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12:07 am - FRI 8/08/03
Harmonica Redux
(This is a reprint of an entry that somehow got "lost in the ether". If you missed it, here it is, and if you're read it already, feel free to move on to the rest of your life...)

Thursday, Pt II (a.k.a. Jim's Harmonica Blues)

I play the harmonica.

I began playing in ‘86 or ‘87, starting with a book called Country and Blues Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless, by the good folks at Klutz Press (If you want a painless intro to the instrument, I heartily recommend it. They also have a guitar book which is quite good, and similarly painless).

From there, I started trying to play along to blues tapes–then later, cds-- from Billy Boy Arnold to Sonny Boy Williamson..

I made dozens of tapes of "The Blues Cruise", the Sunday-night radio show hosted by Scott Alman on WMMQ (I still have a dozen or so "mix tapes" from that era). I had been interested in the blues before–When I heard Eric Clapton's "Layla", the Allman Brothers "Live At Fillmore East", and of course, Hendrix's psychedelic blues, particularly "Red House", it sort of "led me back" to the original stuff-–but now I had a little extra motivation

I started "sitting in" with The Uptown Band on Saturday nights, usually playing along to "Next Time You See Me" (Dave Matchette, the harmonica-playing front man, who's about a hundred times better than I'm ever going to be, was always very supportive).

I played a lot with Tom H., both sitting in with him and Mary K. at their coffeehouse gigs, and playing in the fundraisers he'd organize at the Riverwalk (I'd known Tom for years at that point, first meeting him when we were both in Jesus Christ Superstar together at the old Barn Theater in Okemos. I have a lot of fond memories of watching him perform at the Hobies in East Lansing during that era, often getting up to sing with him and the late Bruce G.). I'm even on "Crazy in Love", a cut from his Keeping My Head Above Water cd.

I played in the pit band of three different productions of Big River (At the Lansing Civic Players, the Croswell Opera House, and the Riverwalk Theatre. In the Civic Players and Riverwalk productions, I also played "Pap", one of my all-time favorite roles). Those were particularly nice experiences for me, because it was exciting to be in a performance situation I'd never imagined being in, and of course, it was also very cool to be getting paid to perform.

(I remember being thrilled when the reviews for the Civic Player and Riverwalk productions made a big thing of me both acting and playing in the band. I'd never really felt "versatile" before)

But here's the thing–I'm not really very good.

I don't want to be falsely modest and say I can't play at all, but after 16 or 17 years, I should be a hell of a lot better than I am. My playing is not very interesting (I doubt I've ever come up with an original riff of my own), I can't really play anything faster than a mid-tempo shuffle, and if you were to feature me on two songs, I'd be repeating myself midway through the second song.

And my playing has actually declined from its heyday, because without the motivation of sitting in with the Uptown Guys, or Tom and Mary, I just quit putting in the time (Without the excitement of learning a new thing, or the anticipation/fear of an upcoming performance, I couldn't find enough reason to play).

I put in some time. I made enough of an effort that I started to sound like I kind of knew what I was doing. And it paid off in spades, as detailed in the preceding paragraphs.

And then I basically...stopped. I never progressed past the point of trying to rip off Little Walter, or the guys on the Harp Attack tape Beth bought me one Xmas.

I hit a wall. That wall was composed partly of "Why bother?"–It was never going to be "Tom and Mary and Jim", or "The Uptown Band, featuring Jim Hoffmaster"–and partly of frustration; I couldn't keep up with "Madcat" Ruth or Charlie Musselwhite, I didn't know guys were playing on chromatics on some cuts (William Clarke, Little Walter, Rod Piazza), and I didn't feel like I had the money for a mic and amp, so no matter what I did, I didn't sound like the guys I was listening to who were playing on a mic (That was always a source of frustration for me with the Uptown Band; the only "rehearsal" I got in handling a mic was while I was performing).

(To be continued...)


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