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.

It’s true that learning at the feet of the masters is something every player needs to do. And for the foreseeable future I am mostly content to do that. But if all of us followed Filisko’s path, the future of blues music would be no future at all. There’s a difference between recognising tradition and doting on the past. [And let’s not forget that if blues harmonica is like a language – as Joe says – that language is in constant flux, evolving every moment of every day.]

But I have two things to say about Filisko that I hope will let both parties (master and apprentice) retire from the debate with face saved. The first is that he’s a ridiculously nice guy. Adam Gussow called him “the saint” of blues harmonica, and in the course of my journalistic endeavours, I found three separate pieces of evidence to support this hypothesis:

a) Without being asked, he gave out a freebie Filisko & Noden CD to a guy who’d clearly spent all his money on beer (…okay, it was me);

b) After the show, he happily doled out some incisive technical advice to an amateur harp player (still me);

c) During our conversation, some ungainly moron knocked over Filisko’s beer and he shrugged it off like it was nothing. (The moron, who asked not to be named, may or may not have been me).

The second is that, whether or not we agree with Filisko, we need him. From John Lee Williamson and Sonny Terry, to DeFord Bailey fox chases and the chord-heavy Cajun waltzes of Isom Fontenot, he breathes life into every lick and inflection. I have to admit – with each whoop and warble, Filisko isn’t merely copying those geezers; he’s channelling them. A world without Joe Filisko could be a world where blues harmonica had forgotten its heritage – like an acorn that had forgotten it was part of an oak tree.

In blues music, the term ‘keeper of the flame’ is as hackneyed as most of the guys who get labeled with it. Many are imitators, impersonators, impressionists – takers of the flame. But journey back to the ancient origins of that phrase, when our ancestors’ sacred fires were kept alive by the stewardship of a chosen few, and then you’ll understand Joe Filisko. Keeper of the flame.

Elwood is the guest blogger for The Harp Surgery’s Apprenticeship Series. Thanks to Jon Vaughan of Customharps.co.uk for recording the latter half of the interview. And thanks to Joe for being a sport about the spilt beer. As a fellow apprentice told me, if you’d been Sonny Boy you woulda cut me.

11 thoughts on “Old-School Harmonica or New-School?

  • November 8, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    Overblows are a case in point. There are those who consider the use of OBs in blues harp a travesty, which to me is ridiculous. If Little Walter had known about OBs he’d have mastered and used them, and nobody would object now. Not that I’m suggesting we should all play blues like Howard Levy, even if we could:)

  • November 12, 2009 at 1:19 am

    I can see it now. One day in the future, we’ll be sitting in our holographic computer projection booths on Mars, reading Elwood’s rant about how the new breed of harmonica players with their triple sideways nuclear overunderblows just can’t hold a candle to those old dudes of the early 21st century, like Levy and Gussow and Ricci, and reminiscing about the good old days, when the blues was the blues.

  • November 12, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Fiend, those triple sideways nuclear overunderblows are all for show. “If James Cotton didn’t need them, never do we.”

  • March 18, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Yes, Joe Filisko is a “warrior monk” of the blues harmonica. A few years back, he persuaded me to switch to tongue blocking. I listened, unlearned and relearned how to play, giving myself a lot of “pain” while doing so. A few years later, I realize that he opened a whole new world for me. There has been no looking back, ever since.

  • March 22, 2010 at 12:00 am

    Sunnyside… I’m currently undergoing the same painful process. I’ll never be 100 percent tongue-blocked – nor would I want to be – but it’s well worth the heartache already.

  • November 23, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Well, too me it is the learning……………..us old schooler we went to see, talk, hang out with, to catch not only the HOW but, what being a harmonica player was all about. I liked the life, the originality, love the harmonica, enjoy tuning and adjusting my harps and love opening my old school style with over blows, alternate tunings and playing different styles. What chaffs my arse, is the modern generations ignorance OF THERE OWN IGNORANCE. Harmonica takes a long time. Keep your OPINIONS TO YOUR SELF!!!! One dimwit said on a you tube video I played on with the ,Blue Ryder Trio, I don’t remember the song, but I couldn’t be playing the notes-because I was moving around to much. You could get an ass wippen in my day, for that kinda nonsense. Until you can do it live shut your pie hole and LISTEN!!! Sitting in your room with your computer and your slow down recorder and BUYING your mics all ready set up, and your harps all set up, and ur harmonica uniform, and quotin blla blla blla and stuff. The Harmonica life is a tough road to walk. All the how to learning…..don’t you realize, mosta the good stuff I learned from, harmonica players, privately and most of the other stuff by LISTENING, and asking the human being-Hey, that’s cool , how did you do that? But, times change, I say go get them any way that works. Blues harmonica, has to have FEELING. Copying patterns, in positions, with out Originality or Feeling, aint not, never will be, playing blues on the harmonica.

  • Pingback: 'Stache Deep: Blues Harper Joe Filisko - Pop 'stache

  • November 24, 2014 at 11:24 pm

    Well, looks like you have been having fun since the days of wahling out a the pizza place in camp springs. O and happy birthday coming up I have one to

  • March 29, 2015 at 7:11 am

    Hey Bob. Well, what u doing on a harmonica page? Happy birthday. Hard to believe we’re still alive, hahaha. Peace and Love.

  • May 7, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    Hugh, heard you a coupla times in the late ’80s ’round DC and you were monster. When it was me asking you how you did what you did, you were very generous. What you said was spend lots of my woodshedding time on mic and amp, and tongue-block just about everything. You shared how, after a long night, the high note bends could start kickin your butt. Just a big thanks from a long-ago listener.

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