The first time I stuck a harmonica in my pocket and headed for the open road, I was twenty-two. I hitchhiked from Oakland to New Orleans. It was the start of a long list of harmonica-inspired voyages which featured me chasing the perfume of poetry and sin across the globe.
I was raised on hobos and Woody Guthrie and lonesome cowboys. I had a great-grandfather who rode his bike from East Coast to West around 1900, so it doesn’t take much to get me out the door. (Indeed, it’s harder to keep me in one place.)
If Indiana Jones has his bullwhip and James Bond his Walther PPK pistol, I have my harmonica. When I’ve got my harmonica, I know that I’ve got all I need. I can hunker down, outlast loneliness, outrun misfortune. I can embrace the blues. Most of all, I can connect to the deep current that runs beneath the material world and survive no matter how hard the going gets. No fairytales, no silver linings, but with a harmonica in my pocket, I know I can get by. And in the end that’s enough.
As an ex-bullfighter who was getting into his sixties once told me, “I’m not afraid of death because I know that when it comes for me, I will fight.” (He didn’t say “win” – just “fight.”)
When times are good, the harmonica is a fine companion too. No one can get down and party like a harmonica. It can wail and jump and grind till the dawn. But when the party’s over and everyone’s gone home and you are standing all alone, your harmonica will still be there ready to sound that last melancholy note to give meaning to it all.
When it’s time to saunter off into the horizon, I’ll be taking my harmonica.
This week we say goodbye to Raúl Carnota, an inspiring light of Argentine folclore. Thank you Raúl for the music and for the big and generous heart from which it sprang.