Promotional clip for the "Blues, Rags, and Hollers" DVD
Even though they’re long out of print, you can still find at least some of Tony Glover’s seminal blues harmonica instruction books—Blues Harp (1965), Blues Harp Songbook (1975) and Rock Harp (1981)—via online sources. But even if you have no desire in learning how to play the “blues harp,” if you have any interest in the early history of the blues harmonica, its mechanics and styles, Blues Harp is well worth searching for.
But there can be no question that many aspiring blues harmonica players have done just that. In a 2011 interview with Elmore Magazine, David Johansen recalled buying his first instrument, a harmonica, when he was 12, “because I didn’t really want to have to carry around drums or a guitar.”
Johansen, who in addition to finding lasting fame fronting the New York Dolls recorded and performed vintage folk blues with his post-Dolls Harry Smiths band, started playing blues harp “in the Sonny Boy Williams style, as opposed to Little Walter.” Both legendary stylists were well documented in Blues Harp (Glover later wrote the biography Blues With a Feeling: The Little Walter Story).
“I had this book, Tony Glover’s How to Play the Harmonica, with a flexi-record with it, and I learned a lot of stuff from that,” said Johansen.
Minneapolis native Glover, who died yesterday at 79, was part of the initial wave of young white musicians to embrace the blues, and in the early 1960s in Minneapolis joined with guitarist/vocalists “Spider” John Koerner and Dave “Snaker” Ray in forming the pioneering folk-blues trio Koerner, Ray & Glover.
The full title of Glover’s book was actually Blues Harp: An Instruction Method for Playing the Blues Harmonica, and early editions of it actually did come bound with a small flexi disc vinyl sheet recording containing Glover’s demonstrations of the techniques related in the book.
“You probably picked up this book because you heard the sound of mouth harp blues, got turned on and thought, ‘Hey—that’s where it’s at—wish I could do it.’ The fact is you probably can,” Glover wrote at the beginning of Blues Harp.
“Most anybody who is willing to work at it can pick up the techniques involved; how long it takes and how good you get depends on you.”
But the soft-spoken Glover also stated upfront that if any prospective blues harp player expected his book to teach how to sound exactly like Sonny Terry, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed, “or any other great harp bluesman—forget it—cause it won’t do that. What it will do is give you a taste of the background and mechanics of several main styles of blues harp—and the rest’ll be up to you.”
In keeping with blues harp tradition, the author’s name on Blues Harp read Tony “Little Sun” Glover I—a play on the names Little Walter and the two Sonny Boy Williamsons who are distinguished by the Roman numerals I and II. He once explained that he wanted to sing but had a terrible voice, and playing blues harp--perhaps the most voice-like of instruments--was “a way of singing with an instrument.”
“Tony was modest yet knew who he was, he knew his own worth,” Patti Smith, one of many artists (others including The Doors, The Replacements, the Allman Brothers and Beck) who called on Glover to join them on stage, told The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “He was a loyal, discreet and benevolent friend. He was a man with an unshakable personal code. He was Little Sun Glover, leaving us silently, his rays quietly reverberating.”
Fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan was also a fan and friend of Glover, who penned the liner notes for the two-CD set Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert.
At the end of Blues Harp, Glover addressed the issue of whether or not someone “who didn’t grow up with the blues” had a right to try to play them.
“I think that’s about as stupid as saying that an American shouldn’t learn how to speak French, or that only Italians should sing opera,” he wrote. “Music is like the air—it should belong to everybody.”
He added: “There’s only one thing—if you didn’t grow up with the blues, remember that you’re speaking somewhat of a foreign language, and there’s no sense in trying to con anybody into thinking you’re a native. Just be you, speaking well in a language you dig.”
Glover concluded, “Go thou and blow now.”