Off the Porch: Learning the harmonica
We were in Robert Michaud’s wood working shop. Robert was one of my Uncle Evander’s closest friends and I loved to just hang around and hear them talk. They didn’t really have a lot of hobbies in common; they just liked each other’s company. Robert was an artist in carving and anything else he tried, and Evander worked on machines for his living. Robert was a bow hunter and Evander was a bird hunter. Evander loved to fish, but Robert didn’t care for fishing. Both had a passion for everything they did though, and I think that’s why they enjoyed each other’s company so much.
Robert had heard Evander playing the harmonica and mentioned to Evander he wanted to learn it. Evander told him what kind to buy, and got him started. Like most harmonica players, Robert carried his harp with him everywhere he went and played it anytime he had a few minutes. Robert learned fast and soon was pretty good at playing the harmonica in the bluesy style, popular in those days. Robert was the kind of guy who could do anything he wanted to do, once he set his mind to it.
I was sitting on a stool listening to their conversation when Floyd Wilson sauntered in. Floyd was a local guy who worked for the county. He had a county truck and he’d often sneak off to Robert’s shop to hide and loaf. He was a gossipy, bragging, kind of guy who could talk all day and not say anything of value. Most of his conversation was about himself and all the things he could do. Neither Evander nor Robert liked him much, but they were simply too polite to tell him. Floyd came in and began gossiping and dominating the conversation. Evander stood, leaning on the end of a table, and Robert went back to his carving, both politely pretended to listen, hoping Floyd wouldn’t stay too long.
Floyd noticed the harmonica lying on Robert’s carving table. “Robert, can you play that harmonica?”
Robert kept at his work. “Well, I’ve been learning.”
Floyd started back in before Robert had a chance to continue. “A harmonica is the hardest thing to play there is. I bought one once and spent months trying to learn it. I did manage to learn a few songs, but I know something about music. It’s a frustrating instrument. Can you play something on it?”
Robert picked up the harmonica and played a blues riff. It was pretty good. Maybe not as good as Evander, but typical of Robert, he was a fast learner. “Man, you’re pretty good with that,” Floyd muttered, “I never got that far. As I said, it’s a hard instrument to play.”
When Robert laid the harmonica down, Evander picked it up. “It looks like it would be easy,” he said. “All you have to do is blow in these holes and the music comes out, right?”
Floyd scoffed, “It’s not quite that simple, Pritchett; each one of those holes is a note and you have to blow to get some notes and you have to inhale on others. It’s a hard instrument to play.”
My uncle didn’t like to see people brag. Evander Pritchett was also one of the best liars I’ve ever known. He saw the entertaining lie as a form of art, and he was a master. He had a strong disdain for non-recreational lying and had little use for those who lied or bragged for profit or to improve their status. In serious fishing, shooting, or hunting conversation, he was fastidious about telling the truth. His explanation of this was that fishing, hunting and shooting were serious business and faulty reports of catches, or the number of doves or ducks seen in a location simply wasn’t sporting, but he loved a good lie for the fun of it.
He’d tell tall tales about fish or shots made, but he always let the victim off the hook before the end of the conversation. His favorite method when confronted by someone who exaggerated the truth or bragged and genuinely expected the listener to believe the story, was to top the story in the form of a joke and upstage the braggart. He had a humble nature in the presence of a braggart which drew his victim in, and made him more susceptible to the ruse. I was catching on now to what my uncle was doing. As I said, he was a master.
“Well, it looks to me like it would be easy to play. You just blow and suck and the music comes out. I think it would be easy to play,” Evander said.
Floyd snorted again, “Well you need to just get one and try it. It’s not as simple as it seems. I worked at it for months and didn’t get as far with it as Robert.”
Robert looked up. “Evander, if you want to, you can try it. Just remember the musical scale begins by blowing on the fourth hole and you have to blow and draw to the right to move up the scale.”
“You sure you don’t mind?” Evander asked, and after an explanation from Floyd on what a musical scale was, he put the harp to his lips. He blew a few notes and then moved up and down the notes of the musical scale slowly. Floyd seemed impressed he could even find the scale. He began to pick out notes, making a lot of mistakes, and slowly picked out the notes to Oh Susanna. Now he really had Floyd’s attention. Then he began to pick up the pace a little. Floyd looked amazed. Robert had now put down his carving chisel, and was also pretending to be surprised. Evander launched into a rousing, bluesy version of the song, bending notes and making the little harp cry.
Floyd’s mouth flew open; the realization struck him that he’d been duped. He grabbed his hat and started for the door. “Smart Alec,” he muttered. “I didn’t come in here to be made a fool of,” and he slammed the door behind him.
Robert picked up his chisel and began carving. “I wonder why he did come in here?”