Today I’ll be performing at the San Francisco Jazz Festival in California, one of the world’s great music events – not bad for someone who can’t even read music. The situation makes me chuckle and has gotten me thinking about the curious paths that lead us through our lives to such unexpected places.
I learned harmonica the tried and true way: on the road. In the late 1980s I was in and out of college. During one of my “out” times, I set off on a cross-country hitchhiking trip from California to wherever. I had $90 and a new harmonica in my pocket. Ninety dollars didn’t last long and I learned both how to ask for charity and how to sweep parking lots in exchange for pizza. I eventually got as far as Baton Rouge, Louisiana where people were really nice to me and someone put me up on a church sofa.
Hitchhiking is both a social and a lonesome endeavor. It is social because along the way you meet lots of people and have time to get to know them while riding together. But it has lots of lonely patches in between. While you’re waiting on a ride – especially in the desert where few cars pass – you can go most of a day without getting picked up. It was good to have my harmonica with me at times like that.
I started by playing those big, fat chords that the harmonica lends itself to so easily, since all the notes are in tune. Then I started picking out single notes so I could play a melody. Harmonicas have numbers above the holes and harmonica music notation is straight-forward: an arrow pointing up above the number of the hole means blow; an arrow pointing down means draw. The first song I learned was “When the saints go marching in,” which came printed on a small piece of paper folded in with my Hohner harmonica.
Because we got to know each other during such intense times, we forged a bond that has lasted. Playing harmonica soothes me; it is like hanging out with an old friend. It also grounds me and gives me strength. When times are hard, having a harmonica in my pocket reminds me that times have been far harder and we’ve come out the other side all the same.
I don’t know a lot of fancy scales, but I do know how to speak my truth with my harmonica. That’s all anyone can do to set himself free.
So, when I go on stage today with my harp and face the audience, I will just think of the lonely stretches in the desert where the harmonica kept me sane and safe.
I will be okay.