By Norris Chambers

            Even a poor ‘possum hide would buy a harmonica when we were kids. Just about every kid in the country made his way to the Woolworth store in town and forked over his fifteen cents for a bright, shiny harmonica. By today’s standards they were not high quality instruments, but all the notes worked and with a little patience and much practice most would-be harmonica players soon mastered their first tune. Ordinarily the first song learned was Home, Sweet Home.

After the first one was mastered others were easily learned and most players could soon play any song they knew. In our area a harmonica was called a french harp, mouth organ, blues harp or just plain harp. I have heard them called worse names when some of the notes quit working!

            The harmonica has one big problem. It will only play in one key and if an expert player wants to play with a band he has to carry a basket full of harps. There is one harp available that can adapt to many keys. It has a little button to push to change the pitch of a note. These chromatic harps are expensive and are not easy for a beginner to play.

            Many dogs will begin howling or whining when a harmonica is played. I often wondered if they like the music and were expressing their appreciation or were crying because they had to listen. Cats usually ignored harmonica playing or got up and left the area. Horses and cows merely looked at the player as if wondering if he had lost his mind.

            On Friday afternoon, after all class work was completed, the school teacher sometimes arranged a harmonica contest. Each entrant stood in the front of the room and played his favorite song and then each student voted by secret ballot for the best harmonica player of the day. If there happened to be a tie for first place the two top players played again and usually a winner was determined. Sometimes a small gift was given to the winner by a generous teacher. Harp players also provided entertainment on Monday mornings at the general assembly held in the auditorium. This weekly assembly of the whole school was called Chapel. The meeting opened with a prayer. A few old hymns were sung and then a program was presented by a particular grade or class. The students loved this meeting because they could miss classes while it was in progress. Many performers whose performance was a little flat were applauded back to the stage a few times to prolong the entertainment.

            Mike Johnson, one of our star harmonica players, was scheduled to perform for the Monday morning meeting. After an inspiring introduction by the class Master of Ceremonies he proudly approached the stage and climbed the three steps to the performance floor. In his best showmanship manner he made a deep bow toward the audience and when he started to spring back to an upright position his harmonica fell out of his shirt pocket and made a clanging sound as it hit the floor. In his effort to catch it his unexpected gyrations upset the announcer and he stumbled around trying to maintain his balance. Both entertainers kept on their feet but one of the big shuffling shoes smashed down on the harmonica and it emitted a woeful crunching sound.

            Mike picked up the mangled harmonica and inspected it. It was difficult for the audience to assess the damage but there was no doubt that it was in very poor condition. He placed the instrument back in his pocket and walked off the stage. There were several in the audience who evidently thought it was funny. There was a barrage of hand clapping and laughter. The high school principal walked on the stage and made a short announcement: “That is enough for today, all students will return to their rooms!”

            I never heard Mike play the harmonica again. He was terribly embarrassed by the stage incident. Before the school term was finished the family moved. Many families were leaving the community as oil prices were falling and leases were being closed.

            Mike had two older brothers and two younger sisters. A few weeks ago I received an email from one of the sisters. She had seen the Cross Cut website and was writing to update her family history. She is the only surviving member of the family.

            Did we have fun with the fifteen cent harmonicas? Of course we did. Maybe you ought to get one. Don’t wear big heavy shoes and don’t stand close to an MC that does because a smashed harmonica isn’t funny!