Anyone browsing the 1997 minutes from the singing at Mt. Zion Primitive Baptist Church in Ashland, Alabama might be a bit surprised to read of this lesson: “M. B. Forbes 164, 59 (on his harmonica).” After dinner, M. B. Forbes played the harmonica again, with a three song lesson of “Wildwood Flower,” 452, and “Silent Night,” the last song a bit of an unusual choice given that the singing was held on the Fourth of July.
As it happens, M. B. Forbes was Eugene Forbes’s brother, who had overcome significant physical handicaps to become an accomplished musician within his community. Despite the fact that he had only one good arm, M. B. Forbes was able to play several instruments, including the guitar and harmonica. He was a regular attendee at Sacred Harp singings in the area and singers looked forward to his performances—they would even sing along when he played selections from The Sacred Harp. He passed away in 2007 at the age of eighty-nine.
In this short audio clip, Alabama Sacred Harp singer Preston Warren plays “All Is Well” (p. 122 in The Sacred Harp) on the harmonica, 1970s.
M. B. Forbes was not the only person to play the harmonica for a Sacred Harp singing—Gary Farley, of the Gordo community, has favored the class with renditions of “Amazing Grace” at the Elmore Center Singing in August. Sacred Harp singers around the country will also recognize Loyd Ivey of Henagar, Alabama, as a phenomenal harmonica player, though he has reserved his performances for socials and evening get-togethers (so far).
Though Sacred Harp is an a cappella tradition, there are plenty of instruments in our lyrics, including harps, lyres, bells, and trumpets. So far, though, the harmonica seems to be among the few that have found their way into the hollow square.