ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 14, 2002
By Steve Newton
Charlie Musselwhite was just 13 years old when he started playing harmonica, the instrument that he’d wield so well while staking out his place in the blues world. He was living in Memphis at the time, which was a good location to be for any youngster with a hankering for roots music. But it wasn’t until Musselwhite moved to the Windy City five years later that he really started to acquire a taste for the blues.
“It was wild,” he recalls, on the phone from his home in Sonoma County, California. “I mean, when I got there I was 18, with no responsibilities, just lookin’ for a good time. I’d already started learnin’ how to play music, but I wasn’t thinkin’ about it as a career, and then I just found this whole blues thing in Chicago. You could go and hear all the favourites, like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy, Little Walter and Big Walter—I mean, they were all there. And in those days it was real casual. There were small clubs, so you actually got to meet, and talk, and become friends with these people. On their breaks they would sit at a table in the crowd, and it was easy to just walk up and talk. So I became part of the scene, and I started sittin’ in [on jams], and people started hirin’ me. I knew this was better than doin’ factory work.”
Maybe so, but the life of a journeyman blues harpist has never been easy. While there are scads of famous blues artists who’ve made the guitar their weapon of choice, very few harmonica specialists have become household names. “We need more of ’em,” notes the jovial Musselwhite, “ ’cause it does get overlooked. You hear it [harmonica] a lot in commercials and soundtracks for movies and stuff—and you’ve got a guy like John Popper with Blues Traveler, who’s pretty big—but there’s not many of us. There’s more comin’, though! I keep runnin’ into young harp players all the time that are really good.”
One harpist who’s not so young, but who can still blow like hell—not to mention sing his ass off while playing a mean guitar—is Musselwhite’s old buddy John Hammond, who’ll be sharing the stage with him at a sold-out Yale show on Tuesday (March 19). Musselwhite appeared on Hammond’s acclaimed Wicked Grin CD of 2001, which saw the latter performing Tom Waits tunes along with Waits and his killer band. “We were real disappointed it didn’t get nominated for a Grammy,” says Musselwhite. “It should have. But maybe they didn’t know what category to put it in.”
The Mississippi-born bluesman recently released a Grammy-worthy album himself, One Night in America, which features guest spots by such notable pickers as Robben Ford, former Saturday Night Live bandleader G. E. Smith, and country star Marty Stuart. Among the standout tracks is “Big River”, an old tune by Johnny Cash, whose brother Musselwhite used to go to school with in Memphis. “I used to have that song on 45 when it first came out on the Sun label,” he points out.
At 58, Musselwhite is getting up there in years, but his playing on One Night sounds as strong as ever. “I’ve got really good lung capacity,” he claims. “And it’s a real healthy instrument—they recommend it, just as a hobby, for people that have lung problems, ’cause it’s the only instrument you actually breathe through. Most breath instruments, say like a saxophone, you just blow into it, but the harmonica you actually breathe in and out, so that’s real good.”