The Harmonica, Remembrance and My Dad

My dad played the harmonica. He had played many other instruments in his youth, including trumpet and cornet, but mostly trombone. Growing up with a dour Presbyterian father, he discovered that he was allowed to go to the dances if he played in the band, and while in high school he played swing music in dance bands. That was before a shell exploded his left arm off in a field in France, during World War II. When I knew him he sang, mostly, and he played the harmonica, or mouth organ as he called it, especially at the campfire on summer evenings. I loved it at the time but it washed over me without particularly sticking in my memory. I now wish I had paid more attention, because I can’t remember what tunes he played. I do know that he didn’t play blues, even though he loved jazz and blues for listening. He played old familiar folk tunes and melodies he made up that sounded like old folk tunes. He never tried to be a performer in his adult life, but he showed us that music is something people do in their lives. I followed his example with singing, but I never did get into playing the harmonica.

This year I had a gift certificate for a music store and I decided to buy a harmonica for myself, thinking about my dad and his playing. It occurred to me that even though most harmonica players of my acquaintance play blues harp, I could learn to play folk and country music, giving me a portable instrumental presence at jam sessions. I haven’t gotten very far with it yet, but a recent CD release has gotten me excited again about this humble yet powerful little instrument.

James Thurgood’s new album, called One-Man Harmonica (available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/thurgood2) is a beautiful collection of traditional fiddle tunes, self-written tunes in the traditional style, and a few songs he sings with guitar accompaniment and harmonica interludes. The fiddle tunes have really caught my interest, because I am a contra dancer and a caller, so I frequently dance and call to this kind of music, but had never thought of using the harmonica for dancing until hearing these lovely tunes brought to life by the agile and lyrical playing of James Thurgood.

It may take me quite a few years to get to the point where I can play tunes for dancing, as the harmonica is more difficult to master than it seems, but that’s okay. I think of my dad and his easy attitude towards it, and I know that whether I ever perform with it or not, I can enjoy playing it when I pick it up, and it will always make me remember him.

I also honour my dad especially at this time of the year, when I put a poppy on my coat and think about the devastating effects of wars past and present. Today I found myself singing Loch Lomond, a dirge written from the point of view of a dead soldier travelling back along “the low road,” to Scotland, where he will never again meet his true love by the “bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond.” I don’t have a specific memory of my dad playing it, but I think it was one of those tunes I heard him wail on his mouth organ some summer evenings by the banks of a lake in Ontario.

You will find the lyrics of Loch Lomond on the Songs Page.

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About Maura Volante

Maura Volante is a talented and experienced performer. Although she has written many songs over the years, her main focus these days is traditional folk songs. These are songs that have stood the test of time and have an enduring quality that speaks directly and clearly to the human experience. They also tell us about our history. Because these songs are not commonly sung in these post-folk-revival times in which folk music generally means singer-songwriter material, Maura has taken on the project of helping to keep this valuable material alive. Her specialty is Canadian folk songs, but she knows many songs from the British Isles and the USA as well. All her concerts and other programs are designed with group singing in mind. Whether in a concert, a tour, a social gathering, a classroom, a festival or a conference hall, Maura creates an encouraging atmosphere, relaxed and inclusive. She uses her strong voice and facilitation techniques to bring out the best possible music with these voices in this moment. Maura firmly believes that everyone can sing and, moreover, that everyone has a right to sing and be part of group singing activities, without judgement or criticism. No matter what the various skill levels of participants may be in any group singing activity, it always sounds good in a group, because the voices naturally attune with each other. Maura also teaches and calls contra dancing and simpler forms of traditional dancing suitable for all ages, often incorporating group singing into the dancing through the use of play party songs, which are sung by the whole group as they dance.
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