Happy Birthday Junior Wells

Happy Birthday Junior WellsThe Hoodoo Man would be 75 today.

Harmonica great Junior Wells was born December 9th 1934. It’s remarkable to think that someone who played with Muddy Waters in the early days would have been so young today (he was 19 in 1952 when he joined Muddy’s band, and died in 1998, aged 63).

I like Junior a great deal, so I’m celebrating him today. His harmonica style strikes me as being deceptively simple: he knew when not to play. And when he decided to play, he could make that thing wail like a cat being set on fire.

(more…)

Old-School Harmonica or New-School?

After chatting to Joe Filisko, Elwood the Apprentice wonders if blues harmonica really needs a war of the clones

a million bullet mics, a million Marine Bands, but just one derivative sound

Those of you who’ve been paying attention will see that I recently posted a (rather overdue) Q&A with Chicago harmonica master Joe Filisko. In a very short conversation in a very noisy pub, which I’ll admit was not conducive to nuanced debate, he contended that harmonica should stay rooted in tradition: “One might argue,” he said, “that the harmonica sounds best played as it was played in the Fifties. And if it sounds best, then why not do it?

Now, it ain’t easy arguing about harmonica with Joe Filisko. He’s nice about it, but one can hardly forget that a single horn-like blast from his Marine Band could reduce poor Elwood into nothing more than a pair of smoking Hush Puppies.

But I gotta say that Filisko’s traditionalism is just something I can’t quite swallow. (more…)

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.

(more…)

Great Blues Podcasts

Elwood's House of Blues radioElwood the Apprentice samples some juicy blues folklore

The problem with the information age is that there’s just too damned much of the stuff. With all this delicious info floating about in cyber space, who has time for real life? Instead of playing harmonica, I can fritter away hours watching harp on YouTube, listening to harp on last.fm, reading about harp on forums, thinking about playing harp all the time but never actually doing so.

This is a filthy habit, as I’m sure you’re well aware – but like most filthy habits, worth indulging in every so often. One such indulgence is this treasure trove of interviews conducted by the other Elwood, Dan Ackroyd, on his House of Blues Radio show.

(more…)

Journeyman’s Road by Adam Gussow (Part 1)

Elwood the Apprentice seeks wisdom in the holy scriptures (of blues harmonica)

[UPDATE: Part 2 of the review is now live.]

Well, as I was saying – it’s the end of a Gussow era but not the end of the Gussow era. There’ll be no more free YouTube lessons, but there’s more Gussow wisdom to be harvested for the apprentice blues player – assuming you’ve not yet read Journeyman’s Road: Modern Blues Lives from Faulkner’s Mississippi to Post-9/11 New York.

“In the skilled blue-collar trades,” writes Gussow, “a journeyman is a way station and job category: no longer an apprentice, not yet a master.”

Well, there you have it. This delightful patchwork of essays, scatter shot and rapid-fire in their wisdom, chronicles Gussow’s journey to becoming a master – and he’s crammed in every titbit of wisdom accrued along the way. It’s like a little street manual on how to graduate from your apprenticeship and start the sometimes weary trudge towards mastery. There are threads on blues culture, threads on jam session etiquette and ‘sitting in’, threads on blues history and blues future. And the result is a palimpsest which, when held up to the light, might just give us new ways to understand ourselves. (more…)

Gussow Calls It Quits?

Adam GussowSo long and thanks for all the chops. Elwood the Apprentice pays tribute to the end of an era.

All good things come to an end. That’s what Adam Gussow said when he finally, officially called it quits on his YouTube tutelage last week (Jason Ricci retires with him, but in this case even JR’s teaching is dwarfed by the sheer volume of Gussow’s output since he decided, February 22 2007, to “give it all away“).

As a blues pup, having suckled at the digital teat of Gussow’s YouTube channel for a good 18 months, I couldn’t help but feel wistful to see Gussow move on — like I was losing a little piece of myself. (more…)

Four Things (Nearly) Every Harp Player Does

So, you still want to be a harp player, huh? Well son, every creature has its hobbies, and if you want to pass yourself off as the real thing, you better learn how to blend in. In Part 2 of his ethnoblography, Figuring Out The Harp Player, Elwood sketches out a few key points.

It is an established fact that over 98 percent of harmonica players are white, English-speaking men between the ages of 30 and 65. (The other two percent are women and Ismael Lo.) When they are not sleeping, eating or trying on ugly hats, they typically divide their time between four activities: (more…)

How to Become a Blues Harp Player

So what kind of animal is the blues harp player? In the first chapter of the Apprenticeship Series, guest blogger Elwood takes us through part 1 of his blues ethnography, Figuring Out The Harp Player.

For some, the journey to becoming a master takes them from the depths of frustration to the giddy heights of triumph via a thousand smoky jam sessions and hundreds of hours in the woodshed. Many of us, however, find the journey to becoming a master shorter and much easier: it goes all the way to the local music store and back – more often than not via the ugly hat shop.

There’s an old joke – or historical anecdote? – about a father who sends his son to harmonica lessons. The son comes home after the first lesson and his old man asks what he learned. The boy says, “I learned the two-hole draw, dad.” Mighty impressed is his old dad. (more…)

The Apprenticeship Series Begins

If you’re visiting the Harp Surgery, chances are better than good that you’ve made that crucial transition from being a harmonica owner to a harmonica player.

You might have come to realise – however late in the game – that those reeds are supposed to be bent, and now you have to figure out how. Or maybe you’ve been bending for a while and can hit a Bb on or a C# on a C harp with perfect ease – but you still can’t make that sucker sing like a bluesbird. Or perhaps you’d like to explore new positions, trying to unlock the first-position treasures of Big Walter Horton or build up an arsenal of third-position riffs. Hell, maybe you just want to learn a fox chase.

Well, hello friends. My name’s Murray Elwood, and I’m one of you. Guys like the Good Doctor can say they’ve been there and done that; like you, I’m still there and I’m still trying to get it done. (more…)