Augusta Blues & Swing Week Wrap Up 

Playing a song for the enthusiastic crowd at Blues & Swing Cultural Session: New Blues. Photos by Augusta Heritage Center.

What a week! I just got home from Augusta Blues & Swing Week, at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia. It was a wonderful week, full of kindred spirits of blues, swing and roots music, despite a broad diversity of backgrounds, ages, races, even political leanings. We all came together for a magical week of music and came away inspired. Here's my wrap up of my first time teaching at Augusta Blues & Swing Week!

Let me first say that this is one very special place. The Augusta Heritage Center was created to keep traditional music, folklife and folk arts alive, and is doing a great job if you ask anyone I met at Blues & Swing/Old-Time Week. It is a place for people who want to get involved in the music, and it's very hands-on. During their week-long workshops you can study an instrument or learn a new one, learn about different styles of singing, ensemble music, dance, and traditional folk arts. Blues classes cover a variety of styles and levels of instruction on guitar, bass, piano, harmonica, accordion, percussion, dance and voice, as well history. Evening activities include legendary late-night jams that go to the wee hours that include pretty much everyone who wants to join in, and nightly dances at their beautiful old-style outdoor bandstand. Tuesdays and Thursdays the local Elkins community comes down for evening concerts featuring the many talented instructors who are in town for the week. If this sounds interesting to you, go to their website and browse the different workshop weeks (including Blues & Swing, Old-Time, Cajun/Creole, Classic Country and Bluegrass). This year Blues & Swing Week happened simultaneously with Old-Time Week, so there were workshops on traditional acoustic blues, swing, and also old-timey music. There was a whole lot of fiddlin' around every corner, and a fair amount of banjo'in' goin' on, and of course lots of old time blues as well, the kind you won't always see at most blues festivals these days. Pretty much all the instruments on campus were acoustic (note to self: bring my National next year!). The week really brought me back to my roots – hearing so many songs I grew up hearing and learning from my dad as well as long-time instructor Eleanor Ellis. It was also great to re-connect with some of the people involved in Archie's Barbershop and the Washington Folk Festival (where I watched great local performers like Eleanor Ellis, Phil Wiggins, John Cephas, Archie Edwards, John Jackson, Warner Williams, my dad's band Franklin, Harpe & Usilton and many more) and got my feet wet as a kid in the local DC acoustic blues scene. But Blues & Swing Week also took us all back much farther with presentations on the history and implications of blues music as well as discussions and presentations on dance, songwriting, instrument making and other folk arts.

The second thing I loved about Augusta’s Blues & Swing Week was the community of teachers and staff. The program is run by world-renowned harmonica player (singer/songwriter/etc., I could go on...) Phil Wiggins, along with the wonderful Joan Fenton (musician and folklorist) – they do a great job and have kept it going for over 30 years! They choose teachers who are some of the finest performers and educators in the Blues and Swing worlds, and also happen to be some of the most open, fun loving and sharing people I've ever met. There was a great sense of kinship, among the teachers as well as the students. From the first moment we were together at orientation Sunday night to the last jam Friday, we all made many friends and had lots of fun in the process. I loved seeing so many styles and interpretations of acoustic blues on display and being taught: Piedmont, country blues, delta blues, slide, swing – and that's just the guitar! There were over a dozen fabulous guitar instructors teaching various levels and styles, so I won't name them all, but here's a few – young bloods Jontavious Willis (just off tour w/Taj Mahal and Keb Mo!), and Justin Golden; guitar gals Valerie Turner, Eleanor Ellis, Shari Kane, Del Rey and Cyd Smith (my friend Miss Tess was there as well as a vocal instructor!); and also fellow New Englander Samuel James – just to name a few. There were multiple fantastic harmonica instructors, piano instructors, bass, percussion (pizza box), as well as dance and I was very surprised to see they included an expert New Orleans accordion player named Sunpie Barnes (Sunpie & the Louisiana Sunspots) – go check him out! Check them all out! 

Thirdly, and most importantly, I LOVE the student participants at Augusta Blues & Swing week! I want to thank everyone who signed up for my classes!! It was my first time teaching in this format, so I was learning from them while they learned from me. Coming from many different parts of the country and the world (I had a conversation with one student from Germany!), we all had something in common: the music! Specifically pre-war acoustic blues, swing and old-timey music. It was fun to find people who spoke the same language, or were learning to, and had a love for this very particular kind of music that I happen to have grown up with and love. I made so many friends, many more than I ever would in a typical week! Here's a quick snapshot I took with of few of my students. Hope to see you all again next year!

If you want to feel the experience, check out all the great live VIDEO FOOTAGE that Jim Countryman captured over at our Facebook video page! Videos feature performances and jams including many of the artists from Blues & Swing Week that I talked about above!


And if you haven't been yet, I hope some of you will check out the Augusta Heritage Center's website and consider coming to Blues & Swing Week next year! With any luck I'll be there next year too!

My Favorite Albums – Playlist and Words 

I have gotten several invitations lately from family and friends to share my top 10 albums. Let’s face it, I am never gonna post an album a day to my Facebook wall (sorry!). But I still wanted to find a fun way to share my favorite albums. So, I have created a new playlist for you on YouTube called “Erin’s Favorite Albums”! The first installment includes 5 albums that were very influential early on in my musical life. I hope you enjoy, and maybe even find a few jems. These are all albums that I love from start to finish, every song, and in many cases are my favorite albums by some of my favorite artists!

Feel free to chime in with comments (below) about the playlist, or even what YOUR favorite albums are! Also don't forget to hit SUBSCRIBE, as I'll be updating this playlist from time to time (click the link below to go to YouTube to subscribe to our channel!).

Clifton Chenier “Bayou Blues” (1955, Specialty) – Yes, I love Zydeco!!! (I don't know if you could tell...) Clifton Chenier is one of the early originators of Zydeco music, which arose from Cajun and Creole music in New Orleans – with blues, R&B and jazz influences  mixed in. Known as the King of Zydeco, you will not believe his virtuosity on the accordion on every song, as well as his heartfelt delivery, sometimes in French Creole, sometimes in English. This album is full of zydeco-style blues, R&B, two-steps and more. His son C.J. Chenier still leads his band, and will be performing at the New York State Blues Festival with us this weekend!

Ry Cooder “Into the Purple Valley” (1972, Reprise)  – Ry Cooder has been a big influence on me, I love his guitar playing (he plays mandolin too on this album!), and this great album just gets me every time. Ry’s song selection and arrangements are cool and witty, with takes on traditional songs, as well selections from Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, and some more obscure songs including one by Joseph Spence, and the rollicking Caribbean-flavored “FDR in Trinidad”. Love! 

Franklin, Harpe & Usilton “Hokum Blues” (1993, Patuxent Records) – Pretty much my favorite acoustic blues band ever (and yes, my dad is in it!). Franklin, Harpe & Usilton played 1920s and 1930s blues and ragtime in the Piedmont, Memphis, and St. Louis guitar-duet style. Rick and Neil provide the guitars and vocals, and Rick Usilton plays an assortment of drums and washboards. Listening to this album always reminds me of my childhood, seeing them play at festivals and house parties... and they were a big influence on the early version of my blues band the Delta Swingers. My bet is you haven't heard of this one – but you'll love it!

KoKo Taylor “KoKo Taylor” (1969, Chess) – This album was Koko’s debut, produced by Willie Dixon – who had just discovered her – though she’d been performing around Chicago for over 10 years! Willie plays along with a fantastic band, and he also sings on the spine tingling duet Insane Asylum! I just LOVE her delivery, sense of humor, and spunk – there's nobody like her, and this is hands down her best album though she put out many great ones! Some of my favorite tracks are the funky Love You Like A Woman, I Don't Care Who Knows, and the best version ever of Tweny-Nine Ways. Look for some of these songs popping up in our shows soon!

“Folkways: A Vision Shared - A Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly” (1988, CBS/Columbia) – A great collection of well-known artists doing versions of songs by two of my favorite songwriters: Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. With artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Fishbone, Emmylou Harris, Little Richard, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Taj Mahal, U2, and Brian Wilson. And of course there's one by Woody’s son (and one of my fav’s) Arlo Guthrie, as well as his old pal Pete Seeger!


Me and Memphis Minnie 

   Photo (right) by Dan Busler Photography.

I could almost say Memphis Minnie was the reason I took up the guitar, she was such a big influence on me (though I had plenty of living inspirations as well). I grew up surrounded by vintage 1930’s acoustic blues. My dad (Neil Harpe) did his own versions of many amazing blues artists, from Mississippi John Hurt to Tommy Johnson, and Geeshie Wiley to Memphis Minnie. I soaked it all in. I tagged along with my dad at events around the Washington DC area, where local luminaries like John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, Warner Williams, John Jackson, Eleanor Ellis, and my dad’s band Franklin, Harpe & Usilton would perform. The songs that stood out to me the most were those of Memphis Minnie, and I immediately fell in love with the “Queen of the Delta Blues”, with her cool delivery, songs of a different era (but from a feminine perspective!), and her obvious talent on the guitar. When I was a teenager, sometimes when I was alone I would try to sing like her, and I would also try to learn her guitar parts (usually simpler versions!). Her songs were so interesting, about life in the 1920’s and 30’s in the south, with great attitude and a sense of humor. Some of my favorites were What’s the Matter with the Mill (Done Broke Down)When the Levee Breaks, Nothin’ in Ramblin, Can I Do It For YouIn My Girlish Days, and her classic Me and My Chauffeur Blues – which was one of the earliest songs in my repertoire. In fact, we still play that one as well as Girlish Days in our set today! 

Memphis Minnie was a real badass! In a time when women were encouraged to stick to the piano – because it was a parlor instrument (ie. played safely at home in your parlor) – Minnie was on the road with her guitar, touring and winning guitar contests... carrying a knife in her boot for protection! She was WAY ahead of her time. Well-known for her guitar skills, she kept up with (and even surpassed!) many of her contemporaries – bluesmen. She had a huge impact on the blues and rock n’ roll, and her songs have been covered by many famous artists, from Led Zeppelin to Bonnie Raitt. Here are some facts about Minnie, so you can be inspired too... enjoy!

  • Born Lizzie Douglas on June 3rd 1897 in Algiers, Louisiana.
  • She was the eldest of 13 brothers and sisters.
  • Called “Kid Douglas”, she was a child prodigy on guitar and banjo (which she’s said to have started playing at age 7!).
  • In her teens, she ran away and began busking on Memphis street corners.
  • She later joined Ringling Brothers Circus and toured the South playing music!
  • Her stage name “Memphis Minnie” was given to her by Columbia Records during her first recording session in 1929.
  • She was always a finger picker, never used a pick.
  • She often played in Spanish tuning (DGDGBD) using a capo, but also played in open D (DADF#AD) and standard tunings.
  • She often played with a partner and was married at least 3 times to accomplished blues guitarists, who would back her up with rhythm, while she always played the lead! They included:
    • Kansas Joe McCoy (a.k.a. “Kansas Joe”) 
    • Casey Bill Weldon (of the Memphis Jug Band) 
    • Ernest Lawlers (a.k.a. “Little Son Joe”)
  • Her first musical partner was Willie Brown, who said she was “a guitar king”. And he played rhythm guitar, claiming she was the better player!
  • She was as tough a drinker and blues singer as any man!
  • She recorded for forty years, almost unheard of for any woman in show business at the time (even now that's totally amazing!).
  • She took country blues into electric urban blues, paving the way for modern electric blues.

It's just breathtaking to think about the odds she was up against, being a woman in the music business back then (and we ladies are STILL fighting to get recognized as serious guitarists!). Still she was able to write and record over 200 songs from 1929 to the mid-50’s (which, BTW, I am still working my way through...). I just love her guitar work, and I still learn something new each time I go back and listen to her records. Minnie was one of the most influential and pioneering female blues musicians and guitarists of all time. I'm so awed by this flamboyant character, who wore hot pants (see the picture!) with chiffon robes and bracelets made of silver dollars... and would spit tobacco! Stay tuned for more Memphis Minnie – I'll be adding more of her tunes to my sets soon! In the meantime...

Here's her classic song Me and My Chauffeur Blues:

And here's a clip from my DVD Women of the Country Blues, where I teach you how to play Memphis Minnie's Can I Do It For You. Check out the full DVD/download over at Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop, including more of Memphis Minnie's timeless songs, as well as some other fabulous guitar-playing ladies!

My recordings of Memphis Minnie songs (listen/buy on my MUSIC page or STORE!):

Read more about Memphis Minnie in this great book Woman with Guitar by Paul and Beth Garon!