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THE IDLE AMERICAN
Wednesday, April 22, 2009 • Posted April 22, 2009

Harmonica-Blowin’ ‘Round Here…

For me to feign understanding of harmonica-playing is akin to head-nodding about galaxies when the best I can offer on the topic is a croaky rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

I recall pre-school awe of adults who could produce considerable music from the little instruments we called “French harps” or “mouth organs.”

It seems to me that a windbag who knows a little music would have a leg up in harmonica-playing contests. I can exhale with the best of ‘em, but contorting my mouth and cupping my hands in a manner to produce melodies worthy of hearing by other ears are beyond me….

  • * * * *

Memories flooded when I heard “The Harmonichords,” a quartet well-known for harmonica concerts over a vast area. (I had previously thought that all harmonica players were soloists.)

Talented and passionate, the musicians from Dallas and Garland race across harmonicas like monkeys on a midnight raid of a banana plantation. Their work is orchestra-like for many reasons. In their arsenal are instruments of all sizes, including some one-inchers with just four notes. Others span two feet with four octaves and 48 chords.

Listening to their music and banter, I heard periodic heavy breathing. Maybe this is because three of them are 85 years of age, and the senior member is 87. They’re all veterans of World War II, and have made 320 appearances in 14 years. The Harmonichords faithfully practice weekly on Wednesday afternoons….

  • * * * *

They learned their skills in their youth, and their combined experience totals almost 300 years.

“We consider gigs one at a time in these days,” said Jim Patterson, 87. “We aren’t as young as we used to be,” he joked. “Some people say they don’t know where their next meal is coming from; sometimes we don’t know where our next breath is coming from.”

He and his “little” brother, Bill, still move about vigorously, lugging in the equipment, then setting up speakers and microphones. Don Sanders plays the lead chromatic harmonica from a wheelchair, and Tom Bamford is also limited physically….

  • * * * *

Their repertoire consists largely of music from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Interspersed are humorous stories and novelty harmonica sounds that could be mistaken for train whistles, Model-T engines and barking dogs on fox chases. They also feature several hymn favorites.

Then, they offer a medley of musical tribute to participants of all five branches of the U.S. military. Jim Patterson asked that hands be raised when “we play your branch’s tune.”

Of the 80 or so present at the church senior adult luncheon where I heard “The Harmonichords,” only a couple didn’t have hands in the air. The rest were military veterans, parents, siblings or widows of vets. At medley’s end, tears flowed freely….

  • * * * *

Following the program, I asked the musicians if they’d try to add a member when one of them has to drop out. I mentioned maybe searching for a harmonica-playing youngster, maybe 55-60 years of age. “You could call him ‘Sonny,’” I added. “Then you could change your name to “Sonny and the Harmonichords.”

“There aren’t many ‘Sonnies’ out there,” Jim observed. “At least none that I know of who play harmonicas.”…

  • * * * *

I’m afraid he nailed it.

Fewer and fewer “give a HOOT.”

Uh, that deserves an explanation. HOOT is an acronym for “Harmonica Organization of Texas.” It meets monthly—usually with 40 or 50 members present—at Richland College in Dallas….

  • * * * *

On the drive home, I heard a baseball broadcaster mention the “on deck” batter.

I thought of the late Kate Smith, whose rendition of God Bless America thrilled our souls, and of the late Paul Harvey, whose daily radio commentaries stirred hearts across the land.

I considered Dr. Billy Graham’s messages of hope and encouragement preached over a span of six-plus decades….

  • * * * *

As I scanned the radio dial, news reports were dismal, providing few reasons to smile.

I pondered what comes next, wondering if “on deck” batters await. No one has succeeded Kate Smith or Paul Harvey. And there’s no one in sight with stature to match Dr. Graham’s.

I’m adding “The Harmonichords” to my list of distinguished personalities who persevere with no “on deck” successors in sight….

  • * * * *

Dr. Newbury is a speaker and writer in the Metroplex. He welcomes inquiries and comments. Email: newbury@speakerdoc.com. Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: www.speakerdoc.com.

The Harmonichords of Dallas

The Harmonichords quartet, formed in the Fall of 1994, consists of (Left to Right): Tom Bamford, Don Sanders, Jim Patterson and Bill Patterson.

Tom Bamford plays the Chromatic and Chord Harmonicas, and is apracticing Attorney At Law.

Don Sanders plays the Chromatic Harmonica, and is a retired Semiconductor Engineer.

Jim Patterson plays the Chromatic, Double-Bass and Guitar, and is retired from Chevron Oil Corporation.

Bill Patterson plays Chromatic, Double-Bass and Diatonic Harmonicas and is a practicing Architectural Engineer.

All members are past 80 years of age and are World War 11 veterans representing the European, China-India-Burma and South Pacific Theaters of War.

The group has performed at various banquets, wedding anniversaries, retirement and senior group’s parties, church activities, business parties, hospitals and nursing homes throughout the Dallas Metroplex.

The Harmonichords quartet, believed to be unique in the Dallas area, offer an alternative to the usual entertainment fare consisting of today’s music played on Keyboards, Guitars, etc., by offering an entertaining repertoire of songs from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s played on orchestral harmonicas mixed with guitar and vocal contributions, and interspersed with light humor. You can reach the Harmonichords by contacting Jim Patterson at (972) 272-5170.

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