Re: 19th Century harmonica players

- --- In harp-l-archives@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, Pat Missin <pat@xxxx> wrote:
> Predating all of the players Winslow mentioned is Pete Hampton, an
> African-American who was a very popular performer on the English
> vaudeville scene around the turn of the 20th century. He recorded at
> least one piece featuring harmonica on an Edison cylinder in the
> 1900s. This track is due to be reissued on CD in the next few months.
> More details as and when.

When was Hampton born? Any information on when or how he learned to

An individual can pick up an instrument, and what he or she does with
it may be completely original and innocent of any existing practices,
or may reflect what others are doing with the same instrument without
ever deviating from established conventions. Or it may be some blend of
the two. Who knows where Hampton falls in this spectrum of
possibilities? It would be helpful if details of his background were

I'm trying to form a picture of common practices as reflected in
recordings. While we have descriptions of 19th century players, do they
really tell us much about how they played, with the kind of details
about style and technique that harmonica players want to know about? I
have copies of instruction books dating from the 1870s and 1880s:

The Mouth Harmonica Instruction Book (author unnamed), Oliver Ditson &
Company, Boston, 1870, 31 pages

Ryan's True Harmonica Instructor, (author not fully named; this is one
in a series of "Ryan's 'True' Instruction Books" for a wide variety of
instruments), The John Church Co., Cincinnati, 1886, 47 pages.

Interestingly, Ryan in 1886 describes the Richter tuning we know today
and depicts a 10-hole Richter-brand mouth organ. The accompanying text
mentions the "perfection" attained by "such players as J. K. Emmet,
Prof. Wallach and others." The Ditson book in 1870 describes a rather
different tuning system: the harmonica has 12 holes, and draw 2 (it's a
C-harp) is tuned to F instead of G like some diatonic accordions. This
pattern is repeated in the higher draw notes as well: holes 8-12,
instead of being D-F-A-B-D are D-F-B-D-F. The legends accompanying the
tuning illustration state: "This model represents the celebrated
Richter instrument, the best in use ; the kind that the fine Artist,
PROF. WALLACH usually performs on at his concerts" and "The perfect
Scale of this size Harmonica in C, commences on the Fourth hole, and
ends on the Seventh."

So perhaps the standard tuning changed between 1870 and 1886, or
perhaps proponents of competing systems were willing to invoke the
names of such eminent players as Prof. Wallach in aid of their causes.

Beyond blow-draw stuff, some basic breathing advice, tongue blocking
and a little chord vamping, a few basic pattern exercises, and the idea
of supplying notes missing from one octave from a lower or higher
octave, there's not much that's harmonica specific. Both books go into
lengthy preperatory essays on the basics of music and notation in
general, describe tongue-blocked embouchure and the use of both blow
and draw breath, then plunge into some simple exercises (Ryan's are
more thorough and not plagued by the errors in Ditson) and on to
popular tunes, complete with wide leaps and chromatic notes (again Ryan
does a better job, interleaving preparatttory material and expanations
with the tunes). They do a decent job of imparting the absolute basics
and a poor job of editing the tunes for the the instrument as

Any music instructor who was a competent writer could pick up a
harmonica sight unseen (with perhaps information about tongue blocking
from the manufacturer), play around with it for a couple of days, then
write the Ditson book; the Ryan book seems to have been written by
someone with knowledge of good and bad habits in harmonica playing and
contains advice about posture and breathing.

Such works don't tell us what people actually did with the instrument
or the techniques and expressive devices people used when they played -
nor are they intended to. They're just meant to be attractive to a
beginner looking for the essential starting information and some good
tunes to play.

Recordings made in the 20th century have obvious flaws when taken as
evidence for styles and practices of earlier decades, but they do
contain sonic evidence of people actually playing, and thereby their
practices that may have been carried forward from earlier times.
Sorting out what in their playing is the latest thing and what is old
habit is the tricky bit - perhaps genetic or literary analysis methods
could be adapted to sort it out.

In absence of recordings, it'd be nice to have detailed descriptions
from early times, but I don't know of any that have come to light.


Do you Yahoo!?
Yahoo! SiteBuilder - Free, easy-to-use web site design software

This archive was generated by a fusion of Pipermail 0.09 (Mailman edition) and MHonArc 2.6.8.