The harmonica has always been a very popular instrument with musicians conducting “one-man band” performances. This is because a harmonica can easily be fitted on a holder that keeps the instrument in front of the face of the player. This will leave the musician’s hands free to operate another instrument such as a piano or guitar. Therefore, the harmonica became quite popular with gospel musicians making it just as popular as it was with blues music players.
Many Have Religious Songs in Repertoire
In fact, many a blues harmonica player has quite a few religious songs in their repertoire since many of these people in the early part of the 20th century were wandering minstrels like Blind Roger Hays. Although also noted for playing in honky-tonks, Hays would occasionally pick up a church gig, if not for money, but for food and a place to rest his head at night while on the road. Other blues harmonica players of the era also recorded religious songs such as Jaybird Coleman, who played under the alias of Frank Palmes when playing spirituals. Other popular blues players of the day, such as Sonny Terry, recorded religious spirituals with other people like Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red as “Brother George and his Sanctified Seniors.”
Preachers Look to Harmonica Back-up
Due to the popularity of the blues during the Depression years, many church pastors in traveling preachers found the harmonica to be a popular choice and actually employed a great deal of blues influenced instrumental backing up when performing really just pieces. A good example would be Elder Richard Bryant who made recordings in 1928 in Memphis using a backup jug band that had a stylish, blues-like, harmonica player named Will Shade. Jug bands were quite popular since these used low-cost instrumentation such as “blowing a jug,” a washboard (percussion), kazoos and a harmonica. A preacher who played a guitar and sang would typically look for a jug band to help back him up during special events like tent revivals. Costs during the depression prohibited churches from hiring bands with pianos, organs, drum kits and other “professional” instrumentation relying on a band with a harmonica to focus playing gospel music.
A Good Religious Blow
Gospel preachers realized in the early 20th century the harmonica could provide a great deal of “uplifting, joyful noise.” One of the more popular players from that era, Elder Roma Wilson, is still alive today. Born in Tupelo, Miss., in 1910, Wilson was one of 10 children growing up on the family cotton farm. At the age of 15, he grabbed a hold of a discarded harmonica and taught himself to play. At 17, he became an ordained minister and went on the “evangelical” traveling circuit preaching at many different churches until he finally found a pastor’s slot of his own.
This preaching touring was characterized by Wilson’s musical talents making his Sunday at the local church a popular choice that easily could fill the house.