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 Award nominee Mark Hummel started playing harmonica in 1970 and has gone on to become one of the premier blues harmonica players of his generation. Thanks to over thirty recordings since 1985, including the Grammy nominated 2013 release Blind Pig recording "Remembering Little Walter", part of the Blues Harmonica Blowout cd series Hummel started in 1991. These events have featured every major legend (Mayall, Musselwhite, Cotton, etc.) on blues harp as well as almost every player of note on the instrument- a who's who of players.

Mark Hummel is a road warrior - a true Blues Survivor. Along the way, he has crafted his own trademark harmonica sound - a subtle combination of tone, phrasing and attack combined with a strong sense of swing. Mark has been with ElectroFi Records since 2000, releasing five CDs. Hummel was born in New Haven, CT but raised in Los Angeles till he graduated high school. Mark moved to the Berkeley at age 18 to pursue a career in blues music, where he felt the music was taken more seriously. 

Mark started the Blues Survivors in 1977 with Mississippi Johnny Waters. By 1984 Hummel began a life of non- stop touring of US, Canada and overseas, which he still continues at least 130-150 days out of each year. Hummel has toured or recorded with blues legends Charles Brown, Charlie Musselwhite, Lowell Fulson, Billy Boy Arnold, Carey Bell, Lazy Lester, Brownie McGhee, Eddie Taylor, Luther Tucker and Jimmy Rogers.

Hummel penned a memoir in 2012 for Mountain Top Publishing, "BIG ROAD BLUES: Twelve Bar On I-80". Besides the Blowouts Hummel has continued the Blues Survivors plus an All Star side project called Golden State/Lone Star Revue with Anson Funderburgh & Little Charlie Baty. This group appears on Hummel's ElectroFi CD "The Hustle Is Really On". Mark won two Blues Award (Blues Foundation) in 2014 for the tribute album "Remembering Little Walter" (Blind Pig).

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.

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.

"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."

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 (Mayall, Estrin, Salgado & 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 with Charlie Musselwhite, Rick Estrin & Curtis Salgado)

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, Willie Smith, 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 Charles Brown, Carey Bell and Lowell Fulson which you’d like to share with us?

Guys like Carey 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 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 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 last week when talking to Bob Stroger, Billy Flynn, Musselwhite, Elvin, Billy Boy, 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!

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

Brownie 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 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!

"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 & Eddie Taylor)

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.

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!!

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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