“Blues is the news we can use to survive in a world on fire”
For nearly thirty years, Corey Harris has been at the forefront of blues interpretation, fusing jazz, reggae, gospel and Caribbean influences to traditional blues. Along the way he has recorded and played with artists like B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, R.L. Burnside, Ali Farka Toure, and others, performing throughout North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Australasia. He starred in Scorsese’s Feel Like Going Home and collaborated with Billy Bragg on the Mermaid Avenue album series.
He’s a W.C. Handy Blues Award winner, has an honorary doctorate in music and was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship Award for Genius.
Insurrection Blues, his new album, is a fantastic collection of traditional blues songs performed with passion, rawness and fine guitar picking. The album was recorded in May 2021 in
Abruzzo in Italy, where Corey lived during the pandemic before returning to the United States. The album also features contributions on a couple of tracks from harmonica player, Phil Wiggins, and the mandolinist Lino Muoio.
Down at the Crossroads got the opportunity to chat to Corey about the new album and about his music in general.
He told me, first of all, that he’d wanted to show his roots and let people understand know where he’s coming from. “I’ve done a lot of different excursions over the years,” he said, “but this is my foundation. So, I wanted to re-inscribe that into people’s memory banks; that this is what it’s about.”
So you’ll find interpretations of songs by the likes of Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Charlie Patton, all performed with passion by a skilled guitarist and singer.
In dealing with such a wide scope in the tradition, I wondered how he goes about selecting a particular song and then making it his own?
“I try and be faithful to the form of the song, how it’s supposed to be played and the recognizable licks, if you will, but at some point, you can’t ever play it just like the version you’re learning – at least I can’t. So that’s where my own creativity and character comes in. Because, you know, you’re gonna sound like you!
“In these the traditional songs, I really try and be faithful to the musical presentation of the song, how it’s sung and the rhythm, unless I’m really trying to do something that is adding to it and doing a totally different version – but I normally don’t do that. Some artists will take, say, a Skip James tune and make it totally different, but I’m not really into that. I’m really into trying to interpret a song through my own filter if you will.”
Corey Harris has been performing, rootsy, bluesy music for a long time now. I asked him what is it about this music that is so important to him.
“Well, I would say that this music connects us to our ancestral heritage in America. And it also opens eyes to the realities of what we’re dealing with. You know, the blues is like our CNN, it is what is happening. It’s the news, you know what I mean?
“So, with the times as they are, I just really felt it was important to get back to the basics about the strengths in the culture, and that’s why I was looking at the different song forms and the different varieties within that culture. Nowadays a lot of times, in the popular context, people assume black culture is gonna be hip-hop, or Lil Uzi Vert or something, but it’s actually quite deeper than the commercial varieties we’ve been conditioned to accept. So, I wanted to show really where it’s coming from, and try and do a survey, not only of how I see the music, but of the last hundred and fifty or so years of it.”
This coheres with what Harris has previously said of Insurrection Blues, that it “is an unflinching look at desire and destruction in 21st century America…as an African American living in America, as a descendant of slaves that built this country, I am looking at the survival mechanisms that have existed for people to persevere in difficult times. And when we think about that, the blues always comes to mind.”
“Yeah. There’s a tendency in the popular press and even in academia, to typify the blues and say it’s this sad music about being drunk and losing your woman. But it’s actually so much more than that. And so, I just want to show that the blues is a textbook for life. It’s just like any other great art, it describes the condition of man and woman in all the different situations in life. So that’s what I’m trying to show. Also, that this is a rich tradition and it’s not anything that can be easily diluted or reduced into simple song forms and like, a skinny tie and a hat, you know what I mean? It’s more than that. And that’s what I wanted to show.”
The blues, clearly, grew up in the context of terrible injustice suffered by Black communities. But, I suggested to Corey, the music and the form, and the spirit seems to be something that has a very broad application and appeal, so that there are all sorts of people all around the world who feel drawn to it.
“Well, you know, we all struggle. That’s why we’re here, to struggle and to overcome, as human beings. We can all relate to that journey of struggle and overcoming, in our own way, because it’s not all equal and not all the same. We all have our own different little histories, but we all have that same feeling of, you know, it’s hard, but finally, I’m victorious. Let’s look back and celebrate how hard it was.”
The blues always seem to have that double edge about them – a lament for the way things are, but hope that things might get better. You see it in so many of the songs, where the singer seems to be able to sing his or her way out of the blues feeling.
“That’s it, being able to see the sun on the horizon and being able to get that strength you need to see the next day and to persevere and to keep going. This is the tradition. It wasn’t a tradition that people did for money. There was no profession back in the days with the ancestors of blues singers, blues performers – I’m talking, like, before the Chitlin’ circuit, before the recordings of the twenties, before Mamie Smith. There was no occupation of blues singer, people did it because they had to, because this is what their culture showed them – how you can deal with the things that the world is giving you, all the oppression and all the Black codes, the lynching, you know, all of that. So, this is a tool for survival is the way I see it.”
Harris was profoundly disturbed (along with most other right-thinking people) about the events in Washington at the beginning of 2021. He has said, “When I saw the insurrection, I saw how race and history collided there.” So Insurrection Blues directly channels his feeling about all this – “I felt there was a duty, a responsibility, to use the craft to say something.”
As I listened to the album, any message of resistance is not very explicit. Somebody could listen to the album and miss that. So I wondered, for Corey as an artist, how explicit or otherwise does he feel he needs to be about issues that he feels are important?
“Well, I think it depends on how you feel at the time emotionally. There are some issues that kind of speak for themselves, and you can make a commentary very easily on them. With the insurrection, depending on your political persuasion, you’re gonna see that event through drastically different spectacles, you’ll have a different perspective. And also, depending on your ethnic origin, with your ethnic history in America, you’ll have a very different perspective on this event. So yeah, there’s some resistance in it, because just the act that I’m here alive is proof that there was resistance.
“Because the system wasn’t built so that I would thrive. But also, this project is like an analysis of where we’ve been, where we are and what might happen in the future. If you listen to the record, there’s an interlude to the song Insurrection Blues, which is some audio of the actual crowd at the insurrection. And then after there’s the sound of thunder and lightning; and then the sound of rain, to symbolize that there needs to be sort of a cleansing. This is a storm, and then after a storm, the clouds go away, the sun comes out and things are fresh and clean. So, that’s what we’re going through. We’re going through a purging right now.”
Prefaced by this short interlude, the title track, Insurrection Blues (Chickens Come Home to Roost), becomes a powerful commentary on the infamous storming of the Capitol, such a symbolic emblem of American democracy. As the storm fades and the rain washes things clean, Insurrection Blues kicks in, a minor key blues. The lyrics are not explicit, but the repeated, ominous minor key riffs on the guitar are the repeatedly intoned, “it’s time to get wise” and “chickens come home to roost” make the point well enough.
It comes right in the middle of the album, and although the songs on either side might just be taken as enjoyable interpretations of acoustic guitar blues numbers, Harris has cleverly drawn attention to his African American blues tradition as pointing to both the struggles and the survival of his community.
On a more general note, I asked Corey about the re-emergence of acoustic blues back in the 1990s when he was starting out. Before that there had been a lot of electric blues for several decades.
“Yes, there was a renaissance of acoustic blues. I think the Columbia Records release of the Robert Johnson box set around 1990 had a lot to do with that. And then, shortly after that Keb’ Mo’ came out with his record on Sony’s OKeh Records – it was on a major label and made a big splash. So those two things had a lot to do with it. And then just by happenstance, I came along, Alvin Youngblood Hart came along and so did Guy Davis. And people were realizing, wow, black people still play the blues and they still play acoustic blues! And they realized that this is part of their culture. So it was a great confluence of events at that time.”
And what is the popularity of blues music, particularly in the United States. What, I wondered, is Corey’s sense of the people and the demographic listening to this music and the more traditional forms of it?
“My sense is that there are people my age – I’m in my early fifties – and older who are listening to this music and coming to these shows. The blues market is still people who buy CDs at shows. They’re not really downloading as much as other genres yet. So we’re kind of oldies but goodies blues people, as far as the fans go!” Harris is encouraged, though, by some of the younger talent coming up, like Jontavious Willis and Buffalo Nichols, whom he referred to as “a really monster guitar player.”
Along the way, Corey Harris has played with a lot of wonderful artists from both North America and Africa. I was very interested to hear about his experience of playing with B.B. King in the 1990s.
“I opened up for BB about 75 times around the world, over the years from about ‘95 until about 2005. I was around him quite a lot over the years and what I observed was he was very professional. He put the music on a level where you just had to respect it because the way that it was presented was first class. And very well mannered, very diplomatic, well spoken. You know, it was really like royal, like he was aptly named. You really felt, wow, I’m with somebody who’s putting their art on the top shelf. And so you felt inspired being around him because you felt wow, I got to raise my standards.
“He was someone who came from nothing, but he just dedicated himself to his craft. He studied a lot, he practiced a lot and he elevated his craft so that you just had to respect it for what it was. That’s what I really loved about him. And then he engaged people really well – he talked to you like you mattered and he was interested in you. He was a good people person. Just great being around him and you know, his stories – he had stories about hanging out with Satchmo in the fifties. He said Satchmo used to cook him bread, beans and rice backstage! And he had stories about hanging out with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. And thinking of that, he used to tell me, ‘Stay away from drugs!’ But I’m like, don’t worry. I don’t do drugs!”
Corey Harris is a multi-talented guy. Not only is he a successful and talented musician, but he’s the author of several books and is currently doing a PhD (he already has an honorary doctorate in music).
“I’m in the music department in the University of Virginia and I’m studying all sorts of different things. Some are things that I didn’t know a lot about, for example, 17th and 18th century classical music. But my main thrust is music of black resistance. So that could include anything from capoeira to blues, to jazz to music associated with Santeria. So I’ve really whittled it down. But that’s what I’m really interested in – black music of the Americas, of the Atlantic, of the black diaspora.”
As well as studying, Harris is teaching as well, working with university classes along with renowned jazz writer Scott DeVeaux. All of this is sure to find its way into future Corey Harris performances and recordings.
At the moment he’s planning an album in collaboration with Cedric Watson. “He’s a great Louisiana, old-school Creole player who plays a violin and a push button accordion. He also plays banjo, so he’s an excellent talent. We’re going to do a duet record. We both speak French, so we’ll do some French songs and some Creole songs, so, it’s gonna be good!”
And Corey has a book just recently published, Blues People Illustrated.
“People can buy that on my website at Nattyworks.art. It’s fifty-one blues artists, men and women, the cool, all-traditional blues artists, mainly those who were active from the 1920s through the blues revival of the sixties. Each artist has a drawing of them and I’ve written a biography of the artist and included a complete discography as well. So it’s a kind of reference book.
“So those who don’t really know about the specific genre of traditional acoustic blues, the pre-war, can learn about people like Son House, Tommy McClennan, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. And even little-known people like Hacksaw Harney, Precious Bryant or John Jackson. I talk about people that I knew as well – Cephas And Wiggins are in there, and Brownie and Sonny.”
One worth checking out as well as the terrific Insurrection Blues.