84-year-old harmonica player hosting daily concerts to cheer people up during pandemic

When Floyd Barto was five years old, he began playing harmonica on the family farm. 

He had to tend to get the cows in the morning and at night, he recalls, and would play a song on the way there and back — until he learned two songs.

And then three songs, and then four.

About 80 years later, Barto is known as the Harmonica Rascal — a gig-playing harmonica player who taught himself to play by ear.

Floyd Barto, left, plays the harmonica on the family farm at the age of 5. (Submitted by Wendy Balto)

And after his live performances were halted by the pandemic, he found an even wider audience.

Every day in October, to cheer people up, he’s been posting videos on Facebook and YouTube from his home in Picture Butte, Alta.

“It’s just a little bit of everything. I play [mostly] country western,” Barto told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday. “It’s just lots of music.” 

The harmonica’s appeal

Back when Barto was playing for the cows, he lived on a farm in Dover Plains, N.Y.

His mother encouraged him to practise, and his friends would be upset if he neglected to bring his harmonica to square dances.

“Once I learned a song, my mom always made me play it for everybody that came to the house,” Barto said.

“And, of course, years ago they had these dances every week on a Saturday, and everybody went there. And so, if I didn’t have my harmonica with me, they were upset with me. So, yeah, I had to play with all them guys.”

Known as the “harmonica rascal,” Floyd Barto from Picture Butte, Alta., is playing harmonica everyday in October and posting it online. Here is his rendition of the Folsom Prison Blues. 3:30

  • WATCH The Harmonica Rascal in action above.

The years have not lessened the harmonica’s appeal for Barto.

Over time, he says, he has accumulated between 30 and 35 of them, and most are Hohner chromatic harmonicas.

“These have a little button on the side and it gives you the sharps and flats. However, I’m not sure how that works,” he said.

When he moved to Edmonton with his Canadian wife, Wendy, in 1981, he joined 12 others in the Harmonica Rascals, and has since played in other bands, too.

“Of course, as we get older, we die off,” Barto said. “[But] it was fun, and I still enjoy it.”

When Barto moved to Picture Butte in 2008, he started playing solo at local events and seniors’ homes.

“I do spend a lot of time practising, so yeah, I play usually every day or every other day,” he said.

Brighten everyone’s day

Barto’s last live gig was in January. When COVID-19 put a stop to them, he began practising just for himself.

“Normally, I go down to the basement. I’ve got my little studio set up down there, and I’ve got an amplifier, and I got background music that I play to,” Barto said.

Floyd Barto, pictured here on the left in the second row, played with the Harmonica Rascals. (Submitted by Wendy Barto)

But it felt sad, he said. He missed the gigs and making people happy.

“I call him my social butterfly,” Wendy said. “He loves playing for people. To not be able to play — he’s missed it.”

When Wendy suggested he play for Facebook and YouTube audiences instead, he did — every day of the month so far.

“We just thought we would brighten everybody’s day, and put a smile on their face,” he said.

And it’s worked. On a video of his harmonica rendition of Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up, a comment reads: “You make my day, Floyd! Thanks!”


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

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