From: Hunterha~ol.com
Date: Sat, 4 Nov 1995 12:11:45 -0500
Subject: John Popper

I've read with interest some of the recent notes regarding John Popper. I
will add the following to the conversation.

John Popper is a fine musician and songwriter whose recent success is much
deserved. His music is far better than most of what inhabits the Billboard
charts at any given point in time. He sings with great sound and feeling,
writes terrific lyrics and strong melodies, and plays harmonica in a style
which is thoroughly original and technically demanding. The last point is
probably the most important to Harp-L subscribers, and I will elaborate on it
briefly.

Popper's harmonica work is strikingly original, which is the source both of
its strength and of the knee-jerk rejection that it has inspired in many
harmonica players. Emotionally and technically Popper is coming from
somewhere besides blues harp. Emotionally, his playing is about ecstasy; his
cascades of notes are a volcanic eruption of sheer joy. You can hear the
same love of life in his singing, although the means of expression are very
different. Technically, his playing derives far more from saxophonists (e.g.
Coltrane and his teacher Arnie Lawrence) and guitarists (Hendrix, perhaps Van
Halen?) than from any harmonica-based source. I fail to see why his sources
are inferior to any found in the blues canon, or why anyone should demand
that John sound more like a typical blues player, no matter what his band is
named. (I suspect that the name of the band derives from something Arnie
Lawrence told John, as reported by Winslow Yerxa in his HIP interview: "The
blues is the sound a baby makes when it cries for the first time, 'cause
after that he knows it'll get picked up and it's all show business." Perhaps
"Blues Traveler" refers to the journey back to that first cry from the
heart?) I revere Little Walter as deeply as anyone on the planet could, but
I will never agree that any harmonica player who does not drink from Walter's
(or Big Walter's, or Sonny's, etc.) well is somehow disloyal to the cause, as
if 1) there was a cause and 2) the cause was to sound as much as possible
like someone else.

As to John's disdain for many of the harmonica players he has met and heard,
I believe that it is 1) overstated -- has anyone ever heard John diss another
player by name? -- and 2) too often deserved by those who receive it. The
overall level of musicianship among harmonica players is in fact very low.
How many harmonica players could adequately fulfill the role played by the
rhythm guitarist in a typical three-chord rock band (to pick something well
within the capabilities of any second-rate musician)? How many harmonica
players can't play in 7/8 or 5/8 time (as John does), or even name the chords
they're playing over? How many of the players reading the last two lines
thought to themselves "Well, why would I ever want to do that?", as if
accepting incredibly constricted limits on one's musicianship was somehow
praiseworthy?

I meet far too many harmonica players who stick to playing the blues because
they think it's technically easy. Those players haven't listened to Little
Walter, Sonny Terry, Kim Wilson, or Ray Charles (to pick a few) carefully,
never mind Popper. I suspect that the idea of the blues as a safe refuge for
third-rate musicians is far more dear to the hearts of casually committed
players than it is to Popper. In any case, any player who is threatened by
John's very mild comments on the general level of musicianship displayed by
harmonica players is well advised to improve his or her musicianship to the
point where he or she no longer feels threatened, and quit blaming John for
his largely accurate comments on the state of the harmonica playing art.

In the final analysis, what any of us thinks of John's work is almost besides
the point. He has created a new style and approach to playing the harmonica
which cannot be ignored by harmonica players, any more than classical
pianists can ignore Beethoven. His playing is certain to be the most
influential contribution to the basic vocabulary of rock harmonica since
Little Walter. (I say "influential" here purposely to avoid denigrating the
many fine players whose work has not yet found a mass audience.) He is
connecting with a mass audience emotionally and intellectually, not
surprising given the high quality of feeling and ideas in his music. Players
who refuse to give John his due should know that in the not very distant
future (like now, maybe?) a minimally competent professional must certainly
be able to produce a passable imitation of John's style for 16 bars or so on
demand, that being the kind of thing any record producer might request from a
supposed professional. If any reader thinks that's an impossible or unfair
demand, that's his or her problem, not Popper's.

Richard Hunter



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