Re: [Harp-L] History of Bluegrass Harmonica

If you are looking for recorded instances, that may be rather difficult --
particularly so because the old bluegrass recordings usually did not
include the names of the players, just the band.  Somewhere I have
recordings that include harmonica, but heaven knows who it is.

Some string band musicians that pre-date the application of "genre" to the
music now known as "bluegrass" included harmonica players, playing the
music in a form very similar to bluegrass.  (If you don't know they are
from the 1920's and 1930's, you wouldn't know that they weren't playing
bluegrass.)  Ernest Stoneman and Ernest Thompson is a start on that list,
and you can add Gwen Foster, as well.  I have found old recordings of them
all playing what are considered bluegrass standards today, similarly.
Once bluegrass was a genre, the Stoneman Family (headed by Ernest) was
included in amongst the bluegrass bands, so you could start the list of
bluegrass harmonica players with Ernest Stoneman.

Many years ago, I did a survey of bluegrass musicians, including many of
the 1st and 2nd generations (while they were with us) and learned of
several harmonica players, but they may not have been recorded.  The first
was DeFord Bailey, who was not recorded in bluegrass, but played with the
guys occasionally off stage.  Bill Monroe was apparently very fond of him
and his playing.

The first recorded instance of harmonica in bluegrass that I can think of
(once is was a genre with a name, circa 1950's) would be Earl Taylor with
Flatt and Scruggs.  I don't know the year, somewhere inthe 1950's, but Earl
Taylor was both a harmonica player and a mandolin player for the Foggy
Mountain boys.  There is a very short moment about 45 minutes into one of
the first of the bluegrass documentaries ("High Lonesome Sound"?) that
shows Flatt and Scruggs doing the one mic thing on stage in the 1950's
where a harmonica player is coming off of the mic and Earl Scruggs is
moving back in to the mic.  I have been told that was Earl Taylor.
Somewhere, I know I have had early Flatt and Scruggs recordings where a
harmonica was played and that probably was Earl Taylor, as well.

There have been quite a few others, most unrecorded.  Someone sent me a
picture of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys which included a fellow named
Curly who played harmonica, but I don't know that Curly got to record
with them.  According to Lonnie Glosson, playing fiddle tunes on harmonica
was pretty common in the south into the the 1950's or so, but by the time I
was talking to him in the 1980's and 1990's, it had become pretty rare.

As a result of all of Charlie McCoy's popularity, whenever a harmonica is
heard in bluegrass on a recording, it is assumed to be Charlie McCoy,
whether it is or not.  Charlie has played bluegrass festivals with his own
sets and with bands, and is a prolific session musician, so it is not hard
to imagine why people might make that assumption.  They often even make the
assumption that Charlie was included in on the recording because of
Nashville rules, rather than that he was invited and wanted.  However, from
what I understand, Charlie has been playing the music all his life, so I
include him in my list of bluegrass harmonica players.  He likes and plays
the music and he promotes the instrument within the genre, so some degree.
In fact, most harmonica players who have heard him play and learned to play
crossharp first, usually use his work as a guide to playing bluegrass.

Bluegrass, as a model, didn't really get a start until the 1945 band where
Earl Scruggs replaced Stringbean on banjo and Chubby Wise replaced Howdy
Forester on fiddle.  Sally Ann Forester played bass and accordion for the
band while Howdy was with them, but she left when Howdy left and was
replaced by a full time bass player.  So, if you go by 1945/Bill Monroe,
accordion is a bluegrass instrument.  However, the band didn't really have
a genre back then and the term "bluegrass" was simply attached to Bill and
his band.  The "sound" that made bluegrass stand out started when Earl
Scruggs joined the band.  Stringbean's banjo was a little slower and less
splashy, though still applicable.  Earl made them "flash".  So bluegrass
snobs would start the instrumentation of bluegrass as the instrumentation
of that 1945 band that included Earl and Lester together.  This, of course,
excludes dobro as a bluegrass instrument, as well, so it has its problems.
However, bluegrass music still didn't have a name.  It didn't get that
until the 1950's.

Given all of that, Earl Taylor, playing for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
and the Foggy Mountain Boys in the 1950's would be the first harmonica
player recorded in a bluegrass band (as far as I know).  Flatt and Scruggs
are also responsible for giving us the dobro as a bluegrass instrument, in
the hands of Josh Graves.  They were truly innovators in their day.

I hope this information helps.  I started my survey years ago to help the
bluegrass snobs learn that harmonica and bluegrass were not foreigners to
each other.  It resulted in a lot of funny little stories and a little
editorial-like article that was published in our local bluegrass magazine
as "There's Room For Everyone".

Cara Cooke

On Fri, Dec 14, 2012 at 8:58 AM, Glenn Weiser

> Calling all harmonica scholars-
> As far as I know, the first recorded instance of the harmonica in
> bluegrass music is Charlie McCoy with Flatt and Scruggs in 1962. Is anyone
> aware of any earlier examples? I have been in touch with the senior
> historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and we are trying
> to piece this together. I will eventually do a Sing Out! column on this
> topic.
> Glenn Weiser

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