Once in a while on Saturday afternoons in warm weather, Al Beckwith would bicycle down the road past our house, his trousers clipped back in the old style, a ball cap on his head. Al always carried a mouth organ and if you asked politely, he’d get off his bike and play a tune. Al was what they called a “quick stepper,” meaning he could really step dance, and this is what he did while playing the mouth organ at the same time. Al called his dancing “my Irish two steps.”
It was the likes of Al Beckwith who inspired kids in my neighbourhood to play the mouth organ. Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many of the kids in the neighbourhood carried mouth organs in their pockets. Not everyone played with any expertise; but at the time mouth organs were only a dollar or two in the T. Eaton catalogue and were considered to be inexpensive entertainment and a good way to keep kids out of trouble. Like other kids, I often found a mouth organ in my stocking at Christmas. Usually they were Hohners who by then were mass producing mouth organs for the entire countryside.
Recently I joined a harmonica band in New Minas and it brought back memories of those mouth organ days. Those of us who grew up in the late 40s and early 50s played the kind of music the Valley Harmonica Band has in their repertoire; all the jigs, reels and waltzes usually played by contemporary fiddlers.
Back in those boyhood days, usually on Saturday afternoons, we held what everyone today calls jam sessions. A guitar player or two, maybe four or five mouth organ players who sat around in kitchens many an afternoon and played country songs and old time fiddle music. It was the era of the B Westerns and cowboy music was in. It was all cowboy or western music. At that time Bill Haley and His Comets were just getting underway and Rock and Roll was little more than twinkle in Elvis Presley’s eyes.
At our home on Saturday afternoons kids would drop in and out all afternoon and join in the jams, maybe learn a new tune or a different way to get sounds effects out of their mouth organs. On those sound effects, we had some kids who were whizzes at making train noises and talking into their mouth organs. No one could produce those sound effects as well as a close friend but I can’t remember him or anyone bending notes like players do today.
My father called our mouth organ jam sessions soft cider Saturdays. He made sure there was always a large jug of freshly pressed sweet cider in the pantry for anyone that was thirsty. It wasn’t hard cider, the fermented juice of the apple. This was a kid’s drink, applejack that was brown and tangy with apple pulp floating in it. The hard cider came out later that night, along with a bucket of raw scallops, after the kids were chased off to bed.
Our mouth organ playing was often inspired by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Vernon Dalhart, both of whom could still be heard on the Kentville radio station in those days. Hank Williams was just hitting his stride then and if radio reception was exceptionally good, you might catch the Grand Ole Opry.
What we never heard on the radio in those days was mouth organs being played – we didn’t call them harmonicas until much later – but that didn’t matter. Our real inspiration was local fiddlers who played the tunes we all wanted to learn; the music that came with immigrants from Scotland, Ireland and Great Britain.