I’m listening to the Willie Nelson album “First Rose of Spring” on a summer day and as I am wont to do, I look to see who the accompanying musicians are. A couple of names are familiar but one in particular stands out: Mickey Raphael — harmonica. I’ve seen his name on several Willie Nelson albums and as a member of the band during Willie’s appearances on PBS programs.
I take an interest in Mickey Raphael because I play the harmonica. I don’t delude myself into thinking some big name musician will ring me up to be a session player on their next musical project. I’m content to play my harmonica for my enjoyment and sometimes for others.
I became acquainted with the instrument as a 5- or 6-year-old child. My late father Al had a small desk in our house and as children are prone to do, I would snoop around in the desk. My mind is foggy when it comes to the exact contents in that piece of furniture but two items stand out: the Hohner harmonicas Dad kept in a bottom drawer.
Of course when Dad wasn’t around I would pull one out and blow on it. Had anyone been within earshot I doubt they would have exclaimed “Child Prodigy!” and if I put harmonica to mouth when Dad was at his desk there was a quick “Don’t blow on that!”
I don’t know how Dad came by his harmonicas. After his death we seven children divided nearly a dozen harmonicas of varying sizes and dollar value among us. Who knew he had so many. Did he purchase all of them at music stores or were some in one of those boxes of miscellaneous items you find at an auction? One of them, a chromonica, had its slide action knob repaired with solder.
I came by my first harmonica in 1973 as a birthday gift. It was a Hohner Echo tremolo harp with two keys: C and G. A second, slightly larger Echo in keys of A and D was a gift in the ’90s. A catalogue I have says the double reed features (meaning upper and lower holes) give the tremolo harps their beautiful vibrato, rich tones.
At some point I purchased a small Marine Band harmonica but it is seldom played as I prefer the sounds of the Echos. Even a musical hack like me can make some pretty nice music with those instruments.
The size of a harmonica makes it a convenient travel companion. It can be stowed in a pocket, valise or a backpack, whether you are traveling to a city or the backcountry. Mine have been to Europe, Canada and across the U.S.
The song that talks about where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play has a nice feel to it when played where those animals live: vast parts of the American West. It is … let’s say it is music to the ears.
I can’t read music, therefore I rely on my ability to play by ear, whether it be going solo or accompanying the music I listen to on my stereo system. If I want to brighten the moment for my wife Karen, I’ll go it alone with “You Are My Sunshine.” As an aside, we have been known to make music together, she on guitar, doing songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Shall We Gather at the River.”
When it comes to recorded music, I challenge myself to play with the likes of Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Jason Isbell, Nathaniel Rateliff and others in my music collection. I’ll pick up a harp to see if they are playing in one of the four aforementioned keys. Sometimes I can do the entire song or just the chorus. What matters is I am enjoying the moment.
News flash! I just got done trying my luck with a new artist I discovered from the Lima Public Library — Ray Wylie Hubbard. His song “Drink Till I See Double” is in the key of G so that will be a new challenge for me. Note to self: no drinking during rehearsals.
In addition to playing for myself I enjoy sharing my musical ability with others — specifically on their birthday. Recently I rang up Jeff Tracy and without his knowing who it was I launched into “Happy Birthday.” As I played I could hear birthday boy chuckling. Only when I told him it would have been better if I rehearsed longer, but he got what he paid for which was nothing did he know who it was. His response: “Thank you, Phil. I am honored.”
Like Jeff, you never know who’s next on the list. I even rang myself on the telephone once and played the birthday song to myself on the answering machine. When I played it back for Karen, her response was “Who is that?” in a somewhat understated manner.
If I had practiced longer, she might have said “Wow, whoever it is, they are really good.”
In the meantime I’ll continue to pick up my Hohners, work on the phrasing, breath control and anything else that makes me a better harmonica player. No sour notes allowed.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna put some music in the system and see if I can play “Immigrant Eyes” with Willie in the key of A.
Phil Hugo lives in Lima.