Friday, February 17, 2006
Harmonica - A shaggy dog story
In keeping with my standing as one of the more punctual members of MBR, and the only Rambler not to have written anything for the blog, I thought I should claim some space for the harmonica before we get blogged down with all sorts of other blues & MBR related ramblings.
I'm not sure how much of an introduction is needed though. The harmonica is a pretty well known musical instrument. Incredibly well known actually. Perhaps the most widely known musical instrument of all. So maybe some inconsequential, incoherent cock & bull Walter Shandy type of ramble would do. The harmonica doesn't need much of an introduction, certainly not as much as the jug or the washboard or the tub, which escaped a life of certain drudgery in miraculous ways.
Harmonica - most people have tried one. Kids can play them. Most homes have one. You don't even have to buy them cause there's always one around, like umbrellas in Tom Waits songs. Usually kicking around forgotten parts of the house, and usually a tremolo, old, rusty and full of unspeakable gunk, in the key of C and belonging to no one. Or a forgotten relative. Harmonicas are often abandoned, like Christmas puppies. Or people have them because they were given them. They get passed around a lot. They're as cheap as chips and last for ages. No musical instrument gets around like a harmonica, none as well traveled. Across borders and class lines. Hoboing in pockets of bums, sailors' haversacks, tuxedos of orchestral musicians. An orchestra could tune to the pitch of a harmonica borrowed from a chain gang of singing slaves. Not something you're likely to see though. And they're easy to play, relatively. So since they're so well known already I'll keep this ramble as short as possible.
It all begins way back in 1452, when the Chinese discovered America. Some of the more interesting sailors carried a type of open reed instrument called a ger tsui she wang ni, which had 1,002 reeds and an ingenious device for.... . . but to cut a long story short, had evolved into one I picked up in 1982 or something. I was 12 and into ska. A band called Madness had a hit called Baggy Trousers and there was this harp solo in it that I really wanted to play. Don't know why, I was really into sax at the time, staring longingly at them through music store windows . . . but my parents weren't buying it, so to speak. So, as there was a rusty old tremolo harp, key of C, kicking around the house, full of unmentionable gunk, I picked it up and tried it and, hey presto, got nowhere. Whatsoever. I knew nothing about harmonicas and had no idea a different model like a diatonic might help, or a different key. Tremolos are hard to play. I was just left with a bad taste (of rust) in my mouth and don't think I picked up a harmonica again till I was 20 or something when I needed a way into this weird & wonderful music I had just stumbled across called blues. I'd been tapping out blues solos on my teeth with a pencil, and couldn't be satisfied.
This time around I had a better idea where to go, and using the right kind of harp listened to the masters and tried to copy them. Most of the great early harmonica players were never widely known I suppose, let alone recorded, but among those with names and legacies I listened to Sonny Terry, the original Sonny Boy Williamson, the other original Sonny Boy Williamson, a great blues poet & composer, but mostly I listened to everybody that ever played with Muddy Waters after he went forth to the north and plugged in. Plus loads of others I can't even name like Juke Boy Bonner and Jimmy Reed.
Live blues bands were an inspiration too. Luckily there were good ones playing around Leeds inn the north of England where I was a student, often with a harp player. I was amazed at the intensity and earthiness of the sound they could get from this thing that only squeaked in my hands, and these perverse bends that trembled on the edge of the wrong note, half right note, half wrong note. And they were belted out forthrightly in sudden bursts. You can't even see the instrument that's making the sound. It's hidden behind an air-tight seal of clasped hands, a hat, goatee and shades. An arcane little gadget full of thunder.
Brits make pretty good harp players, like the Japanese. It's something to do with being a small island nation off the coast of a vast continental landmass full of marauding barbarians. When you think about it, they're at either edge of the planet's biggest landmass. Anyway, there's a strong link with that blues thread that courses around the world and passes through the most unlikely places. I spent a lot of time listening to blues at university, and drinking whisky. The two proved inseparable.
Fellow sot Andy Lee, hailing from what is officially the grimmest place in the UK, Holyhead, a place I have passed through many times on my way to Ireland, and I can vouch for it it's a good place to pass through, was wound up in the same golden thread of whiskey & blues. We'd catch most blues happenings in and around Leeds.
Muddy: "All the boys in my band is bad"
Amplified harp in the Chicago style from the 50s on is probably what I've listened to most. That means Little Walter and variations on his style. He defined the Muddy Waters harp sound. It was so ingrained that players that came after Little Walter had to play the same riffs and sometimes the same solos he had played. Junior Wells, Big Walter Horton, George Smith, a great tone player, James Cotton, Mojo Buford, Carey Bell, Jerry Portnoy. The greatest player? Little Walter. He was the most revolutionary, innovative and influential. He also has the best quote. When asked what he did when he played, he said "I fill the harmonica with air, and navigate".
Big Walter comes a close second for sheer musicianship. Strange coincidence with the names when you think about it. A pulsing thread runs through it. The bigger of the Walters was the master, bar none, of tone.
Other great players I borrow from include Paul Lamb, Paul Butterfield, RickEstrin (Little Charlie & the Nightcats), Paul Oscher, Sugar Blue, Little George Sureuf (Big Joe Louis & His Blueskings), Kim Wilson (Fabulous Thunderbirds), Phil Wiggins, Annie Raines, Magic Dick, all and sundry.
So onward into history. Jug band music. I'd never heard any till Dave Chen had built up our humble ensemble into what it is today, or what it'll be tomorrow. Whatever that may be I don't think anybody's sure or want to be sure. That's the attraction of the MBR. Anyway jug band is the best description. It's a brand new sound from the early 1900s. The same goes for the band itself. There's more than a hint we're playing music we're not old hands at, that it's fairly new to us and we're learning as we go along. That's another attraction of the MBR. We're in the same boat as the audience, playing what the hell kind of music we're not always sure either. We're just up there having a banging good time. But sometimes it feels like we're grappling, trying to resuscitate some thing that has gone over to the other side a long time ago and wouldn't mind staying there - just two miles from Glory.
So onward deep into the old country from the bright lights of the cities up north. The playing style of the jug band harpists, stretching back to before the twentieth century even started, is a lesson in sophistication and sheer, outlandish virtuosity. It's shocking to hear them at first. For a style of music that's been said to be the birth of the blues the harmonica style of the jug bands is off the wall. They play in an unfamiliar position - straight, first position - so they use the same key harp as the band is playing in. You've got nowhere to hide in this position. You're exposed in the high end of the instrument, a place best avoided as most harmonica players will tell you, especially when you a city boy and been cultivating a gritty, distorted low end sound. But these jug band guys are at home up there, and they play these fluid, sinewy single note runs in the highest register possible. Cross position (second position, Chicago style) was definitely known then but you wouldn't have been heard at a medicine show or whatever without amplification. Cross relies on amps to boost the lower and mid range and all the tension that can be gotten in bending. Jug band harp is rawer - wailing siren, howling beast and piercing bend. Tempered with vibrato and intricate major key runs to bring us all back down to earth. It's uncanny stuff. Some of it just sounds implausible.
Next installment - an account of my brief visit to Tutwiler, Mississippi, burial place of Sonny Boy Williamson II and nearly my own burial place as it turned out, and also the place where the blues was 'discovered' by WC Handy in 1903, a blogworthy debate in itself - will be another punctual submission at some unspecified later date.
Wrap up with a couple of nice quotes from DeFord Bailey (1899-1982) and a link to this master's voice.
"I add time to vacant space"
"I worked on that train for years, getting that train down right. I caught that train down just like I wanted 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 time to get this stuff I'm talking about, original. You don't get any original stuff like this in a day or two. It takes years to get it down piece by piece."
Listen to DeFord Bailey
Thursday, February 09, 2006
Whistle up the Blues
If you've been jonesing for some jug band music, we've got just what the doctor ordered.
Dave discovered a great video of a vintage jug band on the Internet. And, no, it's not Duke Ellington, but you will note the awesome top hat.
Never fear. We've got a gig coming up next week at Hua Shan.
Posted by thumper at 2:49 PM