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Tom Hanney schools us on the harmonica


Tom Hanney and his harmonica prowl the stage and the classroom with a cool nonchalance. As a member of several bands — The White Hots jazz combo, acoustic outfit The Fog, and rock 'n' rollers Open G — as well as a senior lecturer at RIT, Hanney has developed a fascination for the blues harp, the tin sandwich, the original tweet.

Hanney understands folks may not think of RIT as a music school — the university has a music program as part of its Department of Performing Arts and Visual Culture — or see the harmonica as a serious instrument, but he's here to clear that up with his "The Harmonica and the Blues" class.

Hanney teaches within the School of Individualized Study, where students create their own degree. Enough students signed up to study the little instrument that could after he was encouraged to teach a class.

"Somebody suggested it to me when I was playing with The White Hots at the Jazz Fest, oh, probably about five years ago," Hanney says.

RIT gave Hanney the green light to create a class based on the harmonica and its impact on the blues. It was up to him to develop the curriculum.

"My department is emphasizing classes that are now inner-disciplinary," he says. "Meaning we draw from a number of disciplines, which works great for me." Some of Hanney's students have already familiarized themselves with the harp by their association with older music.

"I mean, they know The Beatles and the Stones and Led Zeppelin," Hanney says. "But some are more aware of older music than I thought. And some know next to nothing about the harmonica other than it was a little instrument they got in their stocking at Christmas."

Hanney says he still occasionally encounters people's dismissal.

"That's a perception," he says. "I don't think it's a reality. People often refer to it as a toy, and as far as we're concerned, it may have been designed as a quirky little instrument. I don't mind. It's not always taken seriously, which in some ways makes it all the more exciting when people hear what it can actually sound like.

"It's very much a niche instrument. In my class, where I have to do research, there's not that much scholarship — meaning research — in academia, where as there is in the area of other musical instruments."

Hanney says he didn't play as a kid, but became interested in the harmonica in college. "Like a lot of people my age, I was caught up in rock 'n' roll, the British invasion, and such. And a lot of those rock 'n' rollers, they played old blues songs. Bands like the Rolling Stones used to talk about people like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker."

And over and above his college learning, Hanney got an education at the Red Creek, a live music joint — a fabulous roadhouse, really — on Jefferson Road where blues acts from all over, like John Lee Hooker and Big Joe Turner, performed.

The history of the harmonica is a bit cloudy. The instrument dates back to somewhere around the 1820's, Hanney says. "Nobody's exactly sure. But the free reed instrument goes back thousands and thousands of years."

But the harmonica doesn't just come from or go to the blues. It's made an indelible impression on American music in general.

"The Hohner Company, which is the biggest producer of harmonicas in the world, by the late 1800's were shipping more harmonicas to America than any other place in the world," Hanney says. "It was small, portable, and America was on the move at that time. Besides, it was easy to play. You could play 'Old McDonald' in five minutes after picking it up for the first time."

Hanney's class is about studying the history and culture of the harmonica and the blues, and by doing it hands on, his students learn by playing the harmonica in the style of Little Walter, for instance.

"We'll listen to him," Hanney says. "We'll read about him, I'll talk about him, then I'll teach them a Little Walter riff or two."

Hanney will be teaching his class for the fourth semester this fall. The class holds about 20 students.

"In the learning outcomes, as we call it in academia," he says, "I want them to understand the harmonica and its relationship to the blues, to experience playing an instrument. They learn the basics of blues, a twelve-bar blues progression, and they listen to the blues. But I want it to be more than that. Blues is so much wider than Chicago blues or Delta blues. Back in the 1920's, music that was considered blues sounded more like jazz. Even the categorizing of music is a bit misleading. A lot of what we call blues, aren't blues. Players never called their music blues; it was just music."