Tim Kaine’s two big speeches since his announcement as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee have relied heavily on his biography. America knows that Kaine helped out in his father’s welding shop, became a civil-rights lawyer, learned Spanish while volunteering for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Honduras.* But until recently, many voters were unaware of another central fact of Kaine’s life: his eagerness to play harmonica at a moment’s notice.
So this tweet from the Atlantic’s Molly Ball caused quite the firestorm during the veep nominee’s convention speech Wednesday night:
A naïve reader might imagine that four harmonicas would be overkill—that surely a primary harmonica and perhaps a backup in case of loss or damage would suffice. In fact, serious players have good reason to carry multiple instruments. Most harmonicas are diatonic, meaning that they are in a fixed key: If you want to jam and you don’t want to be stuck in one key, you’re going to need to pack a lot of harps. (That’s why Blues Traveler’s John Popper, the recognized master of playing a lot of notes on the harmonica very quickly, wears that cool-looking bandolier.) You need a dozen harmonicas to cover the full range of major key signatures; for a serious harp player who also happens to be a U.S. senator and thus probably can’t wear a bandolier all the time, four is a perfectly reasonable compromise.
The election of a harmonica-playing vice president wouldn’t be a milestone: Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan all played. Al Gore was known to blow harp, too, although in his diffidence he was Kaine’s polar opposite:
Is it true you play the harmonica? the reporter immediately asks him.
The vice president looks abashed.
“I told him,” Tipper confesses.
“This is another leak,” Gore says with a mock-scowl that his wife seems to be studying very carefully. …
So can America look forward to a new and different—indeed, a musical—Al Gore as he revs up his standard stump speech?
“Well, I hope not!” the vice president replies, reddening slightly and brushing off several urgent demands that he run upstairs and get his harmonica right this minute. “Well … uh … maybe if I practice. I’m not sure if my harmonica playing is ready for prime time.”
So how good a harmonica player is Tim Kaine anyway? He’s … not great. Listen to him play the riff from the Beatles’ “Love Me Do”: He comes in with a strong bend, but then he’s all over the place, throwing in pitch swoops and chordings where they don’t belong, putting the hand vibrato in awkward places.
Here, playing with the great bluegrass outfit the Seldom Scene, he doesn’t have the mic technique or tone to cut through the other instruments when he’s soloing, or the melodic sense to do anything interesting with the chord changes.
And in this jam on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” with Virginia’s Crooked Road musicians, he does little more than duplicate the melody. His mouth technique is too sloppy to articulate individual notes. He reflexively over-relies on cupped-hands vibrato.
So, OK, Tim Kaine is not Little Walter. But here’s the thing about the harmonica: It’s forgiving. If you miss a note, the adjacent note probably sounds OK, too. (That’s the great advantage of a fixed-key instrument—it’s harder to play out of key.) In music as in politics, expertise is helpful, but enthusiasm and a willingness to pitch in have their place, too.
There’s something appealingly shaggy about Kaine’s playing that wouldn’t translate to any other instrument. The harmonica is the instrument of the people, the instrument of Tim Kaine’s warm, welcoming America. Or as John Steinbeck put it:
A harmonica is easy to carry. Take it out of your hip pocket, knock it against your palm to shake out the dirt and pocket fuzz and bits of tobacco. Now it’s ready. You can do anything with a harmonica: thin reedy single tone, or chords, or melody with rhythm chords. … And you can play and put it back in your pocket. It is always with you, always in your pocket. … And if you lose it or break it, why, it’s no great loss. You can buy another for a quarter.
Kaine would never say, as Gore did, “Maybe if I practice,” or “I’m not sure my harmonica playing is ready for prime time.” We’re not all elite musicians, but we all get to take a solo anyway.
*Correction, July 28, 2016: This post originally misstated the charitable organization vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine volunteered with in Honduras. It was the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, not the Peace Corps.