The Harp: Gussow on Butterfield
Updated: Mar 5
Gussow on Butterfield
Here we are with Adam Gussow’s analysis of what separated Butterfield’s playing from that of others. And that is a good thing for us, for Gussow is a student of the blues and the harp; a scholar with several excellent books on contemporary blues and blues history, and multiple peer-reviewed articles to his credit; a former busker on the streets of Harlem in New York City with his partner Sterling McGhee (Mr. Satan); and creator of a truly remarkable series of lessons, reflections, and performances on the blues harp. There is no other website that compares or approaches the sheer volume, pure intelligence and quality of Prof. Gussow's site, www.modernbluesharmonica.com. Gussow is a professor at University of Mississippi, and a performing blues-harp musician; he is both smart and good. If you have come this far in the website, you might be curious as to the authorities on Butterfield's music whom I am citing, so just go to www.modernbluesharmonica.com and take a look at Gussow's stuff. If you do, you will agree with me that we are in good in good hands here as we consider his evaluation of and judgments on Butterfield's work.
Gussow provides the most thorough and thoughtful analysis of Butterfield’s playing. He devoted four entire video lessons to the subject in 2007, the year that he launched his web site. His praise for Butterfield is effusive, fulsome and generous, setting him in a tiny group of his “blues-harp gods,” among the ten best ever and, aside from Jason Ricci, the only white player among them. (https://www.modernbluesharmonica.com/blues_harp_gods.html). (Charlie Musselwhite, a contemporary of Butterfield's in Chicago and a terrific harp player in his own right, is also white, and is just outside Gussow's top ten blues-harp players.).
Gussow does not shy away from the issue that identifies Butterfield, this white guy, playing black blues music. “There is no precedent among the African-American players who preceded him for what he’s doing. So the next time you hear somebody say 'White folks can't really play the blues….they didn’t really innovate, they just kind of stole black music,’ and there might be some truth to that, but Butterfield might be the exception.” And, “Little Walter wasn’t playing single-note stuff like that;” Butterfield “really took it way past where Little Walter left it.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPLsSoY58HI) "The only problem with Butterfield is that it's such a seductive style that every mid-range local bar-band harmonica player tried to copy him.” And none of them, of course, could.
Gussow affirms that Butterfield was a terrific singer. He
tells us, in general terms, how powerful and innovative Butterfield was in his timing and phrasing. “His blues pitches here are truly exemplary,” he says while presenting Butterfield’s “Driftin’ and Driftin’.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPLsSoY58HI) “It belongs up there with any of the greatest slow blues recorded by any blues harmonica player.” And further, "I can’t stress enough that there was nobody who'd ever played this way, and there's still nobody around who can." Analyzing that same song, Gussow digs into technique: "He's playing amplified…He uses a dynamic mic, not a crystal mic, which gives him a tighter sound. He's got an amp over-driven, with the treble way up; you could hear three or four notes of this, and you'd know it's Butterfield." Gussow had stated that what separates a good blues-harp player from an ordinary one is that the good one uses the 4-draw bent note effectively, instead of settling for the plain 4-draw. On this song, Butterfield plays the 5-draw AND the 4-draw bent, those F and Db notes, to great effect.
In another video Gussow chooses Muddy Waters’s “Going Down to Main Street” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLj6X88LLHY) to show a solo – “a lip-pursed seamless waterfall of triplets”-- that Butterfield played, saying that is a technical masterpiece, just truly difficult, that is. No other harp player was doing anything like that, he says, and, speaking of players in the 21st century, few if any can now. Gussow himself spends precious minutes on the video attempting to play it and ends up admitting that it is indeed a challenge, even isolated and slowed down. The solo is fast, using mainly 1/16th notes, and travels up and down the scales without wasting a note or adding any pyrotechnics for their own sake: "It's coming down off the 6-hole draw. When I first heard it I said 'There's not enough holes on the harmonica to sound like that.’" Butterfield nailed that solo with a flair that seemed effortless, but even Gussow, a terrific blues-harp player and teacher, shakes his head in wonder as he tries to show how it’s done. And in a related post, discussing the song “Too Many Drivers,” off the “Better Days” album, Gussow reflects on his days, decades earlier, when Butterfield exerted such a strong influence on his playing: “I didn’t know what he was doing, but I knew I had to play this triplet style.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DIH48VGJ_8) "This was terrifically important to me. If you want to know where some of the stuff I do comes from, it was Butterfield's triplet approach."
Elsewhere among these four postings Gussow returns to more technical analysis of Butterfield’s powerful vibrato technique. He notes that while accompanying Muddy, Butterfield plays “the perfect blue third, the perfect 2-draw bend;” “One of the things he does in his solo is hit the blue third in bar three and then holds it, nurses it, until the change in bar five, when the IV chord comes in and it makes more harmonic sense. I know no other player who has done that.” "Butterfield was a genius. He made up new ways of playing slow blues on the harp, that owed nothing to the guys that he learned from." And a couple of minutes later in this video lesson: “"Butterfield was the only one who could have played it.”
From the specific to the general and back: “I know of no other player who has done that.” Gussow focused on the individual and then back to setting him in the context of comparison to his contemporaries and successors, well into the 21st century. So it is not so easy to separate the passion from the technical, after all. We realize by now that Butterfield was a master technician of the harp, but without the commitment ("sincerity," Jason Ricci calls it) to the instrument and the music, he wouldn’t have been the player and band-leader that he became.