When I see a performer come onstage with the telltale harmonica holder around their neck, or harmonica in their hand, I look forward to that part of the show knowing that I’m in for a treat. Even with that, I never before thought about the art behind those notes. In her book, Masters of the Harmonica: 30 Master Harmonica Players Share Their Craft, Margie Goldsmith brings the world of harmonica players to life through a collection of interviews with some of the masters. Goldsmith’s deep understanding of the subject and the players leads her to ask pertinent questions so that we can get to know it better.
Many of the artists are teachers and generously share their lessons. I learned so much from reading the interviews. To start with, there are 3 types of harmonicas: diatonic, chromatic, and bass. Then there are the techniques used to play them which include tongue switching, tongue blocking, bending, circular breathing, and pucker. All of these are underscored by the importance of embouchure. All these aspects, and more, point out just hard hard this instrument is.
In addition to instrument type and technique, the artists also spoke of their influences and harmonica players who inspire them. Many mentioned the same people including Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells, Little Walter and Big Walter to name a few. As I read each chapter, I sampled each artist on the internet and was blown away by their artistry. It took me longer to read the book, but I enjoyed the online listening, and appreciating, harmonica players. I also enjoyed speaking to Goldsmith about her book and approach to life. She is an adventurous person who doesn’t hesitate to explore the world’s offerings and brings passion to all that she approaches. We spoke about her future writing project which sounds intriguing. I can’t wait to read it when it’s finished.
Interview by Fredda Gordon. Book cover courtesy of Margie Goldsmith.
Fredda Gordon: What led you to write this book?
Margie Goldsmith: I had done a series of interviews for Harmonica Happenings, the house magazine of SPAH, the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica. I had about 28 and I though ‘Y’know, there’s a very limited audience for SPAH.’ It’s an American organization [and] there aren’t that many international members and this information should get out to everybody’s whose in the harmonica world. I thought, ‘Why not take all my interviews and do a few more and put them together in a book?’ So that’s what I decided to do.
FG: How did you get started with doing interviews in the first place?
MG: I joined SPAH as a brand new player and I went to the convention and saw the magazine Harmonica Happenings. It said in the front “If you want to write for us, let us know.” So, I let them know. I said ‘Look, I’m used to doing interviews, I’ve done interviews for the last 20 years, what could be different about doing an interview with a harmonica player?”
FG: So, you play the harmonica?
MG: That’s why I went to SPAH in the first place. I had just started playing the harmonica. I had gone to a harmonica jam camp because it sounded funky. I knew the person who ran it, [but] I had no idea he ran harmonica jam camps. His name was Jon Gindick and it was called The Blues Harmonica Jam Camp in Clarksdale, Mississippi which is this funky little town. I’d never been to New Orleans but nowhere else in the south and I thought ‘I’m gonna go. I know I won’t like the harmonica but it will be a perfect place to hang out for a week.’ Then I got hooked.
FG: That’s interesting that you didn’t even go to play the harmonica.
MG: Well, I didn’t think it was going to stick. About 30 years ago I saw an ad, I guess in Rolling Stone or something, saying “Learn to Play Blues Harmonica! $7.95!” and you got the book and you got a harmonica. I looked up the author and his name was Jon Gindick and nobody’s got a name ‘J’ ‘O’ ‘N’ and then ‘G’I’N’D’I’C’K and I thought ‘Ha!’ I was on my way to San Diego for a business trip and I realized that was where this Jon Gindick was from. I said ‘Can I come take the lesson from you in person?’ and he said “Of course.” So, I went over and took a lesson and I learned this one little riff and he said “Now practice that riff when you get home.” I practiced it for about 2 days and that was it. That was the end of the harmonica career.
About 8 years ago I was going through all these old journals looking for something and out flipped a mimeograph, because I don’t even think we had Xerox machines 30 years ago. It was this ad “Learn to Play the Harmonica!” I thought “Oh, my god!” and just for kicks, I googled his name and up came “Jon Gindick learn to play blues harmonica jam camp in Clarksdale.” So, that’s where I went. And I had no idea that when I got back I’d be so hooked on this little 10 holed instrument which is the hardest instrument in the world.
FG: There seems to be a strong community around the instrument. Is that because of who you interviewed or is there some connection with harmonica players?
MG: In the UK they have Harmonica World, that’s the name of their magazine … Every country seems to have all its harmonica players in some organization or another so they can communicate with each other and all the best players know each other and show up at these various events. Not just SPAH, and not just Jon Gindick’s. There’s a harmonica collective and a lot of the players interviewed in the book give their own harmonica workshops, and some of them do it online. I was actually going to go to one next week in Sanford Florida with Jason Ricci, Jerry Portnoy, Winslow Yerxa and James Conway and it got cancelled because of the coronavirus. Harmonica players are kind of a group because there aren’t that many players. You go to your typical open mic jam and you might have 30 guitar players, 15 bass players, 10 keyboard players, 8 drummers and maybe 2-4 harmonica players at the most. It’s a unique group.
FG: What was the most unexpected thing you learned?
MG: Probably Jason Ricci’s life story. He was a drug addict. At one point he was gay, then he was bi and now he’s married to a woman. And he spent time in jail because of drugs. It’s a fascinating story how he pulled himself out of this mess. He talks about mental illness and that there’s nothing wrong with taking prescription drugs for mental illness and for bipolarism. He was really very honest. He was the most unique of the bunch but they’re all very different and they have similar things to say and very different things to say.
FG: I noticed that the players all talk about musicians they admire. One name that came up a lot is Junior Wells.
MG: Yeah, he’s quite a remarkable player. He plays very differently than Little Walter, Sonny Boy, and a lot of people have been influenced by him.
FG: Most of your interviews are in question and answer format, but one isn’t.
MG: Yes, Wade Schuman of Hazmat Modine. Because he was one of the first interviews I did. I was still trying to figure out how I was going to do these. He said “Hey, I’m the only one who’s not Q & A?” I said ‘Well, that makes you stand out from the rest!’
FG: Did playing the instrument help you connect to these musicians?
MG: That helps a lot. If I didn’t play at all I’d really be in trouble. But, trust me, if they got too technical with me and started talking about different tunings, etc., my eyes would just glaze over. I’m sure there’s a lot of techies out there who would love that kind of stuff. But I don’t have the capacity for that yet.
FG: Who would you like to interview that you were not able to?
MG: Little Walter for sure. I was actually going to interview James Cotton. He had lung cancer, or throat cancer, and could barely speak. I was still set to do up an interview in which his wife would be on the phone with me and answer the questions because he couldn’t speak and then he died. That was sad.
FG: That’s really sad.
MG: There are so many more players that I never got to who I will do someday in volume 2, but not right now.
FG: Are you working on any other books right now?
MG: I’m about to start a new book. I just received a residency to this gorgeous botanical garden in Kingsbrae, New Brunswick, St. Andrews by the Sea. They take one writer for the month of June, one for July and one for August.
The founder of the whole thing is Mrs. Flamer, she’s 92 and has 72 acres of gorgeous parkland on her property and she decided to turn it into a botanical garden to serve the community. And then, because she has this beautiful, historic mansion she decided to bring in 5 artists and one writer for each of the 3 months of the summer and give them a residency, a stipend and a room and board. It sounds too good to be true.
It was the scariest thing. I had to have an interview on the phone. It was like defending a Phd thesis. There were four board members facing me on Skype. I think there were about 266 applicants and I got it! I’m so excited!
MG: Thank you. But that’s not until August so hopefully I’ll get a head start on it before I get there. It’s one month of uninterrupted writing.
FG: Can you share your topic? Or, not yet?
MG: It’s too early to do it publicly. It’s going to be memoir-ish but not a memoir. A new format, not your typical ‘by the chapter‘ memoir.
FG: Why do you need to go to a retreat to write, why not just write at home?
MG: Because we live in New York City. So much great music and museums and theater and everything going on all the time. And Central Park. I just would not take the time to sit myself down with no distractions. Here, there’s a little artist’s studio that doesn’t even have wifi. I have to go back to my room if I want to be online, which is excellent.
This happened kind of serendipitously. I was in Canada doing a story on three historic hotels and how I jammed with a band in each town. We had a day free in each place so they took me on a tour to this place called Kingbrae Gardens. We’re walking through and here’s this gorgeous, little, glass-enclosed studio with beautiful wooden floors, a white desk, a chair and nothing else. I said to my tour guide ‘What is that?’ She said, “That’s for the writer in residence.” I said ‘What writer in residence???’ She told me and I freaked and raced home to my computer and spent about a month getting the proposal together because I really wanted it badly. When I saw this studio SMACK in the center of a botanical gardens I thought ‘What a beautiful place to write!’
FG: How long have you been writing for?
MG: Really all my life, but the last 20 years I’ve been a full time writer. Before that I had a film production company. I would do all the writing for that. Then I decided one day ‘Why am I traveling around the world with 12 cases filled with equipment and a cameraman and a soundman when I could be traveling with NO cases of equipment and just me?’
FG: That’s a big shift. Did you do any films we would have seen?
MG: I think there are three kinds of films in the world. There are movies where you pay your fourteen bucks and eat your popcorn. There are commercials which are extremely high end and very expensive to create and then there’s what I call the gray matter of film and video production which is everything in between. I did a lot of public service announcements for T.V. Bread and butter was video news releases, these things which sound, feel and look like news but they’re sponsored by someone. A lot of little marketing films and documentaries. I like the documentaries best and that was doing film stories on people’s lives who had won awards and I think that got me into wanting to do more interviews with people.
FG: Like your book.
MG: Which one?
FG: The harmonica book. So, you’ve written other books?
MG: Yeah, I wrote a novel called Screw Up when I was 22. I wrote a book about Alice Dalton Brown whose a really well-know painter. You would recognize her because you always see a poster of hers in every place that sells frames and posters. Then the harmonica book is the third, and the new book will be the fourth. They are all very different.
FG: You also write for Forbes
MG: Yeah, I’ve been doing more musicians who are not harmonica players. And then, travel. Right now travel is all dead.
FG: Are there any questions for the harmonica players that you didn’t ask?
MG: No, there are just a lot of harmonica players I haven’t done yet. Who need to be done and I feel badly that I couldn’t include them all in one book.
Masters of the Harmonica: 30 Master Harmonica Players Share Their Craft, can be purchased as a paperback and for kindle. International shipping is available! You can purchase it here: