“If I only had one song to play, it would be Amazing Grace.” That’s the song that lives inside Stan Clark’s soul. The harmonica “is an extension of my voice box,” he said.
The harmonica lends a voice to that song in his soul.
To understand how the harmonica is interwoven into Stan Clark’s life would require a venture back in time, four decades to be precise.
As a young married man and a Vietnam-era Army veteran, Clark served as a witness to Elvis Presley’s reign as the king of rock and roll. But Clark’s music inspiration came from elsewhere. He became fascinated with the sound of Lee Oskar on harmonica with the music group War, and told his wife, Georgia, that he would like to give the harmonica a try. She bought him his first harp for Christmas in 1973.
One of the first songs he ever played was “Oh, Susanna.” “It’s a simple song,” he said, “and it’s almost a tradition with me.” Over the decades, every time he gets a new harmonica, “I play ‘Oh, Susanna’ for old times. That’s where I started at.”
To date, he has 14 or 15 harmonicas. Most are from the Lee Oskar collection – most purchased through his friend, Albert Haug at Haug Music in downtown Hannibal.
“Glenn (Albert’s son) ran track with me in high school. We talk about that all the time.”
So why does Stan have so many harmonicas?
“They come in different keys. If I play by myself, it doesn’t matter. But if I’m accompanied by a piano or guitar, I have to be in the right key.”
Mike Ewing served as a local inspiration for Stan. “He played the fiddle and harmonica, too. He told me that Lee Oskar had his own brand. What Mike was telling me was that this brand had interchangeable parts. If you ruin a reed, you can change the plates and it saves you money by doing that.”
Stan was in Chicago in 2012, when Lee Oskar was conducting a clinic. “He was engraving harmonicas. I had one with me at that time,” and Lee etched his autograph onto the harp that Stan considers to be a sentimentally valuable part of his collection.
Playing by ear
“I play by ear. I seldom play the song in the same way. It changes in my mind as I play it. I relate (playing the harmonica) to a home cooked meal. (My wife) doesn’t always put in the same ingredients. It’s always good, but not the same. I don’t try to duplicate exactly the way it was before.
“I can probably read music like a first grader,” Stan said. “I know how many flats are in B flat, and I have a vague knowledge of the treble clef. I did take piano lessons from Charlie Middleton for a month or two, but I wasn’t disciplined enough” to put in the hours of practice necessary to learn to read music.
Instead, he plays by ear. He tries to keep up with contemporary artists. “I’ll know in five or 10 minutes if I can play it.
“I was asked at a funeral if I could play a song – ‘Peace in the Valley’.” He had to decline, because he hadn’t played it before. Ten minutes later, “I could play it. I feel comfortable with it now. I played it twice yesterday,” he said. “I close my eyes and I can hear it, feel it, and shut out everything else.”
Except for his brief attempt at piano lessons, Stan’s only formal music training came under the guidance of Dorothy Davidson and Gilbert Froman, choral music teachers at Hannibal Junior High School and Hannibal High School in the 1960s.
A cherished memory was performing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for Mrs. Davidson’s chorus production. In recent years, he saw Mrs. Davidson at Walmart and told her he still knew all the words.
“I pulled out my harmonica and I played it,” right there in Walmart
“I’ll tell you what, Mrs. Davidson’s son Bob is quite a trumpet player down South,” Stan added.
“Chuck Wade plays the harmonica. I like his style. James Watson. He’s in a nursing home now. Years ago I heard Freddy LaJoy play the harp. There are other people, I always like to hear them play.
“I’m not the best. I want to play under the anointment of Jesus. I haven’t met a lot of harmonica players who play Gospel. It’s an ever-learning process. I want to keep on learning. I want to play with anointment and spirit.”
“I don’t like to hear myself play. It doesn’t sound like I thought it would sound. It’s like looking in the mirror. But that doesn’t stop me from trying.”
Nerves don’t play a role when he’s performing. “When I was running track in high school and in the Army in Germany, I was nervous when I was in the blocks. But not when I took off running. Once you take off, you find your way.”
A harmonica is his constant companion. “It’s like a friend. Like an old pick up truck. I’ve been stopped in the airport, and I have to show them what I’ve got. They look it over to see if there’s anything dangerous in there, and give it back to me.”
He carries two harmonicas, in cases attached to his belt, custom made by Greg Boyer at Boyers Boot-N-Shoe in Quincy.
Stan is a retired postmaster. Today, he is an independent sales representative for Books Are Fun. He travels the two-lane roads in the Northeast Missouri and West Central Illinois region, bringing books to the small communities.
“I do a lot of practicing on the road, driving from town to town,” he said, demonstrating how he can hold the harmonica with one hand and keep a grip on the wheel with the other.
His harmonica also serves as a calling card.
“I was at Memphis, Mo., and there were black balloons all over town.” He learned that the local pharmacist was celebrating a milestone birthday. “I stopped by the pharmacy and I broke out a spontaneous, ‘Happy Birthday’ on the harmonica,” Stan said.
He is as a deacon at the Eighth and Center Street Baptist Church.
“Most of the time I play a song before Rev. Foster preaches,” Stan said, and on the third Sunday of each month, he usually accompanies Rev. Foster to Willow Care where they share a message and music.
“I want to give all the Praises and Glory to God,” he said.
Harmonica is Stan Clark's constant companion 'Like a friend. Like an old pick up truck'