Various Artists: This is the Blues Harmonica


By Barbara Flaska

With more than an hour of music, this respectable anthology offers many different tastes of the old tin sandwich as served up in Chicago. Delmark has a long history of being involved with the blues, and even gave young Charles Musselwhite a job packing and shipping when he migrated North in the early ‘60s in search of that “elusive $4 an hour job”. Scott Dirks, a blues harmonica player himself, was entrusted with the Delmark vault for this project. The 15 songs he gathered provide an interesting range of material played on an extremely popular instrument. Probably in part because the harmonica was so cheap and commonplace, few people took it seriously and fewer still bothered enough to learn to really play. This collection will be intriguing to blues fans if only for the history and to blues harmonica players for the rarities. For every one else, the best thing about good music is that it bends both time and space and can send the listener to so many different places.

You know you’re hopping on board the blues express with the first few bars of the opening song, “Red Headed Woman”. Recorded in 1950, this rare gem is early Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs playing harmonica straight up without the amplified reverb of the now familiar bullet mic. It probably doesn’t hurt to remind people that Little Walter became the most influential of all blues harmonica players of the last half-century. This example is rare and early Little Walter, playing some of what he had learned from running with John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, at a point when he was beginning to stretch out into his own improvisations. Here he pushes the song with rhythm while backed by the crackerjack Muddy Waters band.

The moral here is if you can’t break through the chill of the city, or find any lasting warmth with any single individual, you can at least be free to ride the rails. If you can’t actually do that on any particular day, then you are free to imagine the freedom of hopping the nearest train to leave your troubles behind and maybe bend the rails of your harp.

All anyone has to do is hear the words “Red Headed Woman” and know this guy was bound for bad times. Everyone from ancient Egyptians with their superstitions to W.C. Handy with his “St. Louis Blues” suspected that a red-headed woman doesn’t just spell trouble, she is trouble. While the song’s writer and singer Baby Face LeRoy figured he was rough enough to take the risk, the initial attraction he once felt for the “Red Headed Woman” with a bit of experience quickly reverses gear. Now implied is a clearly understood signal, the red tail light of a train that’s moving away on the tracks.

Every instrument works to create and drive the train. Just starting out, Muddy Waters’s electric guitar sounds like the engineer’s steam whistle, old railroad whistle talk: one long blast to tell the brakeman to watch out and draw his brakes and then two long blasts to tell him to release his brakes and the song immediately picks up speed. LeRoy’s bass drum and the acoustic rhythms of Jimmy Rogers on second guitar amplify each other to imitate the steady clip of steel wheels in motion on the tracks, and the swaying rhythms of a locomotive are even worked into the harmonica lines. Although ballin’ once meant a train accelerating and moving fast on the track or having sex (each referred to in the above song), they are also ballin’ (having a good time). This song is sheer rhythmic genius.

The collection includes three tracks unavailable anywhere else. Hammie Nixon plays the “New York Blues” in 1964 with Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell on acoustic guitars. Mr. Nixon has been discussed recently in online blues listservers. He said in an interview in the ‘60s that his favorite singer was Jimmie Rodgers, “The Yodelin’ Brakeman” (as distinguished from the blues guitarist mentioned above). He added he actually knew Jimmie personally, or well enough to cook up canned heat and drink sterno with, and had learned a few railroad songs from him. (Just as an interesting aside, it is also reported by online blues fans that Howlin’ Wolf spent some of his valuable childhood time in the early 1900s learning to imitate a train whistle with his voice. He lived near the tracks then, and once said he tried to imitate Jimmie’s yodel after hearing his records on the radio. Mr. Burnett, because of his natural voice, ended up with his own gruff wolfish howl.)

Carey Bell’s “Deep Down South” had never been released on any other album. Recorded in 1972, this is more reminiscent of what we now recognize as the Chicago blues sound when the harp is amplified and with the familiar club unit backing of drums with electric guitar and electric bass. This is the Blues Harmonica takes its title from “This is the Blues” by Junior Wells, who switches back and forth from chromatic to diatonic harmonicas as Buddy Guy stings more than a string or two during this slow, eerie blues. Recorded during the same 1965 session as Hoodoo Man Blues, this song was saved until now for release. Harmonica George circa 1959 started blowing some chromatic “Sputnik Music”, although a new kind of engineer was in the picture by then, making that steel capsule spin round.

However much I might enjoy the power of tonality when amplified, it’s a blast to hear “Hey Little Girl”, a bit of the old acoustic blues style as still played by veteran Little Sammy Davis. I’m left thinking the blues are in good hands with modern players like Billy Branch, who was born in Chicago but reared in Southern California. When he moved back to Chicago in the late ‘60s to go to college, he discovered Chicago blues and dove right in. He got to know the leading players of the time (many playing on this record) while developing his own style. He just seems to breathe powerful single notes in his lead-in for Bonnie Lee’s “I Got the Blues about My Baby”. Branch also is a significant figure in the creation and ongoing success of the admirable Blues in Schools Program, where for more than 20 years he has been teaching blues education.

The anthology moves through each decade of the past 50 years, ignoring the ‘80s in the same way the ‘80s ignored these artists. Eight of the songs on this collection are drawn from the ‘90s, and fit seamlessly when placed with their predecessors, the power of the music coming from the individual players rather than any modern production technique. A definite must-hear.

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