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Billy C Farlow Talks about Jaybird Coleman and the Blues Harp

by guest writer Billy C. Farlow

After my rant about harp blowers not getting enough credit in Ted Gioia's fine book Delta Blues in a previous review, I decided to stay on a roll and dig deeper into that little metal and wood/plastic thingamajig that was originally conceived for polkas, oom-pah-pah waltzes and other pre-Third Reichian merriment. The identity of the first musician to realize that a slew of "blue notes" could be had by adjusting to what is now known as "2nd position (a fifth above the key the harp was intended to be played in--which is known as 1st position) is lost in time. In fact, my guess is that many harp players around the South discovered it own their own.

Interestingly, based on the earliest recordings in the mid and late-1920's by Deford Bailey, Henry Whitter, Kyle Wooten, Alfred Lewis, Will Shade and others, the oom-pah-pah or 1st position was used as much as 2nd. However, by the mid and late-1930's, 2nd position was predominate, as evidenced by such top harpists as Sonny Terry, Jazz Gillum, and probably the most influential harp man of all-time: John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. Reasons for this are up for grabs but my humble opinion is that as blues evolved, it became apparent to the players that "'way more blues" could be coaxed out of the little harp by that method so 1st position was used less and less though never abandoned completely.

Of course, as any good blues fan knows, all that changed by the late 1940's when Big Walter Horton and later Little Walter Jacobs used guitar amplifiers and cheap microphones to create a new, gritty powerful sound in any position they chose, including the haunting minor wail of 3rd position and the mysterious 6th position whispered about only in dimly lit back rooms late at night. And let's not forget Jimmy Reed in the mid-1950's, who almost exclusively used 1st position on his long string of hits. Still, over the years, most guys stuck to the 2nd position and it is a constant irritation to me to meet so many of today's harp blowers who only know 2nd position (especially if they're better'n me) when there are such cool things to be done in other positions.

Burt C."Jaybird"Coleman, a real Alabama Blues Legend was born in Gainesville in 1896. He began playing harmonica around the age of eight but didn't record until 1927 when he made 11 sides for Paramount as a soloist and several more with Big Joe Williams and the Birmingham Jug Band. His harp style relies mostly, if not exclusively on the 2nd position approach I just discussed. It's my feeling though, that as experienced as he was by the time he recorded, Jaybird had been around long enough to play in other positions and styles as the situation warranted. Sadly, he was never recorded again and died around 1950 pretty much a bag-man from drinking too much Sterno and bad homemade liquor, according to the late musicologist Charles Wolfe during a conversation I had with him about Delmore Brothers' harpist Wayne Raney in 2001. Wolfe further elaborated that most of Jaybird's career was spent on the streets of Birmingham and a few other southern cities rather than playing jukes and similar venues, which may account for the fact that his 11 solo sides are simply him and his harp and no other accompaniment as was often typical street performers.

Sometime around 1968 I had the good fortune to hang and play for a short time with Big Joe Williams the 9-string guitar legend, in Chicago. It was an experience worth blogging on later. I remember asking Big Joe one night who was the best harp man he ever played with. I figured he'd say "Sonny Boy' Williamson with whom he collaborated on some of the latter's Bluebird hits, but he surprised me by answering, "Jibbud Co'min".

Who? I asked again.

"Jay-boid Co'-min. Played with 'im in the Bummin'ham Jug Band. Mean li'l fucka but he could blow all night long."

I filed the name somewhere in the back of my mind and nearly forgot it, until years later when I saw his name in 78 Quarterly listed among some of the rarest records of all time. I eventually tracked down a CD of his songs. I had to smile as I listened-- mezmerised by his harp and voice alternating on "Trunk Busted-Suitcase Full of Holes," and he and the Jug Band really layin' it down on "Wild Cat Crawl" and remembering Big Joe, long gone by then, thinking about his old buddy, an almost-forgotten name to blues fans, a blip on the recording scene, a "mean little fucka" but a true giant of the blues harp.  

(In between recording sessions, Billy C Farlow is working on his autobiography Too Much Fun, A Life of Music and Mayhem. Watch RiverVue for more articles by Farlow.)
 

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