[Harp-L] Reposted from Dirty-South Blues Harp Forum: An Open Letter to Rick Estrin from Adam

>From Adam Gussow, reposted to Harp-L at his request:


I don’t know about you, but when there’s a burden on my heart, I brood on it
for as long as I’m able to and then I do my best to heave it off. Usually
that means opening my mouth and playing some music, or saying something to
somebody. Sometimes the things I say are heartfelt. Sometimes they’re
ill-considered or hurtful, or both. Sometimes they’re deep and true.
Sometimes they’re an unstable mixture of these things. The music does a
pretty good job of saying what needs to be said. The words do what they can.

Integrity, as I understand it, isn’t about living a perfect life, or making
everybody happy all the time. It’s about trying to get things as right as
you can, so that you’re acting in line with your values and your beliefs—and
about trying to set things right when you realize that you’ve made them

This past summer, as a followup to a piece he was writing on an event called
Hill Country Harmonica, a journalist from the Princeton Alumni Weekly
interviewed me at length, by phone. In the course of that interview, the
topic eventually moved to the question of how I saw the contemporary blues
harmonica world. I spoke for a long time and said many things. Because I’m
an academic in one of my several lives, I spoke as precisely as I could and
was careful to qualify my pronouncements. Because I have strong and
conflicted feelings about where we find ourselves, as a community, in the
present moment, I did my best to articulate those feelings. A wiser person
would have been more circumspect. I’m not always wise. Sometimes I’m a fool.
My wife can confirm this.

One of my most passionately-held convictions—call it a pet idea—is that the
world of contemporary blues harmonica has been, in some profound way, a
little more beholden to the past, to tradition, to the ancestors, than it
should be for its own long-term health. The corollary to this idea is my
belief that that same blues harmonica world has tended to scoff at, dismiss,
recategorize as “not REAL blues” some contemporary players whose playing
represents an alternative, especially if they happen to throw those dreaded
overblows into the mix. (Many participants in the Modern Blues Harmonica
forum are tired of my preaching about this particular issue.) My own goal
has long been to create a dialogue between tradition and modernity; between
old-school and the Young Turks. This is one reason why my friend Jason Ricci
and I initially dreamed up Hill Country Harmonica: to create such a dialogue
within a creative space where the tradition was respected and innovation was
actively encouraged.

This is also why I suggested to my business partner Jeff Silverman this past
spring that we contact Rick Estrin, one of the finest contemporary
representatives of old-school blues harmonica mastery, and invite him to
give a special Friday morning clinic at HCH. I very much wanted him to be
part of this dialogue. The fact that I wanted Rick to be a part of our event
might surprise some people. Twenty years ago, as a much younger man, I wrote
a letter to a blues magazine in which I said some irritable things about the
blues scene then, and I referred to Rick by name. I was a bit of a hot-head
in those days; a young fool who thought I knew more than I did. When I
encountered Rick a few years later at a festival, he called me on it. I’m
glad he did. He forced me to think about the human cost of engaging in
cultural criticism when the people I was criticizing were my peers and
elders within a subculture that I cared deeply about.

In the years since that letter and that encounter, I took it upon myself to
rethink the issues involved. I kept my ears open. I tried to reconcile my
conviction about the weight of tradition in our world—a weight I that felt
as a burden—with what my ears told me about Rick’s true achievements. Since
one of my core values was the so-called three-second test—If I hear some
harmonica playing on the radio, can I tell who it is within three seconds?—I
was forced to admit that Rick’s sly, swinging yelp was one of the most
identifiable sounds out there. (Jason Ricci and Sugar Blue, two
representative modernists, pass this test with flying colors as well.) What
stopped me cold, though, was “Coastin’ Hank,” a chromatic instrumental
filled with so much harmonic knowledge, fluid swing, and creative flow, that
its genius could not be denied. That track messed me up, in a good way. I
said “I have to put aside a couple of weeks and study this track, and learn
some new things.”

I told Rick as much the next time I encountered him, several years back at
the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena. I also told him how much I had
enjoyed his blues harmonica instructional video. Rick is a wise, gracious,
funny, forgiving man. It was that encounter, that song, that video, and that
conversation, that led me to suggest to Jeff that we bring Rick to Hill
Country Harmonica.

As it turned out, Rick was loyal to his band and wasn’t able to make the
trip solo. But the offer was warmly extended, and warmly considered.

Fast forward to my phone conversation with the journalist from the alumni
magazine this past summer. Encouraged to speak frankly about our blues
harmonica world, I did my best to oblige. I chose my words carefully, or
thought I did; I qualified my pronouncements in a way that made clear my
genuine respect and affection for Rick and several other contemporary
masters. I tried to convey my sense of how some younger players, including
me, found ourselves embattled by defenders of “tradition” when we tried to
promulgate a forward-looking vision of what contemporary blues harmonica was
and could be.

I said all that. The moment I read my words in print, however, I realized
that something was wrong. Two things were wrong. One was the way I had been
selectively quoted, and in one case, flagrantly misquoted, by the journalist
in question. I could defend myself against that. But the other thing that
was wrong was my own fault. It's something I can't defend and something that
my heart tells me I need to apologize for. What was wrong, as should be
obvious from what I’ve written above, was the fact that I’d mentioned Rick
in my comments at all. In doing so, and in choosing my words carelessly, I
trampled on the beginnings of a hard-won friendship and I did so in a way
that pains me greatly—a way that is at odds with the personal warmth and
extremely high professional and creative regard that I have for Rick.

That’s the truth. Please accept my apologies, Rick. You didn’t ask me to
write this—nobody did—and I don’t have the heart to contact you personally,
although I hope we’ll speak at some future point. A public apology is called
for; that’s what this is.

I still believe that the Young Turks need to kick the old-school guys in the
ass—if we’re bad and brave enough to do that—but we also need to take every
opportunity we’ve got to tell them just how much they mean to us. I’m no the
only guy around who learned by listening to their records, cassettes, and
CDs and by catching their live shows. Respect must be given, especially when
you’re talking about guys who have really paid their dues. I get that. It’s
a core lesson of the blues life. Sometimes it takes a while to learn the
hard lessons. Sometimes you make the same mistake twice and it hurts more
the second time around. All you can do when that happens is make the best of
a bad situation. Straighten up and fly right. I’m doing my best.


P.S.: I would be grateful if somebody would re-post this to harp-L. Thanks.

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