Hipsters and Harmonicas
In the sleeve notes of Scottish indie band, Belle and Sebastian’s fourth album, ‘Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’ there’s a curious piece of prose about Glasgow hipsters and the subjects of their conversations.
I remember reading this back in 2000, when the album was released, and pondering what was meant by the word ‘hipster’ in this context. Sure, I’d seen the term used occasionally in books, and heard it in the odd film and TV programme, but its usage in these media seemed to be confined to a very specific and limited time period: from the 1940s until the late 1960s. It was almost as if the term had passed out of the popular consciousness at around the same time that the Altamont Free Concert had signalled the beginning of the end for flower power.
The Modern Era Hipster
Fast forward to the present day, though, and it’s difficult to imagine any urban dweller not being au fait with the modern hipster and their particular aesthetic, musical and culinary preferences. Hipsters, and the word itself, are, in short, ubiquitous.
Like many nouns in the English language, however, the meaning of ‘hipster’ has mutated over the years. Originally used to describe the sort of predominantly white jazz aficionados made famous by Jack Kerouac, the word all but disappeared for several decades, only to be resurrected in the late 1990s as a largely pejorative term for an emerging subculture of young people who rejected mainstream lifestyle choices.
Whilst it’s difficult to generalise about such a broad social group as hipsters, one notably widespread feature of their aesthetic has been a focus on what might be called authenticity. This is, perhaps, best exemplified in the re-emergence of the indie folk scene in the early 2000s (‘real’ instruments, such as the banjo, acoustic guitar and ukulele being viewed as having more musical ‘authenticity’ than the sampled or electronic sounds of contemporary pop) and the appearance of the ‘lumbersexual’. The latter, which appropriates the rugged style of the traditional lumberjack whilst stripping it of any practical purpose, is, perhaps, the clearest example of the millennial trend of adopting, then modifying, traditional stereotypes.
A New Trend
Which leads us to the harmonica; an instrument that hits all the hipster cues – it’s authentic, little used in current music, and, in the case of chromatic harps, at least, has something of the steampunk about it – yet has remained strangely off their radar.
Until now, that is.
Seydel’s 1847 and Session Steel models make a point of having ‘beard-friendly’ cover plates. Given the prevalence of beards amongst hipsters (the male ones, at least), I began to wonder if this was a response to an upsurge in harmonica use in the hipster community. Would our speciality coffee shops and craft beer bars suddenly be overwhelmed with the dulcet tones of badly played diatonics? Would the farmers’ market of Great Britain witness bespectacled lumbersexuals sifting one-handed through slightly grubby looking organic veg with the other hand clutching a chromatic harp?
Desperately Seeking Hipsters
A quick Google search gave mixed results. Whilst some websites were insistent that harmonicas were a key feature of the hipster lifestyle (one even giving the blues harp equal placing with the ukulele in the hipster’s portable musical instrument collection), the depth of results was somewhat lacking. By page two I was into the realms of somewhat idiosyncratic pages, such as those of the band ‘The Harmonica Hipsters’, whose lack of content on their site left me with no answer as to whether they are indeed hipsters, or even play harmonicas, and the ‘I Hate Harmonicas’ playlist by the user ‘Hipsters Suck!’ (so much negativity…)
So, out to the real world I ventured, eager to test my hypothesis. The first stop was one of the hipster meccas – an independent speciality coffee shop. At this point, I should probably admit an interest – I love coffee, and I love good coffee shops – so, it’s safe to say that this was not the most onerous of research tasks.
Unfortunately, after two single origin espressos, a filter coffee made with a vacuum syphon, and a flat white, I had yet to spot a single harmonica. I was also so highly caffeinated that, had someone walked in with a harp I would probably have wrenched it from their hands and performed a bad rendition of ‘Piano Man’ on it.
I was similarly disappointed at the local farmers’ market, where the hipster quotient was strangely low, and the harmonica quotient even lower (well, zero, actually). Where were all the skinny jeans wearing, quiff haired millennials? Then I remembered that it was out term time. The student hipsters had returned to their parental homes, leaving the city to the middle aged, middle class locals and a large number of slightly bewildered looking Asian tourists.
My final destination, and last opportunity of the trip to prove my supposition, was the holy grail of hipsterdom: speciality coffee, craft beer and smashed avocado in a single venue. Surely here I would encounter any harmonica-carrying lumbersexuals the city had to offer.
My eyes scanned the room for the flash of light on metal. Nothing. I bought several extraordinarily expensive beers served in tiny glasses and waited. Still nothing. I had a few false alarms, when harmonica-sized cases were withdrawn from bags. They were all for sunglasses.
Then, just as I was about to abandon my search I saw it. A Seydel 1847 Silver resting on the saucer of a half drunk flat white, its owner conspicuous by his or her absence.
So, I waited once more.
Then, finally, a figure emerged from the back of the bar, picked up the harmonica, downed the coffee and left. Well, he certainly had a beard, and the trousers were tight enough to fit in any hipster’s wardrobe. Unfortunately, the age (over 60, by my estimate), leather waistcoat and Robert Plant hairstyle, meant that, if this harmonica player were a hipster, he was a master of disguise.
Are hipsters embracing harmonicas, then? On the basis of my admittedly limited experience the answer is probably ‘no’. If they do, though, we’ve got a La Marzocco FB80, hipster-certified espresso machine in the warehouse for in-house drinks, so a chipboard-heavy speciality coffee/harmonica pop-up would always be a possibility!