Interview with harmonica virtuoso Martin Lang, captures the wailing urgency that makes Chicago blues harp famous worldwide
How has the Blues (and people of) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
The blues musicians and people I met in Chicago had a great time in the world they lived in, very individualistic and vibrant. I liked the way they looked at life, they could be who they really were. That’s how I see the music, and being a blues musician; it’s all about figuring out who you really are. Not who people say you are, or who you’d like to be. The real you, the real me.
What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?
The blues to me is a way of life. A way of seeing life, and making music from that. I learned about myself that the blues is a form of music that’s so beautiful and great that it doesn’t need much help from me.
How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?
I think of my sound as real old-style Chicago harp blues. Tone, groove, and economy. In terms of this record, I had everything on the line. It was do it or die. I had to change gears. It really was past time for me to do this.
How do you describe “Bad Man” songbook? Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album?
The Bad Man songbook came together little by little. I had a couple ideas for numbers, but I hadn’t really tried them. The band deserves a whole lot of credit. I had some deep cuts, Dick Shurman picked a couple, there’s some insider stuff.’Reefer Head Man’ is arranged like Willie Smith’s ‘It’s a Hard Hard Way’ – and just about all of us have worked with Willie.
How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started? What has remained the same about your music-making process?
I think I’ve grown rhythmically and my phrasing’s become looser. When I was young, I had energy and power and aggression. Now I’m in better control. The music making process is basically the same, it’s simple. I write the songs, sing the melody, the band falls in. I’ll get inspired by something I hear, usually early in the morning.
What do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs?
I hope most of all that people feel that my music is honest. I hope that it gives people the idea that there’s some kind of hope for the evolution of the traditional blues sound.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?
The most important thing I learned was that it is in letting go that there’s freedom in the music, not in holding on to more control. If you try to impose yourself on the music, your reward will be less of a positive impact. I had to learn that, to let the music breathe, which involves letting go of control. It’s very Zen, but I’m not usually a Zen guy lol…
Why do you think that Chicago Blues Scene continues to generate such a devoted following?
Chicago style music sounds (when it’s right) sexy and dangerous and cool. That’s why people always like it, and why it has such devoted followers, I think.
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
I remember once being onstage alone with Eddie Taylor, Jr., in Amsterdam, which is a big venue. It was just us two, no bass, no other guitar except Eddie, no drums. Just harp and guitar, and I had a big amp and my little Electro Voice mike I’d gotten from Fishman at the Delta Fish Market. Eddie did Crawling King Snake and I remember thinking “This is gonna be hard” in terms of blending the sounds of my harp and his guitar, because he was still playing a lot of the top parts. But it worked out beautiful.
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
The most important person I met here in Chicago was definitely Taildragger. I learned a lot about the music from him. Not the harp specifically, about blues music. The best advice I ever heard was to lay back and wait and take your time. I listen to the drummer, play along with him, in most cases.
Are there any memories with Tail Dragger which you’d like to share with us?
I’ve seen Taildragger correctly diagnose what was wrong with a running truck engine by listening to it. His eyes were closed, he had a cigar in his mouth, and he knew what was wrong with it when he opened them.
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
What I miss most is the black clubs and the Fish Market and the whole West Side blues scene. It was great, as much fun as a person could have. The people in the club were part of the music. It was call and response amongst the musicians but also amongst the musicians and the people. Those people knew about blues. They understood blues. They’re gone, and I miss them. What I hope that blues lives on, in the hearts of the musicians of the future. A great deal can be learned from records. A great deal cannot. As for the future I consider myself realistic but hopeful.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
Change one thing in the musical world? I’d eliminate bad intonation. That’s a big question!
What touched you from the sound of Harmonica? You studied law and philosophy, how has influenced your views of the world?
Something about the sound of the harp that I heard Little Walter make spoke to me clearly and immediately. It was the clearest thing I ever heard or knew of. I knew almost immediately upon hearing him playing his own stuff for the first time that I wanted to try it. It was exactly like the first hit of a really great drug, the best ever. I heard “My Babe” and completely freaked out. I asked Lee “Little Wolf” Solomon, who I met at Ohio and Hamlin on the West Side, what was the blues? He was from Tallulah, Louisiana. He replied “Cryin’ for your mama. We all be cryin’. Cryin for your mama.”
What is the impact of Blues on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?
Well, I hope music can help people form relationships with those others that are as different from them as I am from someone like Taildragger; in my relationship with him, the subject of race is literally a joke. We know each other well enough to know that we are truly more alike than different, because of the music.
You have run several harmonica clinics all over the Midwest. What touched you from the “Harp Freak” clinics?
I was amazed at the level of passion from harp players all over the Midwest, really. The number of people that honestly wanted to learn more about the traditional way of playing the Chicago blues harp. I had a lot of fun and made many good friends.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?
Not that easy a question, but I’ll say a multiple bill featuring Little Walter with the Aces at the Royal Peacock anytime around 1955 or 56. Or maybe Muddy’s early band in Chicago. That’s a tough question!
Interview by Michael Limnios / Photos by Michael Kurgansky