Charlie Musselwhite, left, and Ben Harper at NPR West in Los Angeles, Calif.
Cover for Musselwhite's latest CD, Sanctuary (Real World 2004)
On April 29, the 25th W.C. Handy Awards for blues music will be presented in Memphis, Tenn., and blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite is once again nominated for Blues Instrumentalist, Harmonica — a category he has won for the last 12 years running.
Musselwhite also has a new CD out called Sanctuary, with an opening track written by modern rock and soul artist Ben Harper, who also plays on two of the album's tracks. Both musicians recently joined Day to Day music critic Christian Bordal to talk about the roots of blues, how to keep the genre fresh for a new generation of fans — and to play some live blues music.
The blues captured Musselwhite at an early age. Born in rural Mississippi and raised in Memphis, he says there was music all around. "I remember going to gospel tent meetings and there were street singers, blues singers, hillbilly singers," he tells Bordal. "I could hear people singing in the fields... singing the blues while they were working — and man, it wrapped itself around me and made everything OK. It was my comforter."
Musselwhite learned to play the guitar and the harmonica, and at 18 he moved to Chicago, where the South Side blues scene was energetic. Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter — they were all playing the city's blues clubs.
"I couldn't believe it, they were all there," he tells Bordal. "I was, like, out of my head — every night, I'd be going to these clubs." It wasn't long before he was sitting in on gigs with some of these blues legends. Now Musselwhite is one of those legends, and young lions such as Harper are talking about him the way Musselwhite talks about those Chicago days.
"It's a dark album," Musselwhite says of his new CD. "I believe we're in dark times in America and in the world. I would hope the listener would find this album a place of safety, or sanctuary, a place of refuge in these dark times.
"The sprit of the blues is about keeping on keeping on — getting through it," he says.