Historic Folk Toys: Music, 'Harmonica in C'

Historic Folk Toys: Music, 'Harmonica in C'

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Harmonica in C
Our Harmonica in C is an excellent quality ten-hole (twenty notes) harmonica, which is an ideal instrument for a beginning player. Our package includes basic playing instructions with two easy-to-play tunes and a brief history.

Historical Background: The harmonica is a free-reed wind instrument that has multiple, variably tuned reeds. The reeds are made from either bronze or brass. Each reed is secured at one end over an airway slot. As air passes through the slot, the reed vibrates and interrupts the air stream to make a specifically pitched sound. The harmonica is also known as a "mouth organ," "french harp" (or simply "harp"), and "Mississippi saxophone."

As a free-reed instrument, the harmonica belongs to the same family of musical instruments as reed organs, accordions, and melodicas. Unlike its other family members that have keyboards, the mouth organ uses the player's lips and tongue to select one or more slots (or holes). The holes are usually arranged in a linear manner on the mouthpiece. Types of harmonicas include the diatonic harmonica (10 holes, 19 notes, and 3 octaves), special-tuned harmonicas, the 14-hole diatonic harmonica, the chromatic harmonica, the bass harmonica, the cord harmonica (with 48 chords), the Tremolo harmonica, the octave harmonica, and toy harmonicas.

The origin of the harmonica is generally accepted by musicologists to come from a Chinese wind instrument called a "sheng" (or "cheng") circa 3000 B.C. Despite the fact that these two instruments' shapes differ greatly, both use a free-reed mechanism in a very similar manner. In 1636, Marin Mersànne introduced Europe to the sheng through his letters describing it as "an Asian free-reed wind instrument." In 1776, French Jesuit missionary Pare Amiot shipped several shengs from China to Paris, France. By the 1780s, European instrument makers were experimenting with free-reeds.

In 1816, a free-reeded keyboard instrument called a "terpodion" was introduced by Johann Buschmannn, a German organ builder. This instrument would later become the predecessor to both the harmonica and the harmonium. His sixteen-year-old son, Christian Friedrich Buschmann, would invent and register in 1821 for the first European patent of a free-reeded mouth organ, which he called the "aura," or "mundaeoline."

In 1825, the first 20-note (10-hole), blow-draw, free reed-mouth organ was developed by a Bohemian named Richter (first name unknown). Two years later, a clock maker in Trossingen, Germany, started making harmonicas with his cousin, Christian Weiss. In two more years, 1829, the first massproduction of harmonicas began in Vienna, Austria.

Image Courtesy of Hohner, Inc.A fellow clock maker in Trossingen, Mathias Hohner, visited the harmonica shop of Messner and Weiss in 1857. Shortly thereafter, he (along with family members and one or two workers) began to make harmonicas in his kitchen. Their first year's production was 700 harmonicas. By 1867, the M. Hohner Company was producing 22,000 harmonicas a year. Most of the world's harmonicas made today are by the M. Hohner Company in a factory that is still located in Trossingen, Germany.

In 1878, Julius Berthold developed a machine to stamp out metal reeds, thus ending the need to make reeds by hand. The following year, the Richter-note configuration was introduced to 10-hole harmonicas. This would later become the standard configuration for diatonic harmonicas. The American Depression of 1893 caused the M. Hohner Company to stop exporting harmonicas to the U.S. and start marketing mouth organs to other countries. This decision ultimately expanded the range of the harmonica's influence in the world.

Three years later (1896), the M. Hohner Company introduced their revolutionary Marine Band model harmonica. Its raised, ornate metal covers and superb construction features would eventually make it the world's top-selling harmonica.

Use of the harmonica, however, did not become widespread in Europe and was considered a very limited "standalone instrument." Around 1900, a relative of Hohner started exporting harmonicas to the United States. There they soon became a very popular musical instrument because of their compact size and due to the fact "harps" (as Americans now called them) were relatively easy to learn to play.

The earliest music recordings of harmonicas occurred during the 1920s in the U.S. These first recordings were primarily "race records" that were marketed to southern African-Americans. An early solo recording artist during this period was DeFord Bailey who also "cut" the first country music records in Nashville, Tennessee. Other harp recording artists were often accompanied by a guitarist and they include Walter Horton, Hammie Nixon, and Sonny Terry. Later, the harmonica was incorporated into novelty acts called "jug bands," such as the famous Memphis Jug Band. During this decade, harmonica bands sprung up throughout the U.S. and became "the rage in Vaudeville."

The 1920s saw other developments for the harmonica. Philadelphian philanthropist, Albert Hoxie, organized harmonica contests and bands (complete with marching uniforms). His generous efforts spawned a national craze for harmonica bands. In 1924, the M. Hohner Company introduced the chromatic harmonica and followed up by creating bass, chord, and polyphonia models to satisfy the needs of harmonica bands.

Despite the harmonica's popularity in the U.S., the instrument was regarded by many to be just a toy and associated with "poor folks" during the 1930s. It was during the Great Depression that harmonicists started to experiment and develop new techniques. These innovations include tongue blocking, hand effects, and -- perhaps the greatest innovation of all -- the 2nd position, or "cross harp."

The Great Depression did not, however, stymy the harmonica's growth in popularity. Harmonica bands were still the rage in the U.S. Many public schools were now making harmonica instruction part of their standard curriculum. Even Hollywood started putting harmonica bands in their movies. It was during this decade that the first major soloist on the harmonica emerged, Larry Adler, who played both Classical and Jazz pieces. But by the end of the 1930s, the jug band craze was fading away (at least until the Folk revival in the 1960s).

Unfortunately, World War II temporarily stopped the import of harmonicas from Germany to the U.S. This war also caused many harmonica bands to dissolve as players enlisted in the armed forces. But there was also a labor shortage in the northern manufacturing states that enticed hundreds of southern Blues harmonica players to migrate north for work.

It is for this reason that the harmonica and its southern-style of music found "homes" in the northern U.S. -- particularly in Chicago, Detroit, New York City, and St. Louis, where many black migrants and blues musicians relocated. It was in these cities (and mostly in Chicago) that the harmonica and its Blues and Jazz music began a tremendous evolution. This musical evolution came about through "electric amplification" -- first the guitar, then the harmonica, followed by the bass, vocals, and other instruments.

There have been many notable blues harp players in America, but two stand out as pioneers of the blues harmonica -- and both used the stage name, "Sonny Boy Williamson"! One was John Lee Williamson (1899-1948) and the other was Alex Ford Miller (1914-1965). John Lee's first recording, "Good Morning, School Girl," became a hit in 1937. His style influenced many Blues performers, including Billy Boy Arnold, Sonny Terry, and a young Muddy Waters. Miller, on the other hand, became such a virtuoso that his peers nicknamed him the "King of the Harmonicas." Over the years, there have been many, many Blues and Jazz harmonicists who recorded and received deserving critical acclaim.

The 1950s saw the virtual disappearance of harmonica bands. However, harmonica trios grew in popularity, thanks to the success of The Harmonicats. During this decade, electric or amplified harmonicas dominated the Chicago Blues scene and was led by Little Walter. Legend has it that Little Walter plugged his harmonica microphone directly into a guitar amplifier while recording with Muddy Waters, thus becoming the first to record a Chicago-style amplified harmonica. This overdrove the sound and created an entirely new style of harmonica playing. Despite this innovation, guitar players began and continued to dominate the American music scene while harmonicas basically disappeared for awhile.

English merchant seamen would often bring recordings of American Rock and Blues music home with them on their return trips. Many an English-seaport teenager would eventually learn about the Blues and "Rock n' Roll" from these American recordings. One notable example is a Liverpool adolescent by the name of John Lennon. However, it was actually Blues fans such as Cyril Davies and John Mayall that really laid the foundation for the "British Invasion" of America in the 1960s. It was also during the 1950s that Jean "Toots" Thielemans became a major instrumentalist in Jazz with his harmonica.

Bob Dylan inspired thousands of musicians to explore with the harmonica during the Folk music craze of the 1960s. He also renewed interest in jug bands. And, of course, the British Invasion of the American music scene was spearheaded by The Beatles in 1964. Not only did Lennon feature a harmonica in his songs, but several other bands did so as well, such as The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds. By the late 1960s, a rebirth in popularity for the harmonica in Blues was led by Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, and Corky Siegel of Chicago, Illinois.

The harmonica experienced yet another decline in popularity during the 1970s as guitarists continued to dominate both Blues and Rock music while Country music stagnated in an "overproduced Nashville sound." Only The J. Geils Band and its harmonica player, Magic Dick, stands out for Rock harmonica during this period. As the decade wore on, Blues music in general also suffered a decline in popularity, but not for long!

Like a yo-yo, the popularity for and interest in the Blues harmonica bounces back (once again) in the 1980s, thanks to a couple of comedians on the television show "Saturday Night Live." John Belushi and Dan Akroyd's love for Blues music inspired them to create a musical skit in the late 1970s called "The Blues Brothers" (and, in 1980, a feature film). It is also during this decade that the Cham-Ber Huang and Lee Oskar Harmonica Companies introduced harmonica design innovations, such as new tunings and replaceable reed plates.

In the 1990s, Sugar Blue, Howard Levy, and John Popper of the band Blues Traveler pushed the limits of harmonica playing in Blues, Jazz, and Rock music. Country music also sparked renewed interest in the harmonica when it returned to its traditional music.

Historical Folk Toys is pleased to continue a long tradition by offering our Harmonica in C (5101), which is ideal for beginners.

Fun Fact: By 1887, the M. Hohner Company was producing 1 million harmonicas annually. Ten years later, they would be making 3 million harmonicas a year. And, in 1911, the company produced 8 million harmonicas. Sometime during the year 1986, they produced their billionth harmonica! (This is quite an accomplishment for a business that was started in a family's kitchen!)

Fun Fact: The Harmonicats' recording of "Peg O' My Heart" was the best-selling record of 1947. It would later become one of the all-time, best-selling singles with over 20 million copies sold! This record's success also convinced the Musician's Union to change the harmonica's classification from "toy" to "legitimate instrument," thus allowing harmonicists to join the union.

Fun Fact: The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH) was founded in Detroit, Michigan, in 1962.

Fun Fact: The harmonica became the first musical instrument to be played in outer space on December 16, 1965, when astronaut Wally Schirra played "Jingle Bells" on a Hohner Little Lady model -- that he smuggled aboard Gemini 4!

PACKAGE DIMENSIONS - 5.5 x 4.5 x 1.25"