Q&A with East Coast singer/harmonicist johnny hoy (and the bluefish), a band specializes in bluesy dance music

"Sometimes it feels like a good performance can really help people through their week. It gives them a shot of juice and keeps a positive attitude going in their lives at least for a little while. The healing power of the blues and music in general can’t be underestimated. Musicians have responsibilities in this regard."

Johnny Hoy: Dancing With The Blues

johnny hoy and the bluefish formed in 1991, the band has evolved through many incarnations, three Tone Cool and two self-produced CDs, trips around the world as far as South Africa and mostly the joys of playing a lot of music on Martha's Vineyard where most of them live. The band started out as a four-piece with no piano, became a five-piece for several years, and then returned to a four-piece configuration, this time with no bass, and it's been that way for over the years. Johnny Hoy juggles a full life where he takes advantage of his many skills including stone masonry, fishing, antique dealing, farming. Somehow he manages to do all the gigs as well. He came to the Island in 1978, after soaking up Muddy Waters’ and Tom Waits’ shows as a teenager.

(johnny hoy, Hell Norway 2023 / Photo © by Aigars Lapsa)

John Cravin Hoy became a musician more by default than plan. He experienced a nomadic childhood with his parents’ divorcing when he was 10. He ricocheted from coast to coast visiting his mother and father, hitchhiking and stowing-away on freight trains. Never graduating high-school, Hoy did a round of various labouring jobs, even passing a brief stint with a circus. Wherever he travelled, he always had a harmonica in his pocket, which he described as ‘just a kind of companion’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his rootless, lonely existence drew him towards the blues, finding rhythm in the pace of his footsteps. He jammed with other musicians when he met them but never formed long-term partnerships. The decision to play professionally was cemented by the birth of his daughter and a new-found sense of commitment. johnny hoy and the bluefish saw over 30 personnel changes over the years, with Hoy, always shifting direction with whatever current members’ inclinations and influences led them.

Interview by Michael Limnios                        Photos © by Aigars Lapsa & Dan Busler

How has the Blues and Roots music influenced your views of the world? Where does your creative drive come from?

I think I was receptive to the blues for a few reasons. I grew up walking everywhere and started doing agricultural labor when my mom moved us to the Connecticut River valley when I was 12 or 13. In that area, every able bodied child in town was expected to pitch in year round and especially at harvest time. Us kids were an important source of labor. We learned to work a long day and get a lot done, and in doing that, you naturally end up at the pace and rhythm of the blues. Once you get used to it, it’s oddly satisfying. It goes deep into you wether you know it or not. The sound of a 2 cylinder tractor, your feet patting the ground, a tobacco hatchet’s rhythm, the rhythms of work are all in blues music.

What would you say characterizes MA/Island/Boston blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

In Laguna Beach where I was in high school I was lucky enough to see Hollywood Fats with Larry Taylor and Al Blake and probably Richard Innes at the White House every time they played. So the bar was set pretty high for me. All these guys had great bands. So in addition to responding to the charismatic front men I became aware of the irresistible power of a great band functioning as a powerful organism.

"I think our sound is kind of unique and people like it. Our brand of blues is for dancing and feeling! Both your partner and something deep inside. There are so many ways to reach people, even if they don’t think they like blues." (johnny hoy and the bluefish / Photo © by Dan Busler)

What moment changed your music life the most?

When I first heard my buddy play the Hootchy Cootchy man lick, I asked for the harp. For some reason I was able to do it. The full bend on the 2 hole just happened. A week later with the same buddy I found myself at the Shaboo Inn in Willamantic CT standing 8 feet from James Cotton. I was 17 and in disguise with a fake mustache because the drinking age at that time was 18. (I guess it was an American social experiment. They figured if you could vote and go over to Viet Nam and get shot you might as well be able to drink.) Something happened to me there. I saw a man that was so intensely invested in what he was doing that it made a huge impression on me and not just musically. I saw an approach to life and a dedication to a craft that crystallized in my young mind. I came back again and again for more. I was lucky enough to absorb that stuff at close range, standing directly in front of Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Tom Waits, James Montgomery, Freddy King. When you’re young and impressionable, these experiences go deep and they don’t wash out.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

I think our sound is kind of unique and people like it. Our brand of blues is for dancing and feeling! Both your partner and something deep inside. There are so many ways to reach people, even if they don’t think they like blues.

What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

Eventually in my 30’s when my first child came along, I decided to try to be a good example for her. Part of that was to be fearless in following your dreams, and though I was deep into it as a masonry contractor, and commercial fishing on the side, I had always wanted to be a musician. So, with my ex-wife we started a band. It was a blues band but we quickly learned that it was tough to find both the right musicians and the right audience to be a pure blues band on an island. But we got out there and started working and never looked back.                 (johnny hoy / Photo © by Dan Busler)

"A friend told me once “I’ve let music down, but music’s never let me down “. I bear this in mind. Lately, for the first time in my life at the ripe old age of 66 I have the time to think about music more and let it be more of a part of my daily life than ever and folks seem to appreciate it. I know it feels good to me."

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

In my last year of high school , with a parent on each coast, I hitch hiked and rode freight trains out to California. Talk about blues rhythms. I had a harmonica and I did play that harp until my lips bled and it was a way of life for awhile.

What touched you from the fishing, antique dealing, and farming? What do you think is key to a life well lived?

Nowadays I market fish half the year and with fish it’s the same. Every day you have to crack that code and get them to bite. You have to be creative and try new things. It’s all transferable back and forth from fish to music to building a stone fireplace. You may have to think outside the box, you may have to dig deep back down to the very basics, You may have to compromise and meet in the middle somewhere. But whatever you do you do your best.

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

Sometimes it feels like a good performance can really help people through their week. It gives them a shot of juice and keeps a positive attitude going in their lives at least for a little while. The healing power of the blues and music in general can’t be underestimated. Musicians have responsibilities in this regard.

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

A friend told me once “I’ve let music down, but music’s never let me down “. I bear this in mind. Lately, for the first time in my life at the ripe old age of 66 I have the time to think about music more and let it be more of a part of my daily life than ever and folks seem to appreciate it. I know it feels good to me.

johnny joy and the bluefish - Home

(johnny hoy, Hell Norway 2023 / Photo © by Aigars Lapsa)

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