top of page

Bob Hennessy Shares His “World of Harmonica”

By Joan Hunt

Hartford Courant

Nov 21, 2019

The harmonica was originally used in Europe to accompany their folk tunes, but became wildly popular when it arrived in America, Bob Hennessy told his listeners. (Joan Hunt/Special to Courant Community)

It’s small enough to carry around in your pocket, about as inexpensive as a musical instrument gets, and capable of evoking a variety of sounds and moods.

On Nov. 16, Bob Hennessy took his listeners at the Wethersfield Public Library through the metamorphosis from the 10 cent harmonica of the mid-1800s to the adaptable midi-harmonicas of today. It was a great trip filled with toe-tapping rhythms and well-known tunes that punctuated America’s growth from a young country to its most recent past.

The Chinese invented a free reed instrument, called the Sheng, several thousand years ago, but the model that arrived in America originated in Europe. It was an adaptation of a pitch pipe with 15 reeds devised in 1822 by a Berliner named Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschman and copied by German clockmaker Christian Messner.

By the late-1850s, Matthias Hohner had figured out how to mass-produce the instrument and was exporting harmonicas out of Germany to all parts of the world.

They hit America about the same time as the Civil War and became very popular with the troops. Hennessy played excerpts from “Dixieland” and “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and noted that so many soldiers on both sides carried harmonicas into battle that the lives of some were spared by bullets burrowing into their instruments instead of their bodies.

Always a favorite around the campfire, harmonica music went through many transitions, depending on who was playing it and what kind of sound they wanted it to produce. Hennessy played straightforward tunes like “Oh Suzannah” and “Camp Town Races,” then noted that some people figured out how to make the harmonica “howl” – and the blues were born.

“It’s hard to describe how that's done,” he said.

Men like “Little Walter” Jacobs figured out how to amplify and distort the harmonica’s sound using microphones and different ways of holding the instrument. Blues legend “Big Mama” Thornton was one of the first women to play the harmonica.

Hennessy played George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” in addition to the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” As the years flew by, his selections reflected the harmonica’s transitions.

He said that Quincy Jones has called Toots Thielmans the greatest improviser of all time. Current greats like Billy Joel, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder play the harmonica and have incorporated it into their performances.

Hennessy said he prefers to play the Chromatic harmonica. He bought his first one out of curiosity when he was a young man, put it in the top drawer of his dresser, and paid no further attention to it for the next 10 years.

A native of Cape Cod, he ended up in San Francisco after college, playing in a band and reading his poetry in a coffee house. A friend suggested that he add the harmonica to his poetry reading and the audiences liked it.

All kinds of customizers are available today, said Hennessy, to make your harmonica do many interesting things. With current software, the midi-harmonica can even sound like other instruments. And some health professionals believe that playing the harmonica can make it easier for people to breathe. They recommend it as one kind of therapy for COPD and asthma sufferers.



Hennessy ended his easy-listening performance with the perennial favorite “Night Train,” presumably sending his audience back into the chilly Saturday afternoon with the strains of familiar melodies swirling inside their heads.

Bob Hennessy played harmonica pieces from the eras and styles it has enhanced in America, since the instrument arrived here in the mid-19th century. (Joan Hunt/Special to Courant Community)

The harmonica is a simple instrument that most people can relate to, especially in the hands of a professional musician such as Bob Hennessy. (Joan Hunt/Special to Courant Community)

Children also tuned in to enjoy the harmonica music provided by Bob Hennessy, at the Wethersfield Public Library. (Joan Hunt/Special to Courant Community)

World of Harmonica, with Bob Hennessy, entertained listeners of all ages. (Joan Hunt/Special to Courant Community)

Children also tuned in to enjoy the harmonica music provided by Bob Hennessy, at the Wethersfield Public Library. (Joan Hunt/Special to Courant Community)

bottom of page