“It’s supposed to be the most purchased instrument in the world, but it’s certainly not the most played.”
We confess, we bought a harmonica last year at WHSmith for a fiver and thought we could pick it up easily. We were listening to Eric Clapton’s Unplugged at the time and had San Francisco Bay Blues on an almost-constant loop. Anyone can pick it up, right?
It was harder than it looked. Our harmonica met a saliva-soaked end at the bottom of the bin after two days of half-hearted practising. Instead we got into Steps and tried learning the moves to Chain Reaction.
The harmonica, though, is experiencing something of a renaissance. We’re talking to Wallasey’s Sam ‘IronMad’ Wilkinson who’s part of a new harmonica group called Blues Harp Wirral, hosting social gatherings every month at the Old Wallaseyans Club.
“It’s an instrument with such feeling,” Sam tells us. “You can get those bends that mimic a wailing, or the typical one is the ‘train chugging’.
“It helps start a flow; Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, that was the style they played and they’d whoop a bit. It’s an instrument you carry around in your pocket, just in case. You can’t do that with a tuba!”
Like during our chat with the Wirral Ukulele Orchestra, we’re probably a little more surprised than we should be that the harmonica enjoys such widespread popularity.
As well as Sam’s assertion that it’s the world’s most purchased instrument, it has a lot of other quirks associated with it such as ‘harmonica’ being one of the most commonly used words in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.
Sam and Blues Harp Wirral not only want to help raise the instrument’s profile, but to build a local community where Wirral’s harmonica players can come together, socialise, and experiment creatively with the staple instrument of the blues genre.
“I think generally the harmonica’s quite a forgotten about instrument. If you look at the history of the blues, it was key in a lot of the early material.
“If you listen to a lot of modern blues bands, though, you don’t often hear the harmonica, so it’s quite nice to be able to reproduce those sounds that the original artists had come up with.
“We pay for a room at the Old Wallaseyans Club for a couple of hours, usually the last Sunday of the month. It’s not massive by any means at the moment; the group tends to run itself which is good. Each person takes it in turns to play and there’s a wide range of ability. It’s people of all levels having a blast and giving the harmonica a go. That and building confidence is our general ethos.
“There’s a lot of discussion and chat, too. We try different things. Somebody recently brought a small amp and backing tracks that we played along to, and people from all musical backgrounds are more than welcome. The group’s gathering interest.”
45-year-old civil servant Sam not only has a keen passion for the harmonica, but music as a whole; especially songs that artists pour their heart and soul into to convey powerful raw emotion. Sam, as a musician, has been on his own musical journey over the years, and has perhaps surprised himself that his current destination is the harmonica.
“Harmonica-wise I like Little Walter and Big Walter Horton. Blues-wise there are so many favourites to choose from. The first band I was really into was Status Quo when I was 16, their early stuff was blues-based and a hard-hitting blues.
“Over the years, more modern blues players such as Gary Moore and Eric Clapton don’t do a great deal for me personally. Most of the people I listen to are already dead! I bought some recordings from artists from the late ‘20s and ‘30s who had some real issues in their life like Washboard Sam. If he tried singing some of his lyrics these days he’d get a slap from a lot of women…
“If you’re classically trained you can go down the bassoon or oboe route, but if you’re like me and play guitar you can pick the harmonica up. I migrated to bass with harmonica on the side and took it up properly about three or four years ago. It’s a good retirement plan; I’m going to carry half a dozen harmonicas around with me instead of a bass amp.
“We perform classics and our own original material. I’m also part the Bus Stop Blues Band; I’ve dabbled in a number of different musical styles over the years including playing bass in Stockport for a band called Tenth Leper playing Americana and pop; not my first choice of music but it was interesting to play.
“It’s how you take something and how you put your own spin on it. Bass is one of the best instruments to have a play around with and fiddle with some scales to make things more interesting.
“We’ve got three original songs at the moment with the Bus Stop Blues Band. Light-hearted and humorous such as Gasoline and Dynamite and songs featuring signature blues repetition like Cast No Shadow On My Door.”
A league of their own
We weren’t sure what to expect from someone with a nickname like ‘IronMad’ but Sam’s personality and enthusiasm for the harmonica scene shines through. He’s a friendly, effervescent chap who tells us the formation of Blues Harp Wirral came about after a chance meeting with another local enthusiast at a national convention in Bristol.
“There aren’t that many players out there. There’s an organisation called the National Harmonica League which brings together harmonica lovers and gives updates on the industry. They also help host events; if an individual wants to run one, they’ll help.
“When I went to the League’s main Bristol event last October I was introduced to a chap called Ian Boyle who lives in Bebington. We had a chat – it was more ships in the night than a ‘small world’ situation, and we wanted to get something going locally.
“The League’s area contacts put us in touch with Dave Taylor – Dave lives in Manchester but regularly visits his father who lives in Meols – and between the three of us we started Blues Harp Wirral.”
Our Granddad used to drive Nan mad listening to the likes of Box Car Willie during their early courtship, until he graduated to Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers. Which drove her mad. Steve Martin’s also released his own bluegrass album and Hugh Laurie has proved himself something of a talented blues artist, too.
The blues have roots in so many different musical styles and, for Sam, there’s no shortage of inspiration to draw from. “If you listen to a lot of early blues recordings for instance they have roots in country music.
“Blind Boy Fuller was one of the many players; you can hear country’s origins in blues and the deep south, and it’s interesting to see how country’s developed since. The blues can produce different styles and sounds.
“The 10-hole harmonica, that’s the standard harmonica for the blues. There are Chromatic ones that slide and give you any note, and Tremolo harmonicas which are good for Scottish and Northumberland styles of music. I’m happy with my 10 holes, though.”
Play it again, Sam…
So where does the nickname ‘IronMad’ come from then? “We were in Ironbridge a few years ago and were going through the museums and there was a picture of an industrialist called John Iron-Mad Wilkinson and I thought ‘What a good nickname for a harmonica player!’.”
There’s nothing mad about Sam other than his love of music and his willingness to try and produce something creative from any and every instrument. As well as spending as much time as he can writing and playing music, Sam is also a keen advocate for Save the Children.
“It’s a worthwhile thing to help other kids worse off, and helps our own kids get involved and relate to and connect with. We came up with more and more ideas; the garden’s not massive but we managed to get a lot of donations in.”
Sam’s telling us about an afternoon tea he hosted at his home that helped raise £250, which has led to other events including a concert featuring local acts that managed bring in £1,270 for the charity.
“The last one we did at the end of October 2014; I played harmonica with a keyboard player and called ourselves Slap and Tinkle. Both my daughters go dancing at the Wallasey School of Ballet and they danced to a lot of the songs and got involved.”
So, what does the future hold for Sam and Blues Harp Wirral? Collaboration with other niche instrumental groups is mooted, as are evenings across the Wirral hosting the finest harmonica talents around.
“Ian Boyle’s band is called Zeitgeist. We’ve had a brief chat about putting on an evening where both our bands would perform, but also give the opportunity for other harmonica players to have a go. It could be billed as ‘Blues Harp Wirral presents…’.”
Blues Harp Wirral may be singing the blues, but there’s certainly nothing for them to feel sad about.