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Feb 4, 2024 - 9:22:02 AM
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8247 posts since 9/21/2007

Hello Folks,

Most of you are aware of my never-ending quest to locate, acquire, scan, and make available historical banjo documents. This is important to me as it preserves them (fires floods and dumpsters, when one passes, happen) and also creates unlimited copies available to anyone interested in the world. The more eyes that are on things the better.

Well, I also play around with harmonicas off and on. This has mostly been for my personal entertainment. My approach is pretty much playing them as originally intended in the "vamping" style of "tongue blocking" chord accompaniment.

I have no harmonica social circle or online presence. Over a decade ago I attended HOOT or Harmonica Organization of Texas meetings but they were very focused on blues and attempting to make the standard harmonica play chromatically, something that did not really interest me.

Now that 1928 is in public domain we are starting to see more harmonica related publications fall into it (the 1920s were arguably the peak of harmonica popularity).

While I tend to say focused on banjo stuff here, for lack of a place to share, here they are.

Presented are scans of some harmonica instructors that I hope some people find useful or interesting.


The "New Standard Method for Harmonica" from 1927 was published by M. M. Cole and was in print for decades. Often with various covers (but the same contents) repackaged for radio artists or other ways to try and sell the same old thing. It has a lot of tunes in it which are in pretty basic form. The instruction on "how to play" is solid.

Feb 4, 2024 - 9:25:11 AM
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8247 posts since 9/21/2007

The "New Standard Harmony Course for the Harmonica", also M. M. Cole, is the second in the series. This has arrangements for duets and trios for playing in groups. This is also for the "standard" harmonica, which I personally call "accordion tuned" as it is pretty much a mouth blown imitation of the accordion. "Diatonic" is in general use but to me fails to describe just how novel the note arrangement is.

Feb 4, 2024 - 9:28:20 AM
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8247 posts since 9/21/2007

A year earlier, M. M. Cole published the "5 Minute Harmonica Course" in 1926. This is part of their "5 Minute" series of cheap instruction books. This one is more useful than the version for 5 string banjo which in my opinion is too brief.

Feb 4, 2024 - 9:33:03 AM
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8247 posts since 9/21/2007

The "E easy Z Method for Harmonica" was published by Wm. J. Smith in 1928 and fell into public domain this year. This is an interesting book as it uses the "simple method" of teaching that requires the learner to know the tune. But also teaches by note and includes chord charts for accompaniment on ukulele, tenor banjo, regular/plectrum banjo, and guitar. It is fairly comprehensive.

Smith published a series of EZ methods for various instruments and the version for banjo by Thomas Armstrong is pretty good. That may also be found on the Internet Archive.

Feb 4, 2024 - 9:46:20 AM
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8247 posts since 9/21/2007

I've had "Ryan's True Harmonica Instructor" from 1886 up for some time now. This one is the most fascinating to me and took me well over a decade to track it down. When I first saw an ad for it in a old catalog (the internet was pretty lame at the time) I reached out to several harmonica historians and they were like "yeah I have that"... and that was it. I finally located it in a library collection and paid them to make a photo copy for me.

This is the earliest instruction book I have been able to locate. There is one earlier on the Library of Congress that is not very good. And there was one published a few year earlier than this one but I have not located a copy.

Again, this is part of a series of fairly generic "Ryan's True" instruction books. The banjo version is pretty much useless, being filled with stock treble clef music that was not arranged for banjo. But this harmonica instructor has a little more meat to it.

The instrument is the same as the modern "blues harp", or what I call "accordion tuning". Of note is the mention of Joseph Emmett who was a big reason why the harmonica became popular in the US after the ACW (it is extremely unlikely that any ACW solider had a harmonica-- modern research shows that the timing does not add up and there are no known period accounts that can be found).

This book is a little odd to understand but once the user figures it out it is not terrible. It teaches "vamping" (what the harmonica was designed for) around the melody and since there was no harmonica specific music published, guides the user through dealing with reading general music and adapting to the harmonica with it's limited range.

If you are a living historian this book is for you.

Feb 4, 2024 - 9:57:49 AM

8247 posts since 9/21/2007

The "Modern Harmonica Method" of 1925 is mostly a folio of music with piano accompaniment.

The chromatic harmonica had been around in some form from the late 1890s with the modern form hitting about 1910. By the time this book was published they would have been generally known but likely in "standard tuning", the period name for what is now called "diatonic tuning" or "blues harp".

However, this book uses the regular Richter harmonica. The music is typical songs from the era.

Feb 4, 2024 - 10:00:24 AM
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8247 posts since 9/21/2007

Harmony Hank's Harmonica Budget Of Famous Melodies For Harmonica, 1927, goes into some fairly heavy music choices with the piano doing the heavy lifting.

Once again, this is for the standard "Richter" model harmonica (blues harmonica in today's lingo). If one is looking to broaden their playing this is the book for them.

Feb 4, 2024 - 10:10:09 AM
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8247 posts since 9/21/2007

"How To Play The Chromonica And Super Chromonica" was published in 1931 and will not be in the pubic domain for another couple of years. That said, it does fall within the qualification of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which is why I can post it.

This work teaches the chromatic harmonica in the current modern form as we know it today. But it also incudes "standard tuning" chromatic. As far as I know there are no current off the shelf standard tuned chromatic harmonicas-- for now. A company in China named JDR has just come out with one (they claim that they will be in stock on Amazon next month). I got my hands on one from Aliexpress (before they pulled the listing) and I have to say it is FANTASTIC and is everything I have ever wanted in a harmonica. I will be stocking up on these when they become available. It is valveless and small, about half the size of a regular chromatic, and plays like a high quality "blues harp".

This is a very short work but pretty much includes all you need to know to play from general sheet music. The idea being that one may play from the vocal line of popular sheet music. Also flute or violin music.

Feb 4, 2024 - 10:10:45 AM

8247 posts since 9/21/2007

I hope to have a couple more scanned and uploaded in the next few weeks or so.

Feb 4, 2024 - 10:28:10 AM
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8247 posts since 9/21/2007

Oh, I think I should go ahead and point out that in the back of the Hohner Chromonica book there is a mention of Abraham Lincoln and his harmonica-- this 100% false. Lincoln did not play harmonica and was known to be rather unmusical in general. This myth comes from a "biography" written about him in the 1920s that made it up. Hohner had a bit of a public relations problem after WW1 so they ran with it, even claiming to have a letter that Lincoln wrote them-- a total lie which Hohner claims to have never had today. Hohner ran this myth in advertisements from their "propaganda department" into the 1960s, leaning hard into the narrative that newly freed slaves picked up discarded harmonicas from the battle fields and started playing the blues. Makes one feel all warm and fuzzy inside but is entire fiction.

Winslow Yerxa has a good theory as to why we think the harmonica was common during the American Civil War. And that reason was because it WAS common during WW1. The harmonica was pretty much always marketed as nostalgia even when it was brand new. This nostalgia was superimposed onto the ACW after the fact as part of the general rewriting of the narrative. Since the harmonica was nostalgic, people were receptive in their "old time" imaginations to move the common use back a decade putting them in the hands of skirmishers.

Edited by - Joel Hooks on 02/04/2024 10:38:08

Feb 6, 2024 - 4:19:55 AM

6346 posts since 10/6/2004

Joel - what a wonderful resource and as a long time harmonica player [but still pretty rubbish] i really appreciate the links.

Thank you.

Feb 6, 2024 - 6:42:03 AM

8247 posts since 9/21/2007

country frank , do you play in the original accordion style of tongue block vamping?

Harmonica is something I just like to fool around with, but I seem to get an amazed reaction from people when I play for them. I guess with the common style of blues riffs and "second position" bending people are surprised to hear the melody with accompaniment that I do. It is funny because while what I play was pretty much the only way harmonica was played until the 1920s, few people have heard it today.

A trick I picked up from Sam Hinton on youtube (and some CDs I bought well over a decade ago) is to split octaves by rocking my tongue back and forth alternating playing the root on the left side then the lifting for the chord. This provides an "um-pah" to the melody which is very effective and sounds very much like an accordion.

I certainly appreciate what the blues guys do, but If I want accidentals I'll grab my chromatics.

Feb 6, 2024 - 11:56:53 AM
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3779 posts since 4/5/2006

Thanks for doing the research & posting all this stuff, Joel. Brings back memories of some of the harmonicas I had as a young lad, inspired by the HarmoniCats, on the Ed Sullivan show. smiley The first was an inexpensive little red plastic harp that included a song book and instructions on how to play it. Basically, the same methods & songs as in your collection, albeit far less detailed.

Feb 6, 2024 - 5:32:46 PM
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258 posts since 8/28/2006

Thanks a ton for posting those historical books--what a gift! (I'm also working on straight harp with chordal accompaniment.)

I've enjoyed Hinton's videos, too. Are there other players on youtube (or elsewhere) that you're following or learning from?

Feb 13, 2024 - 7:03:15 AM

8247 posts since 9/21/2007

Here is another in the M. M. Cole series from 1928, falling into public domain this year, "How to play Blues Harmonica" and "Trick Playing".

This falls purely into the "novelty" category, but we do get a description of "bending" notes. As I understand it the first recording of bent notes was from 1904, I'm not sure when we first see a "how to" in print.

Feb 13, 2024 - 7:10:52 AM

8247 posts since 9/21/2007

From 1923 we get "How to Play Harmonica at Sight" by Borrah Minevitch. This is a play by numbers simple method with some decent text descriptions on technique including bending or "Blue notes and slurring".

Minevitch was a hoot! I guess he had a reputation as being pretty much a conman, did not pay his band members, and generally took advantage of people. Evidently he was also terrible to get along with. But I can't help but like the guy.

I think of him as the Harmonica equivalent to the Dobson family and the banjo (Minevitch even sold private label harmonicas).

He stage presence is fantastic! If you have not seen the films (which you likely have and don't know it) they are worth checking out on YouTube.

Apr 11, 2024 - 6:55:48 AM

8247 posts since 9/21/2007

Here is a book from 1935 I recently scanned, and while not in the public domain, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act does allow it to be available on the Internet Archive.

It is interesting in that it teaches chord accompaniment by actually noting the cords. This is the first time I have seen this. There is one piece in "Ryan's True" that does this, but most books are like "here is how to do it, you are on your own".

This also uses a unique editing approach to the notation with stems up for blow and stems down for draw. While not necessary, I can see how this would aid in learning to read (not that there is really any difficulty in learning the notes on a harmonica).

Apr 12, 2024 - 6:31 AM

4825 posts since 3/28/2008

quote:
Originally posted by Joel Hooks

I've had "Ryan's True Harmonica Instructor" from 1886 up for some time now. 


Is that the same Ryan who published Ryan's Mammoth Collection of fiddle tunes?

Apr 12, 2024 - 7:16:18 AM
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8247 posts since 9/21/2007

Ira Gitlin , I don't have a clue. "Ryan's" was a whole series of generic books published by John Church. "Ryan's Mammoth" was published by Elias Howe (NOT the sewing machine Howe).

Could be related but I don't know. I do not play violin so I have only causally viewed The Mammoth for some sight reading challenges.

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