In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs with prominent harmonica usage.
Johnny Cash, “Orange Blossom Special,” 1969
In junior high, I took torturous piano lessons, but I wasn’t a natural and didn’t stick with it, although I can still (poorly) perform songs popular in 1970s sheet music, like “I Honestly Love You” and “Sunshine (On My Shoulders).” My transition to harnonica a decade or so later went a lot smoother. I picked up the harp in a successful attempt to quit smoking, an annoying habit I’d perfected in college. Back then, you could smoke in many more places than you can now, so I needed something to do with my hands while I was waiting on a train platform or taking a break from work. A harmonica, I figured, would fulfill my oral fixation while offering a similar activity, except I’d be breathing out music instead of smoke.
An astonishing thing happened when I picked up the harmonica: I was a goddamn natural. I found I could play songs on the harp as easily as if it was a kazoo. I soon graduated from Horner’s Marine Band harmonicas to the deluxe rounded corners of the company’s Golden Melody instruments. As Christmas was approaching, and most holiday carols were simple, I amused myself on El platforms trying to master them all with my C harp. Rock songs were G; blues riffs were D. Sometimes, people threw money at me. Once I was waiting for a friend outside a restaurant, working on “Deck The Halls” or something similarly challenging, when the homecoming queen from my high school passed by. To this day, I’m sure that she was convinced that I was some sort of buskering vagrant.
In my harp heyday, I was able to mimic most of my favorite solos from pop songs like The Romantics’ “What I Like About You” and rock songs like Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold.” But my favorite harmonica song, the one I was determined to master, was Johnny Cash’s “Orange Blossom Special.” I was addicted to Cash’s At San Quentin album at the time, where Cash starts this song by perfectly mimicking a train whistle on his harp. In the solo he sounds like he has an entire carnival in his mouth. Other versions of this song swapped in some sax, but from Cash’s bare prison set, he pulls it off just focused on harmonica. I listened to the song on San Quentin countless times trying to wrestle it to the ground.
As I said, before the harmonica I was not very musically inclined, so it took me longer than it should have in the pre-YouTube era to realize the reason I couldn’t find all the notes to the song on my harp: Cash switches harmonicas in two different keys. See how how’s holding one in his hand while playing the other? Brilliant.
For guys like Young and Cash and Springsteen, the harmonica is yet another in a string of the many instruments they’ve mastered. For me, the harmonica remains my favorite instrument, as it literally saved me from a life-threatening habit. Today my harp breaks are much less frequent, as my nicotine addiction is thankfully far behind me. But I still can’t help but pull out my version of tracks like “Orange Blossom Special” at summer beach campfires, where the harmonica always makes for an appropriate soundtrack.