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Friday, June 30, 2006

Hubris Doesn't Win Friends, Joe OR Blues IV: Harmonica Blues

This morning was our final Blues session up at Oakton Community College. This week, it was time for M to feel the pain and shame with which I've burned watching stupid talented bastards for the last three weeks. There wasn't a guitar in sight, and the piano was used only for the purposes of propping up teaching aids. It was all harmonica, all the time. Feel the Burn.

This week's guide was Joe Filisko, who bears an eerie resemblance to William Hurt. He came armed with harmonicas, natch, but he also had a host of visually exciting (and old and probably fragile and irreplaceable) things for which I immediately started fearing. Basically, the top of the piano had a wide variety of books about some of the seminal blues harmonica folks. Behind him, he'd filled a table behind him with a few pieces of vintage "electric blues" equipment, his "show" harmonicas, some old ads for different kinds of harmonicas, and probably two dozen records, ranging from some original '78s from the 1920s (and one as early as 1904) up through much more recent recordings. I just had this nightmare of people shuffling forward and pawing them. That's probably my stuff though.

He started the session talking a bit about the origin of the harmonica in Europe and its bars to entry on the folk/country/blues scene. After its invention (for sufficiently broad terms of "invention," given that it's based on an Asian instrument in the first place) in Vienna in the 1820s, each harmonica was hand produced, which obviously kept the price high. It was not until about the 1880s that mass production on them began. Once they became economically more available their portability meant that they were pretty readily incorporated into both country music and proto-blues.

Among the earliest known recordings of harmonica are two pieces that amount to exercises: The Train Imitations and the Fox Chase (sometimes called Lost John?), which were often produced as opposite sides on the same record. He started by demonstrating Train. Although we are too polite to discuss such things openly, both M and I were at the ready with water, smelling salts, etc., because it was obvious to both of us that no SINGLE HUMAN BEING could be doing all that without passing the hell out. Joe wisely didn't offer the tidbit that both Train and Fox Chase are the harmonica equivalent of piano scales or staccato thirds until much later otherwise, one of us might have had to smack him.

Having used his trusty Hohner Marine Band G harp (he had a full complement of these in different keys in a kind of harmonica bandolier set off to his left) to demonstrate Train Sounds, he began pulling out some of the other harmonicas to demonstrate their different qualites, up sides, and down sides. The Marine Band harps are standard, 10-hole, diatonic harmonicas. The key to which they are tuned is defined by the chord played on the exhale, although each is capable of playing a different chord (and, therefore, in a different key) on the inhale. Joe didn't mention it, but I find a few references to the fact that Hohner named the Marine Band models after John Phillip Sousa as a means of pimping the instrument. (Hohner appears to have been the world's most dedicated harmonica pimp---inventing nothing, innovating little, but marketing, marketing, marketing).

In addition to his trusty work-a-day Marine Bands, Joe had a Hohner Double-Sided Comet, which sounded bright and beautiful. It also looked very cool when he played it (very briefly), but one wonders if flipping it around isn't just for show. He also had a chromatic harmonica (i.e., one that contains all 12 tones and, therefore, can be played in any given key), and I don't think it was a Hohner. I'm not sure that any other company selling harmonicas is legal in the US, but I swear it had a distinctively non-Hohner outline (sort of shaped like an empanada, with rounded corners). I'm pretty sure it was not a Bloody Stupid Johnson, given that it did not have JOHNSON written all over it.

At the beginning of the session, Joe had proposed the idea that he'd talk and people could save up questions for the end. (M and I both evilly wondered if he'd been briefed by the three previous performers.) Alas and alack, the questions began as he demonstrated the different types of harps. Some were basic information that it might have been helpful to have from the get go, given that the ways of the harmonica are more mysterious than those of the guitar (and, let's recall, there was a fair amount of didacticism about how to make the guitar do the nasty, dirty things it does in blues), others were of the more momentum-killing variety.

My vote for the best question, however, goes to the person who asked if he used his hands to make the notes. This prompted him to shove most of his G harp into his mouth and proceed to play "Oh, Susannah" with his hands ostentatiously stuffed in his pockets. Little did I know it, but this nearly caused the ZK to explode, as he was already pretty enraged by the fact that there were CLEARLY two DIFFERENT harmonicas playing at all times---one for single notes on the melody, the other for chords. Welcome to my freaking talentless world during each of the three previous sessions, my love.

Spousal taunting aside, one of the most interesting things in all four of these sessions was actually watching a solo performer turn a single instrument into an ensemble. It's been particularly interesting to see the techniques used to create the distinctive sounds of the blues. On harmonica, although there's not a lot to watch, it's cool to know that the instrument was never intended for the kinds of bends and slurs inherent to the blues. It's just that the early players didn't get the memo that the harp can't do that.

One of the things the harp really can't do, of course, is talk. Except that I heard it talk. We all heard it talk in the course of Joe's rendition of DeFord Bailey's "Ice Water Blues." Bailey was one of the earliest harmonica players recorded. He was also an important part of the early days at the Grand Ole Opry. The course of his career (and its premature stagnation) in some ways seems emblematic of the course of the harmonica's incorporation into blues, which ne'er did run smooth.

The country roots of harmonica remained firm in endeavors like the Memphis Jug Band and the Cannon's Jug Stompers, which saw players like Will Shade and Noah Lewis laying groundwork very similar to Bailey's. To demonstrate this, Joe played some of "Stealin' stealin'," which is a Memphis Jug Band tune; however, not to play favorites, he did play two harmonicas, a la Noah Lewis. That is, he TECHNICALLY played two harmonicas (which, in this case, is not the BEST kind of playing two harmonicas), but Noah played one with his nose, whereas Joe simply switched between them at lightning speed. Cheater. But jug bands are an endeavor unto themselves. As an individual, despite his talent, Bailey was viewed as a little too limited and a little too rooted in country to go along for the blues ride.

For contrast to Bailey, Joe introduced John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, who is not to be confused with Alex Miller, who called himself Sonny Boy Williamson II. "Our" Sonny Boy, for these purposes, wound up in Chicago in the 1930s. Through his vocal ability and some real innovation in the way he played the harmonica (as well as a little help from luck and location, location, location, no doubt), Sonny Boy Williamson made his country sound an asset, rather than a liability. Although "Good Morning, Little School Girl," seems to be his most frequently mentioned side (thanks, no doubt, to the Dead and to Canned Heat), Joe did a bit of its B-side, "Sugar Momma Blues," which had awesome, complex hokum euphemism lady sugar.

I'm skipping a bunch of key figures I know. Something that struck me during the session was that blues guitar and blues piano, although they obviously have their stand-out players with signature sounds, tend to cluster into regional styles. There's also the oft-mentioned back-and-forth between piano and guitar styles within those regions. The history of blues harmonica, at least from my impressions from the way that Joe presented it, is much more a collection of individuals who "invented" a style, and then were imitated by other players everywhere. So you have the "Look! I've got a band in my hand!" players, then you have players who introduce the idea of the harmonica as an important solo and color instrument, players who electrify (literally), and so on. And as soon as an innovation is made, it seems, it's imitated.
(e.g., Sonny Boy was one of the most widely imitated players of all time.)

From the prespective of writing these things up, I'm finding it a total bitch to remember everyone. I think that's partly attributable to the the individuality factor, partly to the fact that I didn't paw through the records at the end of the session, partly because I've been to see a movie and attended two music classes since this morning, and partly because I'm a dumbass who in four weeks never did get her act together to take notes on these things, so here I am on 3 hours sleep at 2:30 AM relying on my feeble brain. Go team me.

Certainly, even my imperfect memory recalls that Joe more or less wrapped up by deploying the vintage amplification stuff. He had an old cheapy bullet microphone (I like to think of it as the "Plan 9" microphone, myself), which he showed, then set aside. He also had a teeny, weeny amp from Baal knows when with a hand mic. To demonstrate amplified harmonica (and he told no lies---it really does sound like the sexy, dirty bastard child of an alto sax and hammond organ---great googly moogly the Blues is just WRONG in all the right ways), he covered the Sonny Terry half of the Sonny Terry/Brownie McGhee saga (as you'll recall, Mark gave the "one couldn't run" angle a lot of air time last week). He played Sonny's part from Finian's Rainbow, a Broadway gig that earned him a fair amount of cash, even if it did consign him to playing the same thing the same way for 1000 performances. That's got some soul-killing potential right there, especially when you consider that, although it's called Sonny's Whoop (among other things), it's basically his take on the old Fox Chase.

I really enjoyed the very tiny glimpse into electric blues that this offered. I have to tell you, I was rooting for that harmonica kid all along, but I was worried, because every other freaking Blues instrument was already loud or worried about getting louder, and there wasn't a lot of progress on that front for the harp until the days of amplification. I was also particularly glad that someone asked a question about Joe's particular style of playing on a Little Walter tune (could not remember what it was with a gun to my head---possibly something called "Ease" or "Easy" based on another piece that, appropriately, has something to do with losing one's mind . . . ?). There was this wild and crazy vibrato going on that, if you didn't think about it too much, you might have attributed to the Flintstone's amp. Of course, if you think about it, the amp is barely hanging on in its core competency of being loud. It is not exactly ready to understudy for Frampton's guitar or DeFord's harp. Of course, it wasn't about the amp, it was all about Joe, his breathing, and his magical freaking pixie dust that allows him to defy the laws by which mere humans are bound.

Thus endeth the Blues session. I'm seriously glad we went, but all the same, I don't see us getting up to drive to Skokie during rush hour for the Cajun and Zydeco stuff. Maybe, hint hint, if Old Town would do stuff like this at their locations, we could be . . . persuaded.

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