John Popper Epistle to the Harpenisians
I can't help grinning a little. John Popper's central message is
fine. It's an elaboration of one he delivered in the interview we
did two years ago. By the way, I'll be seeing him tonight at the
Fillmore as well, so perhaps I'll discuss it with him.
But he doesn get on his high horse a little, doesn't he? I
haven't read what prompted his missive, but it contains a lot
besides his central message which is ignorant and wrong.
Never having been to a harmonica convention, he proceeds to
describe how it occurs in his imagination.
True, some harmonica conventions do have competitions.
And yes, some harmonica players lose sight of the goals of making
music, with the instrument as a medium.
But is there anything wrong in loving the medium (the instrument)
for its own sake? Is there anything wrong in loving sex or food
because their primary purposes are as media for survival and
perpetuation of the species? In building a fine house even though
it is only shelter from the elements? This studied avoidance of
concentrating on the medium smacks of Puritanism.
I have always maintained that if you love music, you can express
yourself with a stick and a rock - the medium is secondary. But I
still love the instrument, with its peculiarities, difficulties,
and opportunities, as surely as a farmer loves the land from
which he wrests his often precarious living.
And concentrating on the instrument itself, if done right, can
lead us to better use it for expressive purposes. Howard Levy,
who combines technical facility with deep musicality, is the
better for having learned the technical ins and outs of how his
instrument works. Opening up new possibilities is always a good
Having been to five regional, national and international
harmonica conventions, I can say that it's great to be with other
players and talk shop, to communicate in ways that can only be
understood and appreciated to those who love the same things you
do. We may all need to eat and all understand the importance of
food, but two farmers have a special rapport and appreciation
that only farmers can have (and they may be able to improve their
crops by swapping tips). Sure, there are always boring people
who are obsessed with the wrong things, and narrow minded bigots
who hate your musical/instrumental preferences. But so what?
There are also plenty of great people to learn from and have fun
As to competitions, only one of the five conventions I've
attended had competitions, the world one in Germany last fall.
And competitions aren't necessarily bad. They can serve the quite
useful function of focusing attention on worthwhile players, who
can use it to some advantage out in the world - it impresses
people and helps them get ahead a little.
Nobody forces you to compete. The people who want to do it vary
widely in their abilities and motivations. Attending the diatonic
blues and jazz competitions, I can honestly say that the people
who won were excellent players who have the stuff to do well in
the real world, and didn't seem likely candidates for a Vacu-Shlong
penis extender. And I got to see some extraordinary players I
might not have otherwise (also some real weed whackers who wanted
to get up their and strut their stuff).
John may not want to compete, and doesn't need to. He was
certainly right in not doing so at Dan Lynch on the night he
describes. It would have ruined the evening and he realized that.
But when everyone is up for it and has something to gain (and I
don't mean the prizes), why not? He's a little like a reformed
addict who frowns on recreational drinking and the appreciation
of fine wines.
>It seems to me that harp players enjoy being a
> persecuted race, which enables them to separate themselves from other
> musicians and go around like half-cocked gun fighters deciding who "the
> best harper is".
SOME harp players do. Not me or my readers or anyone I know. This
is like a racial slur. Substitute "black" or "jew" for harmonica
player and see how that statement reads. I think John, in his
characteristically grandiose way, may be painting with too broad
a brush. What is a truism with an element of truth we all
recognize becomes a prejudice when applied in such a sweeping
way. John seems to cherish this prejudice, as he has repeated it
over a period of years. There is plenty of evidence to the
One parting thought. Did Bird avoid saxophone players? Did Jimi
avoid guitarists? I doubt it. I'm sure they had some conceited
words and attitudes - few of us are without ego, and the
prodigiously talented are often vulnerable - but I don't
think they issued blanket condemnations of the players of their
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