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Joe Filisko: Lessons From an American Harper

written by: on September 1, 2013

It’s a sound that harkens pre-World War II. It’s a sound harmonica players strive to mimic. It’s a sound essential to the blues experience. The roaring steam engine.

“It’s a gift as a blues harmonica player to be able to play the train,” Joe Filisko says. “I don’t think anything can create a train [sound] as realistically as a harmonica.”

Filisko has parlayed that sound and his mastery of the instrument into a career of teaching workshops on five continents, customizing harmonicas for renowned players, and performing with prime-time musicians throughout Europe and North America.But on a humid June night in downtown Chicago, Filisko is far from the stage. At a family music celebration, he leads a mixed circle with donated plastic harmonicas that include tourists with fanny packs, mothers with their children, and curious seniors.

“If you can breathe, you can play the harmonica,” Filisko says, his words sounding more like assurance than fact. “If you can play with rhythm, you can play music.”

Wearing a blue shirt with a palm tree print, khaki pants, glasses, and a white hat, Filisko is as relaxed as his demeanor suggests. He stands in front of a tent and holds a diatonic marine band harmonica to his mouth. He draws two breaths in. He exhales two breaths out. After a discordant blast from the crowd, Filisko tries again.


“Don’t suck in it. Inhale it,” he says.

Zoe Savage, Filisko’s longtime student and co-teacher, circles around the group and demonstrates the technique up close. Filisko draws his breath in again and the group responds in kind. He draws two breaths out. And the circle does the same. The call-and-response rhythm gains momentum and soon a cornered section of a downtown Chicago street resembles a steam engine rumbling over tracks.

“I don’t know if I made a difference, but I love sharing my passion and I think I can successfully make people take it seriously,” he says afterward. “[People can say] ‘Yeah, there are amazing things played on this.’ ‘Yeah, I think I can do this.’ To me, that’s powerful.”

“I think it really diseased me.”

Filisko initially flirted with the harmonica as a childhood gift from his mother. A few squeaks later, he lost interest and moved on to the guitar. Growing up in the 1970s for Filisko meant a steady helping of Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, and other hard rock radio stalwarts.

“The harmonica sat in my sock drawer, only to come out when I played guitar,” he says.

Having developed a taste for Americana music with the harmonica and the blues in college, Filisko returned to toy with a 12-hole marine band harmonica. His college band, The Wolf Pack, introduced more blues elements like open tunings and finger picking ragtime into its sound.The curious instrument that easily fits a back pocket captured his musical imagination. Throw in a Sonny Terry harmonica solo from Crossroads, and you have a player forever smitten.

“I really think it’s diseased me, and I have not recovered from it to this day,” he says as a tiny harmonica dangles from the center of a thin black rope around his neck.

Developing a passion is one thing. Finding creditable information is surely another. The harmonica developed the moniker of “the dying man’s instrument” as authoritative books and other instructional materials were few and far between. Those harmonica masters deeply grounded in the harmonica didn’t write techniques and philosophies on paper for generations to follow.

“You have a true folk instrument which is handed down since there isn’t a formalized method for learning how to play it,” Filisko says. “There was a lot of information, that even as a young player, struck me as misleading. I couldn’t believe the void of decent information.”

In keeping with that folk spirit, Filisko learned through oral tradition. He developed friendships with players like Peter Madcat Ruth, Corky Siegel, and Howard Levy at clubs and conferences. Filisko would open the hood and dissect style and effects of songs with his fellow players.

“You can talk about cooking food all day and all night long, but there’s no substitute of someone cooking the food in front of you,” he says. “It’s the same of music.”

As Filisko’s network expanded, so did his music collection. A few $100 shopping sprees on a tight collegiate budget netted an armful of recorded America roots music featuring the harmonica from the 1920s to 1940s—albums not easily stocked at the local Virgin Megastores and Tower Records of the day. Throw in more budget-conscious trips to local libraries and now cassette tapes, compact discs, and shellac 78-rpm records line a wall of his Joliet, Ill., home. Filisko jokes about the need for a better method to categorize his expansive collection, which includes originals featuring the minimalist approach of Sonny Boy Williamson II, the often-imitated Little Walter Jacobs, and the growling sound of Gwen Foster.

With satisfaction, Filisko will point to an out-of-print 78-rpm recording of “Lost Boy Blues” by Palmer McAbee, a renowned early master of the harmonica—cited by players for his ability to masterfully imitate a whistling steam engine. Filisko’s train imitation works on its own groove. As the conductor of this experience, he can uncoil a mini-narrative of a steam engine train pulling from the station. He changes pitch and captures the dynamics of a chugging train rounding the bend. The aural experience wouldn’t be complete without flourishes like car horn beeps and truck whistles from accompanying vehicles on the road.


Years of listening and playing along with those records has deepened his appreciation and admiration for the relatively obscure blues harmonica masters, like McAbee and Little Walter Jacobs, who’ve left their mark on the instrument. Filisko’s style is an amalgamation of the harmonica virtuosos who preceded him. There’s no vagueness to the music, rooted in the amplified Chicago blues sound (played into a microphone).

“Joe can be somewhat of a chameleon when it comes to his ‘style’,” said Eric Noden, who frequently collaborates with Filisko. “I would say most of the songs he plays and writes draw heavily on a particular player, for example Sonny Boy Williamson (“Angry Woman”) or Gwen Foster (“Fat Cats & Thin Dogs”). So while the actual notes are original, the approach is a very deliberate nod to one of these particular players.”

It can seem as if Filisko is too rooted in the harmonica’s rich tradition. In a blog post, “Old-School Harmonica or New-School?,” author Elwood the Apprentice writes, Filisko’s traditionalism is just something I can’t quite swallow.” He continues, “It’s true that learning at the feet of the masters is something every player needs to do. And for the foreseeable future I am mostly content to do that. But if all of us followed Filisko’s path, the future of blues music would be no future at all. There’s a difference between recognizing tradition and doting on the past. And let’s not forget that if blues harmonica is like a language—as Joe says—that language is in constant flux, evolving every moment of every day.”

As an educator, Filisko counters that players often put a premium on developing a unique style before mastering the fundamentals and studying the masters.

“My issue is that emphasizing one’s own style too early is much like emphasizing a middle school child that their pursuit of education is pointless because anybody who is relevant in this world has a Ph.D.,” he says. “So why waste time with the meaningless levels in between? Just start working on your Ph.D. now. Yes, there’s always that rare individual that can do it, but it really seems insane to preach a message like this.”

“I can’t easily turn the teacher off.”

On stage, Filisko is compelling to watch. The lessons he’s learned from aforementioned Little Walter Jacobs (fluctuating pitch) to Big Walter Horton (tongue blocking for a more percussive effect) come effortlessly. He bends notes like malleable metal and his breath control is impressive as he glides from Cajun waltzes to folk numbers to hymnals. It’s also on stage that Filisko does some of his best teaching. He names his influences whenever he can; it’s another chance to edge these relatively obscure artists into the spotlight.

“I can’t easily turn the teacher off, because I feel like if I don’t talk about the special significance of the harmonica in the songs I’m doing, then it’s just a guy playing the harmonica,” he says. “It was almost like hearing DeFord Bailey sitting there.”

All of which come into play during a late July show at the Harlem Avenue Lounge, a nondescript blues bar in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn. It’s a place where posters of blues icons adorn walls below dueling television broadcasts of Cubs and White Sox baseball games. It’s here where Filisko extols the historical significance of DeFord Bailey as he’s done on many stages and classes before.

2013_06_24_harmonica-003Photography by Lucy Hewett

“When he put the harmonica between his lips, it was like he had a whole band in his mouth,” Filisko says introducing a song. “I want to see if I can capture that.”

Filisko holds great reverence for Bailey, arguably the premier blues and country harmonica player during the first half of the 20th century. Tiny in stature (he stood about 4-foot, 11-inches tall), Bailey developed into one of the heavy hitters of the Grand Ole Opry radio program, the premier country music showcase of its time. The first African-American musician to join the cast, Bailey often stood on a Coca-Cola crate to deliver his solos that mixed rhythm and melody into a potent mix. The dapper Bailey starred on the Saturday evening showcase from 1926 to 1941 before a licensing dispute effectively ended his career. He spent his final years living reclusively in a high-rise public housing project in southern Nashville.

Bailey’s story remained untold until he struck a friendship in the 1970s with David C. Morton, an urban community-housing advocate, who later co-wrote the biography, DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music (1991). From learning to play the harmonica as a bedridden child with polio to entertaining crowds in the Jim Crow South, Bailey’s story marked a remarkable passage from under-appreciated country music star to honored innovator.

“If anything he was modest,” says Morton, now the executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Reno, Nev. “He certainly wasn’t a boastful person; he just loved music. He thought it was in God’s plans for him to get polio, so he could focus on his music and express his talent.”

After Filisko read the biography, he corresponded through letters with Morton and even mailed renditions of Bailey’s songs on CDs.

“It was almost like hearing DeFord Bailey sitting there playing the music he loved,” Morton says.

Bailey died in 1982 before a wave of accolades, like historical markers, headed his way. After a lengthy public relations push by Bailey’s family and friends, the Country Music Hall of Fame voters selected country music’s first African-American star for enshrinement in 2005. As part of the Hall of Fame’s pomp and circumstance, the industry showers the inductees with speeches and live performances at the annual medallion ceremony. A mixture of family and professional players honored Bailey.

Charlie McCoy led a rendition of Bailey’s most enduring song, “Pan American Blues,” a train song later inducted into Grammy Hall of Fame with the Clash’s “London Calling,” the Star Wars soundtrack and other lasting recordings. Bailey’s son, DeFord Bailey Jr., handled the gospel song, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and Carlos Bailey created a new melody called, “The Legend of DeFord Bailey.” Morton, who Bailey affectionately dubbed his “manager,” advocated for Filisko to perform a solo rendition of “Fox Chase.” With speed and precision, Filisko chronicled foxhounds on a hunt complete with shouts of encouragement from the hunters. As the song reached the end, country music heavyweights in attendance like Campbell, Kris Kristofferson, and Rascal Flatts broke into cheers and applause.

“It was a small intimate room and it was frightening to have these country music legends sitting eight feet from you,” Filisko says. “It was a great thrill for me to get invited to the induction ceremony, though. DeFord Bailey represented maybe the greatest example of a human being able to get sounds out of a harmonica that shouldn’t be even possible. He was a good example of playing something so small having a great effect on people.”

“Make me proud to be a harmonica player.”

As Filisko honors the past, he looks toward the future by guiding his students to add value to the harmonica tradition he so reveres. Savage is one of those students. Like Filisko, she has an easy flowing charm punctuated with an ever-ready smile.

“People will ask me if I still play the harmonica, and I will ask, ‘does it look like I stopped breathing?’” she says. “It’s such a big part of my life.”

At 22, she shares the same wide-eye enthusiasm as her mentor. A student of the harmonica for a decade, Savage handles her own class load at Old Town School of Folk Music.

Back at the family festival, Filisko and the other teachers lead the participants through a sing-a-long rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” The crowd punctuates the melody with handclaps, tambourines, and shakers with varying degrees of rhythmic success. When Savage notices my free harmonica remains in a plastic pouch, she asks me to slide it out for an impromptu mini-lesson on blowing chords.

Just like Filisko. Always teaching.

“I feel like it’s my mission to help people play the harmonica responsibly,” he says with a smile as volunteers later disassembled a tent. “Make me proud to be a harmonica player. Don’t scare me.”