Interview with the Blues survivor Mark Hummel - one of the premier harmonica players of his generation

"The blues is a long, hard road and nobody said it would be easy, make you a lot of money, super stardom or anything else. Therefore I've never expected that from this music."

Mark Hummel: A True Blues Survivor

Grammy-nominted Harmonica man, singer, songwriter, bandleader, author, and impresario MARK HUMMEL was born in New Haven, CT but moved to Los Angeles as a newborn. Hummel took up an interest in blues harp & rock-blues music in high school but soon discovered the originators like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson & Little Walter. Soon after, Hummel frequented the Ash Grove club on Melrose Ave. in LA where he saw (in a three month period) three blues legends he would later work with on a regular basis; Charlie Musselwhite, Brownie McGhee (w/Sonny Terry) & James Cotton. By 1985 Mark Hummel's Blues Survivors hit the road full time & continue till the present (Hummel's memoir, "Big Road Blues: 12 Bars on I-80" recounts many road exploits). Hummel's been featured on over thirty recordings since 1985 including his 2014 Blind Pig Records, Remembering Little Walter (a recording of a Hummel Blues Harp Blowout.) The CD was nominated for a Grammy Award and won two Blues Music Awards. Hummel's most recent release, Harpbreaker (2018), is an all-instrumental harmonica album that redefines the scope and beauty of what the instrument is capable of in the right hands.

MARK HUMMEL'S BLUES HARMONICA BLOWOUTS started as a single event in Berkeley, CA in 1991 but have grown to be the premier Harp Event on the West Coast over the last 25+ years. These events have included a who's who of blues harp icons plus a few guitar icons to support them. The 2020 Blues Harmonica Blowout (the 29th annual) will feature "Superstars of Blues Rock Harmonica" including, in addition to Hummel, MAGIC DICK (J Geils Band), LEE OSKAR (War), Jerry Portnoy (Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton), with special guest DUKE ROBILLARD. Mark Hummel's mastery of the blues genre, mixed with a deep knowledge of where the musical origins derive, is rare in this idiom. Hummel has recorded and toured with Snooky Powell, James Cotton, Lowell Fulsom, Eddie Taylor, Brownie McGhee, Billy Boy Arnold, Barbara Dane, Jimmy Rodgers, Charlie Musselwhite, Jason Ricci, Huey Lewis, Lazy Lester, Kim Wilson, John Mayall, Curtis Salgado, Charles Brown, Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith and Anson Funderburgh. Mark Hummel is moving forward by looking backwards on his new Electro-Fi CD release WAYBACK MACHINE (Release Day: JANUARY 17, 2020), and he’s picked a sweet spot in Blues history to explore, the glorious Bluebird Records sound of the 1930’s and 40’s. Joining Mark on the disc is Chicago first call guitarist Billy Flynn, the Red Hot West Coast Combo The Deep Basement Shakers, and Mississippi Bluesmaster Joe Beard.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I've learned to keep an eye on music and nothing else. I try to follow the older black bluesmen's example-just play the blues and everything else will usually come out alright in the long run-if it doesn't, put it in a song! The blues is a long, hard road and nobody said it would be easy, make you a lot of money, super stardom or anything else. Therefore I've never expected that from this music. All I ever wanted was to make an okay living at this, that's what I've accomplished through hard work, perseverance and keeping ideas fresh for different shows. I own my own home (with my wife and her employment), my own vehicles, pay my bills on time, etc. The blues to me is experience in life, through hard times and good times - you can't play or sing without both-you have to have struggled in some way, hard work, emotionally or mentally speaking. I'm always trying to improve myself and make peace with myself and others but blues is also a way to do that through understanding. It's certainly what the older African American greats were singing about when they say "Times Won't Be Hard Always" or "The Sun's Gonna Shine In My Backdoor Someday". None of the old guys I knew sang about picking cotton.

How do you describe Mark Hummel sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I've always tried to do a cross section of tempos and styles in my music - Fast songs, slow songs, medium ones, rhumbas, boogaloos, shuffles, flat tires, Chicago Blues, West Coast Jump, Texas Blues Swing, New Orleans R&B, country delta blues, soul music, some funky beats thrown in here and there. My songs have always been influenced the same way. My personal favorites I've penned would be Lost A Good Man, Big Easy (Ain't Easy No More), Jungle Scotch Plaid, Humblebug, City Living, Let Me Go, I'm Hooked plus one I recorded a long time ago called Hey Doctor, on my first LP. That's almost a country tune but it was from the heart, which is what I see songwriting to be about. I've written about 60 tunes I've recorded. I have to really be inspired to write so it's somewhat fleeting for me at this moment. I've started about twenty or thirty songs lately but haven't finished any as of late. I just wrote one the other day but it's incomplete - I've gotten a little gun-shy about it I guess? I also feel an ensemble sound is the most important thing in what I do. I always choose material because of who I'm playing with and play on their strengths.

"The blues to me is experience in life, through hard times and good times-you can't play or sing without both-you have to have struggled in some way, hard work, emotionally  or mentally speaking."

How has the Blues (and people of) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The first thing I noticed when I started playing the ghetto clubs in my early 20s was how welcoming the older blues fans were. I was a young hippie white boy trying the play blues harp & I think when they saw how much I was in the music, I was accepted. Most people I met were 20 years my senior, African American and most from the Deep Southern US, though we were in Oakland and Richmond, CA. I always tried to imagine what it would have been like if they had loved Country & Western and tried to hang out in white honky tonks? Doubtful really.

Over the years the generosity and humility of the older bluesmen was what shown thru. They had mostly been overlooked their entire careers but persevered and kept going no matter. I’d see singers sing like it was their last gig on earth to three audience members, giving their whole heart and soul. That impressed me no end.

What were the reasons that you started the Bluebird Records researches? What touched (emotionally) you?

I first discovered the Bluebird sound on the Blues Masters series that Chris Stachwitz issued in the early 70s. Mainly Sonny Boy John Lee Williamson, the first and Tampa Red w/Big Maceo on piano. These guys really got my attention especially when I started hearing heroes like Muddy, Walter, BB & Jimmy Rogers doing these same songs a few years later. I also first heard Brownie McGhee doing a lot of Big Bill Broonzy songs, which turned me onto Bill. I got to hang & play with Brownie in the early 80s & hear many stories about Bill, Maceo, Tampa, Lonnie Johnson. Same with Barbara Dane, who met all of these guys and had great stories about them all. My late friend Carroll Peery also told me much about Big Joe Williams and Lightning Hopkins, who he was tight with in late 50s-early 60s. Carroll introduced me to Brownie & Dane. So, I’ve been fascinated with the music & those musicians for years but, thanks to Deep Basement Shakers, I’ve been playing a lot of stuff that revolves around washboard & piano. Before it was just me and either piano or guitar or both. The washboard is a whole deal of its own when guys like Washboard Sam made it a thing, or the jug bands from Memphis. Dave Eagle is a real creative musician that makes me smile when he takes his wacky solos. Aaron Hammerman on piano & guitar is an old soul in a young man’s body and is a Freak for the super obscure piano monsters of old!

How do you describe WAYBACK MACHINE songbook and sound? What has made you laugh from album's sessions?

Dave’s solos always make me laugh. The sound with Billy Flynn on guitar & Kid Andersen On upright bass is all the way RCA Victor/Bluebird Records. We did two of harp player Jazz Gillum’s songs, Reefer Head & Windy Blues, that had George Barnes playing the first electric guitar solos ever on them. Flynn really gets that sound. The Joe Beard stuff was a thrill to record as I picked a couple songs I’d just written for him-one in a John Lee Hooker style that’s on the record, Say You Will. He learned it at the session & I thought it fit perfect.

"It’s definitely a calling & for a very small group that treat it like a private club or religion. In a way that’s what attracted me to it, it was outsider music and only understood by specific Individuals who got its appeal. It’s never been hugely popular and when it is , it’s usually sold out  to something else that stops being blues. The racial aspect doesn’t apply when musicians are performing together in-sync."

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Interesting is not always the happiest-probably when I moved to the SF Bay Area in 1974 and got hooked up with all kinds of different blues folks, Ron Thompson, Sonny Rhodes, Cool Papa, Boogie Jake, Sonny Lane, Johnny Waters, Luther Tucker, JJ Malone, Troyce Key, Lowell Fulsom and many more. That was an exciting time because blues was still blues in the ghetto clubs in Oakland, Berkeley & Richmond. I was usually only one of maybe a couple of the white guys in there playing it in those joints; it was an exciting time for blues still. Now it's more about festivals, media and awards. Also my early days on the road were defiantly interesting and pretty hairy, bad weather, bad vans, tires, club owners and musicians, etc. It's all in my book "Big Road Blues: 12 Bars On I-80" on Amazon! Best is probably now with a good marriage & better gigs, a few awards (just won two BMAs) booking agency & label that believes in what I do! Back in the day I put out my own LPs & 45s. Worst was my divorce and losing custody of my daughter when the ex-moved to East Coast-my current wife Alexis got me thru that, thank God.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think people are confused about what is and isn't blues nowadays. Much that's called blues sounds like what we called Blues-Rock in the sixties - so it's not really modern like they keep claiming it is? Of the original sounding guys of my generation I always point to Paul DeLay who was extremely current sounding with a blues feeling and a tear in his voice. That's pretty rare. Robert Cray has done well at that as well but both those artists border on soul music. It's the closest thing I can think of. I think the devotion is to particular artists that folks find strike a chord in them - not always with me but that's not the point?

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Most of the best jams I've been in were part of the Blues Harp Blowouts I put on for the last twenty three years. I remember a stellar one at Biscuit & Blues with Johnny Dyer, James Harman, John Nemeth & Rick Estrin - I think Paul Delay may have been there as well? Harman was making up really funny lyrics about everyone and no one could top him, even Estrin was speechless and that don't happen much! We had a really fun East Coast run with Kim Wilson & Musselwhite in 2007 and the Sonny Boy Tribute (John Mayall, Rick Estrin, Curtis Salgado & James Harman) we did this year as well as the Little Walter Tribute (Musselwhite, Billy Boy Arnold, Sugar Ray, Billy Flynn & Little Charlie) in 2012 we're both incredible tours with sellout shows in nice size theaters.

"I think people are confused about what is and isn't blues nowadays. Much that's called blues sounds like what we called Blues-Rock in the sixties - so it's not really modern like they keep claiming it is?" (Photo: MARK HUMMEL'S BLUES HARMONICA BLOWOUTS/ Mark Hummel, Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Guyger, Rick Estrin & Charlie Baty / Photo by Rich Baum, 2015)

How start the idea of MARK HUMMEL'S BLUES HARMONICA BLOWOUTS? Which memories makes you smile

Too many to count. For starters getting to play tours with my heroes from when I started out, the late great James Cotton, the late great Carey Bell, Musselwhite, Lazy Lester, Little Sonny, Lee Oskar, Magic Dick, Mayall, Billy Boy Arnold, Corky Siegel, Rod Piazza-all the guys I tried to copy on records in my late teens. I can’t tell you what a rush that is. Now they’re friends I talk with all the time! It’s thrilling when I put my mind to it. Also, just the camaraderie of getting to swap stories while driving from place to place, compare adventures, do impressions of other musicians, talk about life and where we’ve all been. Then to all blow harp together at the end -which is either great or a debacle!!! All of it. Hard to believe it’s gonna be 30 years of Blowouts in 2021?

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

I had a great time with Snooky Pryor, Sam Myers and Anson Funderburgh back in 2002 when we did a tour of NorCal in the van together-just riding in the van together, laughing and talking trash. Hearing Myers do his really bad Musselwhite impression was a scream! Driving Brownie's Caddy for him around CA was always a treat or going by his house to hear stories was amazing! Getting to know guys as friends like Billy Boy Arnold, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton, Dave Myers, Lazy Lester and many more is mind blowing to me - as they're all guys I’ve listened to my whole life and never would have thought I’d become close to. Hanging out with Muddy Waters when he'd come to town and riding in the van with them to the gigs they'd do around Bay Area was a trip-  I'd do that also so I could get in free, broke as I was!

Are there any memories from the late great bluesmen Charles Brown, Carey Bell and Lowell Fulson which you’d like to share with us?

Guys like Carey Bell were real hard luck guys because he was a heavy drinker and didn't really have anybody really looking out for him (other than Mookie Brill - who really did look out for him). I remember towards the end he had a crack smoking girlfriend in Chicago spending all the money he made out on the road. It was very sad but you can't tell somebody something they don't want to hear. I did a number of gigs and tours with Carey in 89, 97 and 2004. The last gig we did was right before he died in 2008 in NC and Carey was really skinny when I held his arm saying goodbye. He sure played great of Blues Harp Meltdown: Legends CD-I'm proud of it. Willie Smith was one of my favorite people to go on the road with and a one of a kind person who could do it all-drive, fix your van, play drums, harp, give great advice that was priceless and knew more about blues then any book! Kenny, his son, is a wonderful drummer and a great guy as well, as all his family seems to be. Willie must have been a stellar dad too.

Charles Brown was the greatest musician I've ever met and could play jazz, classical, blues, stride; you name it and play everything with ease. Brown lived in Berkeley when he moved back from LA in 84 and I got him some early gigs when he returned and he never forgot that. That's how I got him to record twice for me in 87 & 97. Charles had priceless stories as well, calling himself the "Micheal Jackson of the 1940s" and Mabel Scott (his Hollywood Bride) the "Diana Ross of the 1940s". He also told me some eerie ghost stories as he claimed to be clairvoyant.

I worked with Lowell Fulson from 1976 off and on till about 1985. The best was when I'd hire his old Swingtime sidekick saxman Earl Good Rockin Brown (who's still with us) to play on the tours. They had a great chemstry together and Earl made those records along with Lloyd Glenn on piano. I even did an Oakland fest with all three of them. The best night I ever saw Lowell play was a four night run in SF at a ghetto club called VIS Club on Divisadero St. The first three nights were terribly show but the Saturday night everyone came out of the woodwork in their Sunday finest and the older crowd went back in a time machine to the late 40s /early 50s as Lowell sang his old hits. Lowell looked about 25 years old himself that night while he was singing those tunes and he had a ball.

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

The closeness of black and white musicians I felt back then - there are so few of the older generation left now. It seems in retrospect there was a real camaraderie among all blues folks - I still get that now and then. A little bit at BMAs years ago when talking to Bob Stroger, Billy Flynn, CharlieMusselwhite, Elvin Bishop, Billy Boy Arnold, James Cotton - it's still a community but it is shrinking quickly. Fortunately I'm meeting more & more youngsters into this Blues Guitar & Harp music that are intent on carrying on the tradition. Nathan James, Aki Kumar, Troy Sandow, Nick Clark, Marquise Knox, Big Jon Atkinson, Kyle Rowland and Steve Mariner are all into the old stuff. My hope is this will inspire a resurgence of this real blues style and not a rock interpretation with no basis to be called blues (other than a couple SRV licks). So few know anything about Sonny Boy I or Lonnie Johnson, the guys that invented this stuff!

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Blues comes from African American struggles turned into art. White Americans adopted it but cannot claim ownership-we’re just borrowing it and have to acknowledge where it came from in some kinda way. The music is owed that much. Brownie told me a long time ago” don’t say who wrote it, you’re singing it” but he was one of the creators and they borrowed pretty freely from their elders. This is folk music and has always been passed on to the next generation, black or white, American or European, whatever. Nowadays I’m seeing some younger black kids getting into the trad way of playing blues & jazz and it’s thrilling! Not many but it’s a start. I see & play with some great young blues Europeans as well-as good as young Americans.

"My hope is this will inspire a resurgence of this real blues style and not a rock interpretation with no basis to be called blues (other than a couple SRV licks). So few know anything about Sonny Boy I or Lonnie Johnson, the guys that invented this stuff!" (Photo: Mark Hummel & Eddie Taylor, San Francisco 1982)

Which memories from Brownie McGhee, Eddie Taylor, Luther Tucker and Jimmy Rogers makes you smile?

Brownie McGhee told me not to announce who's song I was signing since I'M the one SINGING IT!

Eddie Taylor, when he wouldn't stop playing the last night of his tour - he'd say "How many more you want me to do?" and I'd kept saying" You can stop now" but he'd just add another song and went on playing about four more song  cause he was feeling his oats! There were only ten people at the club by this time but he didn't want to quit!

Seeing Luther Tucker one night when playing with Andrew Jeffries in Marin Co. was just playing SO MUCH guitar it was stunning or seeing Tuck, Elvin & BB together and Tucker cut everybody!

Jimmy Rogers when I brought him out and he screwed up a fest bad a couple nights before, so I talked to him about watching his alcohol intake. That night in Reno he played like he was twenty or thirty years younger and played the greatest "Act Like You Love Me" I ever heard!

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

Because it's the closest one to the human voice of any instrument plus you use the same muscles to make it play-your throat and breathe. The secrets are all available now on BluesHarmonica.com by Dave Barrett. Everything has been de-mystified since I started playing. When most of the guys my age started it was a TRUE mystery since NOBODY would show you much and there were no places you could go other than finding a harp player to give you lessons and that was rare.

"Over the years the generosity and humility of the older bluesmen was what shown thru. They had mostly been overlooked their entire careers but persevered and kept going no matter. I’d see singers sing like it was their last gig on earth to three audience members, giving their whole heart and soul. That impressed me no end." (Photo: Mark Hummel keppel High School - Practicing Harp)

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

It’s definitely a calling & for a very small group that treat it like a private club or religion. In a way that’s what attracted me to it, it was outsider music and only understood by specific Individuals who got its appeal. It’s never been hugely popular and when it is , it’s usually sold out  to something else that stops being blues. The racial aspect doesn’t apply when musicians are performing together in-sync.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Take off reality shows on TV, get rid of corporate sponsorship of politics, give musicians their royalties from radio & internet like they're supposed to get-bring back a REAL free market. Right now it's becoming one or two big corporations controlling everything, TV, radio, festivals, marketing, newspapers-give it back to the people!!

What would you say characterizes old school blues in comparison to the blues scene and circuits todays?

Sincerity and roots. Lyrics count and so does imagery, shading and dynamics. I love acoustic instruments as well. Too much fast-loud lead guitar, and I LOVE guitar-but back in the day it was NOT the predominant instrument. Piano was the primary instrument along with brass & woodwinds in the early days.

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

Maxwell St. in 1950 in Chicago!!!

Mark Hummel - official website

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