Re: Boss Harmonica: The Life of Little Walter (Boston Phoenix, bo ok review)

Hello All,
I was out of town and away from my computer for the last week, so I
didn't become aware of this thread (or the review) until a couple of
days ago.  My first instinct tells me that I should just let the book
speak for itself, and not jump in to try to defend it.  Everyone is
entitled to their opinion, the only bad press is no press, etc.
And of course the review has already been published, so there's no
changing it now.  But I also think that there are a few points in the
review that could benefit from a little bit of clarification.

The reviewer states that the book was "stiffly written".  If the
reviewer was expecting a book like Robert Gordon's book on Muddy,
which was written very much from Gordon's own personal viewpoint, in
his own voice and expressing his own opinions, I can understand this
criticism.  Our book was specifically written as a *documentary*, with
a neutral observer's voice, and ONLY deals with facts and testimony
as they're presented by first-hand informants and witnesses.  Except for
the forward and the epilogue, we tried to stay away from speculation
and personal commentary (you won't find personal pronouns like "I",
"we", etc., anywhere in the book except in quotes from first-hand
witnesses).  We didn't put words in anyone's mouth, and tried not to
assume that we could read anyone's thoughts.  Beside the obvious
reason of doing it this way to present a more objective, unbiased, and
possibly more accurate story, it also made sense for us to do it this
way because we were three writers who all had our own distinctive
voices, and we found early on that striving for a neutral voice was
the only way we'd be able to achieve any kind of continuity and flow.
 And I think it's a better book as a result.  To compare it again to
Gordon's Muddy book (as I think the reviewer of our book probably
was), Gordon had been granted the freedom to write a book that was
based on personality - both Muddy's and his own - by virtue of the
fact that the *facts* of Muddy's story had been well documented in
another book already.  Gordon didn't have to cover all that ground,
where we were starting much more from scratch.

The reviewer also states that we failed to capture the spark of
Walter's actual life.  What he didn't seem to notice, although I think
it's made abundantly clear in the book, is that the only real spark in
his life seemed to be his music.  Time after time in our interviews
with the people who knew Walter best - not just band members and
musical associates, but family members and girlfriends, people he
would have been truly intimate with - questions like "What was he
like away from music?" or "What did he do for fun?" or "What motivated
him?" were met with answers like, "Oh, you know, he never talked about
that", and "He wasn't much for small talk", or just plain "I don't
know".  As we state in the epilogue, he seems to have been a guy
who really lived and expressed himself through his music, and didn't share
much of anything else with ANYONE.  As for exploring the notion that
he might have been suffering from "severe manic depression", it's not
as if we didn't consider that.  But none of us are qualified to make
such a diagnosis, or back up such an opinion if we had decided to
present it.  However I do believe that the facts as presented speak
for themselves.  Obviously he had some serious problems, but we can't
really do anything more than engage in armchair psychoanalysis and
guess at a technical diagnosis now.  And rather than adding more
unfounded opinion to the mythology, we stayed with facts.

Finally, to the reviewer's suggestion that "his motivations, his
compulsions, and the hidden heart that was the source of his sound
[are] all still waiting for other authors and scholars to explore",
all I can say is good luck!  We didn't talk to every single person who
ever met Walter or saw him perform, but we came pretty close :).  With
thousands of hours spread over many years of three obsessive fanatics
triple-checking under every rock and following every dead-end lead for
every shred of information that could be even loosely related to
Little Walter, then spending five + years writing the book and triple
guessing and triple checking each other's research, I'm confident that
there really isn't much more factual information about LW to be known.
 But hey, my interest in Little Walter didn't begin or end with this
book, so I'd be happy to have someone prove me wrong.

Scott Dirks

Boss harmonica: The life of Little Walter
"Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story"
By Tony Glover, Scott Dirks, and Ward Gaines. Routledge, 326 pages, $24.95.
- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------
Little Walter Jacobs was a serviceable singer, but when he lifted a
harmonica to his mouth, the sound he made cut the noise of crowded clubs
with the authority of an angel's trumpet. Or maybe saxophone. His earliest
blues hits - recordings like his signature instrumental, " Juke " ; the
rocking " Mellow Down Easy " ; the Willie Dixon-penned " My Babe " ; and
the heartbroken " Last Night " - left both horn and harmonica
instrumentalists of the early 1950s wondering just what the hell he was
playing. Often his harp was mistaken for a sax, because a harmonica had
never produced a tone like his before, full of bold and gently sculpted
notes, bent with the delicacy and sweetness of thin strands of licorice.

Little Walter wasn't the first to play harmonica through an amplifier. He
was simply the best, from his first recordings with Muddy Waters' band in
1950 until his dissipation and untimely death at age 37 on February 15,
1968. Today only a very few torchbearers can reach the same incendiary
peaks on the instrument - most notably Kim Wilson, Charlie Musselwhite, and
Jerry Portnoy.

It's in describing Little Walter's music and putting it in the context of
his times that the often stiffly written new biography Blues with a Feeling
succeeds best. Which is no surprise given the background of its three
authors. Tony Glover has been a professional harmonica player since 1962.
Part of the influential folk-blues trio Koerner, Ray & Glover, he's also
the author of one of the most popular guides to playing blues harp. Ward
Gaines is likewise a musician and blues researcher, and Scott Dirks has
been a blues journalist, radio host, record producer, and musician for 20

One of the best passages in Blues with a Feeling provides a thoughtful,
informed analysis of Little Walter's approach. " Influenced as much by horn
players as by other harmonica players, and as much by jazz as he was by
blues, Little Walter freed the harmonica of [its] customary, if self-
imposed, restrictions for the first time, " the authors write. They go on
to describe his behind-the-beat phrasing, which made his harp swing like
his inspiration Coleman Hawkins's sax, and his knack for starting his
phrases off the beat for maximum impact.

They explain that his Charlie Parker-like gift for improvisation allowed
him to unreel melody after melody in his solos and switch time signatures
in the middle of a phrase, or even the middle of a note. And they cite his
knack for veering off into unpredictable directions that seemed hell-bent
for atonal destinations until he'd pivot back into the tune his band were
playing to find a perfect resolution.

But the authors fail to capture the spark of Walter's actual life. They
provide detailed information about his birth (possibly under a tree, with
his mother in disgrace) and convoluted early family relations, but after he
begins his journey to blues fame, this biography becomes a series of
recording sessions alternating with beatings. Although he was a womanizer,
Walter often kept to himself and seemed withdrawn in groups. That plus his
spending sprees and his hard, seemingly relentless drinking might indicate
severe manic depression. Yet the notion goes unexplored here. Too often the
pages of "Blues with a Feeling" read like a glorified set of notes to Chess
Records sessions, detailing who was present and how many takes were
attempted and which songs were played in the studio. That's all of interest
to the hardcore blues fan, but it does nothing for those of us who would
like a glimpse into the soul of a man who could leap from the percolating
beat of " Tell Me Mama " and the loving joy of the shuffle " You're So
Fine " to the rock-bottom blues of " Mean Old World " and " Sad Hours. "

In the end, one of those beatings - perhaps exacerbating an injury caused
by an earlier thrashing from the police, from whom proud Walter would take
no racial jive, or from a jealous husband or an argumentative gambler or
musician - caused him to die in his sleep, probably from a blood clot. By
then, his popularity and skills were in severe decline, in the wake of
changing musical tastes and his alcoholism. He left behind not only his
great recordings but the mystery of his motivations, his compulsions, and
the hidden heart that was the source of his sound - all still waiting for
other authors and scholars to explore. - T.D.

Issue Date: January 9 - 16, 2003 Boston Phoenix

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