[Harp-L] pop and creativity
Mike Fugazzi writes:
"1. The harp will probably never be a popular
mainstream insturment. "
Most likely true--though let's not forget that the harmonica is an
instrument with great popularity amongst the general public--they
have fond memories of it and fond associations. But they also like
it in small doses, it seems.
"2. Creativity is the main cause of this."
I disagree entirely.
"I will not argue that there hasn't been a lot of
creativity in the blues idiom with harmonica. In
fact, I feel the opposite. It has also made some
great strides in jazz."
Very few strides in jazz. There's Toots, and that's about it. Levy
plays on the outskirts of jazz and has created quite a nice career
for himself. But aside from a lot of people who may be known on this
list and in harmonica circles, basically it's those two--with a few
Toots heirs coming into view (Hendrik Muerkins, Gregoire Maret--note,
this is a US view, there are others in a similar position in other
"However, ever since Little Walter laid down a few
successful singles, the harp's popularity in the
mainstream has been on the slide."
To say it has been "on the slide" assumes there was ever a peak.
Even back with LW he was but a single artist amongst a much larger
pop scene--I would bet people like Les Paul and others sold many more
records than Walter. Actually, I'm nearly positive that the
Harmonicats did, for one. And they were definitely pop music.
"Here's my explanation: In the last 50+ years, our
insturment has failed to make the adaptations other
insturments have to find a mainstream audience. "
I'll tackle this after the next sentence:
"Pop music is popular music for the times."
Very true, and if you look at harmonica players over the last fifty
years you will see them adding the music of their times to their sets
and their styles and the harmonica in that. Junior Wells and James
Cotton added funk rhythms, grooves and feeling to their records in
the late 60's and early 70's which were every bit as contemporary as
anything others were doing at the time--and they crafted their
harmonica playing to fit into those styles (such as Wells more JB-
esque horn-line punches). This was blues based, but it had a huge
amount of what was then a very front-line, aggressive pop music
(funk). Later, Lee Oskar gained huge popularity with War and their
music, and he crafted a very unique style of playing which both fit
into the band and helped define it--his sax and harp riffs gave them
an edge which helped differentiate them from other funk bands. Sugar
Blue came along in the late 70's and added a high-velocity harp style
which mimicked that of rock guitarists, who were beginning the trends
that would lead to the metal shredding of the 80's. In the 80's much
of the tone of music became more angular and cutting, and if you
listen to harmonica players on pop from that time ("Culture Club"
comes to mind) the harmonica style is very different from the heavily
amped style of Chicago and a lot more reedy sounding (still
amplified, usually, but much less warmth, as fit the more synth-heavy
music). Then, in the early 90's you get John Popper taking the Sugar
Blue approach and really bringing that shredding style to harmonica
solos and the jam-band idiom which was on the rise. The last ten or
so years may not have a similar example, but then it might in the
much derided Alanis Morisette(sp). Her incredibly basic style mimics
the neo-punk simplicity of much of guitar playing the last decade.
And really, aside from the neo-punk style, most pop genres today
don't even care about instrumentation (hip-hop has been the dominant
pop form for over a decade, and it's instrumental heroes are DJs).
" Right now,
that doesn't have much to do with "traditional" blues
sounds. Many insturments have been able to find a
role in music that allows them to fit into whatever is
going on. You still hear guitar, bass, drums, horns,
keys, and vibroslaps on top 40 radio stations today."
You still hear harmonica on occasion. But, what is important, IMO,
is that none of these instruments are important anymore--the singer
rules all and the sounds can and often do come from anywhere. It's a
sampling and DJ mindset which is at the forefront of pop today, and
that mindset is more about sound mixing than sound creation. There
hasn't been a significant change in guitar, bass or other styles in
the last fifteen or more years either--it's just that they are
inherently more versatile sounds which can be cut and pasted onto
more styles of music for a greater variety of end results.
"I would wager that a large reason, but not the only
one, for the absence of harp is the overall harp
player attitude of staying close to traditional blues."
I would wager that the reason you don't hear much diatonic harmonica
in pop today is the same reason you haven't heard much diatonic
harmonic over the last fifty years: it's a lead instrument by nature
and unless you have a frontman who plays (Popper) or the rare
ensemble cast member who isn't a frontman (Oskar) it doesn't have
much of a place in most pop music. The harmonica can be a great side
instrument, as LW showed with Muddy and so forth, but it tends to be
very distinctive in that role mostly because of how it sounds, not
how it's played, and unless a revolution came along where every song
used a harmonica as the solo/break instrument then it makes sense for
the harmonica to be relatively little heard.
Take the example of the saxophone. For the most part when a sax is
heard in pop it is as part of a horn section. How often do you hear
solo sax as a side instrument in pop, over the last forty or thirty
years? I haven't bothered to count, but just going over it in my
mind about the same amount of times I've heard the harmonica in pop,
maybe a bit more but not much more. That's because the sax has a
very distinctive sound and is not a backing instrument the way
guitar, bass or keyboards are.
"There simply weren't the musical gains on harp that
there were on other insturments when music went to a
national pop scene (as opposed to being a local or
regional scene). For example, who tried to keep up on
diatonic with Chuck Berry?"
Um, I'm not sure what this means, but in terms of putting the
harmonica in a more rock and roll driving outfit, many people did
that in the 50's, such as James Cotton and others--but at the same
time, it wasn't clear that early rock and roll was going to have long-
term success. Remember, by the time the Beatles came along a lot of
people had already thought rock was over and done with as a pop
format. Moreover Berry was beyond old-hat by the time Junior Wells
was transferring James Brown style licks to the harp, and doing it
with such success that often it's hard to tell whether to call some
of his music blues or just plain funk.
"That harp is a hard insturment to master. Up front,
it is easier to learn to be a good drummer, bassist,
or guitar player."
I disagree entirely, again. The harmonica is no harder than any
other instrument. In many ways it's an easier instrument to learn
simple tunes on than a guitar, for example. But in the end every
instrument has it's own sets of challenges and problems, and just
about every group says that their instrument is "a hard instrument to
master" in one way or another.
"Not as many people play it and
having a unique voice on the harp is maybe a harder
thing to do. That being said, IMO, if you're not
trying to rewrite part of the harmonica text book in
you playing, you're not doing the insturment justice."
? I owe nothing to the harmonica, and neither does anyone else.
It's an inanimate object. If you want to play within a well defined
style and not try new techniques or the like, that's perfectly fine--
if the music you play moves you and is what you want to do, more
power to you. If you want to try new techniques, new musics and the
like, the same. Do what you want, you owe nothing to the
instrument. If you do want to try and promote the instrument, then
the best thing is playing what you love as well as you can. Someone
else will notice that and be inspired to try it themselves--in
whatever style they may desire.
()() JR "Bulldogge" Ross
() () & Snuffy, too:)
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