Wally Schirra’s 8-note Hohner “Little Lady” harmonica. Gift of Walter M. Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford Jr.
From turntables to banjos, drumsticks, pianos, and beyond, musical instruments tell powerful stories about the multiple meanings of music in everyday life, highlighting how musical objects are never just things. Rather, they are often the result of complex processes arising from their production histories and circulation, accruing multiple layers of meaning through their varied uses and their associated cultural, ideological, affective, and economic values. Enter the humble harmonica, the free-reed wind instrument also known as the mouth organ or the French harp. How did a harmonica reach outer space in 1965? And what might it mean that it was the instrument of choice for the first song ever to be played outside planet Earth?
When you pack your astronaut bag, you might smuggle a harmonica and miniature bells, if you are anything like Walter “Wally” Schirra or Tom Stafford. There is always some extra room next to the oxygen and the medication. Schirra and Stafford packed a Hohner “Little Lady,” a harmonica now given “The space traveler” moniker on the maker’s website, capable of playing one octave through its three-and-a-half–centimeter body. Why a harmonica, of all instruments? For one, it is portable, possessing a travel-readiness that has allowed it to circulate globally. The history of the harmonica is linked to that of its sister instrument, the accordion, especially during the mid-19th century. German instrument makers offered an extensive catalogue of accordions and harmonicas, pioneering a transformation of musical instruments into mass-produced commodities. As part of its global circulation, it has become a ubiquitous fixture in imagery that is, appropriately, about travel, as in the prototypical American Old West scene; characters like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid played the harmonica, and Abraham Lincoln is reported to have often carried a harmonica in his pocket. Remarkably, it is also present as a shamanic instrument of power used in healing rituals within some Amerindian shamanic traditions in the Amazon. A small instrument can travel far.
The rendition of “Jingle Bells,” the first song (just its melody) played in outer space, is a precedent to the famous 1977 Voyager recording and the first instance in a long list of musical activities in space. These have included, among many others, the recording of a music video for “Space Oddity,” played by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013 and the 20-day radio transmission of the song “Dongfang Hong,” or “The East Is Red,” from China’s first space satellite of the same name, in 1970.
Commander Chris Hadfield Performs a Version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Rare Earth Series, Published by Onward Music Limited
“The East Is Red” with English Subtitles, Posted by User Joaquin2123
Other instruments that have traveled outside the Earth include the flute brought onboard by Ellen Ochoa, a classical musician and NASA‘s first female Hispanic astronaut, Carl Walz’s keyboard, and Aleksandr Laveykin and Yury Romanenko’s guitar, among many others. The recurrence of the musical within extraterrestrial voyages demonstrates the ubiquity of music as part of shared human activities, be it in mundane settings or in the extraordinary context of riding in a spaceship or living in a space station. Which is a more fitting rhetorical question: Why music in space? or, Why not music in space? If astronauts in close quarters going through physically and intellectually demanding activities of massive proportions still have to monitor closely their physical needs, such as eating, breathing, sleeping, and digesting, the presence of music in the spectacular encounter between the earthly and the extraterrestrial is a wonder in its own right.
The first song played in outer space was “Jingle Bells.” The first SMS (short message service) text message, sent in 1992, read “Merry Christmas.” These instances demonstrate the embeddedness of technology with specific cultural contexts; even though the Gemini 6 mission was completed in December 1965, the song played by its crew could have been any other. “Jingle Bells,” written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–93) and first published as “One Horse Open Sleigh,” was originally about a (sleigh) ride, but not one linked to the imagery of Christmas holidays beyond the shared snow. “Jingle Bells” is also reported to have been one of the songs selected in the first recording of a Christmas record in an 1889 Edison cylinder. As the theater historian Kyra Hamill has demonstrated, the song gained prominence in 1857 after being performed as part of the blackface minstrel repertoire. That Schirra and Stafford performed it for humorous reasons tells us something about music and comic relief at the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, only a few years before the historic moon landing. That this specific context is one of many that are a part of the song’s history demonstrates the multi-layeredness and depth of any one musical object, no matter how trivial it might seem.
On December 16, 1965, the following three-way conversation took place between Gemini 6, Gemini 7, and the NASA Mission Control Center (“Houston”), with a reported sighting of Santa Claus in outer space:
Gemini 6: We have an object. It looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory, traveling from north to south. It has a very high [fineness] ratio. It looks like it might be [inaudible]. It’s very low; it looks like he might be going to re-enter soon. Stand by, One. It looks like he’s trying to signal us. [Stafford and Schirra play “Jingle Bells”].
Gemini 7: We got him, too! [Laughter].
Gemini 6: That was live, Seven, not taped.
Houston: You’re too much, Six.
Performance in Space by Astronauts Schirra and Stafford, Posted by User Buzzlab
The objective of the Gemini 6 mission was to test the ability of two crewed spaceships to rendezvous. The musical moment performed through “Jingle Bells” highlights the desire and possibility of contact and communication. Effectively, Gemini 7 and the Houston ground control were morphed into audience members, with Gemini 6 clarifying that what they had indeed witnessed was a live performance. Both of their acknowledgments close a communicational loop of great significance. Communicating with the beyond and the non-human has also been a constant preoccupation in space travel, as explored in the selection of “world music” onboard the Voyager, or in Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures Project,” which includes a “micro-etched disc with one hundred photographs, encased in a gold-plated shell, designed to withstand the rigors of space and to last for billions of years. Inspired by years of conversations and interviews with scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers, the images chosen for The Last Pictures tell an impressionistic story of uncertainty, paradox, and anxiety about the future.”
The presence of the harmonica brings a certain nostalgia to the fore in the musical moment created by the Gemini 6 mission. As a quintessential travel instrument, the harmonica in outer space can be interpreted as an instance of employing the familiar in order to ground a sense of place in the face of novelty, given its mainstream recognizability as part of the folk revival movement that peaked in the decade of the 1960s. The juxtaposition of tradition and modernity could not be starker in the moment it was brought to life through a Hohner “Little Lady” playing a Christmas song with a troubled racialized history hundreds of miles outside planet Earth. Yes, it was a funny moment, but it was more than the laughter.
This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.
Written and compiled by Andrés García Molina, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).
Bermúdez Cujar, Egberto. “Beyond vallenato: The accordion traditions in Colombia”, The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more!, ed. by Helena Simonett. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012) 199–232. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-10356]
Accordion music in Colombia has a much longer history than the music that is called vallenato, and is not confined to the Valledupar region that allegedly gave it its name. This essay examines the development of accordion music in Colombia (including Panama before its separation from Colombia in 1903) and its role in Colombian traditional and popular music. Drawing on archival research and oral history, the author begins with the accordion’s arrival in Colombian territory in the second half of the 19th century and concludes with vallenato’s incorporation into the national and international popular-music circuits. (author)
Field, Kim. Harmonicas, harps, and heavy breathers: The evolution of the people’s instrument (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1993). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-13329]
García Molina, Andrés. “Labor and the performance of place in the Upper Putumayo”, TRANS: Revista transcultural de música/Transcultural music review 20 (2016) 27–45. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-45171]
I develop a problematic around two interrelated themes: labor and the performance of place. Drawing from fieldwork conducted among taitas, or shamans, from the Colombian Upper Putumayo region, I investigate the varied ways in which taitas understand and use sound in their ritual practice. Taitas sing and perform songs for long periods of time and under strenuous circumstances during tomas de yajé, rituals that involve drinking yajé, a psychoactive brew made from local plant species. Taitas claim one main reason they sing and play during the ritual is to recreate the sensorium of Amazonia, performing a ritual place that becomes replicable wherever they might conduct rituals, whether in rural Colombia or in urban centers of the West. I argue for the importance of understanding what taitas do—and conversely, shamanic practices in general—as a form of labor; in doing so, I propose a framework that permits theorizing the commodification of cultural practices that, even though embedded in present-day capital relations, exist concurrently in imaginaries that situate them in a distant precapitalist past. The increasingly common encounter between taitas, non-indigenous Colombians, and Westerners in general, allows us to reconsider basic questions of labor and place through the music—and more broadly, sounds—that taitas perform in ritual. (author)
Hamill, Kyna. “‘The story I must tell’: Jingle bells in the minstrel repertoire”, Theatre survey: The American journal of theatre history 58/3 (September 2017) 375–403. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2017-51193]
Krampert, Peter. The encyclopedia of the harmonica (Pacific: Mel Bay Publications, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-12510]
Lankford, Ronald D., Jr. Sleigh rides, jingle bells, & silent nights: A cultural history of American Christmas songs(Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-8609]
When Bing Crosby’s White Christmas debuted in 1942, no one imagined that a holiday song would top the charts year after year. One of the best-selling singles ever released, it remains on rotation at tree lighting ceremonies, crowded shopping malls, and at warm diners on lonely Christmas Eve nights. Over the years, other favorites have been added to America’s annual playlist including Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas, the King Cole Trio’s The Christmas song, Gene Autry’s Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Willie Nelson’s Pretty paper, and of course, Elmo & Patsy’s Grandma got run over by a reindeer. Under the surface of familiar melodies and words there lie jolly Santas, winter wonderlands, and roasting chestnuts—both masking and representing an intricate cultural landscape crowded with the meanings of a modern American Christmas. Songs that most readily evoke those meanings, desires, and anxieties have become classics, painting a portrait of the American psyche past and present. Viewing American holiday values through the filter of familiar Christmas songs, the author examines popular culture, consumerism, and the dynamics of the traditional American family. He surveys more than 75 years of songs and reveals that the “modern American Christmas” has carried a complex and sometimes contradictory set of meanings. Interpreting tunes against the backdrop of the eras in which they were first released, he identifies the repeated themes of nostalgia, commerce, holiday blues, carnival, and travesty that underscore so much beloved music. (publisher)
Licht, Michael S. “Harmonica magic: Virtuoso display in American folk music”, Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 24/2 (May 1980) 211–221. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1980-3491]
In the USA a virtuoso tradition of harmonic playing developed that used special mouth, hand, and nose techniques. It was influenced more by African than by European traditions. Public competitions fostered the development of special effects such as the fox chase and the locomotive. With the growth of audiences (e.g., for television and radio), the practice of accompanying spoken narratives became increasingly widespread. The author explores the symbolic meaning of some harmonic music genres, referring to the conflict of man and nature (in fox-chase pieces), and the growth of industrialization (in locomotive pieces). (Jeffrey Rehbach)
McCrory, Knox. “Notes on the harmonica: Toy or musical instrument?”, Missouri Folklore Society journal 20 (1998) 159–166. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-23779]
Simonett, Helena, ed. The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more! Music in American life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, no. 2012-10346]
An invention of the Industrial Revolution, the accordion provided the less affluent with an inexpensive, loud, portable, and durable “one-man-orchestra” capable of producing melody, harmony, and bass all at once. Imported from Europe into the Americas, the accordion with its distinctive sound became a part of the aural landscape for millions of people but proved to be divisive: while the accordion formed an integral part of working-class musical expression, bourgeois commentators often derided it as vulgar and tasteless. This rich collection considers the accordion and its myriad forms, from the concertina, button accordion, and piano accordion familiar in European and North American music, to the exotic-sounding South American bandoneón and the sanfoninha. Capturing the instrument’s spread and adaptation to many different cultures in North and South America, contributors illuminate how the accordion factored into power struggles over aesthetic values between elites and working-class people who often were members of immigrant and/or marginalized ethnic communities. Specific histories and cultural contexts discussed include the accordion in Brazil, Argentine tango, accordion traditions in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, cross-border accordion culture between Mexico and Texas, Cajun and Creole identity, working-class culture near Lake Superior, the virtuoso Italian-American and klezmer accordions, Native American dance music, and American avant-garde. (publisher)
Studwell, William E. “From Jingle bells to Jingle bell rock: Sketches of obscure or fading American popular Christmas songwriters, 1857–1957 (and a little beyond)”, Music reference services quarterly 5/1 (1996) 1–20. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1996-1302]
Although many people are familiar with the enduring and even classic American popular Christmas songs that are reprised every holiday season, the creators of these songs are obscure or fading from the collective American consciousness. In an effort to help preserve their names and accomplishments, biographical sketches of 34 writers of popular Christmas songs are presented.