Norman Davis has played thousands of blues songs on his radio shows. But for some reason, an old tune by the late Big Mama Thornton jumped out at him one day while he was hosting his syndicated blues program, “The Midnight Flyer.”
Big Mama was uncorking a rather excellent harmonica solo.
It got his wheels turning.
“Even though I’ve been playing blues for a long time and think I know quite a bit about it, I couldn’t name more than two or three women who play blues harp,” explains Davis, who got his start in Boise radio in 1953 and hosts “The Juke Joint” from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Mondays on Radio Boise 89.9 and 93.5 FM.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
For one reason or another, his curiosity turned into a passion. Over time, Davis reached out to about 200 players worldwide. Several years ago, he launched a website dedicated to women who play harmonic called hermonicas.com.
Last month, Davis’ longtime interest evolved into something more tangible. Davis served as producer on a 31-song, double-CD compilation, “Blues Harp Women,” on German label Ruf Records. The enlightening, entertaining collection appears to be the first of its kind. It’s available widely, including for just $10.99 on iTunes.
“My goal with the whole thing was just to shed a little light on this area which had very little shed on it in the past,” Davis says.
The more Davis researched, the more he realized he was on a mostly solo mission.
“There’s hardly anything in the reference books — a little about Big Mama Thornton and a couple of older women who were mainly known as singers and might have played a little harmonica,” he says. “Hardly anything at all.”
“It just seems like one of those things that nobody ever thought about,” Davis says. “ ‘Oh! Women play blues harp!’ I think that’s the thing that made me so curious. And I still haven’t found the answer to the question, really: Why don’t more women play blues harp? Because they have at least as much lung power as men, and it’s easy to carry around. ... They’re easily the equal of guys when it comes to playing that thing.”
LynnAnn Hyde, whose cover of Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues” is on the album, disagrees with a friendly laugh when I tell her that men have no physical advantage over women.
“Men do have bigger lungs,” she says. “They do have bigger abdominal cavities. They usually have bigger heads and jaws. And hands — their hands are bigger, too.”
Yet none of this deterred Hyde from picking up the harmonica at 36 when she joined Portland’s blues scene in the early 1990s. Hyde compares blues harp to the female lead-guitarist shortage of the music universe. “For every woman player, there’s 500 guy players or more,” she says. “There seems to be a lot of women singers. More women playing bass.”
No matter. “There’s some good women doing everything,” Hyde says. Her own emotive playing and singing on the album are proof.
Hyde says she’s grateful for “Blues Harp Women,” which includes a wide variety of performers ranging from Thornton and Boston’s country-blues standout Annie Raines to uninhibited Los Angeles performer Zola Moon and Seattle-based Stacy Jones.
“I think Norman really cared enough about helping people to get some support and notice,” Hyde says. “And it’s wonderful that he would choose to do that.
“He could have chosen any other disenfranchised blues group,” she jokes. “It should have been balding middle-aged guys with liver dysfunctions! Sure, Norman!”
“It sure shows his support of women in general,” Hyde adds on a serious note.
Davis hopes the website and album turn on a light bulb in the minds of girls and women. Maybe they will pick up an instrument they might not have considered before.
It’s a noble endeavor. On that warbling note, “Blues Harp Women” would be a fine stocking stuffer — not just for a blues fan, but for any kid with a potential interest in creating music.
“I think that it will encourage these younger gals to really stick to it and get there,” Hyde says.
New ‘Other Studio’ time slot
If you’re a listener of “The Other Studio,” which I host weekly with Tim Johnstone, it’s time to wind down your Sunday evenings a little sooner. As of last week, we air an hour earlier: from 8 to 9 p.m. on 94.9 FM The River.
Tonight on “The Other Studio”: Songs from Elle King, Miike Snow, Elvis Costello, The Struts, M. Ward and Cool Uncle — plus the usual opinion and news about local and national music.
Ian Johnson to host talk show
Former Boise State running back Ian Johnson is headed to morning radio starting Monday, Jan. 4, in Boise.
Along with co-host Jake Hamar, Johnson will launch “The Morning Grind” from 7 to 10 a.m. on 93.1 FM and 1350 AM The Ticket.
The show will cover local and national sports, entertainment and news.
In Scene Dec. 18
▪ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” arrives in movie theaters, but does it live up to the legend?
▪ A review of new Eagle restaurant Grit American Cuisine.