The Wild West of Yester-Year

Harmonicas in the Old West
by Rachel Kovaciny


It’s a staple of cowboy movies: all the cowpokes are sitting around the campfire at night, and someone pulls a harmonica from their shirt pocket. Wistful music ensues, evoking pensive memories or hopeful yearnings. I’m not sure any other musical instrument is so tied to the Old West in our collective American consciousness. I suppose the guitar might come close, but I’ll save that for another time.


The first harmonica-like instrument was the sheng, developed by the Chinese about three thousand years ago. It used bamboo tubes tied to a curved pipe, with thin strips of metal inside the bamboo that allowed you to change the pitch depending on how you blew on it. Next came a contraption the size of a piano created by Dutch physician Christian Kratzenstein in 1780, while he tried to figure out how human vocal cords worked. Those led to other large musical instruments like the harmonium and the terpodian. But none of those would ever have fit in your pocket.


It wasn’t until 1821 that a German clockmaker and musician named Christian Buschmann created the harmonica, which he initially called an aura. Unlike modern harmonicas, you could only produce “blow” notes by exhaling through the instrument. Four years later, Joseph Richter improved on the aura by creating the “diatonic” harmonica, which added a second set of “draw” notes created by inhaling through the instrument. That doubled the number of notes and the harmonica caught on quickly. Manufacturers sprang up all over Germany. The most famous (Hohner) is still in operation today. Matthias Hohner, a German clockmaker, started his own harmonica factory in the 1850s and quickly discovered a huge market for his product: German emigrants heading to America. A harmonica was an inexpensive, easily portable way to take music along across the ocean, and then across the continent. He expanded his business to export harmonicas to America, and a musical empire was born. By the time his sons took over the family business, Hohner was producing over four million harmonicas every year.

Here in America, pioneers took the harmonica west with them. Who wouldn’t want a pocket-sized musical instrument to lift your spirits or while away a long evening? You could play any kind of music with no musical training—no need to learn to read music, you just had to figure out how to work the “blow” and “draw” notes and have an ear for lively tunes.

It wasn’t long before cattlemen discovered a new use for the harmonica: soothing cattle. Large herds of cattle would get restless on the long trek from Texas to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska. A loud noise, a flash of lightning, or a frisky jackrabbit could startle a steer or two and set a whole herd running, maybe even causing a stampede. To keep the cattle calm during the night, cowboys would ride slowly through the herd, singing repetitive and soothing songs. The simple tones of a harmonica worked the same way, and playing the harmonica gave a cowboy’s vocal cords a break. And that’s what gave us our modern concept of cowboys playing harmonicas.


If you want to learn to play the harmonica yourself, it’s not that hard, and you can even find harmonica music books filled with traditional cowboy songs! Get yourself a harmonica, build a campfire, and settle down for a cozy evening imagining you’re out on some lonesome trail. I mean, that’s my idea of fun, so maybe it’s yours too?