Interview with British folk/blues artist Mark Harrison -- one of the UK's foremost acoustic blues performers

"If you play or listen to blues music of any kind, you are in some way honouring the obscure and undervalued people who invented just about all modern music that it is possible for a decent human being to like!"

Mark Harrison: Brand-New Roots Blues

Mark Harrison writes and performs exclusively his own material, songs for the present that tip their hat to the past. They take as their starting point the pre-war acoustic blues greats but they are wholly individual. Some are firmly rooted in the present and some imagine the past. His material incorporates elements of blues and folk without being entirely either of them. The aim is to produce something new. Mark plays solo and with some of London’s finest roots musicians. Joined by any or all of mandolin, harmonica, double bass, drums, percussion and keyboards, he does acoustic band and electric band sets. Mark Harrison is fast gaining a reputation for making a unique kind of all-original music, based on the style of the early blues and folk/blues artists, with a modern twist and wide appeal. Mark’s songs all have something to say or a story to tell. He is doing something genuinely fresh and different, tapping into the timeless quality of old music to produce something brand new and totally relevant to the present day.

Mark Harrison's previous albums, Crooked Smile (2012) and Watching The Parade (2010), have been unanimously praised by influential and knowledgeable figures across a wide range of areas of the music world, receiving a very great deal of airplay and highly enthusiastic reviews. With 2014 album, THE WORLD OUTSIDE, features original songs that will make you think, make you move and make you smile. Mark Harrison's unique songs are attracting a lot of attention and he has established a growing reputation for the individuality of his music. He takes elements of blues and folk, adding his own twist to produce something totally original. Mark is doing something fresh and different, tapping into the timeless quality of the early blues to produce music totally relevant to the present day. His highly distinctive songs cover a wide range of non-standard topics. They all have something to say or a story to tell. They'll make you move, make you think, make you smile. Mark is a thrilling, rhythmic finger-picker and slide player, with a very distinctive style and sound. He plays a 1934 National resonator guitar and a 12-string guitar as well as singing. Mark’s new album, ON THE CHICKEN SANDWICH TRAIN - LIVE AT WIGAN PARISH CHURCH has just become available.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos Courtesy of Mark Harrison Archive / All Rights Reserved

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

I’ve always been fascinated by ‘blues culture’ in the sense that the music seems to me to be the only kind of ‘proper’ music, with everything else somehow more artificial. It connects with people of all kinds as long as they have the same kind of general attitude to life in common. I’ve always felt a connection with its people even though my life experience has nothing in common with theirs in concrete ways. I’m doing my own version of that music and presenting it to people, but I’m not trying to learn anything about myself, my interest is in creating something totally new from what comes naturally to me in that style.

What does the music mean? I go along with what my friend the great American bluesman Doug MacLeod says: he says it is a mistake people make that blues is about wallowing in misery, in fact it is about overcoming it. It’s about a lot of other things too, not least entertainment, but I reckon that’s a good description.

How do you describe Mark Harrison sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I’m doing brand-new, original songs in the style of the early acoustic blues artists who invented all the music that subsequently swept the world. Many of those people were doing and writing proper songs, with proper tunes, their aim was to entertain and eke out a living by doing so. Many of them had extraordinary and individualistic guitar styles. I’m trying to take all that and do something new and modern with it, and the emphasis is on memorable songs with lyrics that catch people’s attention and are not about the things that most songs are about. I see no reason why you can’t write a blues song today about absolutely any topic. I don’t think the music is at all frozen in the past, or at least it shouldn’t be.

"I think that most of all what is missing in comparison with the past is individuality. That goes for all forms of popular music actually, not just blues." (Ealing Blues Fest./Photo by Paul Dubbelman)

What were the reasons that you start the Roots Blues Folk researches and experiments?

I came back to the music a few years ago, having done no playing or listening to anything for many years. I started to assemble a collection of music and books covering the whole history of blues. And I read those books too!

I got myself a 1934 National guitar and as soon as I got it I found that I could play this kind of music naturally, as if it was someone else doing it. I tried to play what the original guys were playing but I couldn’t do it. I found that in trying to do their songs, I was so far away that I was writing new songs. So I decided to do that. I didn’t want to write them as if I was one of those guys because I’m not. So I started to write them about the kind of things that came into my head. And then I was really up and running.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

I didn’t play anything at all for many years, and then I started this whole thing just a few years ago. So I was starting completely fresh – even though I wasn’t young, it was like starting on something in your youth, in the sense that I had no idea what the music world was like. I just went out to play a bit. Right from the start, I met people, mostly younger ones, playing in London’s blues and roots places, and I felt it was a good place to be. I met the people who played with me from the start, who are on the albums and some of whom have now done hundreds of gigs with me. I didn’t have a plan, I wasn’t aiming at anything, it all just gathered its own momentum. It’s a rare and joyous example (for me anyway) of achieving a lot without the rather desperate feeling of wanting to achieve a lot. It’s just happened, people have liked what I do. And what I do was fully formed when I started, it just seemed to appear out of me as if by magic.

Advice? At that time, I met the people who design all my fantastic album covers. They were important figures in London’s blues scene too and they said to me’ Whatever you do, don’t call yourself blues!’ Of course, everything I do springs from blues but I came to realise that what they meant was that blues for most people today means loud electric rock-type music with long lead guitar solos. I’m not doing anything like that, all my music is song-based, with an acoustic (but not quiet) band, so I don’t really fit with that. So I haven’t limited myself to the blues world, I play at all kinds of places and events. That’s not a criticism of the blues world, where I’ve had great support and much kindness, it’s just to say that what I do extends well beyond that particular genre.  People with no interest in blues like what I do and then become interested in where I got it all from.

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

One special memory of a gig, out of countless that I’ve had, is not long after I got started, when I took the 6-piece band to play at a pretty big and very good folk festival in the south of England. We played on the Saturday night, and it got dark during our set. About half-way through, I saw that the whole field had become packed, everyone at the festival had come to see us. Towards the end, two people got up and started dancing in front of the stage. A few seconds later I looked up and saw that the whole field pf people had got up and were dancing. When we finished, they yelled and yelled for more, and though encores are understandably not allowed at festivals, the stage manager asked us to do one. And still they yelled. To experience that with your comrades, to get that kind of reception for songs you wrote, is very special. I’ve had lots and lots of moments like that, and those moments are really what it’s all about.

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

I think that most of all what is missing in comparison with the past is individuality. That goes for all forms of popular music actually, not just blues. A lot of music made today is more like impersonation of something from the past that was really good, rather than people producing things that are uniquely their own. For example, you could take a standard song from the 1920s/30s, say Stagger Lee, and find maybe 30 artists who did it during that period. And not one of their versions would sound like any other. Their instinct was to do things in their own way.

Hopes and fears, well, I would hope that people catch on to the fact that blues-based music can be as original as any other kind. I was surprised to find how little innovation was happening in blues, unlike, say, folk. It’s as if blues music has to follow a pre-ordained formula, and plough a very narrow furrow. It doesn’t and that is in fact the very opposite of what the original acoustic blues artists were doing. My experience is that if you present people with proper songs and playing in the blues idiom that grabs the attention, they will like this music even if they previously knew nothing about it. If I have a fear, it is that it will simply be a lead-guitar based kind of pseudo-rock music that is played mainly for the benefit of guitarists both on stage and in the audience!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

It would be that blues music done well, and indeed roots music in general, had a much bigger audience. There was a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when this sort of happened, with artists getting signed to major labels, people like The Band being big and folk musicians having their albums up there alongside more mainstream people. But this was a very brief period indeed! The truth is, blues, folk, roots in general, have always been minority things, attracting small but passionate followers. That has its good side too.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Charley Patton with Alexis Korner with your generation?

It is perhaps interesting that blues music started to connect with white folk around about the time it stopped connecting with black folk. No doubt someone has written a book about that! In this country, people got to know about it via various radio shows years ago and because artists like the Stones spoke in awe about the ‘real’ blues artists. Some people checked them out and began a lifelong addiction to the music of those artists, who have never really been surpassed. There is something vital about the feel of it, and the world it creates in your head, that makes it appeal to generation after generation, albeit in relatively small numbers, because so many people don’t know about its existence.

Do you know why the sound of resonator is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of fingerpicking?

Well, resonator guitars were the first form of guitar amplification before electricity. They were created in the 1920s so that a musician had a better chance of being heard in the sort of places where they played – loud juke joints, street corners, etc. The music was there to accompany people’s fun, the people drank and danced and generally made a racket, these were not sit down and listen concerts! The cone (the metal bit that amplifies the sound) made them louder than ordinary guitars. In the 1940s, the electric guitar was invented, and that was the end of resonators. With an electric guitar, you could not only be heard easily, you could also deafen people! There started to be a market for resonators a couple of decades ago, firstly vintage ones and then new ones started to be made again. Some people connect the image of them with blues music, even if they don’t know anything about the music.

The secrets of fingerpicking? I don’t know! I have my own totally individual style, using only thumb and forefinger. People don’t believe that’s all I’m using, sometimes they come to check with me after a gig! I didn’t get taught it, I just developed it myself, it’s what comes naturally to me. I’ve never analysed or dissected it and I don’t want to. You can spoil things by thinking about them.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

If you play or listen to blues music of any kind, you are in some way honouring the obscure and undervalued people who invented just about all modern music that it is possible for a decent human being to like! You are also drawing water from a well of common humanity, a feeling for life that acknowledges the misery and celebrates the joy, sometimes all at the same time.

It’s impossible to be genuinely interested in or perform the music without being aware of the racial implications, and therefore of the dignity with which many people at the time the music was invented, and for many years afterwards, including the present day, endured some of the worst behavior people can inflict on others.

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

I’ve read so much about it that it would be great to spend a day observing a day in the life of Charley Patton, or Son House or Sonny Boy Williamson I in all their glory.

Mark Harrison - Official website


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