Many players seem to think that blues harmonica began with Little Walter and are unaware of the rich tradition from which players like Little Walter drew. Many of my own favorite blues harp player recorded in the 1920s and 1930s and many of them developed intriguing personalised approaches to the instrument - before 78rpm records became widespread and popular enough to establish what harp players were "supposed" to sound like. Nearly all of the pre-war recordings of blues harmonica have been re-issued on CD by companies such as Document Records (who also handle RST Records and others). Here are a list of compilation which feature great examples of early blues harp in a wide variety of contexts from solo harp and/or voice, through jug bands, to the precursors of the modern blues band style.
I have provided links to Amazon.com to obtain more details, or to order these CDs online. For more information about the Amazon Associates scheme, please read this page.
Great Harp Players 1927-36 (Document DOCD-5100)
Features the complete recordings of William Francis & Richard Sowell, Ollis Martin, El Watson, Palmer McAbee, George 'Bullet' Williams, Blues Birdhead, Ellis Williams, Alfred Lewis And Smith & Harper. Essential listening. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Gus Cannon/Noah Lewis Vol. 1 (Document DOCD-5032)
Gus Cannon/Noah Lewis Vol. 2 (Document DOCD-5033)
Both volumes feature the legendary Noah Lewis as part of Cannon's Jug Stompers, plus Volume 2 has Noah's solo sides and tunes recorded with his own jug band. Click here to buy Volume 1; click here to buy Volume 2.
Jaybird Coleman and the Birmingham Jug Band 1927 - 1930 (Document DOCD-5140)
The complete recordings of one of my all-time favorites, Jaybird Coleman, along with Frank Palmes, who may or may not have been Coleman recording under a pseudonym. Some truly stunning solo harp and voice performances, as well as some less successful tunes with singularly inappropriate piano accompaniment. Also features some storming, if repetitive, tunes from the Birmingham Jug Band, who may or may not have had Coleman playing harp for them. To my ears, it's not Coleman, but it's good music anyway. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Texas: Black Country Dance Music (Document DOCD-5162)
Only one harp player, William McCoy, but his six songs are easily worth the price of the whole CD. His "Train Imitations And The Fox Chase" is one of the definitive versions of this traditional theme. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Harp Blowers 1925-36 (Document DOCD-5164)
The complete early recordings of DeFord Bailey - some must-hear solo harp instrumentals from the first big star of the blues harmonica. Also includes the complete recordings of the less well known John Henry Howard, D. H. 'Bert' Bilbro and George Clarke. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Fans of DeFord Bailey will want to pick up a copy of David's Morton's book "DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music", an excellent biography of Bailey which clears up many of the rumours concerning his retirement from the music business, as well as giving great insight into his life and music. Click here for more details from Amazon.com.
Leecan and Cooksey Vol 1 (Document DOCD-5279)
Leecan and Cooksey Vol 2 (Document DOCD-5280)
Slightly more urbanised stylings from Robert Cooksey. Some lovely early jazzy (mostly first position) harp playing, with his long standing musical partner Bobby Leecan (banjo, guitar and vocals), as well as accompanying some of the classic female blues singers such as Viola McCoy, Sara Martin, Helen Baxter and Margaret Johnson. Click here for details of Volume 1; click here for details of Volume 2.
Georgia Blues 1928 - 1933 (Document DOCD-5110)
The complete recordings of Eddie Mapp, Slim Barton and James Moore. Some lyrical playing by these much neglected harp players, plus some guitar blues from Curley Weaver And Fred McMullen. Beautiful stuff. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Eddie Mapp's career is unfortunately rather typical of many blues players in the twenties and thirties - after making a few records, he was found dead in the street in Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of twenty. This means that he was just seventeen or eighteen years old at the time of his only recording session. Mapp's playing on these sides is very mature for such a young musician and covers a range of different styles. My favorite piece by him is the slow, field-holler style song "Wicked Treatin' Blues", which is performed with just Mapp's harp and Slim Barton's voice. The tune itself is a traditional one, the melody being related to such tunes as "Reuben", "500 Miles" and DeFord Bailey's "Evening Prayer Blues".
Sonny Terry Vol 1 1938 - 1945 (Document DOCD-5230)
Sonny Terry Vol 2 1944 - 1949 (Document DOCD-5657)
Only one harp player on these albums, but what a player! Sonny's complete recordings prior to 1950. (Well, almost complete - there are a couple of outtakes that crop up on "Too Late, Too Late - Vol 5 1927 - 1964" (DOCD-5411) and "Too Late, Too Late - Vol 10 1926 - 1951" (DOCD-5601)). Click here for details of Volume 1; click here for details of Volume 2.
If you are the ultimate Sonny Terry completist, then you can buy "Too Late, Too Late - Vol 5" by clicking here and "Too Late, Too Late - Vol 10" by clicking here.
Hokum Blues 1924 - 1929 (Document DOCD-5370)
Not much harmonica on this album, but it does have the playing of Herbert Leonard, who holds the honour of being the first African-American blues harmonica player to have made a record. His debut with Clara Smith is not included here, but we do get two instrumentals from the Two of Spades (Leonard, accompanied by the banjo/ukulele of Harry 'Ukelele' Mays) plus a two tracks with singer Louis Ross. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
The first tune Leonard recorded with Clara Smith, "My Doggone Lazy Man", is available on "Clara Smith Vol 2 1924" (DOCD-5365) and his later session with her, producing the song "My Good For Nothin' Man", can be found on "Clara Smith Vol 3 1925" (DOCD-5366). Click here for details of Volume 2; click here for details of Volume 3.
Memphis Harp & Jug Blowers 1927 - 1939 (RST Records BDCD-6028)
Features the complete works of Jed Davenport and the earliest recordings of Walter Horton (as a teenager) accompanying singer/guitarist Little Buddy Doyle, with a few examples of Will Shade's harp playing thrown in for good measure. The modern blues harp style in its infancy - another must hear CD. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Field Recordings Vol 7 Florida 1935 - 1936 (Document DOCD-5587)
Diamonds in the rough. Booker T. Sapps and Roger Matthews play the blues like it was played outside the recording studio back in the 30s. Storming versions of the Fox and Hounds, the Train and other traditional pieces. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson (Document Classic Blues Series CBL-200013)
A two-CD set of the best of John Lee Williamson. Without him, there would have been no Little Walter - the word "essential" in the title is no exaggeration. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Harps, Jugs, Washboards and Kazoos (RST Records JPCD-1505-2)
Features the truly astonishing Rhythm Willie - a unique player, he sounds like Louis Armstrong would have done if he had played harmonica. Also features the Five Harmaniacs, but buy it for Rhythm Willie's four classic instrumentals from 1940! Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Alabama Black Country Dance Bands 1924 - 1949 (Document DOCD-5166)
These recordings are probably more of historical interest, rather than spectacular example of red hot harmonica playing. Still, they do have a charm all of their own. We are treated to Daddy Stovepipe's early recordings (including some very early examples of 12th position playing) some of which feature contributions on jug from his wife Mississippi Sarah and rather annoying interruptions from Whistlin' Pete - one of the few blues whistlers ever to be allowed into a recording studio! Just as charming are the medicine show style harmonica and banjo from Ben Curry, including his classic "I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop" recorded under the wonderful pseudonym of Bogus Ben Covington. (Here's a hint - Ben wasn't really blind!) Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Harmonica Blues 1929 - 1940 (Wolf Records WSE106)
Another source of Rhythm Willie's classic 1940 session, along with the complete recorded works of Smith and Harper, George Clarke and Eddie Kelly's Washboard Band. It also has two tracks from Noah Lewis's Jug Band (duplicated on the Document CD mentioned above) and four tracks from Jed Davenport (duplicated on the RST CD mentioned above). If you don't already have the Lewis, Davenport or Rhythm Willie material, this CD is well worth having. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Black and White Hillbilly Music (Bear Family CD-0226)
The title says it all. A nice selection of harmonica-lead blues, Cajun, hillbilly and even Hawaiian music. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Harmonica Blues (Yazoo YAZCD-1053)
A classic compilation. Great music from Freeman Stowers, Carver Boys, Gwen Foster, Chuck Darling, Jaybird Coleman, DeFord Bailey and others, plus great sleevenotes and cover art by Robert Crumb. What more could you want? Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Harmonica Masters (Yazoo YAZCD-2019)
In a similar vein to the previous album, but with a slightly wider focus, featuring hillbilly and early country, as well as blues harp. Performers include DeFord Bailey, Kyle Wooten, The Murphy Brothers Harp Band, Gwen Foster, Jaybird Coleman And Salty Holmes. Click here for more details from Amazon.com
Harmonica Blues Mississipi, Memphis, Chicago 1927-1941 (Fremeaux FA040)
An excellent overview of pre-war blues harmonica and a great starting point for the newcomer to early blues harp. A 2-CD set with a 32 page booklet (in English). Click here for more details from Amazon.com
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