Historical Treasure: Harmonica resonates local heritage of old-time sound

Submitted photoDewey Hood’s diatonic harp: The 1930s Zebra Harmonica with resonator horn is among the many historic instruments housed at the Vigo County Historical Society Museum.

Like many Hoosiers required to work from home during the COVID-19 shutdown last spring, I spent a lot of time cleaning up around the house. It was through this cleaning process that I came across my old harmonica and in melodic amusement, found respite from the fatigue of isolation. 

Two things I’ve learned about harmonicas:

The first is, there is no “instant gratification” to be had in learning to play this instrument; and the second, while this “easy-to-play” instrument is not as “easy” as it looks, it can be forgiving. Thanks to that, even an amateur like myself could nail down a couple verses of “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” All I needed was practice, practice, and more practice — for that I had ample time.

This week’s Historical Treasure once belonged to a Terre Haute woodworker and musician, Dewey Hood.

The museum is proud to have several items in its collection that were donated by the family of Hood — including his World War II medals and a violin he handcrafted himself. 

The 1930s Zebra Harmonica was made by Johann Schunk of Germany. This model is a classic 10-hole diatonic harp, featuring a resonator horn.

The horn amplifies the sound and provides an opportunity to add a “wah-wah” effect with the hand.

Harmonicas really hit the scene in the dance-crazed, Jazz age of the 1920s. Interestingly, even during the Great Depression of the 1930s they reached peak production at 25 million harps per year.

I believe much of the instrument’s popularity was due to its compact size, affordability and convenient portability. At least, this has been my experience. 

Much like it was for our ancestors, in times of economic strain and without availability of formal music classes, we make the notes up as we go.

Despite my great determination to learn vibrato and bending techniques, I doubt I’ll ever attain the level of a local Blues master. However, I can’t think of a better way to pass the time while sitting at a train, than to practice “chugging” my own train song.

The Vigo County Historical Society Museum is now open. With appropriate sanitizing, social distancing, and face masks visitors are encouraged to come enjoy a safe atmosphere to learn about Vigo County history. Memberships are available at www.vchsmuseum.org.

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