Older and bolder blues
Ask Charlie Musselwhite why he became a blues harmonica player and you get the non-answer: Why not? It’s what you might expect from a blues player who has spent his life hunched over this tiny instrument whose every sound, from wailing bursts of bluesy sorrow to sparky toots of joy, speaks of the history of early American music.
Musselwhite has spent more than five decades playing the blues, building the kind of reputation that is often described as legendary, a term that seems to fit musicians who have literally played hard and long to express their passion.
Blues harmonica players are, no doubt, far more down-to-earth and pragmatic about their musicianship than their cousins in the jazz world, where bebop and contemporary jazz demand more complex patterns.
This down-to-earth attitude comes through the phone line from Sonoma County in California, where Musselwhite is resting at home before his next tour of Australia.
After deflecting the question “Why the harmonica” Musselwhite amplifies his response a little by saying that as a kid there were always harmonicas lying around his home in Memphis.
“I’d pick one up and try a few simple melodies, ” says the 70-year-old, who released his first blues album in 1966. “You know, it’s the only instrument that you can’t see when you’re playing because it’s cupped in your hands. That makes it difficult, in a way.”
By the age of 13 Musselwhite was fast becoming an accomplished young musician, despite his background as a “non-black man” who claims American Indian ancestry. As he grew older and bolder he gravitated from Memphis to Chicago, which has always been a blues mecca.
There he came under the influence of such blues masters as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and Little Walter and became a great friend and musical colleague of the Detroit-based John Lee Hooker.
By 1966 Musselwhite was ready to record his first album — Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite’s South Side Band, igniting a recording career that has led to several Grammy nominations, culminating in 2014 in a Grammy for best blues album. Many of his albums also feature his gravelly vocals, another prerequisite for being a blues artist.
The coveted Grammy was for his collaboration with Californian singer-songwriter and guitarist Ben Harper, whom he met 15 years ago at the Byron Bay BluesFest. As Musselwhite explains, it was Harper who wanted to be introduced to him.
“He said he was a great fan of mine, and always wanted to play with me, so we took it from there, ” Musselwhite says. Musselwhite and Harper’s Grammy was for Get Up, recorded in 2013. That same year Musselwhite recorded Juke Joint Chapel, which has earned similar praise for its blend of classic blues tunes and original songs.
Long based in California after the formative years in Chicago, Musselwhite is a regular at blues festivals in the US and around the world. He has visited Australia “too many times to remember” and shows no signs of slowing down.
“I play about 250 gigs a year, ” he says.
“Blues is a feeling. You can take any tune and turn it into the blues. While I can still do that, I’ll continue to play music and enjoy myself.”
Or as he explains in the notes for his album Juke Joint Chapel: “Too many people think of the blues as sad but I think many of these tunes (on the album) will immediately dispel that notion, as they are fun dancing tunes that will lift the spirits.
“I often tell people that the blues is your buddy in good times and your comforter in bad times. It empowers you to keep going. It’s music from the heart instead of the head.”
Charlie Musselwhite is at the Chevron Festival Gardens on March 2.
© The West Australian
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