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A music blog by Mark Nishimura

Singer-songwriter Bad Heart performs ballads of aloneness and loneliness, keeping the ghosts of the no-no boys and Sleepy John Estes in his throat and more than a few card tricks up his sleeve. Originally from San Francisco, he currently is absorbing the city lights of Hollywood.

Blow Sonny Boy, Blow

“…In the golden afternoon, when we sat and listened to Sonny Boy blow, blow his harp…”

– Van Morrison, “Take Me Back”

I’m not even good at playing the harmonica. I picked up the mouth harp when I was a teenager, after watching Bob Dylan play it on TV. While strumming the chords to “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, Dylan worked his way through the harp with the help of a neck rack. Come to think of it, I don’t think he’s that good either.

So I started playing the instrument when I turned 15, played it on and off for about 14 years. By the time I hit 30, I was able to make a decent sound. It wasn’t until recently when I could bend the notes.

I bring this up because just the other day a friend asked me about harmonica playing. Being musically challenged, he felt that the instrument looked fairly easy and wanted me to recommend a brand for him. I told him to pick up a Hohner chromatic. The beauty of that harmonica is that it could be played in any key. Stevie Wonder plays a chromatic, and Toots Thielemans used it to record the theme song to “Sesame Street.” Yes that’s right, the goddam “Sesame Street” theme! (I bet the melody is stuck in your head right now.)

“Is that what you use?” my friend asked. “A chromatic?”

Me? No. I play a diatonic, which is in one key.

“Suppose you had to play a song in a different key. What would you do?”

Well, I would buy another one, in the right key.

“Then you would have all these harmonicas in different keys?”

Yes, that’s right.

“Well why the hell wouldn’t you just buy a chromatic?”

Because even though I like Little Stevie and Toots, I didn’t want to play like they. No, I wanted to play like Sonny Boy Williamson, the greatest harp player that ever lived.

Rice Miller was best known as Sonny Boy Williamson II (yes, Virginia, there was a Sonny Boy Williamson I), but he also went as Willie Williamson, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, The Goat, and Footsie. He was this tall lanky fellow, a skeleton in a nice suit and a black derby, looking like an owner of a funeral parlor. He wore a scar that ran between his bird-like eyes and had several front teeth knocked out.

He sang in a slurred Southern drawl, the words practically slithered their way out of his mouth. But the harmonica was his true vocal chords. He knew every little crack in that harp; he bent notes up to the breaking point, squeezed out every squeak, muffled the sound with his enormous hands, poked the reeds to make the notes curl, and even puffed on it like a cigar. In fact, smoke practically rose out of it.

From the early 1930s to the mid-1960s, Sonny Boy performed in every type of venues all around the world, from juke joints along the Delta to festivals throughout Europe. He even became a star on the long-running radio show “King Biscuit Time.” His songs have been borrowed by every one under the sun, from Muddy Waters and Mose Allison, to Led Zeppelin and The Who, to Aerosmith and The New York Dolls.

Robbie Robertson once talked about how he and the other members of the rockabilly group The Hawks stopped by a Mississippi bar to see their harp hero. The band stayed up and jammed with him all night long. Sonny Boy would spit into a coffee can beside him between solo breaks; Robertson thought the bluesman was spitting snuff, but he later realized the can was filled with blood.

Sonny Boy Williamson would be dead a few months later, abandoning thousands of great blues harp players, and an average one like myself, who are still trying to figure out his tricks.

  1. Great post mark! I checked out some of what I could find of Sonny Boy and the net and he is fantastic. I’ve never heard harmonica playing that technical and full of style before. Thanks for the info. :)

  2. You’re so welcome, Groof. It’s always wonderful to discover something new. Well, my job is done! ;)

  3. Wow…I had no idea it was even possible to make sound like that come out of a harmonica…and I wasn’t really sure what words slithering out of someone’s mouth would sound like, but boy…you sure pegged that one!

    As always, thanks for sharing something new.

  4. I’ve always loved listening to a good harmonica…specially when I was younger and in a bit of a blues craze :)

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