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The Harmonica in the Wild West

by Manfred Wewers

                                                     Detail from the cover of Songs of the Golden West by Red River Dave and his Texas Tophands

The era of the cowboy lasted from the 1830s to the early 1900s and probably reached its peak in the 1870s. However, the impact of that era is still felt today. In our present North American culture, the cowboy of the Wild West has become a symbol of freedom from society, oneness with nature, and above all, self-reliance and individualism.

The harmonica had just entered the era of mass production in Germany and had become a popular export item for the American market. By 1880, with the advent of specialized machines, the mass production of harmonicas began in earnest.

The German Hohner Company alone manufactured 86,000 harmonicas a year and from 1880 to 1893, produced mainly (70%) for the United States. According to Haeffner and Lindenmueller, “[by] about 1885-90 numerous harmonica companies, small and large, from the German-speaking region exported their products to the other side of the pond” (Harmonica Makers of Germany and Austria 129). By 1887, Hohner was producing one million harmonicas per year. German Johann Schunk also exported his harmonicas to the United States and Canada in the 1890s (Haeffner and Lindenmueller, 144). Newspapers of the 1880s record “French Harp” (another name the harmonica has borne) contests held in barns and taverns in the South and Midwest. Americans were definitely playing the harmonica.

After the Civil War (1861-1865), Americans focused their attention on the vast territories in the west, continuing a trans-Mississippi movement that led to the inclusion of Colorado (1876), the Dakotas, Montana (1889), Utah (1896) and others, into the union. It was here that the cowboy rode the open range (before the days of our modern-day barbed wire) and also gained notoriety in towns such as Deadwood (1875), South Dakota, Dodge City (1871), Kansas, and Tombstone (1879), Arizona. It was to these lands and towns that the large groups of settlers and many others migrated, to escape the East and to seek new lands, new lives, opportunities and fortunes in the area’s natural resources. The harmonica, because of its size, cost and availability, would have accompanied those settlers, cowboys and entrepreneurs on their journeys. The settler would have played the harmonica for entertainment and at dances; the cowboy, to soothe a restless herd or his restless spirit or just to while away time by the campfire; and the entrepreneur, to demonstrate its capability before selling it.

The completion of the trans-continental railway in 1869 opened up the West. When gold was found in the Black Hills of South Dakota, it lured thousands to seek their fortunes. Furthermore, over 50,000 settlers raced to claim almost two million acres when Oklahoma opened up in 1888.

It was into these lands, during the era of the Wild West, that cowboys such as Frank James (1843-1915), Wyatt Earp (1848-1929) and Billy the Kid (1859-1881) entered not only into cowboy legend and folklore, but also into harmonica legend. All three are said to have been harmonica players.

Both Frank James and Wyatt Earp would have had the opportunity to purchase a Hohner Marine Band harmonica, a Richter tuned instrument that would become the world’s best-selling harmonica, bearing the U.S. patent, #1816, and dated August 24, 1897. By 1897, Hohner was producing three million harmonicas a year and the A.E. Benary Musical Instrument Catalog from New York listed three models of Richter harmonicas, all with nickel covers, bronzed plates and screwed together. The eight-hole cost $1.00 per dozen; the ten hole, $1.20 per dozen; and the twelve hole, $1.45 per dozen (Harmonica Happenings 31.4: 32).

A well documented source, linking Frank James or Wyatt Earp or Billy the Kid to the harmonica, is still waiting to be found. So, where history does not oblige, legend and folklore does. Is there not usually a grain of truth in most tall tales?

Legend has it that Frank James, formerly of the notorious James gang, was saved from a bullet by a harmonica in his shirt pocket. In 1897, Frank was probably in Toronto, Ontario, on July 5 and 6, touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Two shows were performed daily at King St. W. and Dufferin St., with admission at 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children under nine (The Globe and Mail 6.19: 7). Who knows, maybe Frank had a harmonica with him in Toronto? If he did not, he could have easily purchased one at a local music store such as Whaley, Royce & Co. at 158 Yonge Street. Their advertisements offered musical instruments, including harmonicas (Evening Star 12.18. 1897: 6).

Around the same time, some of the 30,000 residents of Butte, Montana, heard the sounds of the sheng, a Chinese ancestor of the present-day diatonic harmonica. The Chinese were part of “the liveliest mining town in America” where a miner could earn $3.50 a day (The Globe and Mail 10.17.1896: 3). The Chinese, like the Europeans, took their music and instruments into the Wild West, at least until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Any harmonica connection to Wyatt Earp is even more elusive. His obituary does not list his harmonica prowess. Billy the Kid’s harmonica past is just as hard to find. Whereas history has not yet established a firm link between the cowboy and the harmonica, the German harmonica industry and the American music and film industries certainly have.

The American Wild West, with its cowboys and Indians, fascinated the Germans. For someone living in a small, densely populated country, the vast open spaces and the freedom the West offered evoke adventure and excitement.

Karl May (1842-1912), a very popular German writer, specialized in writing about the American Wild West. His western stories were turned into audio dramas, films and even comics. The German and indeed the European fascination for this time period continue to the present day.

German harmonica manufacturers would not fail to capitalize upon the opportunity to use the cowboy image in their marketing strategies. By 1904, a Hohner Company poster appeared at the St. Louis World’s Fair featuring Zama (John G. Clark) as the cowboy mouth organ virtuoso who toured the world, playing his harmonica. In addition, Hohner produced the Vest Pocket Harp for every cowboy to own. The F.A. Rauner Company also used this cowboy imagery on the cover of its 1926 catalogue, displaying a cowboy playing his harmonica while riding his horse. In the 1940 movie Go West, actor Harpo Marx (1888-1964) would duplicate and increase the difficulty of this feat by riding a horse backwards and playing the harmonica.

By the 1920s, things changed in America. Cowboys had almost disappeared and technology appeared in the form of public radio, the recording process and sound for film. Some cowboys turned into singing cowboys on the radio, on recordings and in the movies. Cowboy music would become country music, folk music, country and western music and a whole host of other sub-genres. During the 1920s, Hohner sold more than one million Marine Band harmonicas per year to the United States.

In the late 1920s, the German harmonica-producing companies were still trying to capitalize upon this western frontier theme and began to commemorate the westward migrations with new harmonicas. The Koch Company produced the Wagon-Mouthorgan (1927) and Hohner continued to produce its Pioneer harmonica (1912-1931) and the Buffalo Bill harmonica (1930s). To satisfy the Spanish cowboy, the Pohl Company introduced the Gaucho harmonica, also in the 1930s.

The Lone Ranger, a non-singing and non-harmonica-playing cowboy, had by 1933, moved to the radio and from there to television in 1949 until 1957. It should come as no surprise that a Lone Ranger harmonica, a plastic one, produced by the Magnus Harmonica Company, appeared on the market in the early 1950s.

Two of the singing cowboys from the 1930s and 1940s era, Gene Autry (1907-1998) and Roy Rogers (1911-1998), have harmonica connections. Get a group of cowboys together to make music and sure enough, there’ll be a harmonica.

Gene Autry’s career included radio shows from 1940 to 1956, recordings, movies from 1934 to 1953 and television shows, 1950 to 1956. Although Autry was not a harmonica player, his sidekick Smiley Burnette (1911-1967) was. Frankie Marvin (1904-1985) and Harmonica Bill Russell (1890-1970) would also play harmonica for Autry. The 1947 western, The Stranger from Ponca City, features a harmonica duel, a show of one-upmanship, between Smiley Burnette and Bill Russell.

Roy Rogers appeared in movies from 1935 to 1952, on the radio from the 1940s to 1951, on records and on television shows from 1951 to 1957. As well, Roy was an early member of the western group, Sons of the Pioneers, that started in 1933 and is still playing. This long lasting group included Tommy Morgan on harmonica on the album Western Country (Granite: LAT1020.1976). During the 1950s, two harmonicas were produced in the U.S., by the Harmonica Reed Corp., to capitalize on Rogers’s success, the Roy Rogers Cowboy Band and the Roy Rogers Riders.

SPAH member T.J. Klay is a big fan of Roy Rogers. In 1997 he met Roy and presented him with a special harmonica for his 86th birthday. The harmonica is engraved with “Roy Rogers, Happy Birthday and Happy Trails to You” and is signed by T.J. and Hohner Inc. This harmonica and one that Roy got from his father are on display at the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, California (

Almost every boy wanted to be a cowboy in the 1950s. Television was full of cowboy series and movies. Even newspapers had cowboy stories. “Easy Come, Easy Go Young Thief’s Motto” was the headline when police in Boston, Massachusetts caught up with the 12-year old. He had stolen $375.00 from a pocketbook and then gave $100.00 to a friend, who “bought a harmonica, a cowboy suit and a Sunday-go-to-meeting jacket and pants” (Toronto Star 11.11.1950: 41). You can’t separate the cowboy from his harmonica.

If you watch a television western, from the 1950s to the 1960s, or a Hollywood western movie, from the 1950s to the present, and someone asks you who is playing the harmonica in the soundtrack, just say Tommy Morgan and you will most likely be right. Tommy Morgan, more so than any other harmonica player, has solidly linked the cowboy to the harmonica for over 50 years working in the Hollywood movie and television industry. Gunsmoke (1955-1975), Have Gun Will Travel (1957-1963), Wagon Train (1957-1965), Sugarfoot (1957-1961), Maverick (1957-1967) and Bonanza (1959-1973), all featured his harmonica expertise in weekly doses. During this period, his western film credits include Rio Bravo (1959), How The West Was Won (1963), Cat Balou (1965), Stagecoach (1966), War Wagon (1967), Hang ‘Em High (1968), Support Your Local Sheriff, Paint Your Wagon and The Wild Bunch (1969).

Eddie Manson (1919-1996), another Hollywood player, also did some harmonica work on the Westerns. He recorded with The Voices Eleven on How the West Was Won (Epic: LN24058.1963) and on the television western The Virginian (1962-1971).

Hohner brought out harmonicas with names such as the Lone Star Rider (1950s) and the Trail Rider Harp (1960), no doubt to cash in on the cowboy market. Roy Green became cowboy Steve Larrabee, the Lone Star Rider, in England on the radio in 1952. Roy continued to play this role when he moved to the U.S. in 1956 to promote Wild West gear, including the Hohner harmonica that bore his name. And to finish off the decade, the little cowboy, Johnny Puleo (1907-1983), released an album of Western Songs (Audio Fidelity: AFSD5919.1959).

The 1960s were very good years for the harmonica. Not only did the harmonica re-appear solidly in the “British Invasion” groups and the subsequent explosion of rock and roll music, it was also featured in the “Italian Invasion,” the spaghetti westerns. Sergio Leone’s western films, staring Clint Eastwood, continue the long-standing tradition of the cowboy and the harmonica. In A Fistful of Dollars (1964), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and For a Few Dollars More (1967), it is Franco De Gemini who adds those very distinct harmonica sounds to Ennio Morricone’s music. There is a scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, during which a group of Confederate prisoners-of-war is forced to play a song on their instruments, including the harmonica, to cover-up the sounds of the screaming, coming from prisoners who are being brutally beaten. The harmonica plays a major role in this poignant juxtaposition of moods and sounds. In the Hollywood remake of the film music, Hugo Montenegro (1925-1981) uses Tommy Morgan to provide the wide variety of harmonica music and sounds on Music From A ‘Fistful of Dollars’ & ‘For a Few Dollars More’ & ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (RCA: LSP3927.1968).

Leone’s most famous western movie, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), again features the harmonica. This time a mysterious character, known as Harmonica, portrayed by Charles Bronson, uses the sound of his harmonica to augment the nature of his character. The harmonica is “used as a symbol of the turmoil bubbling within the character’s mind”, according to William C. Martell in his article “The Twitch: Objects as Emotions” (Now Write! Screenwriting 271). This time on the movie’s soundtrack, it’s Franco De Gemini who plays harmonica on Once Upon a Time in the West (RCA: CASX2544.1968) by Ennio Morricone.

During the 1970s, although there are fewer western films, Tommy Morgan is still adding his harmonica touches to films like Chisum, Rio Lobo (1970), Buck and the Preacher (1972), High Plains Drifter (1973), and Blazing Saddles (1974). There are now serious and comedic westerns. John Hammond Jr. did get to play harmonica on the Little Big Man (1970) soundtrack. Hohner, still satisfying a market demand, brought out the Cowboy harmonica in 1974.

The 1980s and the 1990s again produced less cowboy movies. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) is all about the 1890s range war between the cattle owners and the newly arrived homesteaders in Johnson County, Wyoming. There is a beautiful roller-skating dancing scene during which the harmonica is prominently featured. For total contrast, watch Draw (1984) with Kirk Douglas playing a harmonica-playing gun fighter. The movie begins with the usual stereotypical scene of the cowboy by the campfire playing the harmonica. The soundtrack further features a harmonica throughout the movie.

And Tommy Morgan adds a few more westerns to his long list with Pale Rider, Silverado (1985), Dances with Wolves (1990) and City Slickers (1991), a comic cattle drive with Jack Palance (1919-2006), as cowboy Curly Washburn, who at first tells Billy Crystal to “put that [the harmonica] away”, then ends up singing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” while Billy plays the harmonica. And of course, they are sitting by the campfire.

In 2004, Viggo Mortensen portrayed real-life cowboy Frank Hopkins (1865-1951) in Hidalgo and played his harmonica in a desert oasis scene. Whether Frank actually played the harmonica could be as fabricated as many of the other deeds attributed to him.

The HBO series Deadwood (2004-6) is the story of the violent and corrupt gold mining town of the same name during the 1880s. Although Wyatt Earp makes an appearance, he does not play a harmonica. There is however, a harmonica featured in the series soundtrack. None of the many other movies about Earp, such as Wyatt Earp (1994), Tombstone (1993), Hour of the Gun (1967), Gunmen of the Rio Grande (1965), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Wichita (1955), My Darling Clementine (1946), Frontier Marshall (1939) or Dodge City (1939), link Wyatt Earp to the harmonica.

Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhall, pulls out a harmonica by the campfire and plays it badly, a fact that is pointed out several times by Ennis Del Mar, played by Heath Ledger (1979-2008). From there on, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) becomes a very unconventional western dealing with the cowboy on the range.

The harmonica playing on the movie’s soundtrack, on the other hand, is very good. Mickey Raphael is the harmonica player and has made a harmonica career playing that western sound. It was not just luck that put Mickey into Willie Nelson’s band. Willie, another cowboy, already had a bias for the harmonica through his own family history. “All them Nelsons… played guitars and French harp [harmonica]. All them Nelsons was musicians,” according to Joe Nick Patoski in Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (13). Harmonica player Charlie McCoy has also played on Willie’s records, prior to Mickey joining the band in 1972. Charlie, as the harmonica session man in Nashville, has probably played for more singing cowboys and cowgirls than anyone else. His list of recording credits is vast. And so is the list that continues to grow, of other Nashville session harmonica players.

And then, there’s Tommy Morgan, again. On November 10, 2011, he performed at the John Wayne Tribute held in Hollywood California. Wayne (1907-1979), the ultimate cowboy for many, Dean Martin (1917-1995) and Ricky Nelson (1940-1985) were all better cowboys in Rio Bravo (1959) because of Tommy’s mood setting and image creating harmonica.

So, to sum it all up, Hollywood and the music industry have done a good job of promoting and preserving the legend of the cowboy and the harmonica and hopefully, will continue to do so in the years to come. At least, until the real harmonica-playing cowboy is discovered and legend finally becomes history.

Harmonica photos courtesy of Harland Crain.