5 Questions for Joe Filisko

Joe FiliskoElwood the Apprentice chats to the master of old-school blues harmonica

[UPDATE: Epilogue is now live – Old-school harmonica or new school?]

For a man bearing such a burden, you’d think Joe Filisko would have broader shoulders. I mean, considering he hoisted the entire tradition of blues harmonica up on them things, you’d think he’d be wide as a Buick.

Perched on a high stool with nothing but a harp, a mic and a couple of stories, his one-man show is like an oral ethnography of the blues harp tradition (see the Good Doctor’s review). Considering Filisko devoted decades to studying and mastering the styles of bluesmen long deceased, there’s just about nobody in the world who knows more about what it takes to be a Walter, Big or Small, or a Sonny of any kind.

So naturally after the gig I cut through a gaggle of harp enthusiasts to get me some of that Joe Filisko wisdom.

When I saw you up there with [young-blood supporting act] The Shoestrung, a more serious bluesman juxtaposed with some guys who’re really just having a laugh, it reminded me of Sonny Boy II playing with the Yardbirds. Not that I’m directing this at The Shoestrung in any way, but as a teacher and a performer if you had to put your finger on it, what’s one key thing that youngsters in blues are missing?

<A long, long pause. Some old guy called Clive chips in: “I think Joe’s still a youngster, anyway…” Everyone laughs, Joe says, “Thank you! God bless you!” and Elwood feels shamed. Thanks a bunch, Clive.>

FILISKO: Look, I’m all about knowing what the strengths are, and playing to the strengths of the instrument. And I would say most youngsters don’t play to the strengths of the instrument. It’s about creating those big sounds, thick textures. It’s visceral, when you lock into those strengths. For example, you can be busy on the guitar, but when I hear Ry Cooder play slide guitar… man, it grabs me and it chokes me up, the minimalism of it. Granted, you can be fancy and flashy and you’ll get a quick response — people will be, like, YEEAAAH! But I don’t think it’s a long term thing. I think it’s quick, it lasts about ten minutes.

And then where do you think they’re – I should say we – are going wrong?

FILISKO: For whatever reason in blues there seems to be this [attitude of] “I’m threatened by you! Don’t learn from me, go off and get your own style, but don’t learn from my mistakes. Make your own mistakes, figure it out yourself.”

I think that’s a bunch of crap! There’s certain things the harmonica does really well, and it’s my impression most young players don’t lock into that, because people don’t want to share where the strengths are. There’s not a lot of good information readily accessible about how to play the harmonica.

There’s a lot of bad information available. There’s a lot old wives’ tales and misconceptions and falsehoods. It’s readily available; all you gotta do is read a lot of books or go on the internet. So if you’re trying learn how to do something, and the information that’s available is incorrect or full of half truths, how well are you gonna learn?

Now, when you talk about threats – it does seem in the old days guys had to be protective over their livelihoods. Junior Wells in a Living Blues interview describes how when he went to Sonny Boy II for pointers, Sonny Boy wagged a switchblade at him…

FILISKO: In the history of blues-oriented music, all the old guys got ripped off. With few exceptions. So the old guys are always feeling threatened by the new guy. “I don’t want to show you my tricks, because you’ll take my trick and make it yours.”

That’s intimately woven into the fabric of blues history. I have interviews of Big Walter Horton, for example, deliberately – I think – misdirecting people asking about how to do stuff. He’s paranoid! He was really paranoid about people taking his photograph. I actually have audio tape of gigs where somebody takes a photograph from the audience and Walter Horton marches off the stage, and is in the guy’s face and you can hear him say, “Give me the film! Give me the film! Give me the film!”

…Because he feels like he’s being ripped off.

I’m very interested by your philosophies on blues tradition, because you’re sort of channelling all the greats for future generations. Some people might disagree with sticking too close to tradition, they advocate rather branching out and finding your own sound. It’s the age-old question, but what’s your take on this?
FILISKO: Well, when I go on stage, it’s about one thing: Sounding good. And 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.

Fair enough… But then, if it’s all rooted in tradition what’s the future of blues harmonica?
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? It’s like a language. You’re British, I’m American, but we’re talking to each other in the same language, and we understand each other probably 98 percent perfectly [Elwood’s actually South African, but Joe wasn’t to know – Ed]. Do we have to invent new words to communicate? So why do we have to expand on the language?

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.

I would rather sound good with the instrument we already have than to try have my own style and have it be “me me me me me”. Now, many would argue with that, but so what!

Well, folks – just five questions in a noisy pub, but Joe Filisko gave me lots to think about. See my next post for the epilogue.

Elwood is the guest blogger for The Harp Surgery’s Apprenticeship Series. In his spare time he’s a grad student in London. Follow him on Twitter, if you like.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.