Harmonica | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Harmonica (mouth organ, mouth harp, blues harp, musique à bouche, ruine-babines). Fixed-pitch reed instrument invented in the 1820s, probably in Germany (see The New Grove Dictionary, vol 8).


Harmonica (mouth organ, mouth harp, blues harp, musique à bouche, ruine-babines). Fixed-pitch reed instrument invented in the 1820s, probably in Germany (see The New Grove Dictionary, vol 8). The factors which ensured the instrument's early importation to Canada - its small size, modest cost, and relative ease of mastery - have made it practical for children and popular for informal music making. The painting L'Enfant au pain (1890s) by Ozias Leduc shows a small boy playing a harmonica at the supper table. In Canada the harmonica has been an important instrument in two musical genres and a peripheral instrument in several others. Generally speaking a diatonic harmonica is used in folk, country, and blues, and the chromatic harmonica, introduced in the early 20th century, is employed in classical music and jazz.

In Quebec the harmonica (popularly known as the 'musique à bouche' or 'ruine-babines') shares with the violin and the button accordion a wide repertoire of folkdances - reels, quadrilles, jigs, and waltzes. Accompanied by piano or by the player's own 'clogging,' the instrument's bright, often harsh (and thus easily heard) sound has made it ideal for dances. This repertoire and performance style, dating from earlier centuries and developed largely through aural transmission, was recorded in a relatively pure state by several players during the 1920s. The most prolific was Henri Lacroix (fl 1921-38) who made many 78s as a solo performer for Starr, Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick, and others as an accompanist to Conrad Gauthier, Ovila Légaré, and Isidore Soucy. He is known to have accompanied La Bolduc on occasion, participated in Gauthier's Veillées du bon vieux temps, and led the Trio d'Henri and the Quatuor Lacroix.

Among other Quebec harmonica players who recorded were La Bolduc herself; Joseph Lalonde (1860-1946), a shopkeeper in Cöteau-du-Lac, who also appeared in Gauthier's presentations and recorded for Victor and Starr; and Louis Blanchette (1905-69), who recorded many reels in the 1930s for Starr (some re-issued in 1989 on two cassettes by MCA'sHéritage Québécois vol 1, MCAC-20576, and vol 2, MCAC-20586) and others later for Point (Old Time Mouth Organ Reels, P-206).

Gabriel Labbé, whose bio-discography Les Pionniers du disque folklorique québécois lists recordings by Lacroix, Lalonde, and Blanchette, cited Ludger Foucault, Oscar and Aldor Morin, and Gaston Tessier, all of Montreal, as the leading harmonica players of the mid-1970s. Labbé himself played harmonica on the LP Masters of French Canadian Music 3 (Folk RBF-114) issued in 1981. The younger Alain Lamontagne and Gérald Laroche have perpetuated traditional music as part of a much broader repertoire. Laroche, of Winnipeg, emerged ca 1983 and had toured in Europe by 1984; his itinerary has included folk and jazz festivals, his appearances at the latter showcasing his blues style.

The harmonica has not had the same prominence in English Canada, although it was heard in the bands of Don Messer and George Wade in the 1920s and 1930s, and has been featured in later recordings by Mac Beattie, the Dixie Flyers, Family Brown (Randall Prescott), and other country and bluegrass acts. Mike Stevens of Sarnia, Ont, began playing in 1990 with Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. His recordings include Mike Stevens Harmonica (1990, Bluewind CD-4004) and others as a sideman with US bluegrass groups.

Many Canadian blues bands born of that music's revived popularity during the mid-1960s have included (mouth) 'harpists' styled after the great Chicago players of the 1940s,1950s and 1960s. The best known of these Canadians is King Biscuit Boy. Others active in the next 25 years include, in Toronto, Lance Bennett, Steven C (Barr), Dimitri Cornell, Carlos del Junco, Fraser Finlayson, Luke Gibson (Luke and the Apostles), Al Lerman, Michael Pickett (Whiskey Howl, Wooden Teeth, the Michael Pickett Band), Don Walsh (Downchild), and Chris Whiteley; in Montreal, Long John Baldry, Butch Coulter, Billy Craig, Charlie Harper, Carl Tremblay, Rick Weston, and Jim Zeller; in Halifax, Rick Jefferys (Dutch Mason Blues Band) and Enver Sampson Jr (Matt Minglewood); in Winnipeg, Gord Kidder; in Edmonton, Rusty Reed; and in Vancouver, Baldry, Harpdog Brown and Hans Staymer. Jim Zeller, who has been a sideman to several Québécois pop musicians, made the LP Cartes sur tables (Kébec-Disc KDL-966) in the late 1970s and was later known for his frenetic 'psychobilly' music.

Following the example of Bob Dylan, various Canadian singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s, including Willie P. Bennett, Murray McLauchlan, and Neil Young, took up the harmonica. The evocative qualities of the instrument's sound have led to its use in TV, film, and radio scores and in jingles. Bernie Bray of Toronto has been one of the leading harmonica players in this context; he recorded a program of pop and light classical tunes, Bernie Bray - Harmonica (CBC LM-69), with the Lucio Agostini Orchestra in 1969. The jazz trumpeter Guido Basso also has taken studio assignments on harmonica, and the noted journalist Charles Lynch has been heard as a 'pops' soloist with Canadian symphony orchestras and as a member of Ottawa's National Press Club and Allied Workers Jazz Band Inc.

While the harmonica has been associated largely with popular music, the virtuoso Tommy Reilly has worked in the tradition of Larry Adler and John Sebastian to maintain its place on the international concert platform. (Reilly's father, James, during the early 1930s in Guelph, Ont, led the Elmdale Harmonica Band, one of many such amateur groups active in Canada at that time.) The harmonica as a concert instrument has been represented in Canada by Bernie Bray and by the French musician Claude Garden, who lived 1971-86 in Montreal. Garden taught during his Canadian sojourn and recorded dance pieces (Champagne, de Falla, Villa-Lobos, etc) for RCI (LP 433) in 1976 and François Dompierre'sHarmonica Flash (commissioned on his behalf by the CBC) with the MSO for Deutsche Grammophon (DG-2531-265) in 1979.

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