Don Meade: Biography and Class Description
The harmonica, better known in Ireland as the “mouth organ,” has been played by Irish traditional musicians for 150 years or more. This class will survey Irish harmonica styles on various types of diatonic and chromatic instruments. Topics will include single-note playing, tongue blocking vs. lip blocking, “crossharp” vs. “first position” styles, note-bending, breath control, ornamentation, the modal scales of Irish music and harmonica maintenance. All teaching will be done “by ear” and students should bring a recording device of some sort. Instructor Don Meade is best known for his playing of chromatic harmonicas, but this course will accommodate players of all types of mouth organs.
Don Meade grew up in southern California in the 1960s and, like many Irish-Americans of the time, was introduced to Irish music by the recordings of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. He got his first harmonica in 1965 and started trying to play the melodies he’d learned from those LP’s. After moving to New York City in 1976, he encountered musicians from the older Irish instrumental tradition and became a regular attendee at the weekly sessions at the former Eagle Tavern, where he drew particular inspiration from the late Longford fiddle great Paddy Reynolds.
In addition to learning the tenor banjo and fiddle, Don tried to apply his harmonica skills to traditional dance music but was frustrated by the limitations of the little ten-hole diatonic mouth organs he had been playing. The recordings of Cavan-born harmonica virtuoso Eddie Clarke opened his ears to the greater possibilities of the chromatic instrument. While tremendously inspired by Clarke’s approach, Don was also influenced by Irish two-row button accordionists, whose techniques for playing the music of fiddle, flute and pipes on the button box he tried to adapt to the chromatic harmonica, a free-reed instrument of similar construction. Playing on a chromatic harmonica, Don won the senior mouth organ championship in 1987 at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. Perhaps not coincidentally, the mouth organ competition at the fleadh has since been restricted to diatonic players!
Don currently leads a weekly session at the Landmark Tavern in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen district, and plays frequently at dances, festivals and sessions throughout the New York area. He is also well known as the producer, since 1985, of a series of Irish traditional music concerts formerly presented at the Eagle Tavern and Blarney Star bar and currently at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House. He served for six years as the Artistic Director of Catskills Irish Arts Week, and is still on the teaching staff of that annual program of music classes, concerts, dances and sessions, now in its 20th year. Don was a traditional music columnist for ten
years for the Irish Voice newspaper and has contributed articles to Current Musicology, New York Irish History, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music and New Hibernia Review.