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Five Questions For Filisko
We caught up with the harpmaster at his one UK appearance, in Brighton, en route to the Northampton Blues Week.
For a man bearing such a burden, you’d think Joe Filisko would have broader shoulders. I mean, considering the fact that he’s hoisted the entire tradition of blues harmonica up on them things, you’d think he’d be wide as a Buick.
But in fact, he’s as unassuming in his build as he is in his manner: “It continues to amaze me,” he says, “that people are willing to pay to watch me do this!” Perched on a high stool with nothing but a harp, a mic and a couple of stories, he delivers a one-man ethnography of the blues tradition. Having devoted himself to studying and mastering the styles of bluesmen long deceased, his set is a semi-acoustic recital of bygone masters and near-forgotten gems: From John Lee Williamson and Sonny Terry to DeFord Bailey fox chases and the chord-heavy Cajun waltzes of Isom Fontenot, he breathes life into every lick and inflection. And here’s the thing –with each whoop and warble, Filisko isn’t merely copying these geezers; he’s channelling them.
After the gig I cut through a gaggle of harp enthusiasts to harvest some Filisko wisdom...
MH: When I saw you up there with (young-blood supporting act) The Shoestrung, a serious bluesman juxtaposed with some guys who’re really just having a laugh, it reminded me of Sonny Boy II playing with the Yardbirds. Not that I’m directing this at the Shoestrung in any way, but as a teacher and a performer if you had to put your finger on it, what’s one key thing that youngsters in blues are missing?
(A long, long pause. Some old guy called Clive chips in: “I think Joe's still a youngster, anyway...” Everyone laughs. Thanks a bunch, Clive.)
Filisko: Look, I'm all about knowing what the strengths are, and playing to the strengths of the instrument. And I would say most youngsters don't play to the strengths of the instrument. It's about creating those big sounds, thick textures. It's visceral, when you lock into those strengths. For example, you can be busy on the guitar, but when I hear Ry Cooder play slide guitar... man, it grabs me and it chokes me up, the minimalism of it. Granted, you can be fancy and flashy and you'll get a quick response -- people will be, like, YEEAAAH! But I don't think it's a long term thing. I think it's quick, it lasts about ten minutes.
MH: And then where do you think they’re – I should say we – are going wrong?
Filisko: For whatever reason in blues there seems to be this [attitude of] “I'm threatened by you! Don't learn from me, go off and get your own style, but don't learn from my mistakes. Make your own mistakes, figure it out yourself."
I think that's a bunch of crap. There's certain things the harmonica does really well, and it's my impression most young players don't lock into that, because people don't want to share where the strengths are. There’s not a lot of good information readily accessible about how to play the harmonica. There’s a lot of bad information available. There’s a lot old wives’ tales and misconceptions and falsehoods. It’s readily available; all you gotta do is read books or go on the internet. So if you’re trying learn how to do something, and the information that’s available is incorrect or full of half truths, how well are you gonna learn?
MH: Now, when you talk about threats – it does seem in the old days guys had to be protective over their livelihoods. Junior Wells in a Living Blues interview describes how when he went to Sonny Boy II for pointers, Sonny Boy wagged a switchblade at him...
Filisko: In the history of blues-oriented music, all the old guys got ripped off. With few exceptions. So the old guys are always feeling threatened by the new guy. “I don’t want to show you my tricks, because you’ll take my trick and make it yours.”
That’s intimately woven into the fabric of blues history. I have interviews of Big Walter Horton, for example, deliberately – I think – misdirecting people asking about how to do stuff. He’s paranoid! He was really paranoid about people taking his photograph. I actually have audio tape of gigs where somebody takes a photograph from the audience and Walter Horton marches off the stage, and is in the guy’s face and you can hear him say, ‘Give me the film! Give me the film! Give me the film!’
MH: I’m very interested by your philosophies on blues tradition, because you’re sort of channelling all the greats for future generations. Some people might disagree with sticking too close to tradition, they advocate rather branching out and finding your own sound. It’s the age-old question, but what’s your take on this?
Filisko: Well, when I go on stage, it's about one thing: Sounding good. And I think that too many people are way preoccupied with having their own sound. To me that's ego-driven. It's cool to have your own sound, but I think few people can get away with it for the long term. I would rather do something that's a homage to different players, and know that I'm keeping the attention of the audience for the long term, than having my own style for the whole time.
That's just what does it for me. Having your own style to me is ego-driven.
MH: Fair enough... But then, if it’s all rooted in tradition what's the future of blues harmonica?
Filisko: Well, one might argue that the harmonica sounds best played as it was played [gestures over his shoulder] in the Fifties. And if it sounds best, then why not do it? It's like a language. You're British, I'm American, but we're talking to each other in the same language, and we understand each other probably 98 percent perfectly. Do we have to invent new words to communicate? So why do we have to expand on the language?
I'm not saying we shouldn't. If it's in your gut, then you should go with it. Paul deLay might be a good example of someone who's a traditional blues harmonica player that possibly expanded on the language. A brilliant song-writer, brilliant vocalist, brilliant musician, brilliant harmonica player. When I listen to him I've moved by it. But I don't think that's a common thing. I don't know that everybody is capable of having their own unique style.
It’s undeniable that traditionalism like Filisko’s invites dispute. It’s true that learning at the feet of the masters is something every player needs to do if they are ever to become masters themselves. And certainly, for the foreseeable future I am content to do that. But if every player were to follow Filisko’s path, the future of blues music may be no future at all. There’s fine line between recognising tradition and doting on the past. If blues harmonica is like a language, we should never forget that language is in constant flux, evolving every moment of every day.
But I have two things to say about Filisko. The first is that he’s a ridiculously nice guy. YouTube harp teacher Adam Gussow calls him “the saint” of blues harmonica, and in the course of my journalistic endeavours I found three separate pieces of evidence in this regard: Without even being asked, he gave out a freebie CD to a guy who’d clearly spent all his money on beer (okay, it was me); after the show, he happily doled out some incisive technical advice to an amateur harp player (still me); later, he just shrugged it off when some ungainly moron knocked over Filisko’s beer (the moron, who asked not to be named, may or may not be me).
The second is that, whether or not we agree with Filisko, we need him.
Read a review of the gig at HarpSurgery.com. Thanks go to Jon Vaughan of CustomHarps.co.uk for recording the latter half of the interview. Most of all, thanks to Joe for being a sport about the spilt beer. If you’d been Sonny Boy you woulda cut me.