Playing the Harmonica to Stay Awake

Paul Compton used to play the harmonica to stay awake. “I had a mail route and as I drove around I’d get sleepy so I just played the harmonica to keep from nodding off.”

Paul Compton: mail carrier, harmonica and poet. (Shelbyville, IL)

I met Paul because I needed to find a place to stake out my mules Brick and Cracker for the night. His son, Gerry Compton, said it was okay to picket them out by the old grain bins the family owned.

Our grain bin camp.
Summer sausage and kohlrabi compliments of Gerry Compton and his wife Rose.

One night turned in to the next. Then came the rain. Then more rain. I camped 2 days at the grain bins waiting for the weather to clear.

Cracker was disappointed to learn that, alas, the grain bins were empty.

The second day, I visited Paul. He’s 93 years old and lived across from the grain bins. Sharp as an old blade that still cuts if stroked wrong. He told me how his people walked from Ohio to Illinois because it was faster than traveling by horse. A man descended from people of grit.

I was sitting in a chair across from him and he pulled out a harmonica and said, “listen to this.” I hit “Record” on my iPod just in time and here’s what I captured.

Let Paul blow a tune for you. The photo of Paul at the top of this page was snapped while Paul was playing.

The next day the mules carried me out of the Comptons’ lives.

Heading out.

A few days later a poem showed up in my inbox. It was written by Paul and read:

Crossing Paths

On the last of May I arose to view the sunrise.
The Rain is over you can see blue skies.
I wonder what happened as I put on my clothes.
What happens before the day will close.

A man rode past our place as he did journey.
As he stopped to meet us, his given name is Bernie.
He was quite weary, he asked if he could stay to rest.
My boy took him to our grain bins, he thought that was best.

My boy got him in his truck and took him round about.
To view the road and have him plan his route.
The eve before he left, and we are ready to retire.
We gather by the fish pond and old camp fire.

We really had a visit, quite a conversation.
He told of his travels as he crossed the nation.
As his mode of travel, he’s no fool.
He chose that hybrid mule

He has lots of stamina, he has his pride.
You never know what goes inside that critters hide.
As we have our visit, I have this to say.
God Speed to you Bernie

Have a great day!

Have a great day!

Thanks to Jason Compton for helping Paul email me that poem. Fair winds Paul, Gerry and Rose Compton. I sure treasure your poem and tune.

If you enjoy field recordings like this, you’ll probably get a kick out of another recording I made with my wife Julia. It’s of Dave Demour, the singing ex-monk, stone laying piano player.

Since hanging out with Paul, the mules and I have crossed the Mississippi River. We’re now traveling across Missouri.


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4 years ago

What a beautiful moving poem… Son Alvin has taken up the harmonica in recent months, has him a couple of Hohners, a C and a E I believe, and often, when he needs a break from his studies, I hear him practicing… Its such a sweet, thoughtful sound…


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