Adam Gussow Interview


Sound samples are in mp3 format. If you do not have an mp3 player, you can find one free by clicking on the icon below :

aagetsm1.gif (2027 octets)

Adam GussowDuring a trip to New York last March I had the opportunity to meet up with Adam Gussow, Big Apple blues harp player with a very distinctive style, light yet powerful. He invited me to his flat in Northern Manhattan, amongst his book collection and his amp collection. A thrilling but too short discussion with a blues scholar...

Amplified Gussow

Adam Gussow's amplified sound

Acoustic Gussow

Adam Gussow's acoustic sound

Benoit Felten : I just bought the latest issue of Blues Access and there’s this little chronicle you wrote on New York blues. What do you define as the "New York sound," if it can be defined?

Adam Gussow : What did I write in the article? Hmm, something about it being like the sound of two taxis in a head-on collision where what you make is one bigger, gaudier taxi. Sort of like a head-on collision of styles.

I left Satan & Adam out of the list, I guess out of modesty. But I obviously think that we’ve been a part of what that’s about in the ’90s. It’s maybe a little less obvious with someone like Shemika Copeland but it’s very obvious with Michael Hill and the Blues Mob, with the Holmes Brothers, with Poppa Chubby. Those three acts and Satan & Adam are all defined by just mixing a whole lot of different styles and not just blues. I mean the Holmes Brothers mix in gospel and even country. Michael Hill mixes in more of almost an Afro-centric thing where he would use music from other parts of the African diaspora. Mr. Satan and I use … blues melodies, jazz harmonies, funk rhythms, and soul vocals. Those are all black musics, really, but we also have a little bit of rock in there sometimes. On our "Living on the River," we do "Proud Mary," the old Ike and Tina Turner version.

Sweet Home to Blue Monk

Sweet Home Chicago into
Blue Monk

When we played the Chicago Blues Festival, there was a preview article that talked about "post-modern blues." I don’t know if I’d say we’re post-modern blues. But if by post-modern you mean that there’s not one style but several different styles coming into collision, we are. You know that wasn’t the way that blues used to be defined really. It was more of a folk music. Well, not really folk music – but there was CHICAGO blues and it sounded like CHICAGO blues. We can take a Chicago blues groove; we can do a song like "Sweet Home Chicago" and add in "Blue Monk." That’s a classic move that we do. [Adam plays a 12-bar-blues turnaround and then goes into "Blue Monk".] To be able to move from one idiom to another is nice. Blues has always done that a little bit. Little Walter learned from Louis Jordan. That’s the way I would say that you fertilize the music.

The particular impetus for my article was Shemekia Copeland who is out of New York City and has been No. 1 on the LIVING BLUES radio charts for three months in a row. She may well be voted Best New Artist at the Handys. She has a very good shot. When was the last time New York produced that kind of a blues artist? So that was my point, to be a LITTLE BIT partisan.

Now I’m not saying that L.A. doesn’t have it. But everyone knows about West Coast blues, everybody knows about Austin, Texas, and Chicago, and I’m sure there are a few other places that are blues centers. But people don’t think of New York as that. And what I wanted to do is say, "you know, if you add all the stuff up that’s come out of New York, and people like Larry Johnson, who Nat Riddles used to play with is a wonderful straight-ahead Gary Davis-type player, and Bill Perry, you know, we’ve got some great players and some originators."

BF : So how is Mister Satan doing?

AG : Well, you know, he had a very mild stroke in April of last year. The last gig we played was April 3, 1998. He had a mild stroke and I went down and visited him in May and he looked really tired. So I cancelled all our gigs for the summer. We were going at Notodden in Norway and three or four other big festivals. He agreed and I cancelled. We haven’t played since. It’s been 11 months.

I haven’t talked to him since late September. We were supposed to have a comeback gig in early October and he cancelled two days before the gig. His wife cancelled. I haven’t talked to him. I was kind of angry that I didn’t even get a chance to talk to him. He just was sort of off in his own place. I’m not really clear where he is, physically and mentally. He seems to be fine but I think he’s ambivalent.

He lives about 40 miles south of Lynchburg (Virginia). In fact, I’ll give your readers for the first time where he is. If you want to go on a blues pilgrimage and find Mister Satan, go to Volens, Virginia. There’s a little crossroads, sort of like the little crossroads that Robert Johnson went to. And you’ll find Mister Satan and Miss Macie and his car, I’ve been told. So if you want to go on a blues pilgrimage, find him and tell him that you hope he gets back in gear and gets out there on the road. All he has to do is call me and say "I’m coming up to New York, can we play?" And I’d say yeah. Hell yeah!

BF : So are you playing some other stuff?

AG : We’ll I’m playing with a guy named Jerry Dugger, who’s a guitar player in New York. And I’m a graduate student at Princeton so I have to buckle down and work. I want to get my Ph.D. and get a teaching job as a professor in American literature. I’m kind of combining my interest in blues with my interest in literature. I just did a lecture on Zora Neale Hurston and blues in the novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God," her best known novel. I used a Memphis Minnie song called "Bumble Bee" It’s her best-known blues: "You stung me this morning, I been restless all day long." I used it as a way of reading this novel.

BF : The only novel I read which was had a lot of blues in it was the Walter Mosley book.

AG : Yeah, "RL’s Dream." That’s one of the best.

BF : Are there others?

Adam's recommended blues reads
(By clicking on the links you can buy the book straight from Amazon)

1. "Another Good Loving Blues" by Arthur Flowers

2. "Blues All Around Me : The Autobiography of B.B. King" by B. B. King and David Ritz

3. "Corregidora" by Gayl Jones

4. "Dirty Bird Blues" by Clarence Major

5. "I Say Me for a Parable: The Oral Autobiography of Mance Lipscomb, Texas Bluesman" by Mance Lipscomb

6. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Seven Guitars," and other plays by August Wilson

7. "Really the Blues" by Mezz Mezzrow

8. "RL’s Dream" by Walter Mosley

9. "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston

10. "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman" by Honeyboy Edwards

11. "Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow" by Leon F. Litwack.

12. "Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice" by David Oshinsky

13. "Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine" by Bebe Moore Campbell

AG : Yeah, I would encourage people to go on Amazon.com and get some of these. There’s one about a blues harmonica player, called "Dirty Bird Blues," by Clarence Major. There’s a great novel called "Another Good Loving Blues" by Arthur Flowers. Obviously there are the plays of August Wilson, like "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" and "Seven Guitars." And then get "W.C. Handy: Father of the Blues." Get Mezz Mezzrow’s "Really the Blues." Get "Corregidora" by Gayl Jones. All these are great great blues novels that feature musicians as the protagonists. The book I’m reading now is called "Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine" by Bebe Moore Campbell, which is a good one. So yeah, there’s a lot of stuff.

And then of course, go and get Honeyboy Edwards’ "The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing." And get the Mance Lipscomb book. Get the B.B. King book, "Blues All Around Me."

These are mostly about men, but the Bebe Moore Campbell book is about women.

Oh, and if you want to know what is was like to be alive in Mississippi during the period of time when the blues was coming into being, read a book called "Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice," by David Oshinsky. It’s all about the criminal justice system in Mississippi. And another book called "Trouble in mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow" by Leon Litwack.

You know, I think people who like blues really ought to learn where it comes from. Not just where it comes from musically, not just get the old music, but really read the history.

BF : I had the feeling reading your book that you have a certain ambivalence toward this white blues/black blues kind of thing.

AG : I’m not sure what you mean by white blues/black blues thing.

BF : Well, this argument that if you’re white you can’t play blues.

AG : Oh yeah. No, you certainly can. The problem is that there’s a lot of white folks who don’t do it right, or who have the wrong attitude. I’ve always had a problem with white players who mix in comedy in certain ways. So I had a real problem – that I sort of have dealt with – with Rick Estrin and Rod Piazza. The problem is that they’re both fellow professionals and their playing is great. I have NO problem with their playing. But I was bothered at a certain point in my life by the way in which, umm, Estrin made the music kind of a joke and Piazza, his attitude sometimes seemed a little bit what I’d call "jive." The blues is supposed to be about getting down to some truth and it didn’t feel to me like that’s what he was doing.

Now, I’ll tell you the truth, I’ve read reviews of their most recent records and I’m going to go out and get their records. You can put this in your article. Because in both cases, the way they were reviewed, these guys are getting more serious, they’re singing from their hearts. I don’t know if I had anything to do with that or not. They might have gotten really pissed off at the things that I said, and I wouldn’t have blamed them. Well, I KNOW Estrin did because he came up to me at a festival and we had kind of a little head-to-head conversation. [Chuckles.] He was upset with the things I had written and I couldn’t blame him.

I guess I’m mellowing a bit, I was kind of hot-tempered back then. All I felt is that I was restless with the revivalist mentality in the blues scene. The music only lives if it’s made new and I know I’m right in saying this.

The first generation of younger white harp players who came along – Estrin is part of that generation and Piazza too – they were so reverential toward the older black musicians they were playing with. They HAD to be. But sometimes they couldn’t see past their spiritual fathers. You can’t see past George "Harmonica" Smith because he’s just so damn good. But you need to take risks. At a certain point you almost need to kill off the father. Now, if he’s a black father and he’s in your mind and you love him, that’s a tough thing to do. But you almost have to say: "George ‘Harmonica’ Smith is good but his stuff is old fashioned, I’m going to do the new thing, the next thing." That was really what I was trying to promote people to do. Don’t just recycle it. Don’t just caricature it. Don’t just be content to work through the variations on it, but really make it new.

I think we’re in a time now when that’s starting to happen. And as I said, I’m going to go out and buy the new albums by Piazza and Little Charlie and the Nightcats, because it sounds like maybe I need to go and take another listen. Maybe they’re actually freed up and they’re pushing forward in a way they haven’t been.

BF : On another side, away from blues, do you listen to non-blues harmonica?

AG : I listen to a lot of non-blues music. I listen to mostly jazz on my local jazz station, WBGO. What do I listen to, I’ll tell you right now, I wouldn’t even know that name of it, I’ll just put it on. [Adam switches on a radio. The DJ announces the station’s blues show.] Oh no, now they have a blues show! That doesn’t work! [Laughing.]

BF : Let’s talk about overblows and what’s going to happen in 10 years time.

AG : Well, as far as straight ahead blues guys are concerned, in 10 years time guys like me, who are now closer to a cutting edge because I add the overblows, we’re going to be seen as a bit more of an old timer than I am now. And guys like Carlos Del Junco, who just added so much to it (will be on the cutting edge).

BF : Yeah, but what he’s adding also is that he’s getting away from blues.

AG : That’s true.

BF : I mean, as far as blues playing is concerned this is a bit like guitar, isn’t it. Some guys are adding a lot to it but after awhile they’re also getting out of blues as blues

AG : I think you’re right. We have to separate the idea of pushing blues harp along and pushing harmonica in general. Carlos is really pushing harmonica in general but as far as what he's adding to the blues repertoire - I don’t know, I just love what he’s doing.

BF : I really like the second Del Junco record much more than I do the first. The first is straight-ahead blues and the choice of pieces is very much in line with the style that he plays. There’s not a lot of variety in the actual content of the record, even though it’s played very well. But with this one, it’s really interesting because he gets into a lot of different styles. There’s sort of a ska thing in there, which I find really interesting.

AG : Yeah.

BF : Nobody’s really used a harmonica on that sort of a beat and that’s what makes it quite nice.

AG : He does that wonderful thing where he just starts going up chromatically. [Adam plays a series of chromatic walkups.] You know, that’s all I can do in that way.



BF : But that’s a bit of a show-off though.

AG : It’s a total show-off! [Laughs.] It’s what we call a showcase!

BF : Adam, I think time is running up. I really want to thank you for welcoming me here, and I hope we’ll meet again soon…

AG : See you soon !

This interview was done in March 99 in New York City.

I would like to thank Mark Nessmith who did the full transcription of the interview. Couldn't have met the deadlines without him.