Out here in the high country, the harmonica has always been regarded as a solitary instrument. Its pocketable size is perfect for jail-cell solos, prairie ballads or just the lonesome walking blues.
But porch-sitters who think the harp is only for lonely outsiders or portly Blues Travelin' frontmen have obviously never heard of the Mile High Harmonica Club, whose fifty or so members gather monthly for hours of purple-faced merriment. To commemorate its tenth anniversary, the club will host the first Rocky Mountain Harmonica Festival this weekend at the Sheraton Denver Tech Center Hotel. The three-day blowout is expected to draw harmaniacs from across the West for a slate of concerts, workshops and open-mike sessions.
Mile High membership director Roger Bale says the festival will provide a good history lesson for anyone who believes that harmonica music begins and ends with the words "Bob" and "Dylan." Like many of his well-aged compatriots, Bale is into a particular style of music from the mouth organ's golden age, when Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals entertained Depression-era audiences from the silver screen. The wildly popular vaudeville act combined comedy and dance with some of the world's best players. "It was like the Three Stooges with harmonicas," says Bale. Johnny Puleo, a member of Minevitch's group who happened to be a midget, went on to form the pivotal Johnny Puleo and His Harmonica Gang and appeared regularly on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Such performances spurred a generation of smaller ensembles during the '40s and '50s that used three different types of specialty harmonicas: a chromatic, with its twelve to sixteen holes and side button; a two foot-long chord harmonica; and the tuba-deep double bass, which Bale calls "a double harmonica with hormone problems."
Many of the groups featured at the festival follow in the musical tradition of the Harmonicats, the most famous of the old-time combos. They include Harpers Bizarre, from Ohio, and the Harpn' Harmonicas, a local group that often rocks the house at metro area churches and senior centers. But the highlight of the weekend will be Al Smith, who as a far younger man played the chord in Puleo's Gang and now lets loose his skills in the globe-trotting Harmonica Hotshots. Blow, man, blow!
For all these friendly titles, however, there is some dissonance in Harpville. While the national Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH) hasn't yet spurred any rival offshoots, Bale acknowledges the divide between the older chromatic lovers and the younger diatonic players. "I have to admit to being a chromatic bigot," Bale chuckles.
The diatonic harmonica is a smaller ten-hole device used for riffs and fills in blues, folk, jazz and rock; when backers of the two types convene at the Swallow Hill Music Center for club meetings, it can make for a slightly chaotic experience. Luckily, they have Paul Davies, an instructor at the center who straddles the divide between old and new -- and can throw in some Irish music while he's at it.
Davies will conduct a workshop for greenhorns this weekend, as well as a more advanced session on instrument tone. Diatonic disciples can also look forward to such local virtuosos as Clay Kirkland, who mixes blues, jazz and progressive styles, and Ronni Shellist, who knows the blues like a harmonica knows saliva. Attendees can also pick up new or used equipment at the festival's store.
Bale promises lots of playing in the hallways, regardless of musical partisanship. "We're trying to marry the two worlds and get everybody together," he says. "It's really noisy and disorganized, but it's a lot of fun."
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