Rooting for the Delta blues

Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean brings the original sounds of the Deep South.

Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean will bring the original sounds of the Deep South to Israel this month (photo credit: Courtesy)
Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean will bring the original sounds of the Deep South to Israel this month
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 When it comes to blues fans, you often find a wide divide between devotees of the higher energy electric school of thought out of Chicago and the traditionalists who prefer the original acoustic sounds that originate in the Deep South.
Terry “Harmonica” Bean, who will be in Israel to play three shows between March 17-19, will certainly appeal to members of the latter camp. The 53-year-old singer, guitarist and harmonica player hails from Pontotoc, Mississippi, and has the roots of the music coursing through his veins. This is a man who was brought up on a rich diet of blues music, which he eagerly lapped up from his musician father, grandfather and grandmother, in a time when his part of the world was still home to jukebox joints and other off-the-cuff places where people gathered just to let their hair down and enjoy the sounds and vibes of the salt-of-the earth art form. Bean’s father, Eddie, also worked as a sharecropper and he would enlist the help of Terry and his 13 other children to pick cotton with him.
“There were jam sessions and house parties, and people would go from house to house – I’m talking back in the 1960s and early ‘70s now – just playing music,” Bean recalls. “People would go to juke joints, but there aren’t any juke joints around here anymore. There were juke joints and juke houses, but they were two different places.
A juke joint was a place in town where people went to party, but you had the whites at their places and the blacks at their places. The juke house was out in the country, out in the middle of the field, where people would go to party without going to town.”
Bean certainly goes to town and has being doing so all over the world for close to three decades now.
He started singing and playing harmonica as a young child and began contributing to the jam sessions and other informal musical get-togethers his dad arranged. He proved to be a talented budding musician, but he backtracked on his musical ambitions when some of his older siblings became jealous of all the attention he was getting.
Bean also stood out for another reason.
“Everybody in my family played music, but my siblings played gospel music. I was the only one of my siblings who played the blues,” he explains.
The blues runs through Bean’s genes, and he is very strongly connected with the music form’s initial evolutionary stages in the United States.
“My father, grandmother and grandfather played the blues. My father played wit [blues legend] BB King. I came up with gospel and the blues, but the blues didn't come out of the church – it came from Africa.
When we were brought to this country as slaves, we played the blues.
People would mix with other people who would play, say, the guitar or piano or blow the harmonica or they’d be singing. The blues is a special thing,” he says.
It has been said that while gospel is sacred music, the blues is a very different and definitively secular proposition.
“The preacher would scare some of the women who went to the juke joints and juke houses. He wanted them to go to church, so he said that all the women who went to the juke joints and juke houses would go to hell,” says Bean. “The preacher used the women to try to scare people to go back to the church. But you’ve got to have the blues to make you feel something, man.”
Bean is a chip off the old block and has always had a strong compulsion for connecting with the origins of the music.
“When I play the blues, that comes from the roots in Africa,” he declares.
“You can hear a lot of the African sound in the blues. It’s the rhythm thing.”
In fact, Bean might have followed a very different, and more lucrative, career path were it not for a couple of traffic accidents. In high school, Bean proved to be a promising sporting talent and had his sights set on becoming a professional baseball player, but a couple of mishaps with motorcycles put an end to any athletic aspirations he had harbored.
“After the accidents, my grandfather said that I may have wanted to play baseball, but that wasn’t what was in the plan for me,” Bean recounts. “The blues have taken me all over the world.
Baseball would have made me a lot more money, but it wouldn’t have given me so much pleasure.”
Clearly his own man, Bean says you have to be fired up and follow your own path in order to be a true emissary of the blues.
“I play the harmonica and the guitar and I sing – like a sort of one-band band. That’s the real blues right there,” he states. “My granddaddy used to say that if you can play the blues and get people to look at you, you’re doing it right.”
For Bean, “doing it right” means playing the acoustic Delta blues style.
“Playing the Chicago [electric] blues is easy, but playing the Delta and country blues stuff, that’s a whole different ball game,” he says.
Thus far, Bean has put out half a dozen albums of honest-to-goodness blues and has been delighting roots blues devotees all over the globe for almost 30 years. He is thrilled to be making it over here for the first time and to offer Israeli audiences an opportunity to hear the “real” blues.
“You’ve got to have the demon inside you to play that blues stuff,” he says.
“I’ve got the demon inside me, and I’m so happy to be coming to Israel to play for you.”
At the end of the day, however, it is about keeping it pure and simple.
“The blues is just music,” says Bean. “That’s all it is.”
Terry “Harmonica” Bean will perform on March 17 at the Yaacov Hachakura bar in Metulla; March 18 at the Baraka in Beersheba; and March 19 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.