Very cool article, Elwood--thanks for posting it. Joe is a huge favorite of mine--I took a seminar in San Jose from him earlier this year on Sonny Terry--he is truly a great player and a great teacher. . .
Here's the part of the interview where Joe goes wrong:
"I think that too many people are way preoccupied with having their own sound. To me that’s ego-driven. It’s cool to have your own sound, but I think few people can get away with it for the long term. I would rather do something that’s a homage to different players, and know that I’m keeping the attention of the audience for the long term, than having my own style for the whole time. That’s just what does it for me. Having your own style to me is ego-driven."
If Joe is honest about it, he'll admit that he's taking aim here at Jason and me. I've made "finding your style" one of my core principles. I've done so in part because that lesson was drilled into me by Sterling and the guys in Harlem. I can't tell you how many times the elders on 125th Street--winos, in many cases--took me aside, put a finger in my chest or a hand on my shoulder, and said, "You got to sound like YOU!" As for Sterling: you can imagine what he said. He insisted, countless times, that the most difficult thing for a musician to do was come up with an original style. He said it in pretty much those words: "That's a hard thing, man--coming up with a new way of playing guitar!" But he'd done it--he called it "my three-octave sound," with "fish-flutter strums," and you can be damned sure I was paying attention. I had to! I had to keep up! I had to invent something that the records--Joe's beloved records--couldn't possibly give me. That's where my style, and my attitude toward style, comes from.
There's a deep contradiction in Joe's philosophy of the harmonica, and I'm not sure he realizes it. If he does, he's avoiding it like mad. In this interview, as in many other interviews, he insists that he (and by implication, we) should make our style an homage to great players of the past. But the ATTITUDE that drove the players he's referring to was a hunger to make a name for themselves by coming up with a style that nobody else had. He invokes Big Walter and his paranoia about being copied. Bingo! Read Honeyboy Edwards's autobiography, THE WORLD DON'T OWE ME NOTHING. What drove Honeyboy and Big Walter out on Maxwell Street was a desire to be up-to-date, to have the latest and hottest sound, so they could steal business from other guys who sounded "tired." Little Walter was the epitome of this modernizing approach. Because sax-driven R&B was the hot thing in the late 40s and early 50s, he amped up in order to get that sound. Some of the players Joe loves from the 1920s and 1930s were clearly trying to get the Louis Armstrong trumpet sound.
Joe is a wonderful archivist, a wonderfully grounded and skilled reanimator of a whole boatful of important styles from the past, and I have nothing but high praise for that part of his operation. But he's profoundly mistaken, and self-contradicting, on this point. Nothing is MORE important, frankly, than to have your "own style for the whole time." Joe has it backwards. Only a very few players--and he's one of them--can get away with playing homages for a whole evening.
The half-truth buried in what Joe says is important, though, and it's also something that I insist on: if you're seeking your own sound, it's vitally important to know the tradition. You can't simply invent blues harmonica, your own style, out of whole cloth, and expect what you've done to resonate deeply. Too much good work has been done by the great players of the past. Deeply investigating that work is an essential part of the journey to mastery. But it's possible to get stuck in that phase. Many people do.
Last Edited by on Nov 08, 2009 5:25 AM
I think we all interpret differently what someone says.
I have just read the interview questions and answers and here's my take on it.
FILISKO: Well, one might argue that the harmonica sounds best played as it was played [gestures over his shoulder] in the Fifties. And if it sounds best, then why not do it?
Fair enough. I can't argue with that point of view
FILISKO: I’m not saying we shouldn’t. If it’s in your gut, then you should go with it. Paul deLay might be a good example of someone who’s a traditional blues harmonica player that possibly expanded on the language. A brilliant song-writer, brilliant vocalist, brilliant musician, brilliant harmonica player. When I listen to him I’ve moved by it. But I don’t think that’s a common thing. I don’t know that everybody is capable of having their own unique style.
Again I can't argue with that point of view.
Now here's why.
I didn't at any point in that particular series of questions see where Joe was implying that we all should just play harmonica in the style of Little Walter et al.
What I did read was his personal view as to why he does that. I also read that he (quite rightly in my opinion) states that many people are simply not capable of having their own unique style.
This to me is borne out by the fact that so many of todays "modern" players are simply imitating Adam, Jason, Carlos, Howard, etc. Now you could argue that they are at the imitate before innovate stage in their playing. Although I suspect that a significant number of them will also never progress beyond that point.
There will undoubtedly be a few that excel and progress to develop a style that is uniquely recognizable as their own. The fact is that in any musical form the majority of players are not identifiably unique. The vast majority are also rans. This was as true in Walters time as it is today.
Now I'm not saying you shouldn't strive to achieve your own style. But if you choose to study and imitate the recognized benchmark players of any given genre / instrument then that too can be a wonderfully fulfilling achievement.
Last Edited by on Nov 08, 2009 6:57 AM
Adam, you and Joe are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and both of you are needed. Joe is the consumate historian, and you are the innovator. FWIW, what I take from Joe's interview is a little different than what you see. My take is that its great to have your own sound, but make sure that sounds GOOD. You might be unique (not you personally), but if that uniqueness isn't a good sound, then what good is being innovative? I think what Joe is saying is to not be afraid of sounding like someone else, as long as that someone else sounds good.
I certainly believe that Joe's perspective and my perspective are both needed--when you frame it that way. But I'm not sure Joe agrees with you that my perspective is needed. And the passage of the interview that I quoted says what it says, in no uncertain terms: "Having your own style to me is ego-driven."
Joe is a terrific historian of blues harmonica styles, but he's not a good historian of blues harmonica aesthetic approaches--meaning the attitudes that governed how the players whose playing he reveres actually approached the making of music. Exhibit A is one of his heroes: Deford Bailey.
I have no doubt that Joe can play the entire Deford Bailey songbook, all 30 recordings, with matchlessly perfect technique. I suspect that he can, if asked, list all the songs and the dates they were recorded. If there are actually 29 or 31 extant recordings, he'll no doubt know that too. But I wonder if he's actually read Charles Wolfe's book on Bailey and knows how Bailey approached the making of music as a creative act. I suspect not. Because if he had, he would know that Bailey had a pretty big ego, and was determined to excel in a novel way that set him apart from the competition. I'm talking about his train songs. Here's how he came up with them. “I’d run and get under the trestle,” he told an interviewer.
“I’d hold my head down and put something over my eyes to keep cinders out of my eyes. Me and my foster sister would do that. We’d listen to the sound and then I’d play that sound all the way to school....I worked on my train for years, getting that train down right. I caught that train down just like I want in a matter of time. I got the engine part. Then I had to make the whistle.
"It was about, I expect, seventeen years to get that whistle…It takes years to get it down piece by piece. I got that whistle so it would have a double tone to it, a music tone….
"You can tell my train is moving. Every time I blow, you can tell I’m getting further. It’s moving out of sight as I blow. The sound of their train [meaning other, lesser harmonica players] is moving, but staying in sight too long. I’m always reaching out. When I get about 115 miles an hour, I can feel it. My normal speed is 95 miles an hour. That don’t feel like I’m doing nothing, but my train sure enough moves along."
"I'm always reaching out." That is a creative artist at work.
I believe in the stated goals of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica, as encompassed in the organization's name. I value both halves of the dialectic. Joe reifies and overvalues the preservation half--he preserves the songs while neglecting the aesthetic attitudes (such as attending to the sounds of the world you actually live in, or hungering to differentiate yourself from the pack) that actually led to their creation--and writes off the advancement half as an ego-driven mistake. That's where we differ.
Last Edited by on Nov 08, 2009 10:12 AM
In all fairness I wonder if Filisko would have said that to a Jason Ricci or an Adam Gussow as quickly as he said it to me. Bear in mind I was approaching him as a student in pretty early stages of advancement -- and in that context, I'd argue he was correct in asserting that it would be too early for someone like me to go branching out and trying to develop something new.
At my level, if I can just play something that sounds good, I don't really care who it sounds like. I would just love to be good enough to worry about whether or not I sound too much like Adam or Joe or Big Walter. When I sound that good, I'll have to decide if I want to move on to "ego-driven" music or not--somehow I think being stuck at any one place would suck. . .
" At my level, if I can just play something that sounds good, I don't really care who it sounds like. I would just love to be good enough to worry about whether or not I sound too much like Adam or Joe or Big Walter. When I sound that good, I'll have to decide if I want to move on to "ego-driven" music or not. "
This is an interesting thread. I can spend days trying to copy something by Kim Wilson, then switch over to trying to copy something by Paul deLay etc. but after all this time of trying to copy this, that and the other thing, I just end up sounding like myself. Of course, I'm a big believer in dragging things like Christmas music kicking and screaming into my personal blues box so maybe that helps me sound a little different. I think that most players develop their own style by default, certainly every harp player I know has...
After spending most my life playing classical music (read: other people's notes, your interpretation) I think that playing your own way is WAY more fun than playing someone else's notes. If it don't feel fresh, it feels stale.
On the other hand, doing something new for the sake of doing something new may take you in a direction that pushes people away. Schoenberg, anyone?
There are a few players out there who I really like. All of them are uniquely different, but they have this in common: none of them are imitators.
I should add that I've had very cordial personal relations with Joe, both in person (the two or three times we've crossed paths) and via email. If I had a question about some obscure player from the 1920s, as I did earlier this year, he's the first guy I'd go to--as I did. (Wade Schuman is the second.) His answer was friendly and quick. It's certainly possible, Elwood, that he would phrase things a little differently if Jason or I were in the room, but then again he might not.
I try not to be doctrinaire; I consider myself a pragmatist and a liberator of sorts. I encourage experimentation, I don't assume my way is the only way. I certainly bow to Joe's knowledge-storehouse. But I'm a scholar of culture, literary and musical both, with an emphasis on African American studies, and I'm able to stand back from any given situation and reframe it in terms of earlier and related moments in cultural history. When I hear some TB fundamentalists talk about "big tone," I'm aware that Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were both accused, when their bebop hit the scene in the mid-1940s, of having "thin" tone. I understand, in other words, that terms of praise that may seem self-evident within certain subcultural frameworks at certain moments can be reframed in a way that lets us undertand how they're being used to dismiss important new work as aesthetically inadequate--i.e., how they're an anxiety-formation against good new work that can't yet be made sense of in the old familar turns. The new stuff people dismiss at one moment sometimes turns out, at a later moment, to be exactly what was needed. In fact, creative artists sometimes deliberately choose the "thin" sound when the "thick" sound has achieve hegemony, precisely as a way of clearing fresh ground and saying something that can't be said using the old language.
Wordsworth did this in his Lyrical Ballads. Hughes offended a lot of people in the African American community with his blues poems when they first saw publication. Miles Davis deliberately thinned his sound.
B. B. King, revered as a "classic" blues artist now, was a stunningly innovative artist. He didn't try to copy Robert Johnson, even though he came up only 14 years behind him in the Mississippi Delta. He modeled his playing on T. Bone Walker and Django Reinhardt and his stage patter on Arthur Godfrey. Mississippi guitarists all played rhythm guitar behind their vocals. King specifically renounced this practice: he played single string leads between his vocal phrases. And he modeled his singing style on COGIC gospel singing. He was a DJ; he listened to everything and took what he needed from the stuff that moved him. That's what creative blues artists do. One reason I like what Jason does is that he pushes the boundaries of what the blues audience will accept by throwing elements of punk (Lou Reed) into the mix.
It takes a healthy ego-function, by the way, to follow your own path as a creative artist when people around you, even the subculture you inhabit, attempt in various ways to second-guess you.
Back to the books on a Sunday afternoon............
Last Edited by on Nov 08, 2009 2:44 PM
For the record, I take lessons from one of Joe's protoge's (John Costa.) The lessons are very helpful, but there is a lot of duplicating technique and tone note for note, and doing everything via tongue blocking. I don't agree with all of it, but there is a lot I have to learn, and learning Joe's way isn't all bad. However, I do like to jam, and I get the feeling the Filisko boy's don't do a lot of that (but I could be wrong.) For instance, I play once a year with a band that only sees each other once a year. We get a set list, listen to the songs and learn them on our own, then play them live, for the first time, during the gig. My instructor thinks that's a little crazy, but we have fun, and we sound pretty good.
Adam, It almost sounds as this is an argument with different parts of yourself (modern blues player versus scholar about what others do). This argument seems timeless. Miro, Picasso, they had to learn the old styles and be consummate technically before they had the credibility to break out into new territory. You and Jason seem to have gone to pains to work through the old harmonica masters techniques etc. I was talking to an english prof who was bemoaning the creative writers in his program who did not want to "do their homework", kind of reminds me of what Filsko was saying about the warmup band. Just my 2 cents here, not sure anything was really said. Walter
You're right that it's a timeless argument. In John Dryden's day, if I'm not wrong, it was called "the Ancients versus the Moderns."
I've made this point before, but I see the contemporary blues harmonica world as being somewhat in thrall to "the tradition" and very much in need of pushback in the direction of modernity. But you're right: the only way of anchoring yourself securely enough to make your modernist leap count for something is to know and at least partially master the tradition. Look at the lessons I sell here! They're weighted heavily in that direction. I don't even sell a lesson on overblowing! A customer pointed that out to me. But I do have lessons that include overblows.
The moment you add them in, it's impossible to remain wholly beholden to the tradition. You've got to start flying on your own, at least somewhat.
I had two teachers, remember: Nat Riddles and Sterling Magee. Nat was a traditionalist, he REALLY knew the tradition, but he was an African American guy who stole equally from John Lee Williamson and Kim Wilson--he was an equal-opportunity Real Blues guy--and one summer he gave me a study tape (as he called it) that consisted of a bunch of groove jazz stuff, with no harp at all, just sax, guitar, Grant Green, etc. So he encouraged me to be wide-ranging in my tastes, and he raved about Sugar Blue, who was very forward looking.
Sterling was a radical innovator, but of course he was also the soul of the blues--even though he didn't bend strings, which is extremely unusual for a "blues guy." He played blues on the electric guitar like a jazz/funk guy. And he harped, on a daily basis, about how unique his style was and how important it was to be your own man.
It would be fair to say that I, like many younger white blues players, tried to follow in the footsteps of my black elders. But my black elders weren't, themselves, really following in anybody's footsteps. They were, each in his own way, determined to be originals.
So my thing, so to speak, is somewhat mixed up in a good and constructive way. I don't feel the need to dress in 50s sharkskin and a hat, or confine my repertoire to "traditional" materials, out of a deliberate or unconscious desire to prove that I'm black enough to play the blues. Many of my theories about art are indeed copped from Af-Am blues and jazz guys, but not all. My father--big daddy white man--was a painter and sculptor, an award-winning one, and he too used to hammer home a theory of art-making that said: be yourself. He'd put it this way: "There are two kinds of artists: those who do what they can, and those who do what they can't. I'm the second kind." He meant that some artists find a style that works, that pays, and then stick with it. Others are more creative. He kept transforming himself, much like Picasso or Miles Davis.
These days I'm more in the first camp, but when I was becoming the musician I now am between 1985 and 1995, I was definitely in the second camp--because Sterling forced me to be that way, and because it was true to who I was.
Last Edited by on Nov 09, 2009 8:47 PM
i believe that having your own style is the most important thing to create music. if you dont have your own style your not an artist an your not creating anything. your just copying. why listen to traditional blues rerecorded when you can appreciate the original. thats like some one making a photoshop pic of the mona lisa. ya it may look cleaner an sharper but id rather see the original. great interview/article btw elwood.
What an interesting discussion. I still know where I stand on this issue (I hope I've been clear) but interesting to see where others stand too. I like Oldwailer's comment:
"...if I can just play something that sounds good, I don't really care who it sounds like. I would just love to be good enough to worry about whether or not I sound too much like Adam or Joe or Big Walter."
To those who gave it, thanks for the generous feedback.
This is a topic I have not give much thought until now. I think copying others is ego-driven more than being your own player.
In my early years, I played all the blues licks. I played the Big Walter, Little Walter, Sonny Terry stuff. Back then it was like a badge.. "I can play like XXX." I still demonstrate it every once in a while for shits and giggles. I know did it for Jay and Brandon at SPAH and it pretty much "blue" their minds because it was a style and style that normally isn't associated with me. My demonstration was purely ego driven!
I have my own style now and if you've followed my music you can see how it constantly evolves in a new direction. I don't do this to impress anybody. I don't even do it to satisfy myself. I simply do it because as I allow myself be a part of all that is, it's what I hear and I play it to the best of my ability.
There is no ego involved in playing how I play today. Listen to the Sting vid I recently posted. My only goal was to be part of the music, to add to the music in an effort to make the music sound better for the audience.
The Sting performance was no different than my performance of Summertime at SPAH.
"Chris seems to put Music in a nutshell and make it seem ez. At SPAH this year he played Summertime and you could see if he wanted to he could play a "bazillian" notes but they weren't needed so he stayed back. It just made you want more..."
When I was a younger player I used to love it when I heard "You sound just like xxxx" The fact that I loved that and worked to be more like xxxx to me, was ego-driven.
I think to truly evolve, you have to lose the desire for ego gratifiction. But, that is not to say that you shouldn't be aware of what you are doing. Ego is a part of us all and it's not a bad thing. How you use it is what matters.
To me there is more wrong with those people who feign humility then people who know and understand where they are in reality. If you're good you're good why deny it? I think it's ego-driven to deny to others that you're a good player when you are. Why? Because you want people to tell you how good you are after they hear you play?
For me, my music stands on it's own. I know not everybody likes it but I know that in general I am good at it. And, because I've accepted where I am, I don't need others to tell me. A lot of this goes back to Christelle, if she would simply accept within herself that she is a good harmonica player and musician then nothing else matters. Instead, all of her drama continues because she is constantly seeking ego gratification through validation of others.
I'm losing my thought here but it's clear to me that copying others is more about ego than simply being yourself and playing what and how YOU play.
If you stop listening and copying harmonica players then you can't possibly sound like other harmonica players and thuly, have no option to sound like anything other than yourself.
When you are yourself, with your own music, then you are no different than the person who has formulated their own opinion about things and says so. Having your own opinion rather than regurgitating what others say is intelligent communication. Being intelligent has little to do with being ego-driven.
---------- "The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." - Joseph Campbell
"If you stop listening and copying harmonica players then you can't possibly sound like other harmonica players and thuly, have no option to sound like anything other than yourself."
Right on. This is very much what I ended up doing in the late '80s, after I started overblowing. I couldn't copy "Donna Lee" as Howard did it on HARMONICA JAZZ, and that was the only overblow-inclusive harmonica music I had. By the same token, nothing that any of my harmonica elders or contemporaries were doing--the touring guys: Piazza, Harman, Nulisch, even Sugar Blue--had overblows in it, so THAT was a dead end of sorts.
So I started moving out into blues sax stuff, R&B guitar (Cornell Dupree, the guitar part on Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk"). Because I was playing on the street in Harlem and playing occasionally in the clubs and because R&B rather than Chicago blues was what people were into, it all started to come together. I'd go to hear Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff, or Art Blakey, or whomever, and I'd hear a song like "Moanin'" or "Sister Sadie"," and I'd say, I can hear that. I'd hear a jazz/blues head and wouldn't even know what it was called, but I'd toss in the overblows and get it. Then later I'd be at a club and I'd hear the song and I'd ask somebody and they'd say, "Oh that's 'Things Ain't the Way They Used to Be." (That's a very familiar head, by the way, but many people don't know the name of it. They just know how to play it.)
I wasn't being very original, since I was copying twenty-year-old jazz/blues heads, but because I was doing it on diatonic harp, it WAS new in some way.
I lucked into a bit of the same vibe this past summer, as folks know, when Brandon gave me a little stomp-thingie and I decided to translate Clapton's guitar-part on Cream's "Crossroad Blues" to harp. It was ripe for the picking, frankly. If "authentic blues" has any meaning, it should mean that a guy like me, who grew up on the stuff--heck, and played that stuff on guitar--should be drawing on it as musical inspiration. Who cares if what I'm doing is second-generation white blues? It's the music that surrounds us. Jazz guys have, in the past ten years, started to take 70s funk tunes and make them into jazz tunes. I'm all for it. And when I take a tune like that and rebarbarize it, throw all my down-home harp-funk into it, it's no longer what it was. It's something new. It's the down home one-man-band tradition reclaiming the urban/British blues tradition's take on Mississippi Delta blues. Why the heck NOT? is what I say.
It doesn't take much to be original: just a half-step in a different direction.
Play first-position blues in the middle octave, with overblows. I can't for the life of me figure out why nobody has jumped all over that. It's just sitting right there.
Last Edited by on Nov 10, 2009 6:49 AM
Over the years, in general, I find I can't decide what comes out of someone's ego and why. An act, seemingly ego-driven, may have an underlying kindness. My assessment of the ego may be influenced by past dealings with an individual that no longer apply, bad rumors, language I don't like, any number of outside factors that affect me...not the "ego-driven" person.
Since I am in blues kindergarten, paying no mind to them until March of this year, I have been studying for my own ego-driven desire to progress into the harp player my band expects me to be.
My lead guitar player began splitting lead duties with me immediately, even though I wasn't ready. His playing could easily be misconstrued as ego-driven to a first time observer...certainly to at least one other lead guitar player i know. I know better, since he has given part of the lead "burden" over to me on the harp.
When I listen to great players...some right here on this board and some posted here but long gone...I try to copy. Then I find I stumble onto things I don't hear in Harmonica music usually. Maybe something trumpet-like, or guitar-like, or any of the other instruments i already play-like. So, I try it...in the music my band plays. If it works, I keep it. If is sucks, I pitch it.
As I learn the mechanical details of any instrument, I want it to disappear into my music. When it finally does, other people will be the ones....not me...who say "wow, that was a cool thing to hear a harmonica do!" Many players are already there and have been for years. When you reach that level of proficiency where the music just flows out, no matter what else is going on around you...what you do with your own ego is up to you.
I noticed the "ego-driven" part of the interview and immediately thought the comment itself seemed ego-driven. Kind of "you're a bigger ego-maniac than i am" or "I'm way less arrogant than you."
I dismissed it in my overall ignorance of things blues and continued with my study of Joe Filisko and other things blues. The conversation now is fascinating to me, just like the interview and all things blues.
Last Edited by on Nov 10, 2009 9:36 AM
"...smoking Hush Puppies..." Gotta love that line, Elwood (from "Old School vs. New School" column).
Hush Puppies were made here in Michigan (USA), so perhaps I chuckle the loudest on the turn of that phrase and history of the shoes. They have a museum at their headquarters that we peeps would love. Even a basset hound dogs wanders about...