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he harmonica is a modest instrument. No keys to push, no strings to fret. Just blow in for half the notes, out for the rest of them. Slide your mouth from left to right and you play a scale, nothing to it.
If you use the fancy kind, the chromatic, you can play sharps and flats. You can play Mozart. But it's on the simpler models, the standard-issue, compact harps, that you can blow those notes a little off-center bend them, twist their pitch, make them talk, cry, scream, float. Then you know what a harmonica is really for: playing blues.
Jack Coughlin figured out this essential musical fact in 1994, about the time he retired from a thirty-three-year career at UMass, where he taught studio art while building an international reputation as a painter and print-maker. All along, just for fun, he'd played the harmonica. "I'd played it since I was a kid," Coughlin recalled this autumn, "but I got into blues only a couple of years ago, when I listened to my daughter's Little Walter CD and realized blues was what the harmonica was designed to play."
Excited, Coughlin abandoned his lifelong approach to the instrument and taught himself to bend notes. He found he was playing with more passion; he also found himself drawn to the faces of blues musicians, and he began to draw and paint them: Little Walter, Sonny Terry, Joe Hill Louis. He drew in pencil, then added watercolor. He thought of publishing the portraits, and he looked for someone who could write accompanying text.
At nearly the same moment, Steve Tracy, a blues disc-jockey and part-time teacher at the University of Cincinnati who had turned a Ph.D. thesis on Langston Hughes into a book, arrived at UMass as the newest assistant professor of Afr0-American studies. A Campus Chronicle piece about Tracy caught Coughlin's eye. Tracy had his own band, the Crawling King Snakes, in Cincinnati. They'd played Queen City nightclubs, opened shows for Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Better still, Tracy's instrument was the harmonica. Coughlin phoned; the two talked. The project was on.
A Brush With the Blues, the book that grew from Tracy and Coughlin's collaboration, is a collection of twenty-six portraits of blues musicians. It is a portable gallery, a nine-by-twelve-inch museum in which the visitor can quickly survey an enormous stretch of the American artistic and cultural landscape, "a random selection of images," as the dust jacket reads, "reflecting only part of a vast tradition."
In these pages, artist and writer circle together around the crucible in which the antiphonal melodies and ancient percussion of Africa meet the harmonic tradition of Europe on American soil; in which the field hollers, the tinny piano and hollow-body guitar of a hundred years ago, the unfettered wails and one-string tunes of Robert Johnson, the big-smiling, glittery-gown charm of Ma Rainey, the electric amplification of Chicago clubs, swirl together to make the American sound that is the foundation for most of a century's music. That music begins, writes Tracy in his fluent yet informed introduction, "in a locus of energy, a place of violence, and turmoil, and confrontation, and sacrifice ... a place where the highest ideals of this democracy personal freedom; exaltation of the masses; the embracing of the spirit of the revolutionary moment and improvisatory celebration are most sweetly and rhythmically exemplified."
That the men who put together this tribute to twenty-six black musicians are white may cause the briefest twitch of a politically correct eyebrow. Once in a while, Tracy says, someone questions how any white person can presume to teach the African American experience. "You start all over every quarter with people questioning your authority," he said this fall. But he finds the questions rarely come from musicians. Race as an issue in Tracy's work has generally been a positive one: when he began working as a DJ, black radio stations in Cincinnati were playing little in the way of blues, preferring R&B. On the local public radio station, Tracy could play what he liked, and he liked blues had liked blues ever since, at thirteen, he heard the popular band Canned Heat. When he played the recordings of black blues artists, including several in the Queen City who were not well known, many were able to reach larger audiences. His book Going to Cincinnati tells their stories.
In producing A Brush With the Blues, Tracy and Coughlin enjoyed some freedom from the exigencies and anxieties of the commercial publishing world; their publisher/designer, J. Anton Schiffenhaus, is a devoted patron of the arts. "We were two creative artists doing what we wanted to do with the material," says Tracy.
Which is another way of saying that all the pressure the two felt was concentrated on their artistic abilities. Tracy, who'd just written a long book detailing the blues history of a single city, now he had to fit the entire life of Bessie Smith or Son House or John Lee Hooker onto one page. Coughlin's task was similarly difficult. With portraits of W.B. Yeats or Samuel Beckett, he can work from dozens of photographs from vast, orderly archives. With Blind Lemon Jefferson, he worked from the only known photograph in existence. When he tried to create a portrait of B.B. King certainly one of the half- dozen most familiar faces in the genre he finally had to give up; "I wanted to do him," says Coughlin, "but I couldn't get a source I thought I could do something with. I didn't feel I could contribute anything about him."
Trying to understand something about the personality of each of the musicians, to hold in his painter's eye the sound of the voices and instruments on old recordings, Coughlin tried to achieve an attractive variety of styles in the portraits. Bessie Smith, the first image in the book, is painted in rich colors, the roundness of her arms emphasized with shading, her eyes aimed perhaps toward the viewer or perhaps just beyond. Howlin' Wolf is fully colored-in too, his big, confident face glowing in amber and umber. Turn the page and you see Muddy Waters, with the same confident mouth but drawn almost entirely in black pencil, with just a wash of light brown.
The prose is similarly varied: sometimes declarative ("John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson is a pivotal figure in the history of the blues..."), sometimes blown into the reader's head like so many bent notes on a smoky night in some Mississippi juke joint or Chicago club, as in this entry on Champion Jack Dupree: "Drive'em down barrelhouse tickle-stomper, cajoling folk-humorist, social conscience, entertainer extraordinaire ...." The six-page introduction is itself a piece of music, a blues-symphonic sweep of the territory, trying to cover not every inch but enough ground to orient a novice and at the same time enrich the aficionado's even the scholar's knowledge, while at the same time caressing the reader with brushstrokes in words: "Pigmeat built on an old hog frame twelve sweet measures of humanity large enough to fit us all, but tight like that just the same. Full of mojos and turnrows and power and pain."
If the reader's appetite is whetted, so is the artist's. "I continue to do these," says Coughlin. "I just did one of Leadbelly. I'd like to do another book." He also continues to play the harmonica. "I mostly play along with records. I have a mike input, so I can record myself and a CD together on a cassette and see how I sound. If I get good enough, I might try to go out and jam with a local band."