How Did You Pick Your Instrument?
by Alex Walsh

Every musician has a story on how they picked their instrument. Some people get their’s handed to them in elementary school and never change. Some have to fight for it.

For me, I received a harmonica as a present. I was thirteen and living in Ocean Springs, MS. Like many families, we probably had one in the house growing up but this was different. I don’t remember asking for it. I remember I was trying to play the recorder on my own which was probably driving my parents crazy. So they gave me a harmonica. I used to jump around the house with my harmonica pretending to be a southern preacher and an old blues guy at the same time. “The South will riiiiiiise a-gain! Words taken from today’s gospel…” was my refrain.

I learned by trying to mimic the intro to the band Blackfoot’s song, Train, Train, from their album Blackfoot Strikes. I don’t know why I had that album. I probably heard it on the radio and bought it through a record club. It has a 30-second harmonica intro that mimics a train slowly starting and picking up speed. Dolly Parton recorded it on her bluegrass album The Grass Is Blue and won a Grammy in 2001.

During my research for this, I saw that the Blackfoot album was recorded in Ann Arbor, MI. Strangely, my family moved there a few years later. I was still interested in harmonica and by that time was also playing guitar and had discovered the blues. A big inspiration was seeing Peter MadCat Ruth playing in Ann Arbor. He was great. He had a pedal board and could make the harmonica sound like a guitar. He blew me away with his whacky Jimi Hendrix-like grande finale.

I kept going with the harmonica and still play it. I have tried to hunker down and study it over the years, which I do for a time. But it’s just more fun to play. I can always pick it up and play something.

Peter Madcat Ruth

In the 2000s I started giving harmonica lessons for money. Being self-taught, it took a while to figure out how to explain what was going on. Most of it is happening in your mouth so it’s kind of difficult. I found the best way was to use a beginning blues harmonica book which provides structure. Also, they come with play-along CDs.

Many people think the harmonica is easy because they had one growing up. I tell people it is and it isn’t. After all these years, I’m still working on that Train, Train intro, and I’m fine with that.

How did you pick your instrument?

 

 

 

Long Tail Blues
by Alex Walsh

photo by Deborah Crooks

When I first started playing gigs in my 20s I did not want to be one of those “50 year old white guys playing the blues in bars.” Well, I turned 50 last month and there I was, onstage in a bar, playing the blues. I have to say I think my younger self was just jealous. Maybe it’s because all those “50 year old white guys playing the blues in bars” always looked like they were having a good time. I was having a blast.

I had been asked to fill in on guitar for my friends Deborah Crooks and Kwame Copeland’s band Bay Station. Bay Station is a West Coast Americana band, but they do play a few bluesy numbers. That night we played a couple bluesy songs that I had co-written with Deborah. And so there I was “a 50 year old white guy…”

***

Later that night during a break, Farrell Williams song “Happy” came on the jukebox. I remember reading a few years ago that it had 43 million spins on Pandora and he was only paid $3,000 in songwriting royalties. That is crazy!

As a songwriter myself, that made me think of my own songwriting royalties from Pandora (insert crickets chirping here).

Doing a little simple math in my head, I realized that I was making more money playing my two co-written songs that night than all the years of streaming my music on Pandora. This did not seem fair.

Luckily, there is legislation floating through congress called the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act. It was first introduced in 2015, and has recently been re-introduced with bipartisan support. Seems like everyone (technology companies especially) is making all this money off music and the songwriters and musicians aren’t getting their fair share. Content creators getting ripped off? Say it isn’t so!

Write to your congressperson here:

Add your voice to the chorus by asking your member of Congress to support the Fair Play Fair Pay Act.

***

There was a popular idea floating around during the turn of the 2000s called The Long Tail. The idea was that with the internet, everything would always be available online and sales would trickle in over time. I remember people theorizing that musicians would all be taken care of because of this Long Tail. But I don’t see that happening now. The Long Tail idea was invented in the 90s when people bought CDs. Now it’s all about music streaming. I think musicians and songwriters got a bad deal.

Then Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall came on the jukebox. In my head I couldn’t help it and I changed the words:

“All in all you’re just a
‘nother niche in the tail.”

***
When the night was over I packed up my gear. I was tired and glad. Glad to be alive and able to play music, and glad that I had spent my 40s searching for the smallest and lightest amp I could find.

The next morning I was excited because the SGI Golden Gate Chorus was going to sing one of my songs at a Buddhist meeting. I was able to bring a couple of my songwriter friends as guests, which was very cool. The audience loved it and they even applauded me for writing it! The tail is indeed long.

***

Go ahead:

Add your voice to the chorus by asking your member of Congress to support the Fair Play Fair Pay Act.