Harpo Kidwell

Hillbilly harmonica player

Horace Kidwell, harmonica player: born South Irvine, Kentucky 18 December 1910; married (one son, two daughters); died Adairsville, Georgia 29 December 2003.

Harpo Kidwell was among the finest hillbilly harmonica players of his generation and was, for over 10 years, a star on Atlanta radio's famed WSB Barn Dance.

He was born Horace Kidwell in South Irvine, Kentucky, in 1910 and as a 10-year-old was taught to play the harmonica, or "mouth harp", by his father. He also learned to play the guitar, bass and ukulele and made his first public appearance at a talent show in the town, later remembering:

When I finished playing and went back to my seat, I missed my chair and fell flat on the floor. That made the biggest hit of the evening.

He found work on radio stations in Ohio cities such as Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton and eventually joined Glenn Hughes's Roundup Gang, a Kentucky-based string band noted for the unusual inclusion in its lineup of a female mandolinist, Jean Hughes. In April 1939 the Roundup Gang found itself performing on WSB, Atlanta's daily hillbilly show, the Cross Roads Follies.

Kidwell stayed in Atlanta until the early 1950s, becoming one of the most popular fixtures on the WSB Barn Dance following its launch in 1940. He played virtuoso showpieces such as "Fox Chase" and "Pan American Blues", which as a child he had heard performed by the black "harmonica wizard" and Grand Ole Opry star DeFord Bailey, and on occasion sang self-penned songs such as "How Many Biscuits Can You Eat?" and "Just Because". His own "Harpo's Waltz" also became an audience favourite.

Whilst at WSB Kidwell met the blind singer and guitarist Pete Cassell and together they wrote "The Moss Covered Mill". Other major acts with whom he worked on the Barn Dance included the Dixie Sweethearts James and Martha Carson, the western swing bandleader Hank Penny, the bluegrass star Mac Wiseman and the future songwriting great Boudleaux Bryant.

By the late 1940s the Barn Dance was struggling to maintain a viable audience and in February 1950 it was broadcast for the last time. Kidwell remained at the station for another year, fronting his own band, before heading north and finding work on Cincinnati's WLW Midwestern Hayride, which was broadcast simultaneously on radio and television. He also performed for a while on television's Cincinnati Music Hall before returning to Georgia where he eventually retired.

In 1987 he was inducted into the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame.

Paul Wadey

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