Tagged live music

My Moment with Muddy

As a teenager I became enthralled with the blues. First it was the bits of blues material I heard from British rock bands – the Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, and others. Then it was discovering young white American harp players such as Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Butterfield. Then the whole vista of modern blues opened up – Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, the King guitar triumvirate of B. B., Albert, and Freddie; Johnny Shines, Otis Spann, Little Milton, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, Jimmy Reed, and so many more!

When any of these guys actually came to town it was as if legendary beings had descended to Earth and graced us with their presence. In those days, touring performers often played weeklong club dates that gave them a deeper exposure to local audiences, and offered the true fanatics the chance to show up every night and develop familiarity both with the legends’ performing styles and with their (sometimes not-so-godlike) personalities.

One legend who lost no luster with exposure was Muddy Waters. As a young man, during my travels I’d meet harp players who would claim to have sat in with Muddy. I never doubted them, even the ones who were perfectly awful players. I believed them because of my own experience with Muddy.

Muddy had a great history of hatching new talent. Just look at the influential harp players whose careers were launched or furthered in his band – Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, George “Harmonica” Smith, James Cotton, Mojo Buford, Paul Oscher, Jerry Portnoy. Even the also-rans who for one reason or another didn’t make it into the band were illustrious, such as Paul deLay and Rod Piazza. It seemed like Muddy was a cultivator of developing talent and his band was the incubator.

So when Muddy started a weeklong engagement in my hometown, I approached him on the Monday night and asked to sit in. I’d made this request to other touring performers with names big and small and usually received the brush-off, sometimes gently and sometimes less so. Now, Muddy had no idea who I was or whether I knew which side of the harp was up (I did) or even if I could follow a 12-bar blues progression (I could). But without hesitation, he advised me, “Choose a Little Walter song, come back on the last night of the gig, and I’ll put you up.”

I showed up as directed, and before going on Muddy asked me what I’d chosen. I informed him that I wanted to play “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer.” He replied, “Oh that’s in the key of E natural.” Little Walter recorded it in the key of G, but I wasn’t about to gainsay the master, so I got an A-harp at the ready. Then he asked my name. When I said, “Winslow Yerxa,” his face flickered with a look of consternation (or maybe the look that some folks call “flustration”) and he remarked, “I can’t say that.” When the time came to announce my appearance, he simply referred to me as a young man but in a glowing tone of voice as if he knew and valued my playing.

I made it (a bit stiffly) through my slow-blues feature number, and suddenly Muddy launched into a mid-tempo shuffle, indicating for me to play along. I vamped along gamely for a few verses, when suddenly I realized what was going on – Muddy launched into the descending stop-time riff that comes in the middle of “Juke,” Little Walter’s most famous number! OK, now I knew what to do – why hadn’t I caught on before? We made it through to the end of the number and Muddy grabbed my arm, holding it up like he was announcing a victorious prizefighter and shouted, “Let’s hear it for a real harp player!”

Muddy Waters is one of the very greatest and most revered names in the blues, and behind that name is a man who was gracious and generous in encouraging talent. Some of lesser stature didn’t exhibit that spirit, and I sometimes wonder whether there’s a connection. Either way, it was certainly a thrill for me to receive such wonderful treatment from one of my heroes.

Into The Light

OK, my first actual blog post. I’m only now beginning to create a cohesive media presence after casually saturating the online world with my presence for a long time. The days are just starting to get longer, and at the beginning of any year, reflecting on change seems inevitable. Here are a few thoughts that float to the surface.

My nephew Matt cut out of the family Christmas party early for a big concert in the local mega-stadium. The odd part – for me at least – was that all the acts in the concert were DJs – not a live musician in sight. Between my generation and his, the idea of live music has shifted radically. Instead of performers generating the music by playing instruments, the performer assembles and processes existing recorded audio, choosing from a potentially vast repertoire of styles and periods to fashion an experience for the assembled crowd.

Is this bad or good? The audience still experiences creativity and personality in the way the DJ chooses and assembles material. They may even experience spontaneity and improvisation, depending on the working style of the DJ. But for musicians, the rise of the DJ has reduced opportunities to experience the joy of playing for audiences, while focusing their activities more heavily on recording. Audience contact recedes to the indirect venues of such online portals as YouTube, Spotify, and the various social media. Gone is that direct, real-time feedback loop – and the groove it can create – between the musicians and the audience of listeners and dancers. The DJ does get that audience experience, but the music he or she uses as source material may groove less as a result.

No, I’m not joining the eternal chorus of doomsayers muttering toothlessly through their long white beards. Human spirit is resilient and will express itself regardless of changes in media and culture. But as a player of a musical instrument (harmonica in my case) I have to wonder what the shifting landscape will do to my journey.

However, while live performing opportunities have dwindled, harmonica learning materials have blossomed. When I first started playing, teachers were pretty much non-existent, at least where I lived, and books were either old-fashioned works on how to play light classical tunes on chromatic harmonica, or Tony Glover’s Blues Harp, which was long on hip style and cultural information (who the great players were and how the music evolved) but short on playing technique and structure, at least compared to what’s out now.

These days, several full-time professional teachers are available on Skype, Facetime, and Google Video Chat (I’m one of them). Some great books are out there (including my Harmonica For Dummies and Blues Harmonica For Dummies). Harmonica teaching events are staged each year, including the Harmonica Collective (which I produce with Jason Ricci) and Jon Gindick’s Harmonica Jam Camp. Players can share information via multiple online forums such as harp-l, Modern Blues Harmonica, and Slidemeister, and a few content-rich teaching sites are available by paid subscription, including David Barrett’s bluesharmonica.com and the Howard Levy Harmonica School. In addition, harmonica organizations such as SPAH have helped enormously in bringing harmonica players together.

So, does the world have more harmonica players than before, and do they play any better than they did in the past? Those things are hard to gauge, because so much more information is available. Before the Internet connected everyone, you might know about the famous pros and whoever was big in the local community. Beyond that, it was hard to know who was out there, let alone how well they played. Nowadays, serious harmonica players and teachers from around the world post their performances and lessons on YouTube, seeking listeners and students wherever they can be found. Even rank beginners post their efforts to the world, looking for encouragement and feedback. Still, I’d say that harp players overall are more proficient at playing the instrument and a higher proportion of them are serious, well-informed musicians.

One thing I can say is that the quality of harmonica information has gone way up. To be sure, bad harmonica information echoes down the channels of social media along with all the news hoaxes (shocking! outrageous! How dare they?). Right at the transition point between the print age and the online age, I helped spur a new surge in good information, first with my magazine, HIP – the Harmonica Information Publication and later via SPAH, various teaching camps and online forums and social media. Now, I’m concentrating and intensifying the flow of good, useful harmonica information with this new website and an expanded online presence.

Welcome to my world 2.0. I hope you like what you find and come to visit often!

Winslow
December 2014