[Harp-L] Bluegrass harmonica

Thanks for getting back- replies below.

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. 

<It's proving to be a real bear, but I have some poeple helping me. This needs to be much better understood IMO

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.

<I know the harmonica shows up on old-time string band and country records, e. g. The Carolina Tar Heels, going back to the 1920s. Gwen and Garley Foster were great players. But I'm focused on Bill Monroe-Stanley Bros-Jim and Jesse-Osbourne Bros-Flatt and Scruggs.

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.

<Prof. Neil Rosenberg is the leading authority on bluegrass and I have emailed him about this and many other similar questions. John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame, has assisted me by listening to a great many Opry broadcasts of Monroe but has found none with harmonica yet.

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.

<This also needs to be cleared up. Onie Wheeler is said to have played on the 1967 Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and I know Charlie McCoy recorded with them as well  taring in '62. But other than this video clip, do we have 50s recordings of Taylor on harmonica with F & S?

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.

<That's guitarist/ harmonica player Curley Bradshaw, and no recordings of him and Monroe have surfaced yet. That would be the Holy Grail were I to find it.

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.

<McCoy was president of the Nashville musician's union, which could possibly account for his album credits playing several instruments on hundreds of country records. 
And in general I like second position for bluegrass, although I use third position for for the minor key and first for more folky stuff.

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.

<You're right - bluegrass per se starts with that legendary1946-48 Monore-Flatt-Scuggs-Wise-Watts lineup, which rules out accordian if you're a purist. I haven't much use for purists, though. And it wasn't called bluegrass until the 50s, when it shows up up in a Starday record ad.
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.

<You're also correct to point out that dobro, which is accepted in the bluegass instrumental pantheon, begins with Flatt and Scruggs. But they used harmonica, which has not enjoyed the same level of acceptance as dobro.
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".

<I recently moved to Tennesse from Maine and in Maine there was a strings-only bluegrass jam that would not have welcomed my harmonica, even though I can play quite well. Grrrr.....
Thanks for getting back, Cara, and it's always nice to hear from you. I will let you know what I find out.


Cara Cooke

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