January 5th - Harmonica & Vocal Solos

Harmonica & Vocal Solos - Sonny Terry, 1952

I had originally planned to write about Sonny Terry's Sonny Terry's New Sound: Jawharp in Blues and Folk Music, an album that Terry recorded basically on request from Moses Asch, the founder and creative force behind Folkways Records, after Asch heard the mouth harp played in Asia. Asch wanted to record an American example of the mouth harp, and Terry's frequent collaborator, Brownie McGhee, volunteered that he was sure that Terry could do it, even though Terry didn't routinely play the mouth harp. The album is good, if a little, uh, heavy on the mouth harp for my tastes, but I was worried about the first instance of Sonny Terry in this project being basically a novelty album. There were certain people that Asch recorded multiple times - Sonny Terry is credited on 44 Folkways albums - and I didn't want to introduce him playing an instrument that he didn't often use.

Harmonica & Vocal Solos is in my opinion a much better introduction to Terry, playing and hollering and whooping and sometimes, somehow, playing and whooping at the same time. Terry plays the harmonica SO FAST and SO HARD it kind of feels like you're fighting him - his music is all interjections and punches. A lot of the time, listening to his instrumentals (well, instrumentals with whoops) I don't even consciously recognize the tune. He has an incredible sense of rhythm when playing unaccompanied, so that even the silences feel like punctuation. He makes the harmonica sound like yelling and yelling sound like the harmonica - he essentially duets with himself on Harmonica Stomp. I may write more about Terry in the future, but I thought you should hear him all on his own first. 

Click here to read footnotes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways