Day 93: Your favorite song that features the use of a harmonica.

“Low Rider” – War

Low RiderI learned something today.

This is not ridiculously unusual, I typically do learn something every day, but today’s lesson was more surprising than normal. And it had to do with the blog, so it was an added bonus.

I had some songs in mind for favorite harmonica song. “Piano Man” by Billy Joel, “Workin’ For A Livin'” by Huey Lewis & the News, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” by Elton John. All pretty obvious stuff, and none of those would I call a “favorite.” So I referenced that big encyclopedia in the ether: the Internet.

I Googled “harmonica songs” and, as expected, got a bunch of lists. What was not expected was that more than one of them included “Low Rider.”

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I’ve been listening to (and loving) “Low Rider” for many years, and I have never heard anything I would have guessed to be harmonica. So, I played it yet another time, listening ultra-close (that is to say concentrating, I was not any closer to the speakers than normal), specifically searching for any hint of something that sounded like the mouth harp. Nada. The only place I could even imagine there being any was in “Low Rider”‘s classic riff. But it just didn’t sound… gritty enough to be harmonica. It just sounded like a horn to me (and always has). There was none of that humming, kazooey (I’ve just declared that a word) sound that you normally associate with harmonica.

Research was needed.

As it turns out, that classic riff is harmonica. (I have not found any documentation to support my supposition that it was a combination of harmonica and horn.) Who knew? Or was it blatantly obvious and I’m the only one who missed it because I was expecting the kazooey sound?

Incidentally, the harmonica comes courtesy of Lee Oskar, a Danish harmonica virtuoso, who, interestingly enough, was the first person recruited when Eric Burdon decided to make War (as in, start a new band, not attacking others with weapons). Apparently, Oskar is actually quite active in their songs, in ways not usually given to harmonica. So, again, I guess I have more back-catalog listening to do. (Burdon was long gone by the time of this song, by the way.)

It just goes to show that you can listen to something many times and not really “hear” it. You can’t always pick out everything that’s in the mix. And, as much as I love music and am usually pretty good at hearing individual instruments, there will always be things to surprise me, as shown here.

And that’s a good thing. I’ve always said that the hallmark of a great song is being able to pick out new things even after having listened to it dozens of times. With this hidden harmonica trick, “Low Rider” may be the greatest song of all time. (Okay, maybe not, but it’s still damn good.)

So what will I learn tomorrow?