Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page

Biography by Eugene Chadbourne

Palmer McAbee was an early American master of the harmonica, including but not limited to that instrument's grandiose capability to imitate the sounds of trains. While many a harmonica player has attempted to create the sound of a choo-choo pulling into the station, few have done it with as much imagination and fervor as McAbee, who created effects both realistic and surrealistic sometimes by blowing over the top of the harp. His vintage recording efforts have been reissued on a selection of anthologies devoted to country blues and more specifically the harmonica. The Train 45 collection on Rounder presents a view limited to the railroad tracks, assembling a selection of recordings that either imitate trains, tell train stories, or both. Listeners who feel this might be a bit too much train lore to choo-choo should not despair, the harmonica player's aptly titled "McAbee's Railroad Piece" is also available on other blues compilations.

"This artist may be white" is a somewhat typical example of the information, or rather lack of information, available about McAbee. In terms of early-American folk music, particularly anything at all related to blues, any uncertainty over the race of the artist can be considered a compliment. Obviously not everyone agrees, as a summary of a New World anthology of traditional Southern instrumental styles indicates there is "one track by Palmer McAbee, the rest of the artists are white." Can one conduct racial profiling from a person's harmonica playing? Obviously not. Anyone attempting to make a judgment one way or another would be seriously hampered by the Indigo release Devil in the Woodpile: Blues Harmonica 1926-1940, in which two songs credited to McAbee are actually performances by George "Bullet" Williams. McAbee hailed from Alabama, although his recordings were made in Atlanta, GA. His race obviously would have made a great difference in either state, but harmonica players seem more interested in discussing the man's control and various effects than the color of his skin, the consensus being only a few players, such as Noah Lewis or Freeman Stowers, have approached his mastery. In some ways McAbee is equally known for what he leaves out than what he puts in: "The same great chug, without all the falsetto nonsense" is how one harmaniac described a McAbee cut in one intense harmonica chat room exchange. The year of 1928 was when he cut his famous recordings for Victor, but is often given out as the year of his birth. This would make his appearance on anthologies from the '20s and '30s something of a neat trick, since he plays much better harmonica than somebody's four-year-old cousin or ten-year-old son.