IEEE PULSE presents

Harmonicas

State of the Art September/October 2020
Author: Art Johnson

It is easy for me to imagine life without harmonicas, but for my parents’ generation, harmonicas were as common as rain. They were small and easy to fit in a shirt pocket or kit bag, and, whenever an idle moment presented itself, out came the harmonica to render a slightly reedy version of a well-known song: songs like “Red River Valley,” “You Are My Sunshine,” or “Tennessee Waltz.” They were not far from the lips of anyone who played a harmonica.
Instead of harmonicas, my generation had guitars. Almost everyone played one, or thought they could, and all our counter-culture heroes, from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Bob Dylan, backed their protest songs with guitar as the instrument of choice. Guitars were not as easy to carry and conceal as were harmonicas, but they were brought to each and every campfire, hootenanny, and gathering where people congregated to socialize. Airplane overhead baggage compartments were filled with guitars, and there was no TSA to inspect each and every one of them to see it they were used to conceal bombs.
Today, harmonicas and guitars have been replaced by smart phones. Idle moments are spent looking at the phone and doing whatever one does while looking at its screen. Gone are the times when harmonicas or guitars filled the air with songs shared by everyone. Now, it is just me and my cell phone interacting with the internet instead of people around me. No songs fill the space between us; instead, if I want to listen to a song, I just put on ear buds and dial in a favorite. There is no need to bother anyone else with what I am listening to. I can do it all myself in my own personal world.
The days of harmonicas were also the days of knitting needles. All the girls and many of the boys knew how to use them to make scarves, sweaters, and baby booties. Of course, knitting needles these days are not safe with all their sharp points directed into the air. We are much safer these days without them; knitting needles could poke someone’s eyes out.
We all grew up with guns in those days. Guns were common in all households, but there was no problem with safety. We were taught, especially by our moms, never to point a gun at another person. We all had BB guns, Red Ryder specials, but we could hurt someone and maybe lose an eye if we shot in the direction of someone else. So we were told repeatedly, almost daily, not to do such a thing. Of course, my dad tells the story of the times when he and his brother would shoot BBs at their younger brother wearing a very heavy coat, but, then again, they paid him a penny for each time he felt the sting.  A penny went far in those days.
Today, we have a myriad of video games where we shoot others to kill them, and very few have real guns in their houses. So, instead of learning not to point guns at other people, we are being taught just the opposite.
Homeless people in the days of harmonicas could be anyone, including yourselves, if your own financial circumstances took a bad turn. Finances were very precarious, and a run of bad luck could sink all your good intentions.
Because of that, people learned that they needed to work. Even John D. Rockefeller could not avoid buckling down to some form of labor. The smart people were the ones who survived, not the ones who were able to thrive by taking advantage of other people. Almost all were in the same situation.

The time of harmonicas, even guitars, has largely passed, and gone with them are some of the values that we were forced to learn at the time. As Yogi Berra may or may not have said, “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”

Arthur T. Johnson (artjohns@umd.edu) is aprofessor emeritus in bioengineering, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA.

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