Learning to play the blues harp (aka the harmonica) as though I was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi.Forty million americans play the harmonica, so I figured it couldn’t be that difficult to master. Abraham Lincoln played it. So did Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. Jesse James’ brother, Frank, had a harmonica in his pocket that deflected a bullet and saved Frank’s life. An explorer in the Amazon, surrounded by angry Indians, pulled out his “mouth organ” and began playing a tune. The music apparently had a soothing effect because instead of slaying him, the Indians asked him to continue playing. “Odd,” he said later, “they prefer Mozart.”
In the mid-1920s, the harmonica was added to jazz and traditional music recordings. In the ’50s, African-American migrants brought the harmonica to Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and New York. In Chicago, musician Little Walter grabbed a microphone and played with his hand cupped over both his harmonica and the mic, creating a resonant, distorted sound that most players since have imitated.
I wanted to learn it because I love the blues, especially the sound of the blues harmonica, called the “blues harp.” I don’t know why they call it a harp, because the harp I know is a triangular stringed instrument played by angels. Maybe only angels could have invented this instrument, only slightly bigger than a pack of gum but one that produces such a raw, gritty sound that you want to stamp your feet, snap your fingers and scream out “Yeaaah!”
A Shaky Start
On a lark, I begin my blues career by signing up for Jon Gindick’s five-day Mississippi Delta Blues Harmonica Jam Camp at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, Miss., a city where Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Ike Turner and Sonny Boy Williamson II played.
The first day in class, I am with two other beginners, being taught by Jon Gindick himself. He tells us to try and play the two-draw (the second hole on the harmonica). I suck in as much air as possible, my mouth wrapped around the instrument, but I sound like a bleating sheep. “Just relax,” Gindick says. “You have to learn this note because it’s home base to the blues. Drop your jaw, get your tongue flat on the bottom and use the K consonant to shape your inhaled airstream.” Easy for him to say.
Still, I am not going to give up. Besides wanting to make that harmonica wail the blues, there is another reason I want to learn to play. I travel the world for my job, and no matter which country I’m visiting, children run up to me and call out “hello,” the one English word they know. I can say it back in Bhutanese (kuzuzangpo-la), Korean (an-nyeong-ha-se-yo), Japanese (konnichiwa) and about 10 other languages, but that’s the only word I know, so I can’t have a conversation. But there is a universal language that requires no words, and it is music. If I can learn to play an instrument small enough for my pocket, I’ll be able to interact with the locals in any language.
Not Yet a Maestro
By the end of the second day of jam camp, there is hope. I can almost play the two-draw. I don’t sound like Paul Butterfield or Junior Wells, but I can play a simple four-note blues riff.
By Day 3, I know what a 12-bar shuffle is. Each morning, I get up to run the cotton fields, return to my funky former sharecropper’s shack at the Shack Up Inn, sit on my rickety porch and practice until breakfast. Morning and afternoon harmonica sessions are followed by dinner and more jamming and teaching until 10 p.m. On the third evening, we are to play in front of a live audience at Ground Zero Blues Club, which is partially owned by actor Morgan Freeman.
I cannot think of anything more frightening than playing music in a club, except maybe a tax audit because of a business deduction for blues camp. When I tell Gindick how terrified I am, he says that fear is natural, I just need courage, and I should let the music come from inside my body. I have no idea if the sound will come from inside me or from some divine intervention, but when I get up onstage and see the band members smiling and encouraging me, I am no longer afraid. I bring my harp to the mic, inhale, and suddenly I am in another world.