JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: living and playing the blues, then and now.
They’re from two generations, two different backgrounds and parts of the country. But 69-year-old Charlie Musselwhite and 43-year-old Ben Harper have a lot in common, most of all, a love of the blues.
Their recent album “Get Up!” and their ongoing tour show off different shades of the blues, including country acoustical and Chicago electric, and make a case for the music as a living, renewable tradition. On a tour stop in Washington recently, Musselwhite, who was born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, told us his connection to the blues started early.
CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: The environment I grew up in, there was all kinds of music, hillbilly music and rockabilly, great gospel radio. Memphis has probably the best Gospel radio and blues.
And I liked it all, any music that was from the heart, that had feeling. But blues sounded like how I felt.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what’s that mean? How did you feel?
CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: Well, I was a lonely kid. I didn’t have any brothers and sisters. My dad had left and my mom worked. So, I was alone a lot. And blues was my comforter.
JEFFREY BROWN: For Ben Harper, music was in the blood. His grandparents and parents all played and performed, and the family has owned a music store in Claremont, California, since 1958.
BEN HARPER: My roots were always in the home. And my mom used to play in bands. She’s a musician, great singer, picker. And my dad was a percussionist. And so they would have people over every night making music. And they’d put us to bed around 8:00.
And then I would wait until they were really cooking, and then, you know, where they wouldn’t be watching for me to sneak out, and when — I would sneak out of my room and sit under the — hide under the piano bench.
JEFFREY BROWN: Harper has gone on to become a leading singer, songwriter and guitarist, with a string of albums and two Grammy Awards.
Charlie Musselwhite’s musical education — and what an education it was — came in the 1960s in Chicago, where he went as a young man to look for a factory job. He wasn’t even thinking of a career as a musician, just enjoying the local blues scene with the likes of Muddy Waters and Elmore James. He did know how to play the harmonica, though, and was ready when he got the chance to use it.
CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: Sitting in wasn’t unusual.
I mean, these clubs were open to 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, and that’s a lot of time to kill. So, a guy like Muddy would have people sitting in all the time. A lot of musicians hung out there. They would sit in, or even, like, a housewife from down the street would get up and sing a song, or the bartender might get up and play guitar or something.
It was real casual.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: But it was strictly adults. There was nobody my age in these clubs, and there was nobody white in these clubs.
So, a young whippersnapper like me getting up on the stage to play was real unusual.
JEFFREY BROWN: Accepted by Muddy Waters, Musselwhite started to get invitations to play and record with others, one of a handful of white musicians in such exalted blues company.
Ben Harper heard these recordings as a child and says he admired the music and later the man.
BEN HARPER: Charlie transcends race in a way that I have never witnessed.
JEFFREY BROWN: Really?
BEN HARPER: Yes.
And I have been a — I have been — being of a mixed race, I have had a heightened racial awareness, had to. And I have never seen anybody who just breaks down those barriers in the way Charlie does.
JEFFREY BROWN: And what explains that?
BEN HARPER: If I could explain it, I would market it, because it is so special.
BEN HARPER: He renders a room culturally neutral. He just makes everybody at ease with who they are.
JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, it’s what Musselwhite does with his harmonica that most attracted Ben Harper and so many others over the years who’ve asked the master to collaborate.
I think people look at a harmonica and say, that’s a little instrument.
CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: It’s a toy.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a toy in a sense for some people. How do you think of it?
CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: I try not to think about it as an instrument. I just think about the feeling and the sound I hear inside and how to get that out. I’m not thinking about, well, it’s got 10 holes and these reeds go this way and all these limitations.
I just try to take what I feel inside and push it through there and give it to you.
BEN HARPER: OK, now I have got to jump in, because, you know, I’m a music store brat. I mean, I grew up taking violins apart and putting them back together and re-hairing violin bows and such.
I wish we had an open harmonica here, because you take off the faceplate of a harmonica, there is a lot going on in there, man. I mean, they are so complex.
JEFFREY BROWN: Today, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite say they have been talking about recording and playing together for more than a decade. One thing or another always got in the way, until now.
BEN HARPER: Every once in a while, if you time it right, you can grab that thing without — you know, you have got to reach out, push, push. And this was like a moment to grasp.
CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: Playing with Ben is just fun.
JEFFREY BROWN: Fun, huh?
CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: It makes me feel good. And this is what the blues is supposed to do, make you feel good. It’s your comforter when you’re down and it’s your buddy when you’re up. It’s all-purpose music.
BEN HARPER: All-purpose music.
JEFFREY BROWN: All-purpose music.
BEN HARPER: That might be the next record title. That’s good, all-purpose blues.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Musselwhite-Harper tour continues this summer and into the fall.