The Sources of Sonny Boy's Lonesome Harp Sounds
If you can close your eyes and imagine the rural setting for Alex Miller in 1918 when he first learned to play his harp and think about what his influences might be an interesting story emerges. He was born in 1912 and was playing by age six in 1918. A local vegetable vendor, Big Jim, came walking past Alex Miller’s father’s blacksmith forge playing his harmonica to the sound of his mule’s saddlebags slapping on the sides of his mule, as Sonny Boy told it to a British reporter in 1965.
Then, I can imagine, he listened to the sounds of his lonely world. The average population density of the delta plantations was about one person per acre. While Sonny Boy lived with a large family, during the day they were all at work. He would have built his blues harp sound on what he heard: a baby’s cry (his trademark Wah-Wah sound), the sounds of a cat and dog fight (listen to “The Hunt”), the lonesome whistle of a train travelling across the delta (the high lonesome riff on “All My Love In Vain” and the chug on “Help Me”) with its rhythmic chugging sound across the lonely delta.