The Moothie (mouth organ or harmonica) has never really been taken seriously as a traditional musical instrument, yet it's contribution to Scottish traditional music is considerable. Almost everyone knows or has known someone that plays the moothie. However, tell someone you play the mouth organ and you instantly drop a few rungs on the musical ladder, even though it's the largest selling instrument in the world. Why should this be? Well firstly it's considered easy to play, a bit of a toy. The truth of the matter is that it's very easy for a beginner to get a harmonious sound out of the moothie due to its construction and tuning, but once you get past 'Scotland the Brave' and 'The Skye Boat Song' you have to start putting the work in, just like any other instrument. That's when the moothie usually goes back in the drawer only to appear again next New Year.
Secondly, due to it being easy for a beginner to get a harmonious sound, the major manufacturers in the past have targeted children by sponsoring school bands etc. Often the moothie will be found amongst children's instruments in music shops. The words simple and easy often appear on tutor books. The 'Hohner Publication' 'The A.B.C of Harmonica Playing' by J.Reilly has two children on the front cover. This all leads to the way of thinking that it's the sort of instrument you play until you can take up a 'real' instrument. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Kim Field in his book 'Harmonicas, Harps and Heavy Breathers' states "The mouth organ is supposedly the one instrument that anyone can play, yet the truth is that the only thing rarer than a person who has never owned a harmonica is a player who has done it justice."
Useful instruments HERE.
Mouth organ bands became very popular. The Edinburgh Harmonica Band was formed by the late James Anderson and ran from 1936 to 1999 and gave more than 1,500 performances including five live performances for the BBC. The band won the Scottish Harmonica contest in 1938 and again in 1939. The band also had accordions, fiddles, banjos and large chord harmonicas. Jimmy Anderson is quoted as saying there were around 900 bands at that time.
Another very popular band in the 1930s was the Silver City Harmonica Band. They played around the Aberdeen area and also made a few recordings on the Great Scott label. At one point they had up to 50 mouth organ players.
Gordon McFeeter had a mouth organ band for children aged round about 10 years old in the 1950s. He would have been in his 30s then. They practised every week in the scout hall in Carricknowe, Edinburgh and would perform in old folks homes on a regular basis. Gordon McFeeter played the piano as accompaniment and did not seem to play the mouth organ. No instruction was ever given. Children just played what they could by ear. They had a repertoire of around 20-30 tunes which would include Christmas Carols, Scottish tunes and songs from popular shows like Colonel Buffalo Bill from "Anne Get Your Gun". Tremolo instruments were used and usually the Hohner Echo Harp C/G double sided, supplied by the children. Most tunes were played in the key of C. It is known they performed in Princes St. Gardens, Edinburgh and also on BBC Radio Children's Hour.
At the present time a group of enthusiasts called The Scots Moothie Group meet once every two weeks to help keep the tradition alive (well almost).
The tradition of playing Scottish music on the mouth organ or 'moothie' as it is known in Scotland goes back to at least the late 19th century. It's difficult to get accurate information as to which instruments were played and how they were played but a popular instrument around the turn of the century seems to have been the double sided Hohner Echo Harp. This tremolo instrument has remained popular to this day probably because of its rich full sound and responsiveness. A tune found in Kerr's First Collection of Merry Melodies called The Harmonica suggests the mouth organ was in use in Scotland before the late 19th century. Hohner, the largest and most aggressive German manufacturer of the mouth organ, exported almost exclusively to America up until about the 1880s. The introduction of manufacturing machinery in 1878 increased production considerably and a depression in America in 1893 found Hohner looking for other markets. No prizes for guessing where the Rob Roy, Wee Macgregor and Robbie Burns models were destined for. It is most likely that the moothie grew considerably in popularity in Scotland around this time.
From here on it gets a little easier. A cheap and very portable instrument, able to play many of the popular melodies, was ideal for the working classes of the time. There are accounts of mouth organs being sent to the troops in the First World War, and the Jarrow crusade which started in the North of England in 1936, had a mouth organ band at its head.
Donald Davidson is probably the most important moothie player as he seems to have been the first British player to be recorded. His technique was well developed for a nineteen year old during his first recordings, with a driving tongue rhythm (which we used to call vamping). There's also a deep rooted knowledge of traditional music in his playing. Hohner said at the time that his instrument was "the Tartan Echo". I'd be interested to know if there was such an instrument around at the time or if this was a re-tuning done by Donald. His playing of the Inverness Gathering does suggest that he had the Hohner Highlander beaten by over seventy years.
Jimmy Andrews played occasionally with Bob Smith's Ideal Band as well as playing in the music halls. He won the annual Scottish Mouth Organ Championship, held in Glasgow's City Hall in 1928, came second in 1929, and won again in 1930, in a field of 59 players whose standard was so high, according to the Music Trades Review, that the judges had a hard task reaching their decision. In addition to the three guinea prize and a silver cup, Andrews was offered a job with the popular mouth organ band leader Eddie Mayo. He also played with Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals, but had to quit them when he got married. Andrews always played the diatonic mouth organ and never the chromatic.
Jimmy Andrews worked with another mouth organ player of the time called Jimmy Hiddlestone, an ex railwayman and mouth organ player, also from Glasgow, under the name The Andrews Brothers. Hiddlestone too was associated with Bob Smith. He was second to Jimmy Andrews at the Mouth Organ Championships in 1930, William Thomson of Glasgow was third, A. J. Smith of Stirling fourth and C. Eyre of Hamilton fifth.
Willie Fraser from Aberlour played the pipes, fiddle and accordion. After losing fingers on his right hand in an accident, Willie transferred his music to the moothie, which he had played since the age of five. Willie's playing can be heard at Tobar an Dualchais.
Until his death in 2003 Ian Grant did much to keep the moothie popular in the Edinburgh area by running a regular traditional music session in Sandy Bell's pub. As a Highland Piper Ian transferred much of the music learned in his earlier years on to the moothie. He also had a keen interest in Scottish Country Dance Music. There are some non commercial recordings of Ian's playing around. Ian's brother Davey also played.
Ian competed regularly at the TMSA folk festivals in Scotland and often vied for first prize with Bryce Johnston, another player who has done much to keep the moothie popular in Scotland. Bryce recorded a CD in 1999 called BRYCE AND MOOTHIE "COMBINE".
J. Baker, Billy Little, Tom Kane and Tam Maxwell are other names that appear in the prize lists.
Doddie Murray, Bob Hay, Arthur Middleton and Tony Shearer have also helped to keep the moothie popular in the north east of Scotland as well as Billy Jolly from Orkney.
Eddie Wallace from Glasgow is a fine player and often comes through to the Sunday afternoon session in Sandy Bell's Edinburgh. Donald Black originaly from Benderloch and now living in Glasgow has made three CDs to date. He deserves a special mention since he is the first person to get Hohner to do anything for Scottish music since Jimmy Shand. He's managed to get Hohner to re-tune the 'A' side of a 55/80 Echo Harp, flattening the 7ths to make it easier to play pipe tunes straight out the box. It's called the Hohner Highlander.
A mention should also go to my father, George Current snr., who gave me my first moothie well over fifty years ago. Born a year after Donald Davidson he played in a similar style. As a boy he had a small collection of mouth organs before going into the army to become a regular soldier. He played regularly at family gatherings etc.
Listen to some Scots Moothie recordings HERE.
The above is a work in progress and
will be updated as more information
E-mail me with any suggestions