Written by Phil Cerroni
By Phil Cerroni
The blues player is an essential part of the American self-image: the old man sitting on a stoop creating beautiful, melancholy sounds that waft from his instrument. Although the harmonica is not a dying art form, it is rare to find someone who plays something besides the diatonic or “rock” harmonica. But if you happened to wander through the Westin DFW Airport Hotel in Irving, you would have seen many people sporting a multitude of different harmonicas from the massive chord and bass harmonicas to the smaller, extremely versatile chromatic harmonica. The reason all these musicians were wandering around the hotel is because SPAH (the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica) held its 2012 Convention here.
Mike Street came all the way from Richmond, VA for the week shared some of the benefits of participating in the convention.
“All the bigwig harmonica players are here, sort of the who’s who. It’s a great place to learn and to make new friends,” Street said. “During the daytime you’ve got your choice of seminars and workshops where professionals are sitting there breaking down steps for you, or they teach you everything from technique to equipment you can use; even tuning and fixing harmonicas. There’s so much that I’ve absorbed in this short week.”
Like many people at the convention, Street’s love for the harmonica goes far beyond a single genre of music or looking cool.
“I wanted to be different, but it quickly grew into loving the instrument, loving the whole blues history behind that –trying to develop and preserve it as an American art form,” he said.
One reason that Robert Logan came to the convention was to discover new styles of harmonica music that he would not otherwise have been exposed to.
“Today I was sitting at a table in one of the seminars, and a guy was telling me all about – he called it old time music – it’s fiddle music, but I’d never been exposed to that before. The tunes and the rhythm are different than the blues, and I’ll go home and try some of it – see how close I can get,” Logan said.
Sixteen-year-old Norman Patton was one of five recipients of SPAH’s youth grant.
“They took five young people who were playing the harmonica and helped give them rooms so they could be at SPAH to show what young people are doing and show older people hope that there are young people who also play harmonica,” Patton said.
Passing on the harmonica’s legacy was a desire shared by many of the convention’s participants.
“One guy who is in college is playing the same song that a guy in his 80’s is playing,” said Rob Fletcher, a chord harmonica player. “They have different takes, but at the same time there’s a common ground.”
Joe Filisko’s story is a great example of what life could be like for anyone who does plays harmonica. At this time, he is not only a masterful maker of custom harmonicas, but he is also a very successful musician.
“When I was in high school I fell in love with the guitar,” Filisko said. “When I got into college I developed a very strong interest in American roots music and blues and that got me really listening to the harmonica. And the harmonica became, from that point on, my love and affection. I pursued the art of harmonica player rather feverishly.
“In 1992, a couple things happened. I started teaching at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, and I was also recognized by the Associated Press for the high end, high performance, harmonicas I was building. It was really the beginning of an international career for me. I went to my first World harmonica Festival in 1991 and became a featured performer in 2001. I didn’t really start recording too much until 2006.”
But Filisko says that playing as a professional is no different than playing as an amateur. This was not just something he said, however. He was jamming with the rest of convention’s participants in the hotel lobby at 11 p.m. the last night of the convention.
“Music is music,” he said. “People want to listen; people are into it. They’re a lot of people really expressing themselves.”
Dallas is shaping itself to be a major destination of American music. From its historic piece of blues history that is Deep Ellum, to the world-class steel guitar manufacturers based here, to events like the SPAH convention. The trend appears to be on the rise, and with new means of transportation like the DART Orange Line, that just make it much easier for residents from all parts of the Metroplex to expose themselves to this amazing music that is so much a part of our heritage.