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The Harmonica Project:  fascinating discoveries
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kudzurunner
1335 posts
Apr 15, 2010
1:37 PM
I've just spent a couple of hours blazing through several boxes of primary source material from "The Harmonica Project" in the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi. Between 1986 and 1991, Walter Liniger (Swiss player who worked with James "Son" Thomas) approached dozens of pros and got many of them to fill out questionnaires; he also accumulated material about deceased players. I've just read through the files from William Clarke, James Harman, Kim Wilson, Bob Shatkin, Little Walter, Howard Levy, etc.

Discovery of the day: James Harman sent two dozen photos of old amps, and I mean OLD amps, from the early 1950s and before. One of the photos was of a Masco head and a pair of gorgeous old speakers; on the back was a note that read something like "This is DEFINITELY the rig that Little Walter used." There was also a handwritten note by Harman saying that after speaking with Louis Myers, he was sure he had LW's rig pegged. I've heard about LW's Masco from several other sources, but this is the first time I've seen a photo; Harman's underlinings were also striking in the sense they gave of HIS conviction that he'd come up with definitive proof.) Another photo of Harman's showed an old turntable with an external speaker; on the back was a note reading something like "This is the BEST recording amp."

Unsurprisingly, Clarke and Harman specified that they blew through Marine Band harps. Clarke used a 1960 Bassman with 4 x 10s. He specifies a lot of other stuff. He also notes that although he was heavily influenced by George Smith, most of his influences aren't harp players, they're horn players. He mentions about five guys and a handful of other R&B performers. Clarke also notes that he never tries to play blues songs by classic players "just like" those players, and he complains--or perhaps merely observes--that too many players do that, failing as a result to come up with their own sound.

The Bob Shatkin file is very thick. He wrote many long letters to Walter Liniger, dissecting John Lee Williamson and other players in detail. He also notes on his questionnaire, under "People whom you have taught" that both Paul Oscher and Nat Riddles were his students. It's priceless stuff.

The Little Walter file had only one thing: an article by Richard Hunter that was the smartest analysis of LW's approach I've ever read. It's an excerpt from his book, HARMONICA FOR MUSICIANS. If he'll let me reprint it on this website, I'll certainly create a dedicated LW page and do that.

When I get a chance this summer, I'm going to revisit the Harmonica Project and, with luck, will be able to upload some photos of those amp photos and perhaps some pdf's of Bill Clarke's questionnaire.

Last Edited by on Apr 15, 2010 1:42 PM
Kyzer Sosa
349 posts
Apr 15, 2010
1:49 PM
Theres something to be said for the learning process that is imitation. i mentioned in an earlier thread that I think it is VERY important to emulate who you admire. Adam, if you recall, my vid on your Front Porch Blues was and is how i will always play it. Just a bit different than you do. Your experience shows in the subtleties and tone for certain...Though my intentions were to copy your licks, I found comfort in doing it the way i did it. I took what you put out there and made it my own, as did several other folks who posted a video response to that lesson. For me, imitating an artist has been essential in learning how to do it, as it worked for them, obviously...but it isnt the end goal at all. Familiarity, i suppose, is what its all about, and being comfortable enough with what you learn to make it your own...
What a neat thing to come across! Im definitely interested in seeing more on this topic. Keep us posted
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Kyzer's Travels
toddlgreene
1222 posts
Apr 15, 2010
1:55 PM
It's interesting to read William Clarke's explanation that he mimicked horn players much more than harmonica players-that's very evident in his recordings, and I didn't think it was an accident.

This looks like a historical gold mine, Adam.

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Crescent City Harmonica Club
Todd L Greene. V.P.
kudzurunner
1336 posts
Apr 15, 2010
2:08 PM
@Kyser: I completely agree with you. I've often stated that I think it's VERY important for students of the harmonica to imitate. It's a crucial phase of the learning process. One can't just invent good blues harmonica playing from scratch. One has to work hard, become familiar with the tradition, work one's way into the tradition.

But it's just a phase. And equally important, for any student of the harmonica, is the ability to recognize the moment, or the phase, where childish things, so to speak, must be put aside. I'm using "childish" in a purely strategic sense here: not as an insult, but as a way of helping to demarcate a non-negotiable creative demand: at a certain point, imitation, rather than encouraging and reflecting a creative exploration, is inimical to creativity. Imitation, after a certain point, is the sure route to artistic failure.

Unfortunately, some people never understand the process. They mistake the requisite imitative phase of a serious student for something like a workable lifelong aesthetic approach, and it's not. A sax player who thinks that aping Charlie Parker is enough to take him through a career is a hack: a guy destined to play lounges. I'll leave it to you to imagine how I see this particular dynamic at work in the fields of blues harmonica.
Ray
190 posts
Apr 15, 2010
2:19 PM
I love this kind of info! Thanks for posting. :o)
alleycatjoe
78 posts
Apr 15, 2010
3:29 PM
i know that shatkin and oscher used to hang out together. they were the best blues harp players in new york. but i dont think shatkin taught oscher. when Muddy had his accident in 1969 oscher came back to new york for a short period and had a steady gig in a club called the night cap lounge.oscher would regularly trade off licks on the band stand wih shatkin that was quite a show. when oscher went back to chicago shatkin became a regular there and then another band came on the scene.oscher was probably the first white blues musician to use the toungue blocking technique to bend notes. shatkin was not a toungue blocker at that time. this goes back before the dan lynch days and before nat riddles came on the scene. if anything they shared ideas .oscher was more into little walter. shatkin Big walter. both followed cottons style i know that shatkin got oscher a job teaching a harp class at the new school in new york.but oscher couldnt really deal with that.that was in the 90's. shatkin spent most of his life as a librarian at the brooklyn public library and was rarely recorded and only played in venues close to home . eugene plotnick is married to shatkins ex wife and eugene was a student of bob shatkin and nat riddles was also a student of shatkin. those were his two main students.
alleycatjoe
79 posts
Apr 15, 2010
3:34 PM
Bob Shatkin also taught a harp class at the new schoolin new york for many years and taught many other beginners and intermediate players at the class. he was a great player, who for some reason never wanted to get out there in a big way, he definitely could have
Ray
191 posts
Apr 15, 2010
4:08 PM
I remember reading on the internet that James Harman had all his vintage amps and mics stolen about 8 or 9 years ago.
Diggsblues
276 posts
Apr 16, 2010
4:04 AM
Too bad this info isn't online. It sounds important for the history of harmonica.
kudzurunner
1339 posts
Apr 16, 2010
4:38 AM
I agree, diggs. Within 30 seconds of setting eyes on Clarke's questionnaire, I had turned to the blues archivist, Greg Johnson--a good friend of mine--and said "I need to copy this and post this online." The problem is, there are strict rules regarding that sort of thing; each archive has them. Usage rules, copyright rules, etc. Greg is checking them out right now. I think it's likely I'll be able to do that--in which case, I'll probably create a new webpage, "discoveries from the Harmonica Project."

Meanwhile, we should all say a word of thanks to Walter Liniger for his extraordinary efforts in collecting this material.
Diggsblues
277 posts
Apr 16, 2010
7:32 AM
It may have an academic exception. So complicated.
I took a webinar at the library at the school I work at
and my head was about to explode. The rule, the exception
to the rule, the exception to the exception.

Though I remember something about academic research works could be
posted online that are in library collections but more rules.
nacoran
1675 posts
Apr 16, 2010
2:55 PM
I found a website once that had page after page of pictures of ads for old harmonicas. I spent days there.

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Nate
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marine1896
79 posts
Apr 16, 2015
3:04 AM
@kudzurunner ;''I've just spent a couple of hours blazing through several boxes of primary source material from "The Harmonica Project" in the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi. Between 1986 and 1991, Walter Liniger (Swiss player who worked with James "Son" Thomas) approached dozens of pros and got many of them to fill out questionnaires; he also accumulated material about deceased players. I've just read through the files from William Clarke, James Harman, Kim Wilson, Bob Shatkin, Little Walter, Howard Levy, etc.''

Did any of this ever make it online anywhere?
The Iceman
2395 posts
Apr 16, 2015
4:32 AM
Walter Liniger is an amazing lecturer and fascinating personality. He also plays guitar/neck rack harmonica and sings very well.

It was 1995 or so and I was tuning pianos at Augusta Heritage Center Blues Week in WV. I had some time off one afternoon and was wandering through one classroom building when I stumbled on an Elder Hostel Class on blues history being taught by Walter.

(Elder Hostel is a program for old retired folk who come to Augusta and is mostly aimed at keeping them entertained).

I sat down to listen and quickly became hooked on Walter, returning every day to listen to his lectures. I couldn't believe that only these old folk were in here and not everyone else at Blues Week.

Walter had developed so many concepts regarding the blues and its evolution based on socio-economic trends as well as the landscape of different parts of the country and it all made perfect sense.

I developed a rapport with him and kept in touch sporadically over the years until he left his college post in MS, where he was the Blues Archivist.

One of the coolest things he told me was that it was the archivist who had the true power over knowledge, as he was the one who kept the files. If something happened in the past that he didn't like or agree with, well, that file could get misplaced or misfiled - for all of eternity. heh heh heh.

Don't know where he is now, but he is one worthy of further recognition.
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The Iceman

Last Edited by The Iceman on Apr 16, 2015 4:33 AM
marine1896
80 posts
Apr 16, 2015
5:01 AM
''One of the coolest things he told me was that it was the archivist who had the true power over knowledge, as he was the one who kept the files. If something happened in the past that he didn't like or agree with, well, that file could get misplaced or misfiled - for all of eternity. heh heh heh.''


That just sounds sinister! lol

We need a Blues Edward Snowden!


He seems to be still gigging;
http://bluesprof.com/e_index.html?version=051
The Iceman
2396 posts
Apr 16, 2015
5:44 AM
Why did the old southern black churches and preachers call "The Blues" and "Juke Joints" the Devil's hand?

According to Walter, it was all about $$.

Blacks would get paid on Friday afternoon. If they would head to the Juke Joint to dance to the blues on Fri or Sat night, they would spend all their money, leaving nothing for the Sunday church collection plate.

So, churches preached about the evils of blues music and juke joints trying to keep these folks from going there and spending all their money, leaving more for that collection basket.

Makes sense to me.
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The Iceman
marine1896
81 posts
Apr 16, 2015
6:18 AM
Don't think that piece of info was ever in doubt. In fact reading authors like Paul Oliver, Gerard Hertzhaft and lots others plus watching documentaries through the years you easily draw conclusions like that that African/Americans were fully capable of exploiting other African/Americans circumstances just like religions anywhere and sometimes not always religious.
root
36 posts
Apr 16, 2015
6:30 AM
Walter Liniger was one of my first harp teachers. He's an instructor at Common Ground on the Hill, a two- week traditional music and arts camp at
Mcdaniel College in Westminster, Md. I attend every year. This year he's teaching a class on "back up harmonica" which should prove interesting. He's an interesting guy; Trilingual, with three advanced degrees, he really walks the walk when it comes to blues harp, and blues in general Last year I was explaining the capabilities of my valved Promasters, and he said,"What are you going to do with all those bends?" to which I replied, "Whatever the hell I want to".He'a a gas to hang out with, and listen to.-Greg
Gnarly
1321 posts
Apr 16, 2015
7:31 AM
Greg--good answer!


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