'Pocket Full Of Soul' Explores The Harmonica's History Filmmaker Marc Lempert's documentary traces the history of the harmonica and its greatest players, living and dead. Along with Magic Dick of The J. Geils Band, he explores the instrument, its history and the music it makes -- from blues to jazz to rock 'n' roll.
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'Pocket Full Of Soul' Explores The Harmonica's History

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'Pocket Full Of Soul' Explores The Harmonica's History

'Pocket Full Of Soul' Explores The Harmonica's History

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It's cheap, small and simple. But if you're good, you can make some amazing sounds.


CORNISH: That's Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band, opening up a new documentary that explores everything you ever wanted to know - and then some - about the harmonica. It's called "Pocket Full of Soul" and it features a who's who of the harp, living and long gone. The film is directed by Marc Lempert, and he joins us from NPR West. Marc, welcome.

M: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Also joining us, from member station WGBH in Boston, is the man we just heard play his signature tune, "Whammer Jammer," Magic Dick. Welcome to you.

MAGIC DICK: Good morning, everybody.

CORNISH: Throughout the film, we are reminded that the harmonica is a kind of - I guess - Rodney Dangerfield of instruments, always looking for respect in that somehow, people don't consider it a real instrument. And Marc, is this one of the reasons why you made the movie, to give it some respect?

M: Pretty much, pretty much. And once I got into it, I realized that all these players, as good as they all were, were all kind of facing this upward battle to try to get respect for what they were doing.

DICK: That is really, really true. I used to get kidded by the guys in the J. Geils Band that you could buy my instrument at Woolworths.

CORNISH: And this actually was an instrument originally made to play German folk songs back in the 1800s and, I think, considered early on as a toy in this country. And one of the interesting moments about the film is where you talk about a group called the Harmonicats and their big hit, "Peg o' My Heart," back in 1947. And I want to play just a little bit of that tune, which was really instrumental in kind of - pop music for the instrument.


CORNISH: Magic Dick, I think you're going to surprise a lot of people watching this movie because your pick for the greatest harp player of all time - it's not Little Walter, not Sonny Boy Williamson, not James Cotton, not Paul Butterfield - but it is actually Jerry Murad of the Harmonicats. Why?

DICK: Yeah. When it came to playing a written score on the harmonica, Jerry Murad's group, the Harmonicats, and Jerry Murad, in particular, as a lead chromatic harp player, was the best at it because he could really put technical command and emotion together to have such a huge appeal around the world.

I mean, I know that many, many years ago, "Peg o' My Heart" was tallied at more than 25 million copies sold worldwide. And it has probably continued to enjoy that kind of popularity.

CORNISH: In the film, there are so many different harmonicas that you guys sort of make us familiar with - chord, chromatic and bass - and then lots of different styles of harmonica music - classical, jazz and novelty. I want you to tell me a little bit about what you think of - the heart of the movie is, the 10-hole diatonic harp and its relationship - say, to blues music.

M: Well, it's so omnipresent in music. You can step back and really just kind of throw a dart at a style of music and at some point, you're going to find harmonica in it. And it just got to a point of digging as deep as we could to find out where it started, where it's come from, where it's going - and of course, blues being at the core of it all.

CORNISH: And it seems like we can't really talk about blues harmonica without talking about Little Walter Jacobs, which...

M: Absolutely.

CORNISH: ...you know, I got familiar with, with your film, who played the chromatic as well as the diatonic harp. And it seems like the film is built around blues harmonica before Little Walter and after Little Walter. Magic Dick, what made him so magnificent?

DICK: The same aspects that made Jerry Murad great as a player, I would apply to Little Walter in the genre of blues. It was a precision of technique, a vast array of various sounds that he could play, and a really original approach to expanding what the harmonica could do - just like the way Frank Sinatra changed what popular singing was like.

Before Little Walter, blues harp was more of a folk instrument. Little Walter had the sonic conception of playing it through an amplifier and thereby altering the tone and the sound into a thing that - boy, it's hard to put words to it because it's different in different contexts but...

CORNISH: And we actually have a clip, though, of his iconic song "Juke" I'd like to play. Maybe that'll give us a sense of it.

DICK: That would be great.


M: As I was getting deeper and deeper into the world of the harmonica and really studying some of the players that were really setting off, the players that would come after people like Little Walter, I was being warned by players that Little Walter could actually take over my life. And it's true. I mean, it was one of the smartest things I did, when we got into post-production on this film, to leave the Little Walter section until later because it just brings in all of the emotion that this instrument has. And it also has that technical musical quality that, you know, it's just so innovative and forward- looking. I mean, he really set the instrument off.


CORNISH: I'm speaking with harmonica player Magic Dick and filmmaker Mark Lempert about the harmonica documentary "Pocket Full of Soul."

Now, Magic Dick, you also - in talking about Little Walter, you reference the idea of tone. And I didn't realize that that had such a sort of singular definition in the world of harmonicas until I saw the film. And I was wondering if you could either explain it to us, or give us a little example of what tone means.

DICK: For the past two years, I have totally been taking my technique apart for the purpose of producing a better tone, a better sound. And I went back to the very, very beginning, you know, to "Mary Had a Little Lamb," scales, whatever - the basic idea being to get in touch with the tone. And I mean that in the sense of actually, like, physically touching it.

Because the harmonica is held in the hands and played by the mouth, the lungs, the body, the whole thing of the harmonica and the body and the hands become the instrument. The harmonica itself, when it's just sitting on a table, is devoid of half of the elements that give it tone. What the player is really doing is manipulating the air - how much air goes into the harp, how fast, under what kind of pressure.

These are the things that one needs to gain control over in order to make the harp have musical tone quality. It's this invisible thing that you have to discover for yourself and find. And imagination is the key to unlocking what one can really do with it.


DICK: My tone is this...


DICK: You know, tone, my tone comes from in here. I think it has a lot to do with the shape of your head, maybe...

CORNISH: Marc, tell us, there's such a visceral passion that virtually all the harp players in your film seem to have for the instrument. I mean, in the end, is that the pocket full of soul you're referring to in the film's title?

M: You know, that's a great point. I think it is. Like, I keep saying, it kept getting deeper and deeper into this harmonica world, the emotions that were so infectious. It was these people that have dedicated their lives to this tiny little thing that, like we've been talking about, they get very little respect, it takes forever to master the thing. And once they master it, I mean, where do you really go? I mean, hopefully you hook up with the J. Geils Band and you write a "Whammer Jammer."

But the majority of these players are out there really doing it well, really high, you just haven't heard of. And it is the pocket full of soul. It's that place where these people have taken the instrument and made it part of themselves. And through it, they're able to communicate everything that they're about.

I mean, that's the beauty of the instrument. It allows the player to talk. It allows a certain communication.

CORNISH: Filmmaker Marc Lempert, at NPR West. Thank you for speaking with us.

M: Thank you so much, Audie. This was great.

CORNISH: Marc Lempert's new film is called "Pocket Full of Soul." And harmonica player Magic Dick in Boston, thank you.

DICK: My pleasure. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

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