Polypragmon in blues world Lou Wolfenson talks about Muddy, Cotton, Dixon and his blues experiences

"I don’t think you can read about it to pick up techniques, body language and style. There’s only so much you can imagine reading but experiencing first hand it the best."

Lou Wolfenson: World Blues Lovers United

Louis 'Wolf' Wolfenson was raised in a Jewish family and born in Philadelphia, PA. Lou’s first guitar was a gift at age 16 where his best friend, Mike Campbell, and took lessons together and formed the band Iron Gate. The band cut a 45 rpm in a limited edition of just 500 records, also made it onto a compilation LP of 60’s Garage Bands and written into the book “Fuzz, Acid & Flowers” by Vernon Joynson.

Sadly moving away again from the area he married and had his first child at age 19. Music took a back seat to raising a family and working now that he graduated high school. Years went by making ends meet until exposure to James Cotton which began his entry into the Blues Society scene. Bucks County Blues Society was founded in July 1977 by Tom Cullen, Lou Wolfenson and Alex Hastie. Lou left the society in 1979 and currently resides in Hawaii as a prominent blues agitator.

As his son Erik grew older, he taught him guitar where he was featured at age 6 between the sets of headlining Blues artists from Professor Longhair, George Thorogood, Lamont Cranston Band, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and many others. As Erik grew older, age 10, he needed some additional support where started a band called “Little Wolf & The Pack.” Little Wolf became a local featured artist at Bucks County Blues Society events. Another list of Blues Legends became written into his resume like Willie Dixon, Fenton Robinson, James Cotton and the list goes on. 

Lou moved to Hawaii for 16 years where I was the founding President of the Hawaiian Blues Society & the Maui Blues Association. His 1st event in Hawaii featured Grammy award winning Blues artist John Hammond Jr. The Blues caught on life wild fire across the Hawaiian Islands. Meeting Les Hershhorn, a long time promoter from Ohio and worked together bring in events to Hawaii. After two years he landed in Naples, FL where auditioned and got the part on a musical called “Pump Boys & Dinettes.” Fate seemed to follow along as during rehearsals Lou applied for a property manager’s position on Marco Island, FL. That was nine years ago and he still there today playing the music that love, doing community theater still, working & playing softball in a senior league. As Joe Walsh sang, “Life’s Been Good To Me So Far!”

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues culture and what does the “Blues” mean to you?

I first discovered the Blues growing up as a young teen listening to the Rolling Stones, Animals, Eric Clapton etc. Little did I realize at the time was that these musicians found the Blues from the original cats in Chicago. I dug deeper and discovered quite a lot more from guys like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson and so many others. Listening to the “Real” Blues men I felt their pain in the stories told via their music. I related to it with the turmoil going on in my life growing up and moving around as a child of a mother married five times, nine schools before graduating high school & loosing friends after meeting them. When I founded my 1st Blues organization it became a family of friends that shared a common bond.

"Listening to the 'Real' Blues men I felt their pain in the stories told via their music." (Photo: Lou 'Wolf' Wolfenson and the late Chicago bluesman Junior Wells)

How important was music in your life? How does the Blues culture and music affect your mood and inspiration?

I started learning guitar at age 16 and it helped me get through high school graduation. A short story about that: I was failing English in my senior year and my teacher said that for me to graduate I would need an A+ in the final grade to equal a D (just passing grade) to complete the course for the year. Luckily for me that it was about demonstrating something while discussing it for at least 5 minutes.  Other kids had a hard time talking that long while demonstrating a task. I started the period and did a complete 45 minute production and show on guitar!  I was elated to say the least and passed the test with flying colors and graduated school. 

When I feel sad there’s nothing like putting on some tunes to raise my spirits as I jam along with the music picking up some new licks on my six string. It’s very relaxing and takes my mind off of my worries while giving me ideas about things to see and do in life.  It’s a journey and an adventure that I’m enjoying growing older.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best advice ever given you?

The most I’ve learned was speaking with, listening to and watching the Blues greats do their thing on stage. I don’t think you can read about it to pick up techniques, body language and style. There’s only so much you can imagine reading but experiencing first hand it the best. Willie Dixon once told me to feel and live the blues to write and play them better. In promoting Blues events I’ve always felt that you have to go for it with no fear of a bad turnout. Don’t worry about loosing money just promote the shit out of every production, let folks know and learn about the Blues, Blues artists and the history of this fantastic musical art form.

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

At 63 years of age now I’ve lived what seem to be several lifetimes. Various periods of growth and adapting to being a husband, father, musician to promoter, playing sports and doing Community Theater. My career is in property management and the Blues was a hobby. From all of this it’s hard to choose just one moment since it all evolved from Woodstock on. Being married and having my 1st son at age 19 had to be the most interesting moving into teaching my son guitar and being the founding President of the worlds oldest continually active Blues Society in Bucks County, PA. I started BCBS to raise money for my softball team that turned into a huge success. Hiring Bluesmen Legends to play for me was a fantastic mind blowing experience. The worst moment in promoting was loosing over $3,500 in a night with Steppenwolf. That’s part of the business – you win some and you loose some. It all balances out but ending ahead is much more rewarding. Loosing money wasn’t that bad when it was like I had a private party with friends and John Kay & Steppenwolf came to entertain us all !                         (Photo: Lou Wolfenson & Clarence Gatemouth Brown)

You have come to know great bluesmen. Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

James Cotton was the first Blues great I met and the show he put on was simply amazing. I recall a rainy night in Philadelphia going to a small Blues club that only had about 20 folks in attendance. We sat in the front row up to a stage that was about a foot off of the floor. I learned that night why they call him SuperHarp. And what a tight band/set too with Matt “Guitar” Murphy at his side. In between sets I went over to speak with James and his manager saying that I could get a lot more folks to show up if I threw a party with my friends.  So I asked, “How much money do you need to come and play for me?”  When they said just $500 I was amazed that is was about the same as our local bar bands. James was a Bluesman who played with Muddy Waters so, that was the starting point for me in the promotion business. I started from the ground up building a terrific reputation as many booking agents want a proven track record before they will sell you their artist. This was my stepping stone that led to a long line of Blues productions that followed from Bucks County to Hawaii.

Which memory makes you smile?  Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

I could write a book of the moments I’ve smiled over the years.  Having Muddy Waters play for me was one, opening for John Mayall, Dr. John, Kansas & a host of others plus to hang out with them, have a drink or smoke with them hearing stories of their lives could always put a smile on not only my face but anyone who joined me during these special moments. Early on we did a Halloween show with Albert Collins that was marvelous. If you ever shook his hand alone you’d know what I mean aside from walking through a crowded fire hall making faces at everyone in wild costumes while just ripping it up on that Telecaster of his. Local musicians read about Albert and wondered, “Who is this Master of the Telecaster?” He showed them!

"It’s clear that the legacy is the music itself that turned the Blues into Rock & Roll. There’s no doubt that the Beatles, Animals, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and others wouldn’t have grown without their roots in the Blues." (Photo: Lou Wolfenson & Gregg Allman)

What do you miss most nowadays from the old days of Blues? How has the blues world changed over the years?

Well, I miss the youth and energy I had as well as missing all the amazing Bluesmen that passed away. There will never be another Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Hooker, Cotton and all the rest. The Blues world has changed and in some ways for the better. Of course it’s a little bit more rockin’ and the Jump Blues is more danceable. I don’t see any new mainstream Bluesmen but a few old cats like Buddy Guy still carry the torch. I met Buddy and his wife in Hawaii during a sold out event on the Big Island in 1991. He wanted two Fender Super Reverb amps, which were provided, and every single know was turned to 10 !!! He used the peddles from the flower lei around his neck to gently move along the neck of his guitar making Hendrix style sounds (or Jimi made Buddy Guy sounds.)  Then the lei broke and he looked up at everyone and said, “Now I really have the Blues.” Well, the crowd erupted to such a roar I couldn’t believe. I’m getting chocked up just recalling that night. What a man !!!

Some music stars can be fads but the bluesmen are always with us. What means to be Bluesman?

Some folks may have various opinions about this subject. Is it living a hard life on the road or paying your dues? For me it’s all in the music and how they interpret their emotions and feelings into what they play. The real Bluesmen we know like Muddy and all the rest it was a life long commitment to their art. Maybe for them in the beginning they didn’t realize that the Blues was becoming America’s oldest musical art form. They played to earn a living doing what they loved and knew the most. It’s not an easy life even today playing music for a living. A very small percentage of musicians make it to the fame and fortune super star status. For most it’s doing what they love with friends who share that common bond.

If you could change one thing in the Blues world and it would become a reality, what would that be?        (Photo: Lou Wolfenson & Jimmy Rogers)

Hmm – does that include bring them back from the dead? I’d love to see a reality show on TV that follows the life of a Bluesman. There is so much crap on TV these days it’s hard to imagine folks are watching that shit. Come on and give me a real life show about what it’s like to be a Bluesman on the road playing music. I’d watch it and am sure it’d be a hit. MTV sold out and it’s not even a music television show any more. It’s more about the drama of teen age or punk ass reality shows for folks who want to be on the tube so badly they will do ANYTHING !!!

What's the legacy of Blues in the world culture and civilization? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

It’s clear that the legacy is the music itself that turned the Blues into Rock & Roll. There’s no doubt that the Beatles, Animals, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and others wouldn’t have grown without their roots in the Blues. Let’s give it up to the Little Richard’s & Chuck Berry’s of their day to inspire guys like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and others to expand on the same old same old. Love to hear some gospel thrown in there too.

What's been your experience as educator? Which is the relationship southern folklore and new generation?

Well, I’m not an educator per say but I have shown a lot of folks the light of day when it comes to the Blues. Not just for them to hear it but to play it and promote it too. South Blues turned into a bit of Country and then into Country Rock where it seems most folks are headed these days. Country music has its roots in the Blues but has managed to become more main stream. There are televised awards shows for Country, Rock, Movies, TV, Kids etc. but the Blues awards is still in the closet on a much smaller stage not known to the majority that it even exists. I was proud to see Bluesmen like Buddy Guy & B. B. King on the big stage being acknowledged at the Kennedy Center Honors in front of our President and the distinguished crowd.

"The Blues world has changed and in some ways for the better. Of course it’s a little bit more rockin’ and the Jump Blues is more danceable." (Photo: Lou "Wolf" & Elvin Bishop)

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

What touches me is some of the music when I sit back and listen to it.  There’s a great version of Over the Rainbow by Papa John Creech that always brings a tear to my eye. I laugh thinking about what I’ve accomplished in life with the Blues, family, sports and travel.  Growing up in a broken home with a mother who was married 5 times, going to 9 schools before graduating, moving after just making friends and living in an orphanage made me want to end my life at times. But, it only has given me courage & made me stronger.

What are the lines that connect the Blues from South to Bucks County and continue to Hawaii and beyond?

I’ve been married a few times myself and continued to move around as an adult. It must have been imbedded in me growing up. I took my skills & knowledge of the Blues to Hawaii where I lived for 16 years. With no Blues scene there I started one again by placing a simple ad in the newspaper stating, “Blues Lovers Unite.”

Where would you really wanna go via a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in?

Personally I’m always looking forward and believe that we are living in the future. You don’t have to look far to see where we are now from where we were 100 years ago. So many take what we have for granted. How quickly you can travel from one side of the Earth to the other, live in a beautiful home with amenities not thought of a few generations ago, drive from place to place effortlessly instead of jumping on a horse to get to town for basic necessities, cell phones, computers, indoor plumbing etc. (I’m smiling now) If I were to travel back in time it wouldn’t be before the invention of electricity. Maybe the roaring 20’s and see what it was like for Bluesmen like Robert Johnson at the Crossroads. If I brought anything with me and get caught I’d be thought of as an alien or somebody from the future, which I am ! 

All Photos © Courtesy by Lou Wolfenson

     

 

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