Produced by Larry Hoffman Recorded September 2, 1994 and mixed September 22, 1994 by Bill McElroy at Bias Recording Co., Inc., Springfield, VA
Mastered August 12, 1995 by Jay O'Rourke, Larry...
Produced by Larry Hoffman
Recorded September 2, 1994 and mixed September 22, 1994 by Bill McElroy at Bias Recording Co., Inc., Springfield, VA
Mastered August 12, 1995 by Jay O'Rourke, Larry Hoffman and Bruce Iglauer at Monster Disc, Chicago, IL
Photos by Michael Smith Cover design by Matt Minde
Corey Harris wishes to thank JAH MOST HIGH, Fannie and Haarlan Fiddmont, Kore, Lisa and Clarence, Mother Lillian,William and Susie, Clara Harris, Helen Landford, Ugene and Luna, Brevard, Darrell, Scotty B., Whit, Jamal and Sharon, Coran Capshaw, Kalamu, Harry, Jamil, Imhotep, Doc, Baba Alonzo, Josephi, John Jackson, Jerry Ricks, Big Jack Johnson, Michael Roach and Steve Arnbruster.
Larry Hoffman wishes to thank Bruce Talbot and Ron Becker of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. and John Ruske of the Delta Blues Museum, Clarksdale, MS. Thanks also to Scott Johnson and Kore Obialo.
Corey Harris is a member of the small but growing coterie of young African-American bluesmen who've eschewed flash and fashion for the emotionally rich but musically challenging (and commercially risky) subtleties of the acoustic tradition.
Harris mixes and matches influences with a genre-jumping abandon...he'll punctuate a languorous half-shuffle, half-boogie rhythm with high-treble exclamation marks reminiscent of Charlie Patton, then move into a series of undulating slide whines that invoke Robert Johnson; over the top he'll moan out his vocals with a phlegmy urgency borrowed from Big Joe Williams, with a hint of Son House's tormented high-tension balance between the sacred and profane thrown in. But rather than sounding dilettantish, he is immersed in the spirit of the music, caring more for emotional honesty than for slavish dedication to scholarly notions of authenticity.
There's something undeniably inspiring about the sincerity and audacity of Corey Harris and his fellow revivalists, bringing the vintage blues styles into the '90s.
Political correctness is nothing new to the blues. And while the blues revival of the 1960s turned legions of fans on to the richness of the music, it also introduced the notion that the most important yardstick in measuring an artist's "credentials" (invariably younger singers both black and white) was how authentic or convincing the artist was -- the implication being that they had to overcome some sort of illegitimacy. This is a bit like saying that Bonnie Raitt is a good slide guitarist "for a girl," but such left-handed validations were, and still are, accepted as high praise in some circles (make that squares).
On an early LP by one twenty-something bluesman (now universally regarded as a legend), a noted scholar referred to his playing as "idiomatically correct"-- intended as a thumbs-up endorsement (you guess which thumb). Of course, one would never call John Lee Hooker or Fred McDowell "authentic," but it was okay to impose that acid test on Charlie Musselwhite or Taj Mahal -- simply because of the generation they were born into.
But when it's all said and done, the only barometer that counts --more so than copying every note and nuance of the original, more so than even technical skill -- is does it ring true, does this artist communicate? On that score, like Charlie and Taj, Corey Harris not only passes but transcends any and all litmus tests.
Corey was born in 1969 and recorded this, his debut CD, in 1994, when he was 25 years old. "From the youngest, from the beginning, I was musical," he declares. "Seriously, my mother told me stories about going to a concert, and she would have to leave because I would start kicking so bad. And it was only when music was going on; other times I'd be calm. Then when I was born, I always remembered banging on pots and pans and singing, making up songs. My mom would sing to me, and then I'd sing in church when I was younger and also in school, like in the choir, and I always listened to the radio and was singing to myself. I had a toy guitar when I was three, played trumpet and baritone horn in the marching band in school, drums for awhile; then I got back into guitar. I never really learned a lot from my guitar teachers -- like at music stores; that never worked for me."
Not surprisingly, considering the era he grew up in, Harris absorbed and tried his hand at a variety of musical styles. "I didn't just say, 'Alright, I'm just gonna play blues and really learn this stuff.' I had been playing blues and a lot of other things. But the record collection at the home when I was a kid was funk, like Parliament, and electric blues like Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King. My mom's from Texas, and as I got older she told me about Lightnin' Hopkins. He was my gateway to acoustic. After that I started seeking out more acoustic acts, listening to how they did it, meeting people while they were still around. Most of the people whose records you buy are gone now, but there are still a lot of old-school cats around, still kickin' it hard."
Corey grew up in Denver, Colorado, not exactly known as a blues mecca, although he points out, "A lot of the blues scene is reflective of the successive migrations that took place, and the first migration was really to the west. It just didn't really get recorded. But all my father's friends were musicians, and my folks saw everybody who came through there. I just grew up around people who had this stuff, like 78s, but I didn't realize that. I think it's different for people who are of African descent in this country --the way blues is looked at and what blues is. Blues is like the word truth ; everyone has a different definition. Blues is quite a serious thing. Like a friend of mine said, 'There wasn't blues until we didn't get forty acres and a mule.' There's a lot in that."
After going to school at Bates College in Maine, Harris moved to Cameroon in North Africa at age 21, thanks to a grant he received to learn pidgin, "a language like creole or patois." With a newly obtained resonator guitar, he got deeper and deeper into acoustic blues. "I was living in a city called Bamenda," he recounts, "in the northwest, bordering Nigeria. I had a tape collection and I had my guitar with me and played a lot. The blues is African, and I really experienced that first-hand. I'd been hearing about it, but I always related it totally to these shores, in America. But it's really a branch of an ancient style and a way of looking at musical vibrations. I'd hear people singing over there, and it sounded the same -- especially singing that's done in the culture for ceremonial purposes. I saw this man who called himself a sorcerer, in a rural area in the north of Cameroon. He had a one-string fiddle, and he did like a moan; it was rhythmic and he was stomping his foot. It was so bad! They have a lot of drums there, and chanting, and then there's a whole pop music scene, and they're totally into James Brown. It's the most textured musical environment you could have, because the tradition is represented, and then everything else that's going on in the world. You can go hear people play John Lee Hooker in clubs, or people playing Santana, and it's not like they're trying to sound like them; they're playing the songs in an African style, but the blues is there. It all fits quite well."
On the numerous occasions when he would play for students, for friends, and for people in the neighborhoods his blues fit right in. "African music the world over, wherever you go, is based on polyrhythms," he explains, "so that spoke to them right there. And it's based on singing and looking at your instrument as a voice and then having your own voice, so it's like there's two different people. Which is the great achievement of blues and jazz; you can hear a guy playing something and it sounds like two or three different people sometimes."
Returning to America, he taught French and English in public school in Louisiana and became acquainted with other younger blacks playing blues there and in Mississippi. "It's funny," he muses, "people say, 'Well, there's not that many out there,' but you go out there and you do see people. When I was in Clarksdale and up in Holly Springs, R. L. Burnside's son plays acoustic and electric -- he plays it all -- and Lonnie Pitchford, Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart. They're there, but I wonder if there aren't more; there's just a considered focus in the industry because of the market being what it is. It's fickle and people's perceptions of things change. People in this country like to talk about African-Americans not having their culture, as having been assimilated, but if you look at the musical tradition and all the things that went in hand with that -- religious tradition, spiritual tradition, artistic tradition -- it gives you a different view of things. Definitely gave me one."
As evidenced by his repertoire here -- from the Delta slide of Son House and Bukka White to hokum and East coast rags of Blind Boy Fuller -- Harris took a wide view of blues but gave each style his distinctive stamp. "I played the songs that I liked the best, that moved me," he says, "because I just have to play from my heart. It wasn't like, 'Okay, I'm gonna learn this style.' I would say, 'I need to get better at this and this' -- whatever it might be." In other words he didn't slavishly attempt to duplicate every passage note for note. "No, no," he stresses. "That's a dead end. I'm the type who, I could hear a song over and over for a year, and one day I'll just play it on the guitar. It's better if you let the inspiration just take you. That's the music that speaks. I did play along with records, but I would just play the rhythm. That's the thing, just getting all the rhythms, and then you can phrase it how you want. That's you -- the tone. But if it doesn't have that rhythm, forget it. All this stuff was made to have people dance. The foundation of this music is a thousand steamy nights in houses, rent parties. If you think about it, African music, before people were enslaved and mixed up in different communities and sent to the Americas, it was very functional. You'd have different songs for different aspects of life, of culture. You'd have specific song and rhythm for a wedding, a birth, a festival. A lot of them are to do with harvesting, like a lot of Ali Farka Toure's songs -- he's a farmer. With that dramatic change with what was going on with us, as it came from over there to over here, a lot of it just became music, and the tradition became less functional, but it was still music for rent parties and harvesting. Let's kill this pig and have a good time!"
Nowhere, of course, is the music-for-partying attitude more pronounced than in Corey's current home base of New Orleans, and it didn't take long for the Crescent City's pervasive rhythm to seep into his music, both his originals and his interpretations of other artists' tunes, such as Louis Jordan's Early In The Morning. "Yeah, man, the mambo!" he exclaims. "I hear it a lot. I hang out with and play with different percussionists sometimes, so my rhythm is a reflection of the rhythm that they bring. Also hearing Professor Longhair and James Booker and Snooks Eaglin. He's so fresh."
Corey's own Roots Woman obviously owes a debut to the Big Easy's second-line groove. "I had heard that rhythm before coming here," he admits, "but it wasn't made such a part of my daily life. But here in New Orleans you can just walk down the street and hear someone like Eddie Bo playing."
Of his writing, also displayed on Bound To Miss Me and the title track, he feels, "If I consciously had a step by step method, where I was going through and using the best elements of various people, that'd be ridiculous. Music I love goes into my soul, and I play it-- it comes out. All I can play really is blues and anything that's like blues, as far as the vocabulary I'm working with. When I make up a song, it's blues, sure enough, and it's me. It's definitely an organic part of what I've been exposed to; it's gone through my filter." The same could no doubt be said of Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. "Really," he nods, "that's true. There's a tradition that they all worked with, and they suited it to fit their ends -- which is the same thing people do in hip-hop today. It's different traditions, and they're used to make a commentary on a person's experience. If you listen to those records, no guy who came up said, 'Well, I specialize in Muddy Waters.' If they did, they didn't make it; no one wanted to hear that. They could play some Muddy Waters stuff, but if they didn't make it sound like themselves, everyone would know."
At 26, Corey Harris continues to grow and evolve. "I divide my time between playing solo and with other musicians," he offers. "In Europe I played strictly solo, but in New Orleans I play with drummers, flute players, sometimes a bass player or another guitarist who also plays reggae, soul, and R&B -- as well as like Hubert Sumlin. Blues with rhythm, stuff you can dance to, that'll make you feel good."
Check out Between Midnight And Day and stay tuned for Chapter 2; it promises to be interesting. And it'll make you feel good.
-- Dan Forte
Dan Forte has contributed to Guitar Player, Musician, Guitar World, Guitar Shop and has been described as "the foremost guitar journalist in the country."