Various: Blow'n the Blues: Best of the Great Harp Players

Ed Kopp By

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With my 44th birthday staring me in the face, I recently decided to do something I’d contemplated since my teens: I decided to learn the harmonica.

It wasn’t any special love for the instrument that finally motivated me to take up the harmonica. Rather, I had reached a brick wall while trying to hone my piano skills, and I thought the harp might be a less frustrating instrument to master. I soon discovered that the harp is NOT a less frustrating instrument to master.

For three months I have tounged, sucked and puffed on my $23 marine band. I have purchased instructional videos and poured over beginner's manuals. I have puckered my lips into countless odd ovals and recycled half of the earth’s atmosphere through my wheezing lungs. Despite all of this effort, I still haven't figured out how to consistently bend a friggin' note!

If nothing else, this whole experience has deepened my respect for blues harpists. I now count the players on this CD as heroes — men who not only learned the intricacies of the blues harp, but mastered them.

Blow'n the Blues is a superb 19-track CD featuring seven of Chicago's finest blues harpists on tracks recorded in the mid-1960's, a time when most of these cats were at the height of their creative capabilities. The Best of the Great Harp Players doesn't include tracks by Little Walter or either of the Sonny Boy Williamsons, so the title is a big misnomer. And while I'm being picayune, let me insert a note of caution to discerning blues consumers: six of these 19 tracks can also be found on Chicago, The Blues, Today!, a better collection. Now that my kvetching is done, let me say that this is a fine retrospective in its own right.

First up are five classic cuts from Junior Wells, the James Brown of the blues, whose staccato style was learned at the feet of Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller). The next five tracks feature James Cotton, a player whose relentless, attacking approach to the harp is finally earning him acclaim for its power and uniqueness. Two tracks feature Big Walter Horton (one with the Johnny Shines Blues Band), one of the most versatile dudes ever to wield a harp. Horton might have been one of Chicago's greatest blues stars had he not been so damn shy. Native American bluesman Charlie Musselwhite is showcased on four tracks. In the '60s, Musselwhite was a fast-livin' up-and-comer but a very lyrical player. The album closes with tracks by the Siegel-Schwall Band and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, two seminal blues-rock outfits fronted by terrific harpists: Corky Siegel and Paul Butterfield.

Fact is, you don't have to love the harmonica to dig this CD. It features many classic tunes, and it also showcases some legendary guitarists.

I plan to further dissect these tracks, and even play along with some. I may be frustrated by my $23 Hohner, but I'm not ready to throw it out the window — yet.


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