i. My harp
Check it out. Ten holes, steel cover plate, wooden comb, brass reeds hidden within the holes. Engraved onto the top of the cover plate is a Victorian-style portrait, a man’s profile, high collar, sideburns down to his jawline, surrounded by a garland of flowers, and the words Marine Band, M. Hohner. It fits in the palm of my hand. Note the tiny screws on the sides. Note the openings: on the mouthpiece side, the ten little holes; on the cover-plate side, a sort of bell-shaped opening between the steel cover and the reed-plate. This is where the sound is forced out. Each hole on the mouthpiece is a straw, a tube; the air I draw or blow compressing and then quivering a brass reed above or below the hole. The reed is a fork tine, a snake tongue, an eyelash, fluttering. Blow, the bottom reed lowers the tone, slows it. Draw, the top reed raises the tone, on the same hole, inhaling gives you a higher note.
To change the type of sound my hand cups it, fans it, plays it wide open, slaps it, bounces it hard against my mouth. My lips spit, suck, bite, block and cover, open and blow. The wooden comb swells, bruising and blistering the corners of my mouth when I mash the instrument into my face. All the sound that exits a harp must come from all the air that comes through me; lips, nose, throat and gut, as deep as it gets, like a channel, like the way the heart sucks in blood from one vein and pumps it out through an artery, like a pulse. Think of the bellow of a bull or the coo of a dove, sound that comes from deep in the throat or a soft round belly, expanding and contracting, the echo of plush feathers and hollow bones.
ii. That kind of night
The older a harp gets, the less it seems to weigh, the lighter it feels in my hand. When I pick one up, it smells like the last place I was when I played it: whiff of bar popcorn, cigarettes out front or out back, traces of hard water laced with hard bourbon, beer spilled on bar counters, glasses glazed or splattered with foam. Best not to drink beer when I play, but hard to resist, so yes, my harp will smell like a quick one for the road, the one where I sit with my bandmates, wiping off the sweat and looking at the stacks of amps and mics and chords tangled everywhere on stage and thinking about that solo I nailed or the one that got away. And by then, four different harps are jammed into every pocket, and the last harp I played during the last song is in the back pocket of my jeans, and I am doing what I swore I would never do, crushing my best harp into the barstool with my butt, but it’s that kind of night.
iii. What it’s like, sometimes
Mostly, I remember names of songs, chord changes and keys, and where the beat moves into a shout or a cry, and how to hop across a line, but I don’t know, sometimes I just have to go for it, like Road Runner careening off that cliff, not so much that, actually no,
that means nothing below, all air and YIKES! This is more like leapfrog really, or bouncing like a little silver ball in a tilting pinball machine, the ones with The Joker’s face or a posse of bikers. Except this time, it is harmonica pinball. One minute I’m jabbing at the paddle, and the next the ball just boings off a bumper into another bumper, and I can bump your hips and gut and forearms into the blinking lights but who the hell knows where that mad jam is headed, and it’s a kind of a game and kind of a dance, because points are mounting up, and only when the music stops does it all stop.
Of course, there’s tradition too, like a slow midnight train, like a siren in a hot Chicago night, how each bumper is one of the Blues Greats, the Gods in the Pantheon, Sonny Boy Williamson 1 and 2, and that little steel ball slams into Jr. Wells, James Cotton, or Paul Butterfield, and then it kind of cruises past Kim Wilson and those West Coast smoothies. What is the Main Event, you ask, the bright lights big city winner takes all? Muddy’s Juke Joint (and rightly so), must be Little Walter between those top bumpers, that greatest of all holy sweet spots, that jam I will strive for but never access.
What I want to know is what comes first, finding a backup band to groove a song into outer space, getting a lyric that makes me want to moan or scream? Then a riff comes at me and all I can hope for is a way to grab onto something and lay it all down as I blast past. I have heard it said (and it truly happens every night): sometimes you eat it, and sometimes it eats you. I know this: we would all not be here if not for those giants we hopscotch and leapfrog over, we could bump Little Walter back to Walt Whitman and Moses for God’s sake.
This is what I mean: ten holes, wooden comb, twenty brass reeds, steel cover plate. Full of the ghosts of the great ones, the walls they crashed into, the badass blue bumpers I bounced off, too. How shalt I jam, then, how shalt I wail? How many sorrows have paved this trail?