Q&A with Pittsburgh-based harmonica player/singer, Charlie Barath, enamored with traditional roots styles

"Music, in fact art in all forms, has always been a vehicle for inspiration and change in our world, at least in Western society. Sometimes art impacts our world at large indirectly through cultural influences, be it fashion, language, recreation, etc. Sometimes it's a more direct approach through protest songs, or songs that simply call attention to issues that affect specific communities."

Charlie Barath: Just Me and My Friend​(​s)

Enamored with traditional styles, Pittsburgh-based harmonica player and singer, Charlie Barath, directs most of his efforts toward performing Blues, Americana, Folk, Cajun; mostly anything that is considered to be traditional music. He started his musical journey when he purchased his first Marine Band harmonica in the late 70s and began playing in the traditional Straight Harp style in which the diatonic harmonica was designed to be played. As time progressed, Charlie discovered more paths to travel with his instrument and continues to explore these options today. Blues became a major focus in his playing and performing but he is always delving into other traditional flavors with his playing. "If you stop learning, you cease to grow and your journey is over." Charlie stays busy performing with many of the amazing musicians in and around the upper Ohio Valley in Duo, Trio and Band projects, not to mention the occasional Solo set.

(Charlie Barath / Photo by Kevin Stiffler)

Teaching experience includes a stint for Calliope House of Pittsburgh as well as seminars at various events and private lessons for individuals of all levels. His new album released in May 2021 and titled “Just Me and My Friend​(​s)”. Charlie says: “I put together this specific collection of songs for two reasons: To demonstrate the diversity in my songwriting as well as my Harmonica playing and my Vocals. And to shine a spotlight on some of the amazing and talented people that I am fortunate to work with on a regular basis, AND call my friends. I am thrilled to be able to present this music to the listening public, and I truly hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I've enjoyed creating it.”

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Knowing the history of American Blues - the dark place in which it was born, coupled with the strength and hope that darkness inspired - keeps me mindful and respectful of the art form. I strive to do justice to that history whenever I write, record, or perform this music. Authentic Blues can simultaneously demonstrate the darkness and the resolute strength of human nature, which can be a very powerful guide through life.

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

I would have to say my sound and style is primarily influenced by traditional American music as well as ethnic music from around the world. Much of what I write is inspired directly from personal experiences, or things I have witnessed, though much of it comes right out of my imagination. That being said, I believe all art has been influenced at least partly by something that came before it.

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

A musician friend that I greatly respect once said, "Music is a business of relationships." How right he was! Meeting and networking with people in the music world is indispensable to moving forward as you go further in your career, assuming that is your goal, and ALWAYS remember that it's better to make a friend than an adversary. (True in all aspects of life, in my humble opinion!) The best musical advice I have ever received is to Serve The Song, and Listen!

"Knowing the history of American Blues - the dark place in which it was born, coupled with the strength and hope that darkness inspired - keeps me mindful and respectful of the art form. I strive to do justice to that history whenever I write, record, or perform this music. Authentic Blues can simultaneously demonstrate the darkness and the resolute strength of human nature, which can be a very powerful guide through life." (Photo: Charlie Barath)

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

Innovation and creative freedom for the artist. As I stated earlier, "all art has been influenced at least partly by something that came before it." Music has been evolving since the first note was played. Once you hear something, it will forever be a part of what you do moving forward, intentionally or otherwise. Music is a living thing that constantly grows and changes, becoming a mixture of other styles that influence the direction of any given genre. This has been a driving force in all music innovation since day one. Unfortunately, the business end of things is also a driving force. Because of this "Is it salable?" approach in the industry, much of the corporate mainstream music has become very formulated and bland. The bright side of today's digital platforms, it's easier for the independent artist to create some very cool content and get it out into the public's ears. The hard part is getting wider distribution. I'm afraid mainstream music will continue to follow the formulas that benefit the industry, though more indie artists will continue to buck that trend.

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

We all have stories to share, many of which are not fit to print. LOL! I will say that some, if not all, of my favorite memories are because of the people, either people with whom I've shared the studio or the bandstand, or the people in the audience. When you connect with another human being through music, especially something you've created, there's not much that tops that!

What touched you from the sound of harmonica? What are the secrets of "Mississippi saxophone"?

The Harmonica is such a personal, expressive, and emotive instrument, it's hard to imagine not being touched by its sound. To be sure, in the wrong hands it can be a harsh ice-pick in the ears, but in the hands of the right player, it can add emotions to a song that will be long lasting and forever tied to that particular piece of music. The secrets of the Mississippi Saxophone? Less is more! If you endeavor to play this instrument, always remember to RELAX and BREATHE. And know that it is a musical instrument which takes countless hours/years to gain any level of proficiency. If it's instant gratification you're looking for, get a kazoo.                          (Charlie Barath / Photo by Karin McIltrot)

"I would have to say my sound and style is primarily influenced by traditional American music as well as ethnic music from around the world. Much of what I write is inspired directly from personal experiences, or things I have witnessed, though much of it comes right out of my imagination. That being said, I believe all art has been influenced at least partly by something that came before it."

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

Definitely people skills. Working with other musicians, promoters, venue owners and managers, media, as well as the listening public can be a joyful and/or painful experience. Valuing other people's time, opinion, and skill set is important in everything one does in life. Being engaging and easy to work with doesn't come easy for everyone, but it sure goes a long way in life.

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

Music, in fact art in all forms, has always been a vehicle for inspiration and change in our world, at least in Western society. Sometimes art impacts our world at large indirectly through cultural influences, be it fashion, language, recreation, etc. Sometimes it's a more direct approach through protest songs, or songs that simply call attention to issues that affect specific communities. My approach to "changing the world" is like a pebble cast into still waters - it may be a small pebble, but the rings that grow outward can do so indefinitely. I believe that if you create a song that inspires an emotion, positive or negative, you have accomplished something. Creating music that reaches people on a personal level and makes them feel something is the ultimate reward for a song writer. Making human connections is how the human race wins!

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

Good question - no easy answer! As far as music is concerned, I suppose it would be amazing to be hanging around a studio while some of my favorite music was being recorded, perhaps an early Chess session with Muddy Waters and his band, or perhaps Sun Studios watching some of those early sessions with (insert classic name here) Spending the day studying with John Lee Williamson would be pretty amazing! How about hanging out with Mississippi John Hurt on his front porch? Again there's no easy answer to this question, at least for me.

Charlie Barath - Home

(Photo: Charlie Barath)

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