Interviewed by Cesca Janece Waterfield
Blues musician Charlie Musselwhite recently celebrated his 30th release, ‘The Well,’ which brought him to Richmond this week. The legendary harmonica player, vocalist and guitarist wrote almost every song on the album, creating an authentic experience of his blues roots. He was born in Mississippi on the Natchez Trace in 1944, surrounded by music. After the family moved to Memphis, he worked as a ditch digger and moonshine runner. Fascinated by the blues, he began playing guitar and harmonica by age 13. After moving to Chicago to look for work, he lived on the South Side, hanging out at clubs where he met and became friends with blues icons Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Before long, he was sitting in, building a word-of-mouth reputation. This year he was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame. He’s performed with John Lee Hooker, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Bonnie Raitt and many more, been nominated for six Grammy Awards, and won 23 Blues Music Awards.
What inspired your deeply personal new CD, ‘The Well’?
The Well itself is about me quitting drinking 22 years ago, almost 23. When I realized I should quit drinking, my approach was to start cutting down. And finally I got where I didn’t drink at all except when I went to work. It sounds odd, but I had never been on a stage sober. I was playing in those clubs in Chicago and everybody drank. That’s what we did, and I was pretty good at it. One day I was listening to the news and Jessica McClure had fell into this well and she was being really brave and she was singing nursery rhymes to herself. Her bravery at the bottom of this well, in the dark, I think she had a broken arm too – I thought, ‘Why can’t I be that brave? Why can’t I just get on the stage and do something I know perfectly well how to do without drinking?’ As a prayer for her, I said I would not drink until she got out of that well. By the time she got out of that well, I think it was three days, I was out of the well too.
How were the first shows after you quit?
It was horrible [laughs] and it was scary. It really didn’t suit my nature to be in front of people like that. Drinking made everything okay, I thought. That first night I was sweating because I was uncomfortable.
What drew you to music from such a young age?
I was hearing blues and gospel and old hillbilly music on the radio but I was seeing street singers in Memphis. I was fascinated by them. I liked blues so I was really drawn to them. I’d follow them around downtown in Memphis, Tennessee. Also, where I lived there were some fields where people would work and I’d hear them singing. I didn’t know when I was young that was blues but I knew it made me feel good when I heard it. It was a comforter to me. That’s what blues is, a comforter. There’s a creek near our house and we didn’t have air conditioning. In the summertime it was really hot. Down by the creek was the coolest place you could be. I’d go down there and I’d hear people singing in the fields and it just made me feel good. It was a kind of mournful music often, but there was something about it, it was just comforting. I just loved the way blues made me feel.
What was Memphis like back then for a teenager who cherished the blues?
I wasn’t a professional musician at that time. It never occurred to me that I’d be a professional. I was looking up not only the street singers, but I got to know [recording musicians]. I just enjoyed hanging out with them and learning how to play. It was never because I thought I was preparing for a career or I would have been paying a lot more attention than I did. In fact, I wish I could go back in time and start over again.
When did you head to Chicago?
1962, I left for Chicago. I didn’t know that all the blues was going on up there. To me, it was just some big town way up north and I’d heard you could get good jobs up there that paid well and that had benefits. Things were really rough in the south economically and I thought, well, I might as well go get me one of those fancy jobs. It ain’t happening here. The first job I ended up with was as a driver for an exterminator, which was perfect because driving him all over town I got to learn the city right away. I was seeing all these posters and signs in the windows of these bars with names like Muddy Waters and Elmore James. So I started hanging out in those clubs where I could see live blues. I just can’t tell you how thrilling that was. But I wasn’t telling people I played. I just didn’t think about it. It wasn’t anything I thought I was going to do. But eventually, Muddy Waters found out that I played and he insisted that I sit in. People heard me play and they asked me to come where they were. That got me focused on paying more attention to this, that this might be my ticket out of the factory. It worked out that way. I didn’t have a plan. I still don’t have much of one. I just let the music take me where it wants to go.
Was there a point when it was clear this might be a career?
I made this album in 1967 for Vanguard Records. After it came out, I started getting requested to come play here and there and I started going to play different places and I finally went out to California for a month I thought to work. When I got there I found out there was lots of work. So I stayed in California and I’ve been playing since then.
How does it feel when Downbeat calls you, “the undisputed champion of blues harmonica”?
It’s nice to be recognized and thought well of. I like it. I don’t know what all the fuss is about but I’ll take it.
What was it about the harmonica that attracted you?
When I first got to Chicago there were just tons of guitar players and not many harmonica players. That’s why I went with the harmonica. It was easy to carry one around with you. And I’ve always loved the way the harmonica sounds so voice-like. When I’m playing it, it’s like singing without words.
What’s the future hold for Charlie Musselwhite?
Between touring with my own band, I’ve been touring with Cindy Lauper. That’s been really cool. She’s very cool and she’s a great person too. She has a blues album out. There will be more of that coming up too. Her album’s called Memphis Blues.
What is it about Memphis that captivates people?
Must be the history that it has. Not that the people of Memphis really pay attention to their own history. It’s a real crossroads of the south. You’ve got the river, highway 51, highway 61, you’ve got people coming in there from Mississippi and Arkansas, other parts of Tennessee. It’s like a big country city, or at least it used to be. It’s gotten a lot more sophisticated. A lot happened there musically. All the blues singers who lived there, there’s a lot of history.
There’s something real truthful about that heat. You have to embrace it and become one with it. Kind of like, one of the tunes I have is “Dig the Pain.” When things are rough, you just kind of embrace it and it’s not so bad.
That’s kind of mystical but I think there’s truth to that.
The blues is mystical too. It has a lot of depth to it. It’s more than just music.