From: Mike Curtis <;>;
Date: Sat, 4 Nov 1995 16:24:26 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Re: John Popper <;long, w/Popper letter 5/94>;

>; ... 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.

Agreed. Many try to copy these (and other) players, usually poorly. But
that's true of all instruments. The "original" players are a miniscule

>; 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?

No - he didn't need to. In his one and only post to harp-l, he "dissed" all
harmonicists generically.

>; -- and 2) too often deserved by those who receive it.

NO ONE deserves this. For many, the harmonica is a hobby and not a
religion or a way of life. Not all professional harmonica players are
"created equal", either. But does that mean they should be shamelessly
insulted? Not in the civilized world.

>; The
>; overall level of musicianship among harmonica players is in fact very low.

And because of this, they ALL deserved to be insulted?

But the same can be said of ALL instruments. There are a great many who
play piano, organ, guitar, and various horns who are perpetual "beginners",
and who care naught if they progress further. There's nothing wrong or
improper about this.

>; 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)?

Considering that diatonic harmonica is not intended to replace a rhythm
guitarist, and would do so poorly, I don't see this as valid. But to answer
it, most harmonica players could handle this with very little problem. I
often have harmonica players of all levels sitting in with me. If I want
chords, I let 'em know. Usually, they handle it just fine. If they're not
sure, I'll give 'em a brief pointer and they catch on right away. Even the

>; How many harmonica
>; players can't play in 7/8 or 5/8 time (as John does),

The same percentage as other musicians who can't handle odd meters - which
is a sizeable number. I do a lot of odd metered stuff, i.e. 5/4, 7/8, 9/8
(2-2-2-3, 2-2-2-3, 2-2-2-3, 3-3-3), 11/8, and more, and finding non-jazz
musicians that can handle these is difficult at best, even here in the
entertainment capitol of the world, Hollywood.

I wonder if Popper can handle a 19/4, or some of the longer odd measures in
music? And I wonder if this really matters? I didn't know this was a
"bathroom" contest - silly me!

>; or even name the chords they're playing over?

You mean like blues great B.B. King? Or legendary jazz organist Jimmy
Smith? Neither of these are trained musicians. B.B. doesn't even play
chords, other than an occasional 13th sting. And even though Smith has cut
records with Oliver Nelsons big band (etc.), he doesn't read a lick. The
band and arranger work around Smiths limitations.

>; 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?

Considering BB and Jimmy do quite well, and other musicians who play
strictly by ear, knowing musical nomenclature is optional. A highly
recommended option in my book, but nonetheless an option. In this town,
reading vastly improves your gigging opportunities, but its lack in no way
eliminates you from all of them.

>; 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.

And that's the key word - "casually committed". Not everyone is a fanatic.
Thank goodness for that.

>; 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.

I saved a copy of Poppers "mild comments" to the harp-l group. I don't
think any of us were "threatened", but I know many were "offended".

- --------------begin popper.txt-----------------

Date: Tue, 17 May 94 14:58:21 -0500 date of original usenet post
>; To all the harmonica players, Internet "Bulldogs", & anyone else
>; interested, etc;
>; Everyone, it has come to my attention that there is a series of debates
>; going on "Internet". At the heart of these debates are several issues I
>; will address each in turn. Firstly, the facts; I have never been nor do
>; I intend on going to a "Harmonica convention" in Chicago or anywhere
>; else for that matter. It seems to me that harp players enjoy being a
>; persecuted race, which enables them to separate themselves from other
>; musicians and go around like half-cocked gun fighters deciding who "the
>; best harper is". This is the silliest premise I've ever had to deal
>; with and is precisely the reason why I will never go to a harmonica
>; convention. I'm a musician, that means I enjoy playing music, not being
>; a harmonicist. My influence more than anyone else was Jimi Hendrix who
>; played the guitar--but he did more than play the guitar. It was as if
>; it didn't matter what instrument he was using, the voice he created with
>; the sounds he was able to produce transcended any category of sections
>; he would sit in, in a big orchestra. He sang, and I desire to sing as
>; well. I don't care if I play harmonica, the trombone, or the saxophone,
>; as did my other idol -- Charlie Parker. If you're concerned about what
>; instrument you're playing then you're missing a more important point of
>; what you're saying on your instrument. The object of the game, boys and
>; girls, is to express what you mean honestly and share it. And for those
>; of you who don't understand that -- I'm a little embarrassed for you.
>; I used to twirl my harp like a "six gun" and go around dueling people.
>; I was good at it - "The Best Around" (A regular Jesse James). Until
>; one day I walked into Dan Lynch's Blues Bar on 2nd Avenue. There I
>; saw an old harmonica player I knew from around the scene who was
>; playing that night with his band. He looked at me worried and
>; motioned to me that he's let me up in a few minutes to play. I could
>; see the fear in his eye, little beads of sweat forming - I felt good
>; and smug and proud of myself that I could instill such fear in an old
>; man. But while I was waiting around to destroy him I started to
>; notice the house. The people were smiling having a good time and
>; dancing to this old man. He was rocking the place -- they were
>; enjoying his simple straight ahead blues groove. I knew that if I got
>; up and "smoked" this guy the crowd would no longer be satisfied with
>; what this guy was doing. In effect, I could have walked into that
>; bar, ruined the night for everyone, and left. It was at that precise
>; moment that I realized and suddenly became very ashamed, I felt like a
>; big bully with a small penis. I vowed never again to twirl a "six
>; gun", sorry kids but music is not a competitive sport no matter how
>; hard you try and you could never make me see it that way. And I feel
>; sorry for you if you do.
>; The only reason I have dignified this silly debate with a response is
>; to correct a slander committed on 2 of my friends. Namely, Howard
>; Levy and Bruce Willis. It is for their sake I write this letter.
>; Bruce Willis has been a good friend of the band since 1989, and like
>; me he has no illusions about being the best harmonica player on earth.
>; He, like me, simply loves music. Howard Levy has been a friend of
>; mine since the 1st Horde when the flecktones played with us, I know
>; not what illusions he has, for in my estimation he is the technically
>; best harmonica player on earth. He is a rocket scientist when in
>; comes to the physics of playing the harmonica and I have seen him do
>; the most amazing things. He can literally move his mouth in two
>; directions at once playing separate melodies independently of each
>; other. But as great as he is I have utterly no desire to imitate or
>; play like him. I want to play my voice, and I honestly believe that
>; is the reason Howard enjoyed jamming together with me. How boring it
>; would have been had Howard and I simply compared chops, who's got the
>; biggest schlong contest and nothing more.
>; For those of you who like my band, my songwriting, or my playing,
>; thank you -- It gives me joy to do. For those of you who try to
>; figure out how I play or even my style of songwriting - keep going and
>; make sure you take the music further -- more power to you. But for
>; those of you who are disappointed that I'm not "The Best" I can only
>; offer apologies that your penises will not grow any longer than they
>; are. And here do I attest for all the world to know that there is no
>; best. There's never supposed to be one best. Even Howard Levy or
>; Babe Ruth would tell you that. Now go to your corners and come out
>; fighting and be nice to each other, that's what internets are for.
>; All my love and faith,
>; John Popper.
- ------------------end of file--------------------

Mild indeed.

Any surprise that he's not well received on harp-l?

>; 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.

Poor parallel, which weakens your argument. Pianists can TOTALLY ignore
Beethoven. Many of them do. A lot of jazz, rock, blues, etc., pianists
have absolutely no idea of Bethoven. And it is possible there are classical
pianists who don't like Beethoven and exclude him from their repertoire,
thereby "ignoring" him.

Just as not all pianists are classically trained, not ALL harmonicists
desire to play "just like Popper" - so they can - and many will - ignore

>; 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.)

Little Walter has contributed prodigious quantities of great licks. Popper
has contributed just so far. He is good at it, and he has brought attention
to harmonica, but he has a way to go. He seems to know that, according to
his usenet post.

>; 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.

And fortunately, we just have to learn one lick - albeit a challenging one.

At the top of this post is a quote from you that it is wrong to be forced to
"drink from Walters well" (copy another player). Now you say we all need to
copy Popper in order to be a "real man"?

But this is specious at best. Record producers usually have more sense than
to copy other players "trademarked" licks. One gets session work based more
upon their originality and reputation than the ability to do top 40 copies,
something relegated to second rate musicians.

Maybe we could start a third tape - the "Popper lick ripoff" tape, where all
the fast harmonicists on the list demonstrate just how copiable John Popper
is. Even John Popper himself admits he isn't "the greatest". (See his note
above). He is good at what he does, though.

-- mike

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