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The New Folk Harmonica

This lecture takes you on a musical journey showcasing the richness and variety of the harmonica’s possibilities from its original conception to the blues; and from the blues and folk music to the contemporary versatility of the instrument in traditional folk contexts.

Contact me if you would like me to come present this talk to your group.

Dubbed "the people's instrument", the harmonica has been a staple of folk music since the 19th century. In rural America, its portability, affordability and clever musical design ensured its place in the popular music of the day. Up until World War II, it was played in jug bands and country music and even ragtime, and it carried the sound and cry of the blues. The recordings of harmonica players from the 20s and 30s represent a high water mark of the mastery of the instrument.

A playlist of three videos from this talk is available on YouTube.

With the war and the urbanization of America, much of the early folk mastery was lost, or nearly so. With a few exceptions, e.g., Sonny Terry, the sound of the harmonica became a guitar player's accompaniment, as in the music of Woody Guthrie and after him Bob Dylan and Neil Young, or it was to be heard, often amplified and gritty, at the heart of blues bands. Its sweet sound still adorned country music here and there, but the variety of folk styles and virtuosity on the instrument was in decline.

Musicologists such as Kim Field, Joe Filisko, Pat Missin and Glenn Weiser have kept the early harmonica music alive and the Internet has made their research, arrangements and other materials accessible to a broad audience, not to mention that the music itself is readily available online. In this, we are witness to a revival of pre-WWII harmonica music.

In addition to the revival of pre-war harmonica styles, in the last four decades, the simple ten-hole diatonic harmonica has undergone a revolution. Thanks to the genius and pioneering efforts of Howard Levy, the traditional diatonic harmonica has become playable as a chromatic instrument and has been adapted to an absolutely vast range of music and musical styles. Though by and large it retains its original design, variations on this design have further extended the instrument’s voice and capabilities. Harmonica production has improved apace with these developments. The result is that the ten-hole harmonica has become a world-class instrument, but one that nevertheless retains its folk and blues charms.

The New Folk Harmonica Pt. 2 – Playing Chromatically

This talk was first presented at the Atwater Public Library in Montreal, Quebec, Octover 5, 2017.

Previous Presentations

The Blues in Jazz

In collaboration with Paul Serralheiro.

Blues and jazz both emerged on the American musical scene toward the end of the nineteenth century. They both share a common African-American ancestry in spirituals, work songs and field hollers; and both owe their origin in part to the influence of European harmony as expressed in folk songs and ballads and liturgical pieces. In the case of jazz, we can add classical music. Blues is a continuation of the folk traditions, whereas jazz is a cosmopolitan hybrid art form. The blues is an elemental ingredient in jazz, and the ability to play blues is a litmus test of the authenticity of jazz musicians.

The blues allows great freedom of expression to performers, and this carries over into jazz improvisation. This characteristic of both blues and jazz arises from their shared elemental ingredients.

From Dixieland, to Swing, Bebop, Hard Bop, Modal Jazz, Free Jazz and Fusion, the blues has stuck around and its melody, form, rhythm and harmony are the primary colours in a jazz performance.

John Kerkhoven, harmonica; Paul Serralheiro, guitar

This concert-lecture was presented at the Atwater Public Library in Montreal, February 2014 and at the BBAM! Gallery in Montreal, April 2014.

Gospel Blues

The blues, music of hard luck and trouble, and gospel, music of Christian love, hope and salvation, both emerge from the socio-historical context and the cultural tradition of African Americans.

At the height of slavery in the United States, there were nearly four million slaves about one out of eight people in the nation. Their overseers forbade them to use drums, meanwhile offering them religion to inspire them to be obedient. But African Americans found a metaphor of emancipation in the Biblical story of the flight out of Egypt to the promised land. They found in the Bible meaning in endurance and hope in salvation. And in church they acquired a wealth of songs they interpreted with microtonal singing, call and response participation and dynamic rhythms.

John Kerkhoven, harmonica and voice; Patrick Hutchinson, guitar; Paul Serralheiro, guitar

This show was presented at the BBAM! Gallery in Montreal, November 2013.

The Legacy of Robert Johnson

As a musician, Robert Johnson stands out among his peers. He inherited the blues forms and idioms from at least twenty years of blues music that came before him. Between seeing other performers live, listening to them on the radio or on gramophone recordings, he absorbed an abundance of music. He borrowed heavily and extensively for his lyrics and his licks from the musical gene pool that was the blues, but he put his own spin and stamp on everything he touched.

He made the music his own. He plays a variety of forms and variations on forms, taking the guitar work to a high level. He plays a distinct baseline, sustaining it as a separate voice and creating a high-tension pulse in his songs. He incorporates syncopated rhythms into his playing. He uses a fingerpicking style to play an incredible array of licks. With or without slide, he has a broad dynamic range, always in control. Robert Johnson is furthermore a gifted singer with some of the finest phrasing in blues. It is small wonder that he is so highly regarded.

John Kerkhoven, harmonica and voice; Bernie Yeo, guitar

This concert-lecture was presented at the BBAM! Gallery in Montreal, June 2013.