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Melodies From a Tin Sandwich

MY old pal Otto Mottert flouted convention in St. Louis, a town where blues is the most often heard form of musical expression. I first saw Otto at the Westward Expansion Museum beneath the Gateway Arch in 1979. There was a folk festival and the Irish group Bowhand had just gone on break when Otto pirated the microphone. Tapping a steady beat, Otto conjured reels, jigs, waltzes, and hornpipes from his mouth harp. He was partial to the tremelo sextet, a mouth-harp dinosaur that involved a cluster of symph onic-sounding Hohner Echoes attached to a spindle that he could strap around his neck and rotate to play the various keys. Otto spun his musical web and the crowd was ensnared.

Months later we sat in his room on the second floor of the Antler Hotel, a musty sanctuary for old men on Chestnut Street. Otto, perched on the sill of the room's only window, played songs from his farm-boy youth in Eureka, Missouri - tunes like "I'm Looking for the Bully of the Town" and "Ragtime Annie." Every song had a story: "And this one, `Chinese Breakdown,' I learned from a barn caller over in Catawissa," he'd say.

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At 86, he'd been playing for "70-some odd years" and he guessed he knew 200 or 300 tunes. "Some I'll lose track of for 30, 40 years," he confided, "and then one day they'll come back to me." Otto was vexed because lately his lips were starting to crack and bleed after so much playing, a tragedy of epic proportions for a harmonica player such as he.

Well, the Antler was eventually demolished, a victim of the Gateway Mall expansion, scattering the old men like milkweed tufts. Otto went to the Jefferson Arms and there he died, but he and his harmonicas are still a part of those who stopped to listen.

It's known variously as the pocket piano, tin sandwich, mouth organ, mouth harp, and harmonica; a personal instrument, a toy almost, which is simple to learn and fun to play. The harmonica evokes silver screen images of cowboys around a campfire playing mouth harps to soothe thirsty cattle.

I learned to play harmonica in Germany, home of M. Hohner Inc., and where a Marine Band harmonica was only 7 deutsche marks, about $1.75, in 1971. I spent my first two years making basic sound patterns, often train-like riffs, never even trying to play a recognizable tune. I worked on singling out pure notes by pursing my lips over single holes. I drove the other soldiers nuts.

Then I drove an old crackerbox ambulance, big red crosses on the sides, for the United States Army Medical Corps, and I'd tootle my harp while on runs - the not-so-serious ones. "Brahm's Lullabye" might soothe them, while "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" might stir patriotic emotions, only to remind them that their present condition was ultimately a result of their membership in the world's biggest club, the US Army. Funny, I never knew if their vexation stemmed from injury or malaise or because the dri ver had but one hand on the wheel.

My breakthrough occurred in the summer of '73 while bumping over a rutted road in Biafra, Nigeria. In the back of a Land Rover, I learned "Oh! Susannah" by rote. Since then my repertoire has grown to encompass 100 tunes, mostly songs we all knew as kids - "Frere Jacques," "Dixie," "Hinky-Dinky Parlay Voo."

In learning all these songs by ear, I came to the revelation that "The Bear Went Over The Mountain" and "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" are one and the same tune. You could've knocked me over with a feather!

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Little by little, I was becoming more like Otto, playing folk and ethnic and children's songs in public places whether people wanted to hear them or not.

At one point, I modified a wooden produce crate into a portable minstrel show. I took it to street corners in Portland and Seattle. Handing out a "Musical Menu," I offered "The World's Great Songs On Harmonica - Your Choice 10 Cents." People would come up, asking if they could get three for a quarter.

Another time, as part of a Solar Energy Day Celebration, I offered to lead a chorus of "You Are My Sunshine" at sunrise beneath the St. Louis Arch. It was a beautiful June morning, and the TV cameras were rolling as I led off, but the problem occurred about halfway into the song when the choir's version and my version of the song diverged. What had been a clarion rendition broke down into anarchy. I still can't understand how so many people could get it wrong.

If you want to play harmonica, more power to you. You'll never be at a loss for something to do. Just try to refrain from eating crackers and peanut butter an hour before playing.

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