Chris Wilson, widely regarded as one of Australia's best harmonica players. Pic: Mandy Hall/Flickr.

Music, Non-Fiction

Of Covid-19 and Harmonicas

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It started in March. Remember March? The old ‘don’t touch your face/wait a minute, did you say there’s no footy?’ days. It was a Friday, as I recall, and the last time that I saw my place of work or used public transport. It seems like decades ago.

I got off at Flinders Street station with a plan to do some normal things as a way of offsetting the creeping dread of Covid-19. This was March remember, when you could still do one or two normal things, even while toilet paper was mysteriously vanishing from the shelves at Coles. I had a coffee at a cafe. Wow, that’s a nice memory. I bought a CD and chatted about music with the person behind the counter. We weren’t on Zoom, we were a good metre and half away from each other (seems so quaint now) but we were in the same place. Then I went to another shop and bought a Hohner Marine Band harmonica in the key of C.

I’ll back up a bit to those shimmering days of February. Never such innocence again and all that. I was reading an article about Chicago in the 1960s and playing the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album. That led me down a rabbit hole of blues harmonica. I listened to Little Walter, Sonny Boy II, Sonny Boy I, James Cotton (who I met when I was a teenager!), Carey Bell, Papa Lightfoot, Charlie Musselwhite and many others. Then I started wondering about contemporary blues harmonica players, so I googled something like, ‘contemporary blues harmonica players’.

You can try this at home but among the names I came across was Adam Gussow. I remembered that there was a documentary on Netflix that I had been meaning to watch called Satan & Adam that was about Gussow’s friendship and musical partnership with guitarist Sterling ‘Mr Satan’ Magee. You know these guys, by the way. They appear in U2’s movie Rattle and Hum. Remember that scene with The Edge nodding approvingly at two buskers in Harlem? That’s them.

I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the documentary. Even if the blues isn’t your thing (really?) the film is also about passion, growing old joyfully, connecting with people, and other reassuring stuff that will go down well at the moment. I looked up Adam online and found to my astonishment that he has made many, and I mean MANY, short instructional clips. They are available for free on YouTube under the moniker of Modern Blues Harmonica.

Adam is an interesting character. He is a highly respected musician who happens also to be a professor of English at the University of Mississippi. He has written a memoir, a novel, and a fascinating historical study of the devil in blues music. The clips are brief, entertaining, and mostly done in his car. He runs through everything from beginner level blues riffs to complicated stuff like tongue blocking and overblowing.

But back to my last normal day in March. I should mention that the CD I bought was Chris Wilson’s Live at the Continental, the reissued version with two discs. My recent interest in harmonica had inspired a 2AM YouTube loop (lasting longer and longer, aren’t they?) that took me to a clip of his early band, Harem Scarem, along with his stunning appearance on Rockwiz performing his song Hard Land. I had been a fan for at least 20 years.  

If you are wondering why then I didn’t own Live at the Continental already, I can only say that marriages end and things have to be divided up. If you love it, you will know that it is one of the great late-night records. “The clock radio on the mantle says 4:33. I’m asleep on the beanbag in front of the colour TV.” Preach, brother! There is a lot conveyed in those lyrics. His mantle is not festooned with family photos, only a cheap clock radio. The colour television is enough of a novelty that he mentions it. I see a decaying terrace house somewhere in the inner city. Not much furniture but plenty of takeaway containers, empty wine bottles and roommates. We’ve all been there and Chris Wilson nails it in this song.

The harmonica . . . is very forgiving. You can draw (inhale) or blow (exhale) just about anywhere on one and make something that sounds like a chord.

He was at his best on stage. I saw him a few times and loved his laconic wit and the ever-so-slightly disreputable atmosphere he brought to his shows. I remember seeing him in Perth one night where the band all revealed their ‘porn’ names (first pet + childhood street ie Fluffy Flinders) and even though it was already an old joke at the time, he made it hilarious as he delivered each one in his sonorous voice. I wish I could remember his because it was the best I’d ever heard.

Chris Wilson died of cancer last year. He was 62 and had been playing and recording music for about 35 years. A long journey but one that still had plenty of ground to cover, I believe. He had a voice that was admired by many, including Bob Dylan who he supported in the early 1990s. He was also, as I have noted, a gifted writer.

But this is an article about harmonica playing and Chris Wilson is easily among the top two or three players this country has ever produced. Listen to his work on the mini album he made with Johnny Diesel. All the colour and attack of his playing are on display here. He had the ability to weave the harmonica into a song and not simply blast away in the fashion of so many players. Even if you have never heard any of his albums, you know his work on Paul Kelly’s Dumb Things. One beautifully sustained howl that opens, and defines, an Australian classic.

So, I mourned Chris Wilson as March turned into April and I was spending less time outside and more of it at my desk, playing harmonica and listening to music. I wish I’d seen him live more times. I wish I’d got to know him a little. I liked his music book reviews on Triple RRR’s Off The Record program. At one time, I maintained a blog where I reviewed books about music. I always thought that it would be great to have a coffee with Chris and chat about our favourites. He seemed like a good guy. It’s odd how the loss of someone famous, someone you admire but don’t know, can hit you months or even years later. I decided that when this damn Covid-19 thing was over, I would see more bands and have more coffees with interesting people.

My harmonica technique is improving slowly with the help of Adam Gussow’s clips. My son, who has suffered through my sax playing for years, says that I have “found my instrument.” He is being charitable but the harmonica, unlike sax, is very forgiving. You can draw (inhale) or blow (exhale) just about anywhere on one and make something that sounds like a chord.

Once you are able to play individual notes, basic bending is not all that hard and sounds pretty cool. I’m not saying it is an easy instrument to learn. None of them are, really. But it doesn’t sound terrible while you are building up your skills which, if you are thinking of taking it up, will come as a relief to the people you are stuck in the house with at the moment.

It doesn’t sound terrible while you are building up your skills which . . . will come as a relief to the people you are stuck in the house with at the moment.

And the harmonica is a great guide to all sorts of different music. It is used to great effect in blues, of course, but also in jazz, dub, classical, pop, soul, and various flavours of ‘world’. If you really want to dive in, the classical harmonica awaits.

The harmonica community is vast and relatively friendly compared to the ferocious online forums around other instruments. Try electric guitar if you want to meet a lot of really angry people. Unlike say, kettle drums or bagpipes, harmonicas are compact, relatively inexpensive, and of modest volume. You have probably noted that harmonica solos get plenty of applause at concerts. The time has come for you to stand up, play your part, and take a bow.

Here is the recipe, and it only requires the device you are reading this on:

  1. Order a C harmonica online (most of the lessons available are done in the key of G. The key of C model means you play in second position aka ‘cross harp’. You’ll find out all about it but get a C, not something freakish like an E flat.).
  2. Here’s the good part: For around 70 bucks you can get exactly the same instrument that professionals play. Try that with an electric guitar! The Hohner Marine Band is the classic model as played by everyone from Abe Lincoln to Bruce Springsteen. The Fender Telecaster of harmonicas. Yes, I know that Abe Lincoln didn’t play a Tele. A Gibson man, clearly.
  3. While you are waiting for it to arrive, watch Satan & Adam on Netflix and;
  4. Listen to Chris Wilson’s Live at the Continental album.
  5. Pick up the harmonica from your front porch where the postie has left it after hammering on your door.
  6. Find Adam Gussow’s harmonica instruction clips on Youtube and;
  7. Begin playing.
  8. Start imagining a career change. ‘Hey everyone, I’ve decided to give up real estate and become a blues artist’
  9. Up to you. As Joseph Campbell might have said, ‘follow your harmonica’.

6 responses to “Of Covid-19 and Harmonicas

  1. Hi Tony:
    Thanks for directing folks towards my videos! The harmonica is indeed a great resource in this stressful time–as long as you wash your hands before playing.

    I did want to direct those who might be interested towards one of my recent videos where I specifically raised the question of how one might use the harmonica to make it through. It’s called “coronavirus blues – a survival guide”:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=727rhQQbLXQ

    Stay healthy!

    1. Hi Adam,

      Just finished reading “Seems Like Murder Here”. Excellent book but heavy going. Really made me consider the origins of the Blues in a new light.

      Cheers

      John Durr
      President
      Melbourne Blues Appreciation Society.

  2. Hey Tony,
    Great article. Especially about Satan and Adam. Then again, I’m “Satan’s Roadie” the guy who pops up in the film about 3/4 the way through. It’s always great to hear from those who “are in the know” how much they enjoyed the doc.

    Kevin Moore

    1. Greetings fellow blues persons. I first picked up a harmonica aged 10 (way back in 1961!). It was a Christmas stocking present and was one of those cheap Chinese multi reed models. I did learn to play simple, and gradually more sophisticated tunes and then let it go. Aged 16 I discovered the Hohner Blues Harp – to all intents and purposes exactly the same as the Marine Band and played and played and played, listening all the while to the blues harp greats. I’ve played and sung in more bands than I can remember and had a wonderful time. The closest any of those bands came to fame was James Cruickshank’s band before he formed the Cruel Sea. I’m still playing at 69 – great exercise for the lungs – at a Friday evening jam night at a bar/diner called the River Rock in Bermagui, far south coast of New South Wales. Thanks Daily Review for the opportunity to share.

  3. Thanks for this Tony, particularly your thoughts on Chris Wilson – Live at the Continental is one of the great Australian live records. I saw Chris a few times over the years, including at the Spotted Mallard and the Union in Brunswick and a Carlton pub I forget the name of. Also saw him in company with Ian Collard, another great harmonica player. A generous, supremely talented performer of the blues. Like you, I wish I had known him.

  4. Great article. Good on you for writing a story about harmonica playing. I figure I must be a slow learner though, because I don’t find it an easy instrument to master. Adam’s teaching is great and I also want to share a video by another American Jon Gindick which I found really helpful in getting bending right. . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MZqnWXxI9I
    Annie Raines also has good video lessons.
    I can imagine us all in our houses practicing away – I am trying to learn a Stevie Wonder song on harmonica to submit to the Couch Choir for their latest arrangement.

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