Finding harmony in harmonicas

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 30, 2008

PROCTORVILLE — It was a musical baptism of fire for Dick King when he decided he wanted to learn the instrument every child plays with and not so many adult can master — the harmonica.

When he decided he wanted to take up the harmonica, he asked a friend who was a master to teach him. The friend wasn’t sure of what kind of teacher he would be, so he suggested King join a group of players who met every Tuesday for a jam session at the Java Joint in Huntington, W.Va.

“He thought I could come and join them. He thought I could just pick it up,” King said.

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King jumped into the fray, but admits it wasn’t a soft melodic ride.

“It is really intimidating, especially when someone tosses a mike in your face and says, ‘You’re next,’ “ King said.

It took King, who retired from Inco’s marketing-pricing department 15 years ago, about six months to get a hold on the instrument. But a hold on him that silvery harmonica did get. Now King, who has been playing for five years, ranks himself as an immediate player.

Now, he is a member of the West Virginia Harmonica Club where like-minded musicians get together to practice the art and promote the joy of harmonica music.

“They are a very sympathetic people. Everyone has been where I was,” King said.

In fact, King likes to get together whenever he can to play with other harmonica players. Recently, several of the club members went to Davis & Elkins College for a blues camp. They lived on campus, took classes during the day and jammed at night.

“On Friday night, our last night, we were up to 3:30 in the morning,” he said. “It was a blast. It was a chance to get away and be with people with a like hobby.”

It was 10 years ago when Kermit Nance of Deering decided he needed a hobby. He stopped by a music store in Huntington, bought a harmonica and found a new avocation.

The one-time educator, retired from Ironton and Dawson-Bryant school systems, now plays gospel music and hymns at his church, South Point First Southern Baptist.

“I developed an interest (in the harmonica) as a child,” Nance said. “My father played some to entertain the kids. I have sung in church choirs over the years … I was just a natural little thing to fall into.”

Nance is a self-taught musician who didn’t mind tackling the very basics.

“I started out playing very simple tunes like ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ When I say ‘simple,’ I mean ‘simple.’”

The Internet expanded his knowledge about scales as well as “reading carefully the tiny brochures that come with a new harmonica,” he said.

In a couple of year after mastering scales, he began to play the old hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “Unclouded Day.”

“I began to play some of those hymns. I sounded halfway decent. Then I thought I might be able to play this thing,” he recalled.

Nance too is a member of the Harmonica Club that at each of its performances offers a five-minute harmonica lesson for someone in the audience.

“It’s usually young people. We teach them to how to make a sound out of it in five minutes. They do a little ditty in fact,” King said. “Two of our current players came via that route. … What is nice about it is you can develop your own style.”