Joe Phillips

Who plays a mandolin these days? I’d laid my book aside to flip through television channels for something as passively interesting. Passing RFD-TV I reversed and landed on a bluegrass band I’d never heard of.

Gone were moonshiner fashion and cowboy outfits with light-catching sequins. No gap-toothed grins under old black felt hats. The guys wore suits. One wore a bow tie. A young well-dressed woman in the back pitched in with harmony then stepped forward with her mandolin.

She plays hard like she’s trying to chop the strings off the thing, fantastic, lightening fast, unforgivably young. Once you hear the sound of a mandolin you’ll remember it. The mandolin is an old instrument, has been around a long time but not around here.

It’s Italian! It’s melodic. The European application of a mandolin is artistic and if you compare it to a slow Sunday afternoon drive through the curvy Apennines Mountains, the mandolin do-whacka-do application in bluegrass is a Demolition Derby.

The “Father of Bluegrass Music,” Bill Monroe introduced the mandolin and now it is a staple of bluegrass. But where do people learn to play a mandolin these days. And why? There were once mandolin choirs but they are only heard in Europe or European ethnic groups.

The same could be said of a harmonica, sometimes called “The Tin Sandwich.” You don’t immediately thought-jump to harmonica ensembles but I recall an early recording of “Peg of My Heart” played by Jerry Murad’s “Harmonicats. The “Cats” were a trio, straight musicians, nearly unknown today. They were performing nostalgia shows as recently as a few years ago.

The Harmonica Rascals were a perfect act for 52,000 Boy Scouts at the 1957 Jamboree at Valley Forge. I was there. There was always something going on in the natural amphitheater. The Air Force “Thunderbirds” did a fly-by, Jimmy Dean performed, Vice President Nixon spoke and there were the Rascals.

Harmonica Rascals were a large costumed group, sometimes with 10 players. They were as much a comedy ensemble as anything. They used broad, slapstick, physical routines that ended in masterful ensemble performances.

The harmonica is found in every style of music but greatly in folk and blues used by a guitar player holding the harmonica with a “rack.” Radio and television star Herb Shriner regularly played a harmonica on his shows but he was also a whistler. Musical whistlers. Now, there is open field for you.

Joe Phillips writes his “Dear me” columns for several small newspapers. He has many connections to Walker County, including his grandfather, former superintendent Waymond Morgan. He can be reached at