Many consider the small town of Clarksdale, Mississippi as one of the epicenters of American music. The home of the Crossroads, the blues and the best tamales around, Clarksdale attracts music lovers from all over the world, and some love the town so much that they decide to relocate. One-man blues phenomenon Deak Harp is a musician who fell in love with Clarksdale and made the move.
A harmonica maestro who fell under Clarksdale’s spell while working for his hero and mentor James Cotton, Harp has since devised a style that mixes Hill Country and Chicago blues, which is exemplified on his latest release, “Clarksdale Breakdown.” Otherwise, he spends time running Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium. When Lagniappe spoke with Harp, he was making preparations for Clarksdale’s annual Juke Joint Festival, which concluded last weekend.
SC: Juke Joint Fest is going down this weekend, and you’re doing Deak’s Harmonica Street Party. What’s that going to be like?
DH: I get together all my harmonica students throughout the years, and they all come down and play in front of my store during Juke Joint. I do a show at 6:30. Everybody plays in front of my store during Juke Joint. We usually shut the street down by midday, because there’s so many people in a circle. They don’t usually close the street down till Saturday, but sometimes I get them to close it off, only because the crowd is so big.
SC: You started playing the harmonica at an early age, and you cite James Cotton as one of your heroes. What was it about James Cotton that sold you on his blues?
DH: It was the fierceness of it. You know, when I first started checking him out, he was right at the end of his prime, but it was amazing just to see what he was doing. I was like, “Wow! I wanna do that! I know I can do that!” I kind of just learned on my own, but I did get one or two quick tips from James. Mainly, everything I do is all something that I made up.
SC: How did it feel to finally get to tour with James Cotton?
DH: Oh, God! I still got the picture. I can’t believe I still got it. A buddy of mine took the picture at the Lone Star Roadhouse in about 1989. It was amazing. I had hair at the time! You can see that I still had my hair. Now, I’m bald (laughing).
SC: What made you decide to take the one-man band approach to your music?
DH: I was invited to start playing in front of the “Big City Blues Magazine” booth in Helena, Arkansas. The year before that, I tried it myself, and I got a really good result just playing harmonica and drums. I had drums at my feet and a harmonica. As time went by, more people started getting on board with my music. I had somebody give me a diddley-bo. I spent the winter messing around with that diddley-bo, and at springtime, I broke that sucker out and started doing that. It’s a matter of trying to find a really good guitar player in your area that can play the type of music that you like. It was almost impossible. Everybody wanted to be the front man. I needed something to back me up.
SC: How did you end up in Clarksdale?
DH: The first time that I wound up in Clarksdale was with James Cotton when I was working for him. He was delivering some harmonicas that were signed, and that was in 1992. I was like, “Wow! This town is cool!” Anyway, I heard about the Juke Joint Festival and the King Biscuit Blues Fest. I came down for those. Being down there so many times, people thought I lived here anyway before I moved here. I was in two or three feature movies about Clarksdale already. I wasn’t even a resident at the time. I just kept coming down. I used to play seven times a year in Clarksdale. It was the only place that my music went over really good. I was playing the Mississippi Hill Country blues but putting James Cotton’s raw harmonica on top of it.
SC: Your latest album is “Clarksdale Breakdown.” Bill Abel was involved as a co-producer and performer. He’s a well-known figure in Clarksdale. He does the one-man band thing too. Doesn’t he have the portable studio that fits in a station wagon?
DH: I think it’s more that his studio can be portable if he wants it to. Lately, he hasn’t brought it out, because things get broken on the road.
SC: What made you want to get him involved on the project?
DH: Bill was one of the first people that I saw doing the one-man band thing. So, he was one of my idols. At the time when I was exposed to Bill Abel, I didn’t know anything about Hill Country blues. I was a Chicago blues harmonica player. That’s all I knew how to do. He was key in introducing me to R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Back in the ‘90s, I was in a band that did a festival with R.L. Burnside. At that point, I was still more into Chicago blues and Hill Country blues did nothing for me. I was like, “This ain’t blues.” Little did I know, that’s where the blues started with Delta blues and Hill Country blues.
SC: This one was recorded in one-take with no overdubs, and it sounds beautiful. Were you expecting it to be that easy?
DH: I was always told that too much mass produced material sounds like too much mass produced material. If you get a good take the first time and the scratch vocals ain’t bad, just use them. I didn’t punch in any vocals. There might be one punch, but it was so perfect that you don’t even know where it was. It could’ve been one note. We don’t have any backing tracks, and everything was done live.
SC: You’ve got a pretty cool store in Clarksdale too. Tell me what you have going on there.
DH: Well, it’s mainly a social club for harmonica players. Whenever they come to Clarksdale, they hang out in my living room, I call it. I make custom harmonicas and teach harmonica. I have a lot of students that come down and spend a week with me. I actually have Carson Diersing with me right now. He’s gonna be featured in front of my store this weekend. He’s one of my No. 1 students. He comes for a month, and he learned straight from me. Whether it’s carrying my amps or washing my windows at the store or learning how to play harmonica or even just advice and what to listen to, he’s absorbing everything that he possibly can. I need to share it with somebody, because Cotton did it for me. He’s 17 right now and will be 18 in October. He’s a monster! Two days ago, he played at the House of Blues in Chicago.
SC: A lot of people have never experienced a one-man band live. How would you describe your live show?
DH: If you’re in a room full of people who have never seen you and you’re playing five instruments at one time in sequence together and you let out 500 flies, they would fly straight into the mouths of the audience, because their jaws would be on the floor. I’m not a guitar player by any means. I play enough guitar to play my harmonica on top of it, whether it’s droning octaves or playing one-chord blues. All I need is a background, but the crowd literally has their jaws dropped for the first 45 minutes of the show.
Date: Friday, April 17 at 9 p.m.
Venue: The Blues Tavern, 2818 Government Blvd., www.bluestavern.com