Greek-American harmonica player Ellen Miller talks about the common paths of Greek music, Blues & Zydeco

"Greek music and Zydeco and Blues have something in common in my mind and that is that these types of music tell a story. They tell a history. They tell about pain and suffering and about joy and love."

Ellen Miller: Feelin The Blues

Ellen Miller was born in Cincinnati Ohio to George and Venus Miller, both first generation Greek-Americans. They lived in nearby Hamilton, OH until at age 7 when her father George was transferred by his company to the Chicago area. Ellen started playing music at a young age, first on toy musical instruments then in 4th grade played the Oboe in the school band. She wanted to play drums, but back in the 60’s girls were not encouraged to play drums. She played Oboe for a couple of years but found that her musical tastes were more along the lines of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, so she picked up guitar in the 7th grade. She took lessons after school from her science teacher and found she was truly in love with playing guitar! In high school she was always playing between classes and it was then that she began playing harmonica to accompany herself on Bob Dylan, Neil Young and others who used a “neck rack” to hold the harmonica while playing guitar. She went on to college where she started playing regularly in the clubs and student center in and around Southern Illinois University. It was there that she started playing more of a Blues style harmonica as several other local bands including Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows introduced her to Blues music!

After college, Ellen traveled to Europe with back pack, guitar and harmonicas and toured all over playing and singing along the way. Upon coming back to the U.S. Ellen decided that pursuing music professionally would be too much of a hardship and a possible disappointment to her parents since she was the eldest of 4 and the first one in the family to graduate college. So she pursued work in the industry she loved, music and ended up selling radio advertising for the top Rock station in Chicago, WXRT-FM where she remained working for nearly 24 years. While she was there, she heard lots of great music and met lots of famous musicians, but she realized that her love for playing music was not being realized. Since people responded so positively when she played harmonica, she got serious about studying Blues so that she could play in the Chicago Blues scene. Ellen studied with Matthew Skollar, Howard Levy and Billy Branch (who has since become a close personal friend). She shared the stage with Buckwheat Zydeco and Irma Thomas. Ellen has played on the main stage of the Chicago Blues Festival. She is a regular on the Chicago Blues scene sitting in with everyone that plays and is also a regular passenger on the Legendary Blues Cruise in the Caribbean every January.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in blues?  Which is the moment that you change your life most?

I actually started playing guitar at age 12 and harmonica at age 15 as I was a folk player covering songs by Joni Mitchell, Peter Paul & Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young , Bob Dylan and more.

I played more in the style of Bob Dylan and Neil Young when I started playing harmonica, but while in College at Southern Illinois University, I met several guys playing Blues harmonica and they all were willing to show me a few things. When I moved back home to Chicago after school, I got more into Blues as a couple of Blues Bars opened near my home.  I always felt the Blues and it came easily to me at first.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

I learn something new every time I hit the stage! Since I really don’t have my own band I am always sitting in with different bands here in Chicago and wherever I travel. I learned that as much as I loved guitar, Blues came more naturally to me. It felt like my voice. I think hearing lots of Greek music as a small child that my Papou (translate: grandfather) played for me, trained my ear to feel comfortable with Blues stylings.

"More women are getting into singing Blues and even playing Blues on instruments, but not enough. It’s still a man’s world and you’ve got to have tenacity and drive and belief in yourself and your abilities to push through the B.S. But I think it’s well worth it!" (Photo by Tammy Wetzel)

 How do you describe Ellen “Harpchick” Miller sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

My sound is really all about how I feel. I have studied with a few of Chicago’s greatest players of today and learned about other Blues playing styles, but in the end, the sound that comes from my harmonica is purely my own sound.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

I’ve been very fortunate to meet lots of great musicians over the years. Buckwheat Zydeco from Louisiana has been a huge supporter of mine. He has put me on some of the biggest stages and festivals around the country. He believed in me when I was decent but not the player I am today, he pushed me hard on stage to go beyond my own level and he forced me in front on thousands of people to reach new heights. He helped me grow and to have confidence in what I do and how I do it. 

Other advice that I remember and try not to forget was something that Lee Oskar from the original line-up of the band War told me many years ago. Lee told me that “sometimes it’s not the notes you play, but the notes you don’t play” More great advice from the great Billy Branch was that you need to tell a story when you play. Not just play notes, but actually say something with the notes you play!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams and Buckwheat Zydeco which you’d like to share with us?

Buckwheat Zydeco brought me up on stage at the Chicago Blues Fest in 2002 as a special guest. It was the last night of the fest, and it was the last song of the night and he brought me up in my own hometown.

Afterwards backstage several Blues guys asked me where I was from and I laughed and told them, right down the street! You never get the appreciation in your own hometown, but luckily Buckwheat met me on a Caribbean Blues cruise and to him, I was somebody!

Although, that has changed for me in recent years as I’ve gotten much more visibility in the last several years. Also a great memory was in New Orleans in 1994 when the great Irma Thomas was playing her Jazz Fest shows at her club, The Lions Den. I was playing in the back of the room and her horn player who was standing next to me told me to go grab a microphone and when I did Irma was ready to have a fit, but he yelled giver her the mic, the girl can play! Boz Scaggs was also on stage and I got up and jammed and Irma and Boz and I have played together and remained friends with Irma Thomas ever since that night!

"I think the harp is the most soulful and expressive instruments in Blues Music. The sound is unique to the individual that is playing it. There is no real music written for harmonica like most instruments so what you hear played is what ever you make it!" (Ellen & Buckwheat Zydeco / Photo by Ben Burns)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

What I miss is what I missed. I wish I was around and old enough to have seen the greats on a regular basis. I did see Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and many others, but like so many of us, I took it for granted at the time. We are losing our Blues legends every day and my fear is that young people won’t keep playing the Blues, but I’m hoping for the best!

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Blues?

Do you really want to know?? It’s a constant struggle for men to take women seriously in Blues if they don’t already know you or have heard you. When they see a women walk up and ask to sit in and you can see their eyes roll around in their heads. They often immediately assume you are a beginner and probably not very good. Luckily for me after I play a few notes, I usually see the looks on their faces change from uncertainty to joy!

More women are getting into singing Blues and even playing Blues on instruments, but not enough. It’s still a man’s world and you’ve got to have tenacity and drive and belief in yourself and your abilities to push through the B.S. But I think it’s well worth it!

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Last week at the Chicago Blues Festival I was asked to sit in with Dexter Allen a great player from Mississippi. Another harp player wanted to play but he told him to wait his turn. When I started Jamming with Dexter the kid who was pretty drunk jumped on stage and started to play and basically try and show me up since the crowd was really responding to me. I just had to laugh! He wasn’t bad, but he was playing loudly and with no finesse and the crowd saw what was happening. I got lots of great compliments after the show and we all just laughed at the boy that just had to play while I was playing. Sometimes all you can do is smile and let people decide what they like hearing.

"What I miss is what I missed. I wish I was around and old enough to have seen the greats on a regular basis. I did see Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and many others, but like so many of us, I took it for granted at the time." (Ellen & Anne Harris / Photo by Roman Sobus)

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

I think the harp is the most soulful and expressive instruments in Blues Music. The sound is unique to the individual that is playing it. There is no real music written for harmonica like most instruments so what you hear played is what ever you make it!   

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Zydeco and …Greek music?

Greek music and Zydeco and Blues have something in common in my mind and that is that these types of music tell a story. They tell a history. They tell about pain and suffering and about joy and love. These types of music are in my mind, the people’s music. And that’s why people travel near and far to seek out Blues. It speaks to people and resonates in their hearts and in their souls.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would like to be in Chicago in the 50’s hanging around the local Blues Joints from a bye gone era. Seeing and hanging with the originators of Chicago Blues and hearing it played in the neighborhoods where the music was made. I also have a dream to play Blues in Greece! I know many Greek people love Blues and I think they would get a kick out seeing a Greek-American women from Chicago blowing some Blues Harmonica! I’ll be coming to Greece in fall 2016. And I hope to see you!

Photo: Ellen Miller & Allen Toussaint

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