Blues and funk are two of the most important contributions the United States has made to music. As both of these genres were developed in large part by African-American musicians, we cannot speak of them with mentioning our history of slavery, oppression, and racism. In addition, we must recognize the role of West African music in molding and shaping these quintessentially “American” genres.
However, we should also thank the Germans.
Yes. The Germans.
In mid-1800s the German clockmaker Matthias Hohner began mass-producing a pocket-sized instrument designed to easily play waltzes and folk music. Originally designed by Viennese clockmakers, the harmonica was a transverse-blown much like miniature panpipes, with brass reeds housed in a wooden frame, or comb.
Part of what made this harmonica easy to play was that it was diatonic—it played all the notes of a preset key, and no other. If you had one in the Key of G, as long as you played its blow and draw notes—inhaling and exhaling—cleanly, you were never off-key.
The diatonic harmonica was portable, simple, and expressive—and became wildly popular, not only in Germany and Austria but across the Atlantic in the United States. Civil War soldiers on both sides played them, and even Abraham Lincoln kept one in his coat pocket.
Eventually, harmonicas made it in the hands of African-American musicians. These musicians were already combining the legacy of faraway West Africa with their experiences of slavery and racism in the United States to create the music known as the blues.
The music of the blues was too nuanced and complex to fit within a European diatonic scale. However, these musicians discovered that by altering one’s mouth shape and how one modulated airflow on the blow and draw, a player could alter and control the timbres and pitches of the notes.
By overblowing and bending, they found that the harmonica, not only produced a full chromatic scale, but could slur and slide and emote in ways that approximated the human voice.
These new adapters played the instrument in such a dramatically different way that the harmonica even took on a new name. And the blues harp became one of the most visible and beloved instruments in blues music.
This is the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson II—listen not only the obvious wails and the bends but the sensitivity and technical control he has over the entire performance. Amazing stuff.
In case you were wondering, Sonny Boy Williamson I was just as legendary, but he died young, and it’s difficult to find video footage of his work. The two were not related, but their recordings were marketed under the same name by the record company.
Anyway, back to Germany. Actually, way, wayyyy back. In 1404, to be exact, when a German poem mentions the clavichordium.
It’s the first known mention of the clavichord.
The clavichord is a small keyboard instrument that predates the harpsichord. It can be thought of as the grandfather to the piano. Like the piano, it makes its sound by hitting the strings. However rather than a complicated mechanical action, its keys operate like simple seesaws, with the key on one end, a fulcrum in the middle, and a tangent, for hitting the strings, on the other.
As the clavichord is small, it uses thinner strings, held under less tension. This, combined with how sound is produced, gives the clavichord a delicate, almost echolike voice.
And yet, because the clavichord uses such a simple movement, the player has an incredibly direct control over the shadings of the sound. There is more nuance and shading with the clavichord than any other instrument, of course more than a harpsichord, but even the modern piano.
To play the clavichord well means to highlight its intimacy, with enough conviction to sound the notes clearly—yet not so vigorously that the notes are bent out of tune. Here’s a sample of early music played on a 16th-century clavichord.
This video is microphoned pretty well, but this is about as good as it gets. In a live situation, even whispering can drown out the sound of the clavichord. This limited clavichord recitals to very small audiences, which is a shame because its sound is just so beautiful.
And then, in Germany, Hohner struck again.
In the early 20th century, engineers and instrument builders were exploring the possibilities of electromechanical instruments. One area of development was using electrical devices, or electricity, itself to produce sound. These efforts resulted in instruments such as the Hammond organ and the theremin.
However, others focused on improving existing instruments, especially how magnetic pickups could amplify the sound of softer-voiced instruments.
For example, the guitar had always been too quiet for orchestras and ensembles. By creating the electric guitar, innovators such as Adolph Rickenbacker, Les Paul, and Leo Fender became legends in the music world.
But the clavichord was also transformed by the electro-mechanical revolution. And it was done so by one man, Ernst Zacharias, musician and Hohner engineer who loved the clavichord and Bach—and vacuum tubes.
By amplifying the exquisite but horribly underpowered clavichord, Zacharias sought to create an instrument that would finally bring its trademark sound to concert halls.
Except that did not happen. Here’s a Bach Goldberg Aria on an electric clavichord, or Clavinet.
It’s beautiful in its own way, but it’s not quite the sound of a true clavichord. Using magnetic pickups to convert sound to electricity, then amplifying that signal, then running it through speakers not only increases the sound’s volume, but also distorts its qualities.
That was not quite what the early-music clavichord players wanted.
For similar reasons, the electric guitar did not transform the world of classical guitar. Instead, the electric guitar found rock music, where its wonderful distortion could be properly appreciated and exploited.
And what did the Clavinet find?
It found Stevie Wonder.
Well, not just Stevie Wonder, but a generation of funk and then Southern rock keyboard players. The Clavinet could be amplified and distorted, its speaker signal phase shifted.
Even the clavichord's tendency to warble and change pitch when the keys were struck or pressed too hard became a valued and exploited “aftertouch.”
Seriously, listen to “Superstition” or “Up on Cripple Creek” and ask yourself what other instrument could do that?
Unfortunately, Clavinets are no longer made—Stevie Wonder stills plays one, but he's Stevie Wonder. For most of us, the Clavinet exists only as a digital sample.
However, without Hohner and the Ernst Zacharias, there would have been nothing to sample in the first place.
I think about German folk songs and Stevie Wonder. I think of folk songs and songs of slavery, music that crosses oceans, from 40 and 400 years ago… I think of how some of our most important cultural connections are unexpected, and even ignored.
Right now, we talk of guarding borders and there’s talk of war, and in all this is the underlying presumption that there is “us” and a “them.”
But the world doesn’t work that way. Borders don’t work that way. We’ve always been far more connected that we realize. I love our connections; that’s why I agreed to write this series in the first place.
However, connections are not ours to make or destroy—we can only recognize or ignore.
It is easy to pray for peaceful lives, but peace without sharing, life without connections, is simply coexisting. And humans have never merely coexisted. Our music is too nuanced and complex for that. Our loves and hates are too great for that.
So instead of peace, perhaps we should recognize our connections.
In this world, in all that we may ignore or deny…we are connected, always, each of us.
And whether we love or hate, dream or kill, our lives are a music that all of us, as long as we breathe, shall laugh and cry and sing.
Cover: Kevin Winter/Collection: Getty Images Entertainment/ Getty Images