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 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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