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Ben Harper And Charlie Musselwhite Get Muddy

Jan 31, 2013
Originally published on January 31, 2013 1:12 pm

Ben Harper grew up roaming the aisles and restoring guitars at his family's music store, the Claremont Folk Music Center. Going on its 60th year of business, the storefront in Southern California is where Harper first discovered the harmonica playing of blues legend Charlie Musselwhite.

"We had Charlie's records stacked high at my family's store and at my house," Harper tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Now, he can add another album to the stack. At 43, Harper has a dedicated following and two Grammy Awards, but he achieved a life goal on his latest release: collaborating with Musselwhite. The new album Get Up! is a collection of original blues and roots songs, heavily accented by Musselwhite's harmonica.

"To me, the harmonica is like a voice," says Musselwhite, who turns 69 Thursday. "And when I'm taking a solo, it's like I'm singing without words."

The songs on Get Up! draw on the great Chicago blues tradition that Musselwhite entered as a teen looking for factory work in the 1960s — a world of all-night jam sessions in smoky bars, where Muddy Waters was king.

But Harper and Musselwhite also work to modernize that sound, creating a blues record for today. Here, they discuss recording Get Up! and the resonating power of the blues.


Interview Highlights

Musselwhite on breaking into the Chicago blues scene at 18

"I didn't think about doing it myself because this was, like, adult music. There was nobody my age playing it that I knew about — until, one night, this waitress that I had gotten to know told Muddy [Waters], 'You ought to hear Charlie play harmonica.' And soon as Muddy heard that I played, he insisted that I sit in — which wasn't unusual, because people sat in at Pepper's Lounge all the time. It was just unusual for this kid — this white kid — with all these grown-ups. So when people heard me playing, then I started getting offers for gigs. And this really got my attention. I thought, 'This is my ticket out of the factory.' "

Harper on the song "We Can't End This Way"

"There was an award event — Oscars, Grammys, something was going on downtown — and I was skating around on a skateboard. And I'm kicking around, working on my moves. There was a cat on the corner and, you know, he was a hustler. His hustle was, he'd just stand there and go 'Help!' Like, cry for help ... and I'd see people walk past him. I was like, 'Man!' They were just filing past him in their $5,000 outfits, just moving past him as if he is, you know, disposable. And I was just like, 'Wow, this is something else.' And that's when it hit me. It's like, 'Man, we can't go out like this.' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The musician Ben Harper says he grew up on this sound.

BEN HARPER: My family has a music store called the Claremont Folk Music Center that's been open for going on 60 years now.

INSKEEP: And it was around that shop, east of Los Angeles, that Ben Harper discovered the harmonica playing of Charlie Musselwhite.

HARPER: We had Charlie's records stacked high at my family's store and at my house.

INSKEEP: Now you could put one more album on the stack. At age 43, Ben Harper has a dedicated following and two Grammy Awards. And he has recorded an album with Charlie Musselwhite.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M IN AND I'M OUT AND I'M GONE)

CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: (Singing) Don't want no high-rise tombstone...

To me, the harmonica is like a voice, and when I'm taking a solo it's like I'm singing without words.

INSKEEP: Musselwhite, who's 69 today, sat down with Ben Harper to talk with us about his harmonica playing...

HARPER: Charlie has - it's a cross between a church organ and Ray Orbison's voice.

INSKEEP: ...and about their album called "Get Up."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M IN AND I'M OUT AND I'M GONE)

MUSSELWHITE: (Singing) I'm in. Oh, I'm out and I'm gone...

INSKEEP: Fans of Chicago blues may recognize this sound, even though it's a new song. It sounds almost like it could be a song by Muddy Waters, who dominated Chicago blues after World War II.

HARPER: You want a piece of Mud in everything you do, really

INSKEEP: And Ben Harper got a piece of Mud, because Charlie Musselwhite played alongside Muddy Waters half a century ago.

Muddy Waters was part of the great migration of African-Americans from the South to Northern cities. Years later, a teenaged Charlie Musselwhite became part of a great migration of white Southerners who were following the same path.

MUSSELWHITE: The first job I got was a driver for an exterminator. So I drove all over Chicago and I would see signs in the windows of bars, saying: Elmore James, Tuesday Night; Muddy Waters, Saturday Night; Howling Wolf - all these names I just discovered. All my heroes were there and I just couldn't get enough.

INSKEEP: If I may ask, you were already a musician at this point. Weren't you?

MUSSELWHITE: Well, I wasn't thinking of myself as a musician. I loved the music and I had learned to play, you know, just for myself, really. I was looking for a job in a factory.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: So, I mean it's kind of amazing to think - I mean if you did not think a lot of your own talent - if you didn't understand really your own talent and where it could take you - it must have taken quite a leap not just to go to a blues club and to watch, but to somehow get yourself up on stage.

MUSSELWHITE: Well, I didn't think about doing it myself because this was, like, adult music. There was nobody my age playing it that I knew about. Until, one night, this waitress that I had gotten to know told Muddy, you ought to hear Charlie play harmonica. And soon as Muddy heard that I played, he insisted I sit in, which wasn't unusual, 'cause people sat in at Pepper's Lounge all the time.

It was just unusual for this kid, this white kid, with all these grown-ups. When people heard me playing, I started getting offers for gigs. And this really got my attention.

(LAUGHTER)

MUSSELWHITE: I thought this is my ticket out of the factory.

INSKEEP: You fell in love with this kind of music, I guess.

MUSSELWHITE: Oh, I had been in love with this kind of music since I was just a kid. And I liked all kinds of music, but blues just seemed to make sense to me. It sounded like how I felt.

INSKEEP: And that same feeling carries over to Musselwhite's new recording with Ben Harper.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET UP")

HARPER: (Singing) I have a right to get up when I feel. I have a right to get up when I feel. Don't tell me I can't break the law, 'cause the law has broken me...

INSKEEP: Don't tell me I can't break the law because the law has broken me. That is a classic kind of blues line where the words turn back on themselves.

HARPER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: How did that song get built? Did the words come first? Did the bass line come first? Something else?

HARPER: The bass line came first.

INSKEEP: The bass line came first.

HARPER: And it's a rare song. You got to have a James Brown bass line to be able to write a song around it.

INSKEEP: And what is Charlie's harp at there?

HARPER: You don't have a song without - it doesn't elevate. It wouldn't take on its highest calling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET UP")

HARPER: And also, you need - you take the lyrics, you know - I have the right to get up when I please - it's Occupy, its freedom. Everybody is talking about freedom but they're trapped in their house behind their own bars, behind their own paranoia. You know? It's just all in there. It's today. It's now.

INSKEEP: When you said occupy, are you referring to the Occupy Movement?

HARPER: Sure. Why not?

INSKEEP: I have also seen a video of you at a protest against a proposed Walmart in Los Angeles, if I'm not mistaken.

HARPER: Oh, yeah.

INSKEEP: And you play a song from this album.

HARPER: That's right. That's right, "We Can't End This Way."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE CAN'T END THIS WAY")

HARPER: (Singing) There's a man on the corner begging for help. There's a man that walks past him and he's drowning in wealth. Who doesn't understand? Who doesn't understand how disappointment destroys the soul...

INSKEEP: And how did that song come together?

HARPER: I was living downtown and downtown L.A. At night is one of the greatest skate parks in the world. There's banks, ledges, the streets are empty, red curbs everywhere. Red curbs are a skater's paradise. They've been painted over for years and they create this smooth surface on the curb that you can grind on and board slide. And there was an award event - Oscars, Grammys - something was going on downtown.

And I was skating around on a skateboard. And I'm kicking around. And there was a cat on the corner. You know, he was a hustler. His hustle was, he'd just stand there and go, help, like, cry for help.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: And I was like, man...

INSKEEP: Straight forward.

HARPER: Yeah, just like crying for help on the corner. And I'd see people walk past him. And I was like, man, they were just filing past him in their $5,000 outfits. Just moving past him as if he is, you know, disposable. And I was just like wow, this is something else. And that's when it hit me. It's like, man, we can't go out like this. There's got to be a better alternative than going out like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE CAN'T END THIS WAY")

BEN HARPER AND CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: (Singing) Oh-oh, we can't end this way. We can't end this way. We can't...

INSKEEP: Well, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, thanks very much. I've enjoyed this.

MUSSELWHITE: It's been a pleasure.

HARPER: Steve, thank you.

INSKEEP: Their new album is called "Get Up!" It's out this week.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.