Yellow Pine Idaho is a little town with dirt roads, nestled right up against the largest wilderness area in the country. Mining has virtually ceased in the nearby mountains, and the population of Yellow Pine hovers around 60.
But for one weekend a year, in August, the town puts out the welcome mat for harmonica fans. Their first harmonica contest attracted 150 people. The contest has grown steadily. In 1999, at the 10th annual Harmonica Contest, approximately 4,000 people attended the three day event.
The Contest features both a jam session on an outdoor stage – as well as impromptu jam sessions on any street corner! -- and a judged contest, in the community hall.
The Yellowpine Harmonica Contest (opens in a new window).
Dave Imel and his wife Lynn have helped the Harmonica Contest grow into one of the best festivals of its kind in the country. It started as a way to participate in the Idaho Centennial celebration in 1990 and as a way to raise money for the volunteer fire department.
"We’ve been told that in ten years Yellow Pine has grown into the third largest harmonica festival of its type in the nation," says Imel.
"We’ve had contestants all the way from Malaysia. This year we have people from Canada, Arizona, Washington, Colorado, and all over the state of Idaho. While we don't draw a lot of people from out of the U.S., we kind of think of it as an international event! It’s been great, not just for our community, but for the people who come, too. They enjoy it and we enjoy it."
Keith Darling is the 1999 Grand Champion of the Yellow Pine Harmonica Contest. "I wanted to play music that had meaning behind it, something you could feel. You can get some pretty soulful sounds out of the harmonica," says Darling.
"What we’re doing here in Yellow Pine is re-establishing the importance of the harmonica.. The harmonica was introduced to the U.S. in 1865, and by 1952 Hohner Inc. had produced 20 million of them. At Yellow Pine we honor the harmonica’s heritage and its versatility."
Keith plays a 10 hole diatonic harmonica. "It affords the opportunity to get those soulful tunes. Once you advance your ability, you’re able to play a different style of music. Instead of just straight notes, you’re able to "bend" notes, and that’s when you’re able to create unique sounds.
"Straight harp is when you’re just playing single notes, but when you bend notes you change your throat, the direction of the inside of the throat and you’re able to bend the reeds so that they’re going in this manner and that gives it that soulful sound."
Most musicians change keys quite regularly, but the harmonica player is forced to change harmonicas every time musicians change keys. When he jams with other musicians, Keith Darling will usually bring at least a dozen harmonicas with him. He owns about 35 different harmonicas, in minor keys and special keys.
Darling now writes his own music. "It became painfully evident to me a few years ago that I was not going to be able to play like some of the country and blues greats. So I just made a conscious effort to "do my own thing. Each tune has a special meaning and story behind it, and I try to convey that feeling by how I play and arrange it."
"I drove my old jeep out here to Yellow Pine," says Moscow, Idaho, resident John Elliot. "The draw was a hard time running into good harmonica players and a chance to share what I have and hopefully glean some stuff from other experienced players.
"My style was born out of competing with electric guitars. I played in a rock band for a long time and had to learn to make my harmonica sound as appealing as our lead guitarist’s guitar playing. That’s kind of the birth of my style. I like Bob Dylan and Neil Young and that’s where I’m coming from when I play."
"Anyone can pick it up and blow in it and a sound will come out, and it will be in tune. The thing I always liked about the harmonica is if you get the right key, it’s really hard to play the wrong note, as long as everyone else stays in that key. It’s easy to get started and have a good time with it, without having to spend hours perfecting your technique."
"There’s the blues players and the chromatic melody players," notes Dale Colebank. "Each one has its place. The blues players learn an awful lot of tricks. They’re fascinating to watch. But you don’t go away humming the melody! I’m one of the melody types. With my chromatic harmonica, I can play all the sharps and flats. On the diatonic blues harmonicas, you couldn’t do that."
"The competition is getting better every year, I’ll tell you that," says Don Allen, one of the three judges at the Harmonica Contest. The competition is divided into the diatonic, or blues players, and the chromatic, or melody players. There’s also a category for harmonica players who wish to play together.
Each year more and more younger harmonica players compete in the Contest. This has meant a marked increase in the number of blues players. Ten years ago, most of the players were chromatic players. In 1999 the blues players outnumber the melody players.
One of the highlights of the Contest is when the three judges perform. "This is my tenth year, and every year we meet here and rehearse. Other than that, we don’t play all year together. I come from Minnesota. Danny Wilson, our bass player, comes from Los Angeles. Buddy Boblink, our chord player, comes from around Chicago. We put a show together and hope it works." From the reaction of the appreciative audience, it definitely works!