“No one wants to see a drunken bluesman anymore”. Pretty profound words from Deak Harp who was just that and as a result, he was considered a five time loser (as in ‘failed rehab five times’), messed up, unreliable, and black balled by just about all the blues clubs in New York and Chicago. “They all had enough of me when I was drinking. I had a bad reputation for being a drunk back then,” Deak recently said in an interview for Blues Blast Magazine. So why is Deak Harp being interviewed in Blues Blast Magazine given his own bleak assessment of the 1990s segment of his career? Quite simply because he survived his two worst enemies: the bottle and himself.
According to Harp, he found himself “sick of being sick” in 2001 and figured he had to stop letting alcohol control him. The complete quote of his sobering revelation goes, “I’ve been sober since 2001 and that’s helped me out a lot. I mean, nobody wants to go see a drunken bluesman anymore. That’s old stuff (from) back in the fish fry days when they would go out to the juke joint after picking cotton all week. These days, people don’t want to pay good money to go see a drunken performer.” With a newly released CD (Clarksdale Breakdown), he has kept himself busy as an in demand harp instructor, a staff writer for Big City Rhythm and Blues Magazine, and as the proprietor of a very unique business in Clarksdale, MS called Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones and Blues Emporium.
Deak’s primary business in Clarksdale is harmonicas. He sells them, fixes them, tunes them, and by all accounts talks about them. Famed harpist Charlie Musselwhite will drop by when he is in town just to hang and talk harmonica for hours. Deak perhaps describes his passion for working on harps best:
“I kind of do what Hohner doesn’t want to do to their harps. It’s not that they’re bad harps, because they’re not. I mean the best harp you can get is the (Hohner) Marine Band harmonica. Almost all the blues players use those. But they have little problems. Years ago, the wood used to swell up and cut your mouth when you got them pretty wet. What I did was to figure out a way to re-seal the cone by taking the harmonica completely apart and eliminating that problem. And I also fine-tune the harmonicas so they are exactly in tune. A lot of professional players that use octaves when they tongue-block – which is an advanced way to play harmonica – those imperfections stick out like a sore thumb, because if you’re trying to play two of the same notes and they don’t ring perfectly together, that drives the artist nuts. So basically they (Hohner) don’t spend as much time on the last phase of production – the tuning – before they send their harps out, as I would. When I get done with them, they’re tuned perfect on a strobe tuner. My harmonicas have sold all over the world. I mean, who wouldn’t want a Mississippi-made blues whistle?” Don’t take the ‘all over the world’ statement too lightly; he was boxing up a repaired harmonica that had been sent to him from Australia as Blues Blast was interviewing him for their article.
Deak Harp has been known to blow the harp, pluck a guitar or diddley-bow, and keep time on a bass drum all at the same time. He has been branching out of late working with several drummers which allows him to give a more energetic show than he can put on seated behind a drum. “I just set the groove and they follow me and it’s like a juke party, man. I mean, I could cause a riot with this show,” says Deak describing his evolving live show.
How good a friend is Musslewhite? Charlie offered to buy Harp’s old 60s Ampeg amp because he loves the sound. Deak said, “No way, but you can use it when you come to town,” which is exactly what Musslewhite did when recording his latest CD I Ain’t Lying. “Charlie also invited me to be on his newest DVD to play backup harmonica while he’s running through five different positions on the harmonica. I play in the other key that doesn’t interfere with what he’s doing (in the DVD). It’s coming out in three or four months.” If you are going to have friends in the harmonica field, you could do worse than chum around with a legend like Musslewhite. Unless, of course, you had previously worked for, lived with, and opened for another harmonica legend, James Cotton.
Deak credits his time with Cotton for developing his tone: “He told me to stop playing harmonica with my lips … that’s what it is. When I worked for him, I’d have to do the soundchecks and he would be there standing by the soundboard in the middle of the venue and he’d be going, “Come, on … dig a little deeper. Come on!” He would be working me to get that tone that I needed. That’s how I learned to emulate James Cotton’s tone. He forced me … beat it into me, to get that tone. He called me more names – in a good way – to get me where he thought I needed to be. You know, I learned from James and he learned from Sonny Boy (Williamson), so I’m third generation, man.”
My dad was the harmonica player in the family and he loved hauling it out to entertain the grandkids before lights out at our camp, The Swamp. He and my mother made it a point to go and see the Harmonicats anytime they made a swing through Upper Michigan so even though I never learned the instrument, I have always had an appreciation for harmonica players. I also like the back stories of people who find themselves down and out but manage to pull themselves up by the bootstraps to make a positive change in their lives. Deak’s story resonated with me so as soon as I finished the Blues Blast article about him, I ordered Clarksdale Breakdown. I got the CD on the Wednesday before Porcupine Mountain Music Festival #12 and found myself listening to it while going back and forth to the festival on Friday and Saturday. I am not sure how long it will take before something else will push it out of the player in my car because it is a terrific CD. We will be airing it on Pete and Zenith’s Blues regularly beginning next week. Tune in to WOAS-FM 88.5 and have a listen to the owner of one of the few (if not the only) brick and mortar harmonica emporiums in the world, Deak Harp. He sounds just like the kind of guy I would like to see on stage at PMMF#13 next summer.
Top Piece video – Deak Harp working the street in Clarksdale, Mississippi – with a live drummer, of course!