Q&A with harmonica virtuoso Martin Lang, captures the wailing urgency that makes Chicago blues harp famous worldwide

"Well, I hope music can help people form relationships with those others that are as different from them as I am from someone like Taildragger; in my relationship with him, the subject of race is literally a  joke. We know each other well enough to know that we are truly more alike than different, because of the music."

Martin Lang: Old Good Days of Blues Harp

Martin Lang is an American blues harp player, vocalist and songwriter, known for traditional Chicago Blues harp in the style of Little Walter, Leon Brooks and Slim Willis. He has released albums under his name on New York-based Random Chance Records, and has played harp in Chicago for nearly three decades. Focused on tone and “weight,” an elusive characteristic of electric blues harp, Lang has learned from those close to the original art form. From backing legendary Bluesmen including Tail Dragger, plus Willie Buck and Oscar Wilson, and playing with Pinetop Perkins, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Sam Lay, Willie Smith and Dave Myers while touring the U.S. and Europe, Lang’s no-nonsense approach is steeped in the power of Blues. Formerly a French horn player, he landed in Chicago from the East Coast, coming to study law and philosophy. Enamored by the fading world of the Chicago Blues, Lang secured the groove and the love of music from players known and unknown, forging his own strong thread in the fabric of Chicago Blues. As a session player on Chicago’s venerated Delmark Records and independent works, Lang has contributed to albums in a broad range of styles.

(Martin Lang / Photo by Hannah Frank)

Versatile but forever loyal to the groove, Martin’s playing continues to evolve as his spirit leads him from sideman to artist, leading deeper into the Blues. Recent releases include Bad Man (2020), Ain’t No Notion (2017), Chicago Blues Harp Sessions (2015). Lang has appeared on WGN Radio, at festivals including Chicago Blues Fest and Mississippi Saxophone Fest, and is a Chicago Hall of Fame Master Blues Artist. Creating his own clinics and workshops, he offers musicians interested in blues harp one of the most powerful learning experiences, drawing on both his skills and stories to bring the Blues to life. Martin Lang is laying down harp and picking up vocals on the new Bad Man album on Random Chance Records (2020). On Bad Man, veteran playing and new energy of Frank Krakowski (guitar), Billy Flynn (guitar, mandolin), Illinois Slim (bass), Gerry Hundt (organ), David Waldman (piano) and Dean Hass (drums), support Lang on twelve songs ranging from vocal numbers to instrumentals, with new originals and interpretations of deep cuts.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

The blues to me is a way of life. A way of seeing life, and making music from that. I learned about myself that the blues is a form of music that's so beautiful and great that it doesn't need much help from me.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I think of my sound as real old-style Chicago harp blues. Tone, groove, and economy. In terms of this record, I had everything on the line. It was do it or die. I had to change gears. It really was past time for me to do this.    (Martin Lang / Photo by Michael Kurgansky)

"The most important person I met here in Chicago was definitely Taildragger. I learned a lot about the music from him. Not the harp specifically, about blues music. The best advice I ever heard was to lay back and wait and take your time. I listen to the drummer, play along with him, in most cases."

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

The most important thing I learned was that it is in letting go that there's freedom in the music, not in holding on to more control. If you try to impose yourself on the music, your reward will be less of a positive impact. I had to learn that, to let the music breathe, which involves letting go of control. It's very Zen, but I'm not usually a Zen guy lol...

Why do you think that Chicago Blues Scene continues to generate such a devoted following?

Chicago style music sounds (when it's right) sexy and dangerous and cool. That's why people always like it, and why it has such devoted followers, I think.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I remember once being onstage alone with Eddie Taylor, Jr., in Amsterdam, which is a big venue. It was just us two, no bass, no other guitar except Eddie, no drums. Just harp and guitar, and I had a big amp and my little Electro Voice mike I'd gotten from Fishman at the Delta Fish Market. Eddie did Crawling King Snake and I remember thinking "This is gonna be hard" in terms of blending the sounds of my harp and his guitar, because he was still playing a lot of the top parts. But it worked out beautiful.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The most important person I met here in Chicago was definitely Taildragger. I learned a lot about the music from him. Not the harp specifically, about blues music. The best advice I ever heard was to lay back and wait and take your time. I listen to the drummer, play along with him, in most cases.

"The blues to me is a way of life. A way of seeing life, and making music from that. I learned about myself that the blues is a form of music that's so beautiful and great that it doesn't need much help from me." (Martin Lang & Taildragger, at B.L.U.E.S., 2015 Chicago IL / Photo by Michael Kurgansky)

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

What I miss most is the black clubs and the Fish Market and the whole West Side blues scene. It was great, as much fun as a person could have. The people in the club were part of the music. It was call and response amongst the musicians but also amongst the musicians and the people. Those people knew about blues. They understood blues. They're gone, and I miss them. What I hope that blues lives on, in the hearts of the musicians of the future. A great deal can be learned from records. A great deal cannot. As for the future I consider myself realistic but hopeful.

What touched you from the sound of Harmonica? You studied law and philosophy, how has influenced your views of the world?

Something about the sound of the harp that I heard Little Walter make spoke to me clearly and immediately. It was the clearest thing I ever heard or knew of. I knew almost immediately upon hearing him playing his own stuff for the first time that I wanted to try it. It was exactly like the first hit of a really great drug, the best ever. I heard "My Babe" and completely freaked out.

I asked Lee "Little Wolf" Solomon, who I met at Ohio and Hamlin on the West Side, what was the blues? He was from Tallulah, Louisiana.  He replied "Cryin' for your mama. We all be cryin'. Cryin for your mama."

What is the impact of Blues on the socio-cultural implications?  How do you want it to affect people?

Well, I hope music can help people form relationships with those others that are as different from them as I am from someone like Taildragger; in my relationship with him, the subject of race is literally a joke. We know each other well enough to know that we are truly more alike than different, because of the music.

"The most important thing I learned was that it is in letting go that there's freedom in the music, not in holding on to more control. If you try to impose yourself on the music, your reward will be less of a positive impact. I had to learn that, to let the music breathe, which involves letting go of control. It's very Zen, but I'm not usually a Zen guy lol..."

(Martin Lang, an American blues harp player, vocalist and songwriter, known for traditional Chicago Blues harp / Photo by Michael Kurgansky)

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

Not that easy a question, but I'll say a multiple bill featuring Little Walter with the Aces at the Royal  Peacock anytime around 1955 or 56. Or maybe Muddy's early band in Chicago. That's a tough question!

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