bilbro, there are many early white harmonica players who are of interest to the student of the blues harp, players such as Gwen Foster, W.W. MacBeth and Kyle Wooten. Unfortunately, the market for reissues is such that less-than-spectacular blues harpists like Jazz Gillum have their complete works reissued, whilst Kyle Wooten remains something of an obscurity. Thanks are due to County Records for "Old Time Harmonica Classics", but I'm still waiting for that "Best Of Gwen Foster" album!
1. Available for free download on this page.
2. Reissued on LP Old Time Harmonica Classics (County Records 549), but now out of print.
3. Reissued on Gus Cannon/Noah Lewis Vol. 2 (Document DOCD-5033). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
4. Reissued on Harp Blowers 1925-36 (Document DOCD-5164). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
When I wrote this article, more than a quarter century ago, there was virtually no information available on Bert Bilbro. Since then, more bibliographical details have come to light. He was born Bert Hunter Bilbro ("D. H." was an error on the part of his record company) and was born in Mississippi in 1888. He moved to South Carolina, by way of Alabama and Georgia (where he made his first recordings), settling in the city of Chester, where he worked as a cotton field labourer. He was locally a very popular entertainer, doing black face comedy in addition to his singing and harmonica playing.
He died of a heart attack in September 1951.
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