Interview with versatile one-man band Dave Harris, a veteran buskin' musician who live with the blues

"The blues is based on emotions, sad but also happy. The release of emotions gives me a sense of catharsis and makes me feel better (and hopefully the audience too)."

Dave Harris: On The Road Again

Dave Harris was born in 1956 in Columbus, Ohio and in 1962 moved with his parents to Toronto, Canada where he grew up. Dave moved to Victoria, BC in 1976 and started busking shortly thereafter. He loved music from a very early age but it took him awhile to discover the Blues that has become his passion. He is a versatile multi-talented musicia; where has spent many years street performing and playing the Victoria club and festival circuit. For more than three dedicates music has been Dave’s sole means of employment; playing in various Blues bands, duos and solo, writing many articles and CD reviews over the years, as well as producing countless CDs and DVDs for sale and has published a book which serves as a comprehensive guide to one-man bands both past and present, titled Head, Hands, & Feet: A Book of One Man Bands.

Photo by Wayne Wiens

Dave’s solo performances led him to the one-man band style act that has proved to be a very successful career for him. Dave loves performing for people from all over the world and has developed his original one-man band show from a simple guitar, rack harp and foot operated drums to his current show, which includes two steel body guitars, twelve string guitar, fotdella (foot operated bass), mandolin, banjo, two fiddles, harps, suitcase kick drum, high-hat and various noisemakers. The veteran musician performs his original tunes as well as many of the lesser-known Blues classics and he is renowned for his harmonica playing as well as his expertise on both acoustic and electric guitar. Dave is currently writing a book on one-man bands and continues to make festival appearances and teach at various workshops.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I’ve learned a lot about myself from the blues. It has changed the way that I express myself by opening me up to my emotions. I struggled as a child and teenager to express myself. Getting deep into the blues allowed me to open up more. The blues is based on emotions, sad but also happy. The release of emotions gives me a sense of catharsis and makes me feel better (and hopefully the audience too).

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

This is hard to say really, as many things have triggered song ideas. Certainly romantic breakups are almost guaranteed to inspire songs but I’ve been happily with the same woman for almost thirty years so that hasn’t influenced me recently. A friend died and that inspired a good song. Seeing the inequalities in life has inspired quite a few. Seeing people being greedy has inspired a few too.

"Blues is the dominant one but also country, folk, bluegrass, Celtic, swing, rock, soul, rockabilly, some jazz, classical (my earliest influence), Latin, prog rock and more." (Photo by Armstrong Creative)

How do you describe Dave Harris sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Hmm, another hard one! I try to reach back to older music for much of what I do. I constantly look to older styles. At the same time, I have tried to extend my abilities to play several instruments at once. I have achieved a bit of my own identity with this approach. Playing fiddle and harmonica together, slide guitar and harmonica, mandolin and harmonica, lead guitar and harmonica; these are things I found for myself without influence from others (I know there are others that do lead and harp but I wasn’t influenced by them at first). So, this is my progressive side. When I combine these with my foot operated drums and fotdella I feel I am extending myself to my limits. My sound is a mixture of all of my influences and includes the many genres I have played throughout my career. Blues is the dominant one but also country, folk, bluegrass, Celtic, swing, rock, soul, rockabilly, some jazz, classical (my earliest influence), Latin, prog rock and more.

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

This is hard to say. I guess the most interesting period was when I first started to be a one man band (mid 90s). I’m talking about musically. I was really extending myself, trying to find out what I could do by myself. Then in 2000 I was the subject of a documentary (Crowded at the Bottom, named after one of my songs). This was a definite highlight. I’m not sure I can pin down a “best” or “worst” moment. Being told I was the “worst singer I’ve ever heard!” would be one bad one. That was early in my busking days. Being a busker has challenges, dealing with drunks, mentally ill, addicts but the biggest is just the look on some people’s faces or if a kid goes by and covers his ears. Another bad band experience was at a fairly high profile festival gig here in Victoria. Our bass players had a heart attack onstage and we had to rush him to hospital after a fireman performed CPR on him onstage for quite awhile. That was very traumatic.  

"We are lucky in that we can easily hear so much old music these days. I started as an LP collector (still am one) and it was hard to find things sometimes. Now, with youtube and the internet, it is easy." (Photo by Alex McGrath)

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

I think it is the emotional truth of it that brings people into it. However, there are a lot of people that play it badly (the famous Sonny Boy quote, “They want to play it so badly. And they do!”) and this drives lots of people away too. Here, in Victoria, we have a small devoted scene but it is small. Many people play the Clapton/SRV styles but few really delve into the genre in depth. Soul/R&B/Funk/Motown are the popular styles and often get called blues. But I think those who delve into it become hooked, like me. So, I think it will always last but never be mainstream.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jam you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

Hmm, meeting George “Wild Child” Butler at one of my gigs was very memorable. I played him “Crowded at the Bottom” and he loved it. Backing up Freddie Roulette at a folk fest here was memorable. Talking with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown at his shows. We aren’t on the main blues circuit but I have met quite a few great artists over the years. I have countless great memories from busking - kids dancing, big crowds singing along, meeting people from all over the world.

Are there any memories from the road with the blues which you’d like to share with us?

Traveling in Canada is always many hours on the road. It is often 4-500 miles to the next gig. Being on the road in the winter is challenging too with heavy snow, icy roads, extreme cold. But when you get to the next gig it is usually great. The problem these days is that the gigs are usually just one night so it means a LOT of traveling! In the older days lots of rooms were six nights or at least two or three. But, I haven’t done as much traveling as most career musicians. I found a niche here busking and I prefer it mostly. I flew out to a festival near Thunder Bay a few years ago. I took a steel body guitar and a fiddle and mandolin in my suitcase. The festival supplied drums for me. The festival was a lot of fun and went well. But, on the way home, in my haste I neglected to pack my fiddle properly and it got broken on the plane. I had the blues after that one!

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

We are lucky in that we can easily hear so much old music these days. I started as an LP collector (still am one) and it was hard to find things sometimes. Now, with youtube and the internet, it is easy. As to the music itself, I miss the sound of bands playing live (in the studio) and the primitive sound technology. Digital is too clean and bright. It isn’t warm and natural like I grew up on. I do see young kids getting into older styles so I think that the older styles won’t totally die but the experience behind the music isn’t the same and can’t be recaptured. This is just a fact and I don’t think anything can be done about it. I sing many old songs but I realize my past is totally different than Big Bill Broonzy or Tampa red etc. For this reason I try to make the songs my own rather than do a slavish copy. So, it can’t be the same and we need to come to grips with that.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?

Not many people gave me much advice really, that I remember. Reading books about the blues was informative though and one thing I saw many times and deeply believe is “Find your own voice.” “Be true to yourself.” I firmly believe this. As I said, I can’t be Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown or Earl Hooker or Robert Nigfhthawk. I can learn some of their licks, try to assimilate their styles into my own but it has to be me, not them, when I play. This takes a deep commitment to oneself.

"I would’ve loved to meet Robert Nighthawk and busk with him on Maxwell St. Or meet Big Bill and play with him (I had a dream about this which I turned into a song). Or jam with Earl Hooker and Eddie Taylor at Pepper’s Lounge. Or play with Gatemouth." (Photo by Allison Green)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of acoustic folk Blues with the modern electric urban sound?

Hmm, interesting question. The obvious easy link is the Delta blues – Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson through to Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Little Walter through to Earl Hooker, Charlie Musselwhite, Butterfield Blues Band, through to Watermelon Slim, Alvin Youngblood Hart etc. These are just examples. Modern electric blues has deep soul roots too, so it’s informed by Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Ray Charles etc. Also funk plays a big role, as evidenced by guys like Johnny Guitar Watson, James Brown, Bobby Rush, even Albert Collins. Other lines that connect are guys like Lonnie Johnson, who played a very sophisticated style of jazzy blues, through to TBone Walker, BB King, Johnny Moore, through to Hollywood Fats, Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl and the like. Big band music also influenced many of the shouters like Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, which in turn spawned the whole modern swing craze of guys like Colin James, Brian Setzer etc. As to Piedmont blues and the like (which I’d truly call folk blues), I’d say that hasn’t influenced the modern sound much at all, maybe Keb Mo a bit but more guys like Paul Geremia, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, hardly the modern urban blues really. Anyway, an interesting question and hard to answer!

When we talk about Blues usually refer past moments. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Oh sure. The audience and most of the musicians are white so it doesn’t have the same experiences behind it. Some might say that that makes it not real but I disagree. If one studies the genre in depth and taps into their true emotions one can play very real blues. I firmly believe this. Otherwise I’d quit. But the original artists set the bar very high and it takes real commitment to play the blues well. And we can never reach what they reached, much as we can’t reach a Charley Parker or a Marvin Gaye or a Doc Watson. The time is different and they founded the genre. So it is right to revere them.

"I’ve learned a lot about myself from the blues. It has changed the way that I express myself by opening me up to my emotions. I struggled as a child and teenager to express myself. Getting deep into the blues allowed me to open up more."

What are the differences and similarities between Canadian and US blues scene and community?

Hmm, we get a lot of American blues artists playing in Canada and they are a big influence on our scene obviously. The Canadian blues scene is quite small, in a way. There are dedicated clubs that feature mostly blues and both Canadian and American acts play them. We don't have the large African American population as in the US. So, the Canadian scene is even more predominantly white. Canadians are generally less demonstrative too. We do have a number of excellent long standing blues acts in Canada such as Downchild Blues Band, the late Dutch Mason, the late King Biscuit Boy, Big Dave McLean and a few others but, as I said, a much smaller scene generally. A few US artists have moved to Canada too, including Wild Child Butler (RIP), Mel Brown, a few more. Some US artists record in Toronto too. Travel between gigs is longer here, as the US is much denser in population. So, just generally a much smaller scene all around.

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

I’ve been playing with a fourteen year old boy who is really good on the guitar. It has made me feel great sharing my experience and knowledge with him. As to laughing, I can’t think of anything right now but I do laugh a lot too.

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

This is hard to just pick one. Maybe I would go several places in one day… I would’ve loved to meet Robert Nighthawk and busk with him on Maxwell St. Or meet Big Bill and play with him (I had a dream about this which I turned into a song). Or jam with Earl Hooker and Eddie Taylor at Pepper’s Lounge. Or play with Gatemouth. Or…

"Traveling in Canada is always many hours on the road. It is often 4-500 miles to the next gig. Being on the road in the winter is challenging too with heavy snow, icy roads, extreme cold." (Photo by Andrew Lynn)

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