Musicians Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite

The singer-songwriter-guitarist and famed blues harmonica player explain how they united for their CD, “Get Up!”

Singer-songwriter Ben Harper creates music that blends an assortment of styles. Born into a family of musicians, he was singing chords at age 4 and started playing the guitar at age 6. By age 12, he was performing for live audiences. The three-time Grammy winner is a master of the slide guitar and has collaborated on records and in concerts with such artists as John Lee Hooker, Metallica and The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Multiple Grammy-winning harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite is also one of the most awarded artists ever by the Blues Foundation, having won 27 Blues Music Awards. Born in Mississippi, raised in Memphis and schooled on Chicago's South Side, the groundbreaking musician made his mark leading blues bands in Chicago and San Francisco and has released more than 30 albums. He was recently inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.

Harper and Musselwhite have been looking for a collaboration project for more than 10 years and finally teamed up on "Get Up!"—a mix of gospel, blues, roots music and R&B, for the legendary Stax Records label.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: (Laughter) Ben Harper has teamed up with harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite to produce a new CD entitled “Get Up!” for the legendary label, Stax Records.

Ben, a two-time Grammy winner, wrote or co-wrote every song on the CD that’s been called cinematic in its storytelling and style. Charlie, a six-time Grammy nominee, adds his own unique brand of soaring harmonica lines to the cuts. So before we start this conversation, here’s a small taste of what this collaboration sounds like.

[Clip]

Tavis: So Ben, one of the things I’ve always loved about you is that over the course of your career – as a matter of fact, I’ve been doing this show, now we’re in our 10th season here on PBS -

Ben Harper: Congratulations.

Tavis: Thank you. And you’ve been on this program a number of times.

Harper: Thank you.

Tavis: And So many times, certainly more than any other guest that I’ve had, you’ve been on here because of collaborations that you went after, that you wanted to do, and they always happen to be the legends, the icons, the old school guys who clearly you have an affinity for, an appreciation for.

So before I get into the Charlie thing specifically (unintelligible) the Five Blind Boys, but what is it about the old school cats that you are so drawn to?

Harper: The soul.

Tavis: Yeah.

Harper: The heart and soul, and a depth of musical inspiration that they have brought into my life, all my life. To have an opportunity like this, there won’t – they don’t come along often, and they probably won’t be a lot more – this man knows a man who played with Charlie – this man knew a man who played with Charlie Patton. Charlie Patton taught Robert Johnson.

Tavis: Right.

Harper: That’s him. So I know someone who knew someone (laughter) that knew Robert Johnson, you know what I mean? But I’d hate to geek out on you like that. (Laughter) But for me, the blues is where I come from.

Tavis: Right.

Harper: That’s the foundation of every note I’ve ever hit or will hit, and this man represents the deepest blues that has ever existed.

Tavis: So the collaboration might look good on paper, but what makes you know it’s going to work well in the studio, like for real, for real?

Harper: I think personalities and something that moves around us all that’s bigger than us, that brings us to a place in our lives where we can live into who we see ourselves being. Charlie and I meet right there, and that’s why.

Tavis: So the flipside of that question for you, Charlie – how does it feel on your end to have these younger cats, people like Ben Harper, seek you out and want to hang with you and get in the studio with you after all these years?

Charlie Musselwhite: I don’t know what the fuss is about, but I’ll take it. (Laughter) I appreciate it. It’s been a long old road, and I’m still doing it. It’s great to be working with a guy like Ben.

We just resonate, not only musically, but personally, and so it’s great to be out on the road playing music, seeing all the smiling faces, with a guy like Ben, for me. I don’t feel old, but (laughter). I feel better now than I did 30 years ago.

Tavis: And you don’t sound old, that’s for sure. As Ben said, the soul is still there.

Musselwhite: Well, I got a young heart.

Tavis: That helps. Why, to your point, Charlie, why are you still doing this? You’ve made your mark, man. Why still do this? Why get on the road with Ben and hit these hotels and buses and airports? Why do it at this time?

Musselwhite: Well -

Harper: Don’t talk him out of it, man. (Laughter) I got a good thing going here.

Tavis: Why still do it?

Musselwhite: If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t back out of my driveway again until I really felt like going somewhere.

Tavis: Right.

Musselwhite: I love the music, but being on the road ain’t a piece of cake, but it is real rewarding. You’ve got to – all those people can’t come to my house, so I’ve got to go out on the road and play for them. (Laughter)

Tavis: Well, we could if you invited us, but yeah.

Musselwhite: But those smiling faces and seeing people that come up to you after the show and say, “Wow, me and my wife met way back when you,” and there they are with their grandkids, exposing them to the music. It’s great to see it being handed down and passed on. It’s about the music for me. I’m just glad I’m in the game.

Tavis: Ben, is there some sort of responsibility you feel – I was looking at not just your tour schedule the other day, but I was looking at your media schedule, and I’m honored to have you on this program, and this is obviously not the only program -

Harper: I’m honored to be here.

Tavis: Well, I’m glad to have you. This isn’t the only program that you’re doing. I was looking at some of the other programs you appear on, and looking at the age demographic of their core audience, and I’m like, “Ben is really exposing this music and this kind of genius to a variety of audiences,” and including audiences of even younger demos than what I might have here on PBS every night. Is there some sort of responsibility you feel to do that?

Harper: No, I don’t. I just find myself in these fortunate positions to be able to play with my musical hearings. Taj – I walked in and Taj Mahal is here. One of the greatest men of music of all time.

That was my first professional gig. Taj walked up to me and said, “Do you go on the road?” I said, “What do you mean?” I didn’t even know what the term meant. Do I go on the road when I drive? (Laughter) What do you mean, “Do I go on the road?”

Tavis: I hope so, and not the sidewalk. (Laughter)

Harper: Two weeks later he sends me a ticket and I’m on tour with Taj Mahal. So yeah, this is the biggest gig of my life. For me, it’s not about – of course I take pride in presenting this music to the people who listen to what I do. But for me, this is the opportunity for a lifetime, for me to play with this man.

There will be no higher crowning achievement than the record you’re holding in your hand for the rest of my life. There won’t be. This is it. I don’t know what I’m going to do after this record, Tavis. I don’t know. I said that after the Blind Boys too, though, so -

Tavis: You did.

Harper: I did.

Tavis: You did.

Harper: So here I am.

Tavis: So I’m glad you remembered that, because I was about to remind you of that; if need be, pull up a clip of you saying that when the Blind Boys played with you on this program.

Harper: Okay. (Unintelligible) record, aren’t I? (Unintelligible)

Tavis: But I’m glad you said that though, because I know you to be an authentic person about these kinds of matters, and so I know that you say what you mean, you mean what you say, and you believe it in your heart when you say it.

So since you went there, what do you make of the fact that you keep finding new ways, innovative ways, to do things that haven’t been done and to keep putting, to use your metaphor, your phrase, more jewels in that crown?

Harper: They’ve presented themselves to me in ways that there’s been no other answer but yes. They present – with Charlie, and although we’ve been plotting this for 20 years, Charlie.

Musselwhite: I know.

Harper: That’s the crazy thing. Like, this, it’s been in the works, it’s been in the works for a minute. But I’ve just found – I guess I’ve worked – Tavis, the direct, clearest answer is I’ve worked hard enough in music and even as a kid growing up in a music store – my family has a music store in Claremont the Folk Music Center.

Tavis: Sure.

Harper: I’ve worked hard enough and committed my life deep enough to have been able to earn a seat at the table. To earn a place in music where opportunities as rare as this have exposed themselves to me, and I’ve been ready to go when the call came.

Tavis: Charlie, to Ben’s point about his having worked hard enough to have earned his seat at the table, you’ve been at this game a lot longer than Ben has. Do you think in the music business now people still have to earn their seat at the table, or are people given seats for all kinds of reasons?

Because back in your day, people really did have to earn their spot at the table. My sense is that that’s not so much the case anymore, that you can get at the table a whole lot of different ways.

Harper: Oh, you get a hit and all of a sudden somebody pulls you up a chair.

Tavis: Yeah.

Harper: You look around like, “What’s the deal?”

Tavis: Whether you deserve to be there or not, exactly.

Harper: Just because you have a hit doesn’t mean you’re good. Just means you got a hit.

Tavis: Exactly.

Harper: Could have had 12 people writing that hit. Not that that makes it any less of a hit, but it’s still, I don’t know – you’re right, yeah.

Tavis: No, but this notion, what do you make of this notion of earning your way in this business? You’ve been at this a while.

Musselwhite: Well, it seems like it’s a whole different game than when I started out. Now it seems like you have these overnight – I don’t even know where these people come from. It’s just like overnight they’ve got this big hit.

Tavis: It’s called “American Idol,” Charlie. (Laughter)

Musselwhite: But back in the day, you started out, you just kept hitting your head against the wall until you found a door or got a break, and you just kept on going. But more power to anybody who can get a penny out of this business. But if you’re talking about blues specifically, that’s another thing. Music in general, good luck to you. Go ahead.

Tavis: Tell me your assessment of our appreciation for the blues. Are we going through a renaissance period where we’re starting to, as Americans, rediscover it again?

I ask that because Buddy Guy was just given the Kennedy Center honors, and I was in Chicago recently, passing through Chicago, literally connecting – I’m on the lecture circuit. I was literally passing through Chicago connecting to Minnesota or somewhere to give a speech, and I had a few hours’ break in the schedule – true story.

Buddy was – every January, as you know, Buddy plays his club every weekend in Chicago. He plays, himself, every weekend for the month of January. So I literally went through Chicago, got off the plane, called Buddy, went to the club, hung out for a few hours watching him play, got on the plane, and went on to Minnesota.

But I was so heartened, Ben, to see the standing-room-only crowd. People outside trying to get in, which has to do not just with Buddy’s longstanding gift, but with the exposure he’s gotten of late in the Kennedy Center honors.

I sense there’s a renaissance in this blues music. Maybe I’m wrong. You tell me what you see.

Musselwhite: Well, gosh, it’s so different from when I started out. When I first started out, if you wanted to read about blues, there was nothing to read. You might find a little chapter in a book on jazz.

Today, you got literally tons of books about blues, the history of blues, how to play blues. There’s blues magazines, you got blues festivals, you got blues societies, you got blues cruises, you got – (laughter) really.

Harper: Oxymoron, isn’t it, “blues cruise?” Now wait a minute, huh?

Tavis: Bluesing and cruising, exactly. (Laughter)

Musselwhite: It’s just all over the – these blues societies and festivals are all over the world. To me, things are looking up. (Laughter) It steadily just kept getting better and better like that all along.

Tavis: I’m going to ask you both the same question, which I typically don’t do, but I’m interested to get both of your respective takes on the recording of this project. So tell me, Charlie, you first, about the record – the songs on the record, the recording of the record. Just tell me about this whole process from your perspective.

Musselwhite: Well, like Ben said, we’ve been trying to do this for a long time, talking about it, and since we’re both real busy, the first thing to do is to find the time off at the same time.

But when we recorded backing up John Lee Hooker when he did a tune called “Burn in Hell,” we really – we already knew each other. We were friends, and we knew that we liked the same kind of music and stuff and resonated on that level. But then being in the studio and playing together was like, wow. This is happening, this is clicking.

It was like the magic was there. Even John Lee said, “Man, you guys ought to do more together, record together.” So we kept looking for that opportunity, and finally, it happened. Going in the studio was like we’ve been doing this for a long time. It just one tune after another, hardly any – what, two, three takes at the most?

Harper: The most of any song, yeah.

Musselwhite: No overdubs, except for the ladies singing.

Harper: Yup, yup.

Musselwhite: It was just so natural, and the music just poured out of us. It’s just how it ought to be.

Tavis: Tell me, Ben, about the content of the new project, “Get Up!”

Harper: The content is material that I’d been working on, and some of it’s material I’d been working on for a long period of time. Some of it was finished in the studio, just by us passing it around. (Laughter) Then some of it was written right on the spot.

Musselwhite: Just happened right there.

Tavis: Take me inside – I’ve heard this before, but take me inside the studio. How do you write a song, collaboratively, on the spot, Ben?

Harper: Well, we had the record done.

Tavis: Right.

Harper: So we were just hanging around in the studio, because the studio was paid for, it was there, and we were all there. (Laughter)

Tavis: We ain’t leaving until our time is up. (Laughter)

Harper: We had a little more time, yeah. Make the most out of it. So we’re doing some – before we started mixing. So we were just there, kicking around, and the mics were hot.

I was behind the board, talking about how the record was most likely done and we were going to start mixing it, and all of a sudden I hear Charlie and our guitar player, Jason Mozersky, playing the song – the last track is called “All That Matters Now,” and they were playing and playing, and I said, “Hold on a minute. I think there’s a track on this record that we’re calling done.

“What I’m hearing now is better than one of these tracks.” Because I wanted it to be a 10-song record.

Tavis: Stop. Why was that important? A 10-song record.

Harper: I don’t think people are going to get to the back of a record that’s any longer than that in this day and age.

Tavis: Okay. So what does that say, then – I’ll take you back to your story in a minute.

Harper: Please.

Tavis: But what does that say about our capacity for engaging a music project, that we can’t listen past 10 songs? What does it say about us that we can’t listen past 10 songs?

Harper: Listen, I’m just glad that the last hundred years have raised music to a level of prominence that’s just beyond being jesters.

Tavis: Right, mm-hmm.

Harper: So listen, time shifts all of our occupations in that way. People feel, oh, poor music industry, it’s gone, people are downloading free. Imagine if you had a family business that was making payphones. Business shifts for everybody.

Who knows? The next hundred years, we could be back in the town square, juggling and playing the blues.

Tavis: But let me challenge you on that, though, and I take your point. I know exactly what you mean.

Harper: Please, please.

Tavis: Here’s my challenge, though, my press – that payphones are not essential to our lives.

Harper: Fair enough.

Tavis: Music is, man. Music is the soundtrack of our lives, it’s essential for our lives. The fact that our capacity is stretched to its limits where you don’t even want to do a record past 10 tracks is troubling to me.

Harper: Okay, and I’ll counter by saying I think 10 tracks is a lot of music. (Laughter)

Tavis: You win. I ain’t got to do none of this. I just got to ask you questions about it, yeah. So yeah, I couldn’t do two tracks. (Laughter) I got a whole lot of nerve, pressing you about 10 tracks. “What your record at, Tavis? I ain’t seeing you put no record out. You’re pressing me about 10 tracks.” Anyway, I digress. (Laughter) You win, you win.

Harper: No, no, but that’s good.

Tavis: I interrupted you when you were telling me the story about this last track that made it – yeah.

Harper: I just heard them working on a song. I heard them working on a song that was as good or better than anything we had on the – what we had as calling the record.

Musselwhite: We were just jamming.

Harper: They were just jamming, and I said, “You know what? Roll tape.” The engineer said, “What do mean, ‘roll tape?’ We’re done.” I said, “No, you’ve got to roll tape. Listen to this.” He said, “Okay.” The engineer said, “Let me go out and move some microphones. I’ll get the sound just -” I said, “No, no. Record that.” It was one mic in the room. People walking through during the take and everything.

Musselwhite: I’m laughing and talking. I don’t even know it’s -

Harper: He’s laughing, chatting, carrying on. (Laughter) (Unintelligible) and I went out and sang it down, and that’s the song. Because I had the lyrics ready, and they just hadn’t found the right music.

As a songwriter, I don’t rush. I may sit on lyrics for two years before the music hits. People say, “How do you write songs?” I say, “Patience.” I may have a track that’s hot, but no words. I’ll just let it sit for years, because I know they’re going to meet. They’ll find it.

Because there’s only one proper way a song should go, but you’ve got to be patient enough to let them come together time wise. Sometimes it’s lightning in a bottle and you got the song. But oftentimes -

Musselwhite: It shows up, yeah.

Harper: It shows up.

Tavis: Has that happened for you? I assume it has, but you tell me, Charlie, whether it’s happened before in your career where you’re just jamming with whomever, and the jam session turns into something more than just a jam session.

Musselwhite: Oh, yeah, that’s like when the spirit of the music takes over. It’s almost like you’re not even playing anymore. It’s like the spirit is playing you. I call it following the will of the music, and when that feeling shows up, you just go with it.

It’s almost like I’m a bystander. I’m watching this happening, and I’m not even – it’s not a mental process. It’s just spontaneous.

Tavis: Yeah.

Harper: That’s how this whole record was.

Musselwhite: It’s almost, like, mystical. (Laughs)

Tavis: Yeah. How did the harmonica become your instrument?

Musselwhite: Oh, Lord. Well, when I was a kid they were just around. I just had – it seemed like all the kids had a harmonica. When I was about 13 I got – I was really interested in blues, and I thought, well, I got a harmonica. Maybe I can play my own blues.

It sounds so good to listen to it, must feel even better to play it. So I’d go out in the woods and just started teaching myself my own blues, and then it just took over. The blues overtook me.

Tavis: You’re self-taught, though.

Musselwhite: Yeah. The harmonica’s the only instrument you can’t see what you’re doing, or anybody else. You’re really on your own. Every other instrument, you see the hands doing something where you can get a clue on how to play it, but you’re really on your own with a harmonica.

It’s the only instrument you breathe in and out of and you can’t see what you’re doing. (Laughter)

Tavis: It’s like going up on a tightrope. Ben, speaking of instruments, are there instruments – this might sound like a silly question, and maybe it is, but I’m curious, though, as to what you hear.

Are there instruments that you just have a complete adoration for that as often as you can you want to include them on your projects?

Harper: No one in particular.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Harper: Again, following the will of the music, I kind of let the song lead the charge in the way it wants to sound.

Tavis: Yeah. I only ask that because I just find that whenever I hear a harmonica, which isn’t terribly, terribly often these days, given what they give us. But whenever I hear it, man, it stops me dead in my tracks, and in part I think because of what Charlie just described in terms of what you’re actually, what they’re actually going through to get that sound out.

But every time I hear it, whether it’s Charlie, whether it’s Stevie, whether it’s – it just kind of stops me, the sound of the instrument.

Harper: I’m with you. It’s something so special when it’s played at this level, and when it comes to the blues, for me, it has to be there.

Musselwhite: It’s like a voice. To me, it’s like when I’m taking a solo, playing the harmonica, it’s like I’m singing without words. Because you can make it sound happy or sad – it’s all there.

Harper: And Charlie’s (unintelligible). What’s crazy is today on the show you’ve had two of the three greatest – Stevie Wonder, Taj Mahal and Charlie are the three greatest living humans to play that instrument, so that’s crazy you’ve had two of the three on the show within that span – when’s Stevie been on last?

Tavis: I guess a couple – maybe a year or so ago, yeah.

Harper: All right.

Tavis: But I’ve been honored. As you know, I love music, and as a matter of fact, people stop me in airports and hotels and on the street and they thank me. I’m always humbled by it, but there are some people who thank me for talking to so many music artists.

Harper: Okay.

Tavis: I literally was just having – literally just having this conversation today with our exec producer, Coby Atlas, and I was saying to her that the reason why I love music artists is that you get the most authentic conversations with them.

Harper: Okay.

Tavis: I love politicians, but they’re always trying to stay on message. I love military generals, but they ain’t going to give you nothing. I could talk about a number of different genres of people who I talk to all the time.

You talk to artists, man, that’s the best shot you have at having an authentic conversation.

Harper: Wow.

Tavis: Because what’s in them typically comes out in one way, shape, or form.

Harper: Okay.

Tavis: So just over the years I’ve been blessed to talk to so many, because I just love talking to artists. Speaking of artists -

Harper: (Unintelligible) thanks for putting up with us.

Tavis: No, no, I love it. Charlie, you’ve got this briefcase. I’m afraid to ask what’s inside of it. I hope something legal. (Laughter)

Musselwhite: Well today it is. (Laughter)

Harper: (Unintelligible) It’s not my briefcase.

Tavis: He said, “Today it is.” Is there a harmonica in there, by chance?

Musselwhite: I got a “Blues Man for Obama” (unintelligible).

Tavis: I like that, okay. (Laughter)

Harper: You can’t play it, though.

Tavis: Yeah. But is there something you can play in there?

Musselwhite: Oh yeah. I actually gave a – this is a Seydel harmonica. This the oldest harmonica company in the world. Older than Hohner.

Harper: Where are they?

Musselwhite: Seydel.

Harper: No, where?

Musselwhite: From Klingenthal, Germany.

Tavis: Wow.

Musselwhite: I gave one of these to President Obama.

Tavis: Uh-huh?

Musselwhite: He said that Stevie Wonder had given him a Chromatic. I said, “Well, if you want to play blues, I give lessons.” He said, “That’s nice, but I’m a little busy right now.” (Laughter)

Tavis: So he can’t play, but you can play a little something for us?

Musselwhite: What would you like to hear?

Tavis: Whatever you want to play.

Musselwhite: I don’t (unintelligible). (Laughs)

Tavis: Let me do this and I’m going to get out of your way, and we’ll give you the last minute to just play us out. Whatever you want to play.

So the new project from Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite is called “Get Up!” As you heard Ben say, not 11, not 12, not 13 – 10 tracks. (Laughter)

Harper: I’m glad there’s enough for you, Tavis. (Laughter)

Tavis: Ten tracks on the new -

Harper: I’ll play you some of the B sides. I’ll get you some of the outtakes if it’s not enough.

Tavis: Send it to me, send it to me. The new project, called “Get Up!” Ben, I’m always glad to have you on this program.

Harper: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to see you, man. Charlie, an honor to meet you.

Musselwhite: Nice to meet you, an honor.

Tavis: Great to have you on.

Musselwhite: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: I’m going to say one last thing and you got 30 seconds to play us out. So as always, thanks for watching. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, keep the faith.

[Charlie Musselwhite playing harmonica live] (Applause)

Musselwhite: Something like. (Laughter)

Tavis: There you have it. Thanks, Charlie.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

COMMENTS

  1. Michael
    March 10, 2013 at 5:09 am

    Mr. Smiley, Every week I watch most of your conversations with your very intriguing guests. I’m originally from South America living in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Yet your topics sound so familiar and common that not a week passes by that I don’t watch at least 3 to 4 of your shows. Thank you, the station and your staff for good work. I hope to see ms Toni Morrison again some time or Lalah Hathaway.

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