City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Dec 7, 2010 11:33 AM
Harmonica found in dig
April 14, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey
Most of the artifacts excavated by archaeologists from historic residences reflect one of the most important things we do in our homes-eat! Ceramics and glass, often more than 25,000 in every historic Alexandria backyard, predominately tell us about how people stored, prepared and consumed their food and drink.
Ceramics and glass are well preserved in Alexandria's soil, awaiting their rediscovery. However, objects made of metal, wood, fabric and bone do not weather as well. Alexandria's acidic soil and changing weather conditions create an inhospitable environment for such materials.
Often, the City archaeologists excavate fascinating artifacts which would eventually decompose in a few more decades. A harmonica was discovered in a trash pit at the back of a Royal Street lot in the African American neighborhood, Hayti. Although we cannot say exactly who discarded the instrument after the Civil War, many African American men once lived in the house before it was razed about 1882. Historic records provide the names of these men--Henry Cavins, John Thomas, Robert Jackson, Nathan Garret, Roy Reynolds. But we know little about their lives other than that they were laborers living for only brief periods on the site.
Harmonicas, also called mouth organs or French harps, were inexpensive small instruments available to all economic classes and ages. Available for only five cents by the end of 19th century, the harmonica's price jumped to fifty cents before World War II. Children have for generations enjoyed the harmonica, but it can also be linked with African American traditional music.
Martha Teall Oyler has researched this association and the history of the harmonica. In 1821, Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann developed a tuning instrument with 15 reeds called an aura. Experiments by Matthias Hohner and others in Trossingen, Wurtemburg found that it could be easily used to play a variety of melodies and mass produced. By 1879, Horner had exported to America over 700,000 harmonicas.
Harmonicas were used to play ballads and reels in the latter half of the 19th century. Such music accompanied fish fries, weekend parties, country suppers, as well as black work gangs. They also appeared in religious settings. W.C. Handy's autobiography gives us a glimpse into black harmonica music. A child in Alabama in the 1880s, Handy became an influential black musician. While music was discouraged in his home except for religious purposes, he developed a keen ear, and played mechanical and natural sounds in his rural environment. Railroad trains were imitated with their puff and surge of engines and clacking of wheels. The fox chase sounds included panting and baying of hounds, yelps they approached the fox, and the fading of sounds as the pack disappeared.
The harmonica also is associated with the blues which developed at the turn of the 20th century. Sonny Terry, a one of the great blues harmonica players, said in his book: "Daddy was a great hunter. He hunted opossum, rabbits and even foxes. That's where I got the song the Fox Chase." When he became blind as a teenager, "I just as soon died - except for my harmonica. It was like a friend who didn't give a damn if I could see or not." The blues emerged out of these reels, railroad songs, ballads and work songs. At about the same time, gospel songs, ragtime, and New Orleans jazz all emerged.
We may never know the songs played by the men and children in Alexandria's Hayti a hundred years ago. But the little harmonica will be a reminder of the intangible parts of history like music that are not preserved except through human efforts to recreate the sounds, thus keeping them alive for us.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.
Harmonica excavated in an African American archaeological site that probably was used to play ballads, reels, and daily sounds like the railroad train that ran through the Wilkes Street Tunnel.