[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 countries).

"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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