Bob Dylan with his harmonica and guitar
Like the recorder or the tambourine, the harmonica seems so easy to play that it gets dismissed as a less legitimate instrument. The word conjures up images of hobby shops and old-fashioned general stores, rather than concerts or grand symphony orchestras. In fact, the humble harmonica has been around since at least the early 19th century, and it has made some pretty respectable contributions to nearly every genre of music, from blues and folk music, to jazz and rock and roll. It has been featured in songs like "Love Me Do" by the Beatles, "Positively 4th Street" by Bob Dylan, and "Orange Blossom Special" by Johnny Cash. Here are some little-known pieces of the history of what Kenneth from 30 Rock calls his "mouth piano".
In 1821, teenager named Christian Friedrich Buschmann filed the first patent for a harmonica instrument, and the model spread throughout Europe. However, a variation of the harmonica can be seen in China dating as far back as the 4th century.
President Abraham Lincoln carried a harmonica in his pocket, and the instrument was enjoyed by soldiers on either sid of the American Civil War. It was also associated with frontiersmen Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid.
Early versions of the harmonica have been called the mundharmonika, mundaeoline, psallmelodikon and symphonium.
During World War II, the War Department allotted a rationed supply of brass to Kratt's factory so they could continue to produce harmonicas that the Red Cross passed out to GI's overseas to boost morale.
Musicians who have recorded harmonica solos include Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, Huey Lewis, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, and Roger Daltrey of The Who, among many others.
Bob Dylan popularized the practice of placing the harmonica on a neck frame so that his hands would be free to play other instruments at the same time.
John Lennon played harmonica on early Beatles' hits as "Love Me Do", "Please Please Me", "I'll Get You" and "I Should Have Known Better", in the later songs such as "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!", "Rocky Raccoon" and his solo career on songs such as "Oh Yoko!".
The harmonica has been recognized as a useful medical tool. Because playing the instrument requires strongly inhaling and exhaling against resistance, the player can strengthen their diaphragm. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs have begun incorporating the harmonica.
The World Harmonica Festival is held in the autumn every four years in Trossingen, Germany, home of the Hohner harmonica company. The last World Harmonica Festival was in 2009, and a harmonica workshop is held every year.
In the late 1940s, the three-man Harmonicats sold 20 million copies of their rendition of "Peg o' My Heart." At the beginning of the 1960s, there was a group of 105 amateur harmonica players in Levittown, Pennsylvania, who dubbed themselves the "Largest Uniformed Harmonica Band in the United States."
Today, five major types of harmonicas are produced: diatonic, diatonic tremolo-tuned, diatonic octave-tuned, chromatic, and orchestral accompaniment. The single-reed diatonic harmonic is the most popular and can be heard in rock, country, blues, and folk music.
On The Late Late Show, host Craig Ferguson ends each show by letting the guest choose one of several ways to end the show, including playing the harmonica, or mouth organ, with him. Guests who play the instrument properly are awarded the Golden Mouth Organ. Past winners have included Billy Connolly, Hugh Laurie, Zooey Deschanel, and Wilford Brimley. Most recently, the award went to Tom Hanks on November 30, 2012.