[This article originally appeared in the fall 2016 issue of Harmonica Happenings. Thanks to Paddy Wells for allowing MBH to republish it here.]
“The harmonica is the mother of the band.” So said Otis Spann, the longtime pianist in Muddy Waters' band. And he ought to know, having served alongside some of the most revered harp players during his time with Muddy's crew. Ever since the likes of Little Walter Jacobs plugged in and started blowing through tube amplifiers in the 1950s, the harmonica has become the heartbeat of the blues, its unique expression and emotional depth resonating through the decades. The Chicago sound that was pioneered by players such as Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton and Junior Wells has become so synonymous with the music that it remains relatively unchanged today, a staunch anchor to the very roots of electric blues.
Most players will tell you that the harmonica is the closest instrument to the human voice, a quality that gives it a unique appeal. Bob Corritore, born and raised in Chicago and taught by some of the old masters, says: “Harmonica is just a beautiful instrument, so as such it's timeless. It has a fantastic history and tradition. It comes from a basic conversation that appeals to everybody's humanity. Also, in whoever's mouth the harmonica lands, there is a completely unique tone. The humanity of the player comes through every time. It's a beautiful soundscape that elicits great emotion from the listener. You can find a quick pathway to a player's soul by how they play harp.”
But does it risk becoming a dated instrument if its predominant style is one so firmly rooted in the past? Should it be pushed forward in order to stay relevant in contemporary blues, or is that old-school vibe essential to its potency? In more recent years, some players have emerged that are keen to push the envelope, inevitably annoying some purists along the way, by creating a new paradigm that progresses the humble harp into new territory.
Adam Gussow, Professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, cut his teeth on the streets of Harlem as part of the duo Satan and Adam. He was one of the first amplified players to make overblows an integral part of his sound. A highly melodic and exploratory musician who has published hundreds of harmonica lessons online, Gussow believes that players should learn and respect the tradition, while always striving for something new and unique. “I think contemporary players who make Little Walter the be-all and end-all are making a profound mistake,” he says.
“They tend to make a fetish of the notes that he played, and forget that what was remarkable about him was how he walked onto the scene with open ears, and heard music that was being made in other places. He was listening to Jimmy Liggins do The Honeydripper and people on sax, and thinking that maybe he could do that on harp. So instead of making a fetish of his particular notes, they ought to be asking what was it spiritually that made him the guy that he developed into? He was experimenting with sounds that were contemporary then, and I admire players now that do that. So I feel like I'm honouring his approach. My approach to music making is I wanna throw down something that if he were alive now, he'd be saying, 'How's he doing that? What's he doing? Now I need to go and try that.' And I'm always listening for exactly the same thing. I love what Lyndon Anderson does for example, he's the kind of player that makes me wanna grab a harp and figure out what he's doing.”
In terms of being a modern player that aims to create a fresh and dynamic style in contemporary blues, Gussow maintains that it's all about learning from and assimilating the old-school before striking out on your own.
“I look at the history of blues as a kind of constant tension between modernising and remaining grounded in a tradition. I think that's the big issue. But how to balance that? A European player recently sent me his new video, he was very good and clearly interested in playing modern stuff, but what I heard was that he didn't have the blues pitches under control. Sometimes guys are moving too quickly for their own good, without the required discipline to play the deeper blues stuff. To me that's very important - to have real, sincere blues tonality. So there's such a thing as somebody that is ungrounded, which is why I'm always looking for players that have paid their dues, somebody who has the tradition in them, but still carries their own distinctive sound. The worst kind of thing for me is when I hear Little Walter or Howlin' Wolf in a person's playing, but who are you? I want to hear something that's identifiably you. I was taught that as a street musician in Harlem. I'm a white kid around 29, 30, and the older black men that came up to me would say, 'you gotta have your sound'. Not, 'don't touch our music', but more, 'give me something that I've never heard.' Joe Bonamassa is a good example of a modern blues artist - he's got the rock dynamic, but he does have his own personality and I really like what he's doing.”
While the Chicago masters of the '50s have rightly been canonised, taking what was ostensibly designed as a simple folk instrument and wrenching soul out of it, there are an increasing number of modern players that are keen to push the harmonica to its maximum capability. If there's one figure that was pivotal in a modern and progressive approach to the harp, it would surely be Sugar Blue. That's him blowing the famous hook on The Rolling Stones' Miss You, but he blazed a trail from the late '70s onwards with his incendiary playing that boasted fast legato runs and astonishing dexterity. Although still heavily amped, his approach moved away from the traditional Chicago sound, something he says developed organically when he began listening outside the realm of other harp players.
“I spent some time trying to be Little Walter”, he admits. “And a very good friend of mine - the ragtime guitar player Larry Johnson, who learned from the Reverend Gary Davis - I was playing with him, doing my Little Walter stuff and thinking I was hitting it pretty good. He said, 'man, you sounding just like Little Walter there'. So I'm feeling very proud of myself, then he said, 'but Little Walter does not work with my music. Try and find your own voice'. That was what started me on that pursuit. The first thing I started to do was listen to sax players, and I took my cues from any other instrumentalist. Anybody that wasn't playing harmonica, I was listening to.
“Basically, I was just trying to play like me, as opposed to everybody else I heard. There were cats like Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon, I started paying attention to what they were doing and I took what I could from it. That's where my style differs from a lot of other players, I paid a lot of attention to what was going on with bebop.”
Some of the most innovative and idiosyncratic players appear to have this in common - listening widely and specifically to musicians that are not harmonica players, saxophone players being a recurring source of inspiration. Lyndon Anderson, one of the UK's top players, says it was his affinity with jazz that helped shape his own style: “I didn't really set out to play harp, I started by playing saxophone and picked harp up around the same time. That positioned me somewhere between blues and jazz from the outset. My brother had a tape of various people like Muddy Waters and Josh White that got me interested. Though the first player that really got me into it was Sonny Terry. So it was a very traditional route at first. I would buy any album that even had a picture of a harp on the front, because there was no access to the internet back then. So my first influences were Sonny Terry, then Little Walter. But then as I explored more I got into the West Coast players, William Clarke, Rob Piazza. Later still, people like Sugar Blue, Paul deLay. And that was my progression from the blues harp side of it. The other side of it is that I've always listened to a lot of jazz too. So my style is kind of a marriage of the two.”
Adam Gussow again: “I was very interested in blues saxophone players, and I realised that I could start to copy some of the things they were doing using the overblow technique. It allowed me to add from the saxophone sound, which I think is one of the keys - if you can try and adapt something you hear on another instrument, nobody will hear you as a derivative player, because you're effectively copying sax, or piano, or even drums. I can latch on to guys like Hank Crawford or Houston Person, they were two of the great players that I modelled my own sound on. So I was pushing in a direction that was a little to the side of what my peers were doing. William Clarke was somebody I heard having that kind of jazz man's adventurousness. I began to throw that approach into my own playing when I was playing on the street with Mr Satan. At that point that there were not many people out there overblowing, so it felt like I was on one side of the fence and everybody else was on the other. That has now shifted, and the guy who has shifted it decisively is Jason Ricci.”
Ah, Jason Ricci. How best to describe him and his impact on the blues scene? Incomparable. Virtuosic. Divisive. He's certainly all of those things. Perhaps no other musician embodies the perceived position of modern blues harp player as much as this man. As well as a grounding with the key players of the Chicago tradition, Ricci cites Pat Ramsey as his main influence when he started out, Ramsey's fast and fluent runs clearly informing his own signature sound. With advanced use of scales, overblows and multiple effect pedals, Ricci has played a major role in contemporising the instrument. However, despite all his technical wizardry, Ricci is not convinced that the harmonica is facing a bright new dawn.
“Most people don't even recognise the sound of amplified harmonica today,” he says, a little exasperated. “Many people have heard it on Rolling Stones records and still don't identify it as harmonica. That is a big enough problem on its own, that I don't think the general public is concerned with overblows, chromaticism or effects pedals even. When they can't even identify what instrument is being played through an amp. I have people come up to me and actually say, 'what is that thing you're playing?' That happens about once a week. And not even when I'm using weird effects pedals! They're like, 'what is that stick, what are you playing into?' So I tell them, 'this is the microphone, and this is a harmonica'. I still have soundmen who are unaware that I'm going to be playing through an amplifier. I have to tell them, 'just mic the amp and pretend it's a guitar'. So when this is the level of comprehension that we're dealing with as harmonica players, it's pretty ridiculous to think that we're going to be able to push the instrument forward when the general public's perception of it still hasn't caught up with what Little Walter was doing in 1950.
“Today I would say a modern player is not even someone that overblows or uses effects pedals, etc - I would say it's somebody that thinks for themselves. Unfortunately, we don't have too much of that. We worship all these great musicians like Cotton, Little Walter, Butterfield, but that worship is just that - we're recreating what they already did and not thinking like those people thought. To me, those guys were all modern. They were never traditional harmonica players, because there was no such concept at that time. And those people wouldn't have had it any other way. They were just going to play music the way they felt it should be played.”
Of course, modern technology means it is now possible for the contemporary player to get their music heard by a huge audience, without having to painstakingly build a reputation on the club and gig circuit. Christelle Berthon has amassed a substantial fanbase using YouTube videos made from her home in France. As one of the relatively few female players, she agrees that the instrument is still viewed as somewhat archaic and is pushing for its recognition.
“It seems to me that the diatonic harmonica is a dying instrument, many people still view it as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and it's not attracting a lot of new people,” says Berthon. “Whereas I have 21 million views on my YouTube videos, a female guitarist of similar age and ability will have something like 100 million. It's a matter of popularity of the instrument. I tend to not play this card when I get comments on YouTube, or people on Facebook saying 'you play well, for a woman', I say 'f**k you', but in a more polite way, of course! Because music has no gender. You are a good player or you are not. It can be condescending and insulting. You have to fight much harder to make yourself respected.
“And there are too many players thinking inside the box, 'how would Little Walter have played that? How would Sonny Terry would have played that?'. It doesn't matter! Just play the way you are right now, this century and maybe you will be able to do something of your own, making it more interesting for yourself and for others. I am just a player because I have been playing music since the age of three. I am only trying to do on the harmonica what I was doing with previous instruments I played. Since I love the blues so much, I play that too, I think I am a modern player in the sense that I try to play everything, I have no boundaries.”
The best of today's contemporary players appear to have an intrinsic understanding of this - the ability and the courage to tread a different path from the hallowed forefathers, while still retaining some of that old-school vibe. It's a tricky balancing act, especially as the harmonica remains a niche instrument with a niche audience, which looks unlikely to change. “I take Charlie Parker's view on that,” says Sugar Blue. “He said, 'if you can't play the old-school blues, then you can't play anything'. Because everything is built around the blues. Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles - if you listen to what they did, it all goes back to the blues. So they built on it, but if you take the basic blues away from it, all you've got is a lot of structure with no heart.”
Adam Gussow also notes that many of the modern players that really made people sit up and take notice were being pushed musically by their counterparts.
“The key to all of these players - such as Sugar, me, Jason Ricci - is that we all had as our foil a really powerful guitar player. A guitar player with some rock intensity can be a useful thing in that respect. It's not just about Sugar's playing, but that he's marched through all of this traditional, Chicago blues repertoire, but with a modernised ensemble sound, forcing people to realise that contemporary Chicago blues is what he's doing. And that's from a New York guy who was a former busker.”
“I think I stumbled into situations where I had to work with musicians that had to teach me some basic music theory,” adds Ricci. “As a result of that, I got good at a few scales, good at arpeggiating a few chords and I listened to the guys that were around me. My style is kind of a culmination of Pat Ramsey, Adam Gussow and Howard Levy. The likes of Little Walter and Butterfield are in there of course, but the real root of what I'm doing is looking at every chord and thinking about its possibilities and whether or not I should try them! A little Pat Ramsey, some bepop sensibilities and a rock 'n' roll heart.”
There will always be the formalists of course, those that view any player going out on a limb as somehow betraying the true heritage of the music. The harmonica remains an essential component of the blues after all these years and it clearly needs players willing to take risks in order to keep the music vibrant and alive.
“Everything that does not grow, dies,” says Sugar Blue. “If it doesn't change and progress, then basically it's finished! There are these people that I sometimes call Blues Nazis - if the artist that they're listening to hasn't been dead for 50 years, it's not the blues. Excuse me, but these people have no idea what the blues is. It's a living art form. The blues is as relevant today as the person playing it. We all took our lessons from the old masters, but one of the things that Willie Dixon - who I had the pleasure of working with for a number of years - said was, 'if you can't add anything to the canon, you're shooting blanks'.
“A lot of people think that blues is just tragedy wrapped in music - the blues isn't tragic, the blues is black magic.”