In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs with prominent harmonica usage.
I am the youngest in my family by a considerable margin (the story goes that I was my parents’ last attempt for a boy—sorry, mom and dad) and my mother is also the youngest in her family by quite a bit. As a result, I didn’t get to spend nearly as many years with my grandfather as I had hoped, which in a way has lent him an air of mystery. He is an amalgamation of first-hand experiences and tremendous second-hand tales in equal measure. And I consider myself fortunate, because I’ve been able to continue getting to know him long after my chance to do so in person has passed. From hearing about him fighting in WWII to seeing newspaper clips of him winning a golden gloves championship to reading the book he published about his time as a police officer, I’m pleasantly surprised by how connected I feel to him and how much he as influenced me, given the circumstances.
One of the most recent examples of this continued connection was in my decision to finally bite the bullet and sign up for harmonica lessons. I’ve long been a fan of the instrument, but finding his old tab book was the push I needed to face my fears and get me and my harp out of seclusion. I’ve since found that most of these beginners books are the same, full of easier blues ditties that don’t lend themselves to personal tastes, per say. So, I have no idea what my grandfather’s harmonica leanings were, but I like to think that if he were around today he would appreciate my carefully curated harmonica playlist, which features a lot of the presumed—Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, and the like—and a few less-expected acts, such as The The. The English outfit’s “This Is The Day” was released on debut album Soul Mining in 1983, reaching me more than a decade later through the last scene of 1995’s Empire Records. I’m a sucker for airy, synth-heavy ’80s pop, and throwing a harmonica in the mix makes me downright swoon. The The does an excellent job providing all of that with a balanced focus on the instrument; the harmonica is not a mere gimmick, nor is it a scene-stealing solo. Instead, it’s weaved throughout the song, adding just as much to the mix as the other instruments, enhancing bittersweet sentiments like, “You could have done anything, if you wanted / And all your friends and family think that you’re lucky / But the side of you they’ll never see / Is when you’re left alone with your memories / That hold your life together, like glue.”
In a way, The The has become some of that glue for me, as “This Is The Day” and its harmonica inclusion now instantly bring to mind my grandfather’s memory, and fittingly reminds me of the passing of time and fickle nature of life with the repetitive, “This is the day your life will surely change.”