Erin Harpe is an award-winning blues musician and has won the hearts of blues music fans up and down the east coast. Check out this list of accomplishments:
- International Blues Challenge Semi-finalist (2019, 2017, 2013, 2011)
- Blues Artist of the Year / Boston Music Awards (2012)
- Boston Blues Challenge Winner (2018, 2016, 2014, 2012, 2010)
- Boston Music Award Nominee (2018, 2012, 2011, 2010)
Her deep knowledge and appreciation for all things related to the blues is truly evident. Getting to see Erin Harpe in concert is an education unto itself and a good place for anyone who wants to find out more about this genre. She’s spunky and sexy and rocks hard.
To learn more about Erin Harpe, visit her website.
Here’s a video of Erin playing at Merlefest.
Of all the music styles that you could choose to play, why the blues?
I grew up learning the Piedmont blues in the DC area where I grew up (a style from the East Coast hill country from North Carolina to Maryland) from my dad Neil Harpe, as well as from watching and learning from musicians in this regional style such as John Cephas & Phil Wiggins, John Jackson, Eleanor Ellis, Warner Williams & Jay Summerour, and many others – at the famed Archie’s Barbershop in Washington, DC. For my next album I’ll be going back to my roots in this music to make a recording celebrating this style, and also collaborating with and documenting some of the musicians I have learned from and met along the way (like recently while teaching in West Virginia at the Augusta Heritage Foundation’s Blues & Swing Week). It will be comprised of traditional and original songs, and will coincide with the release of a book about the scene I grew up in, which I was interviewed for, called Sweet Bitter Blues (https://sweetbitterblues.com/), coming out in March 2020.
You are not only a performer but you are a teacher who educates aspiring guitarists how to play the blues. Can you tell us a bit about the inspirational female musicians that you use as examples on your DVD: Geeshie Wiley, Mattie Delaney, Memphis Minnie, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Elvie Thomas.
These ladies were real badasses! In a time when women were encouraged to stick to the piano – because it was a parlor instrument (i.e. played safely at home in your parlor) – they chose to play guitar. Each of these ladies had their own style, and they were very unique, but not much is known about most of them, apart from the songs they recorded on one or two days in the 1920’s. Memphis Minnie was definitely a standout, she wrote and recorded over 200 songs and 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’s a few interesting facts about her (from an article I wrote about her called “Me and Memphis Minnie”):
- 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.
These marvelous female musicians are not exactly household names to most music fans. How did you find your way to them? Were there other musicians who sprinkled their musical breadcrumbs to you to discover these deep roots?
Keeping in mind that I didn’t have the internet to discover music as kids do today, most of it was from watching the blues players I grew up with, and from mining my dad’s record collection. My dad really loves Memphis Minnie, and he also introduced me to Geechie Wiley and Elvie Thomas (who played as a duo on their recordings). Also, I had a great female blueswoman as a mentor, Eleanor Ellis, who helped me find music that works for me to sing from the female perspective.
If you had to choose one song and one song only to represent your music, what would it be and why?
Oooo that’s hard! Maybe Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues”, which has been my favorite song to play for many years, and I think I’ve recorded it on more of my albums than any other song. It’s (musically) the female version of “Good Mornin’ Little Schoolgirl”, and it’s full of double-entendre’s and attitude!
You play solo and in bands. What can you do in solo shows that you can’t necessarily do with the band?
I love leading a band, but playing solo gives me a bit more freedom to go deep within myself and feel and express the song, without worrying about being the band leader. It’s also how acoustic blues was very often presented back in the day. Piedmont blues guitar is great for this because you’re playing the bassline with your thumb, while picking out the melody with your fingers, tapping out the rhythm with your feet, and singing. The original one-(wo)man-band!
Tell us about both of your bands: The Delta Swingers and The Messers.
The Delta Swingers is my electric band, and our style of music we describe as “Boogie, Blues & Beyond”. We play a very danceable mix of everything from boogie and delta-inspired blues to reggae and funk with a psychedelic touch. The Messers is acoustic, and is closer to a jug-band sound, with acoustic guitar, ukelele bass, acoustic harmonica, and kazoo, with foot percussion (also pretty danceable!).
You’ve got a new Christmas record coming out called “Christmas Swing.” How fun was that to make? Do you play traditional or original songs or both on this recording?
It was a lot of fun to make! I recorded and produced the album myself in my studio in Jamaica Plain last July and August, and it actually made it to #2 on the Roots Music Report’s Top 50 Holiday Album Charts (Eric Clapton was #5!). This year we’re re-releasing the album on vinyl LP! Even though it has some covers on it, I wouldn’t call it very traditional, it’s a bit different for a holiday album! Mostly because the artists I’ve interpreted aren’t as well-known, but this is the kind of Christmas music I grew up listening to. It includes some old songs like Bessie Smith’s “At the Christmas Ball”, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Merry Christmas”, and Leadbelly’s traditional “Christmas Is A-Comin'”, and the more well-known early rock n’ roll of Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph”. There are a couple originals, including “The Christmas Swing” and “The Night Before Christmas” (based on the famous poem), with a non-Xmas themed drinking song thrown in (Bo Carter’s “Drink and Get Drunk”), and ending with “Auld Lang Syne” (which has a music video premiering on New Years’!) It was my first try making a holiday album, and I’m pretty proud of it! They’re calling it “a treat for blues fans who like Christmas music, as well as those who don’t usually care for it”!