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The Harp: How Butterfield Played the Thing

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

How Butterfield Played the Thing

And how did Butterfield learn these skills? We know that he was exposed to serious music by his parents, and they engaged the lead flautist from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to train their son on classical flute. And we have seen that, in his mid-teen years, he put aside the flute for, first the guitar and then the harmonica as he took the plunge into the blues, as Paul’s brother, Peter, put it. (from "Horn From the Heart".) From Peter we hear, in that documentary, that Paul became obsessed with the instrument, that he played it all the time, everywhere, including that secluded area out on Lake Michigan known as Promontory Point. We know that, according to Elvin Bishop, he demonstrated that he had a “genius” for the harp within short months after committing himself to the instrument. And that Paul and Elvin and Nick started hanging out at blues clubs on the South side of Chicago and that Paul, by his late-teen years by now, felt confident enough about his ability on the harp to make a pest of himself at these clubs, and ask to sit in with the band – with Muddy’s band, for example, when they went on break, or when Walter or James or Junior went over to the bar for a whiskey. And when Butterfield did get a chance to sit in, he performed ably, more than ably. He loved and understood the blues, he realized when and where and how much he should be filling with the harp. He was not leading the band as yet – that would come later, as we know – but he had watched and listened to Walter, and Sonny Boy, and James, and Junior enough to understand the important role that the harp could and should contribute to the sound of the band.

On his tutorial tape, done with Happy Traum late in his career, Butterfield was effusive in his praise of the pioneering electric blues-harp players who had come before him: Little Walter, Junior Parker, Sonny Boy Williamson #2. But we do not have, on record, evidence of what other fellow Chicago blues-harp masters thought of Butterfield and his playing. From his contemporaries and bandmates we hear: Yes, the guy could really play, they all testified. His commitment to the blues was authentic and powerful. He projected so much energy and excelled in bringing on great musicians and driving them to create brilliant music. All wonderful and accurate praise – but also, generalities. What exactly made Butterfield such a masterful player of blues harp? Let us try to separate the general from the specific, the encomiums from the technical analysis. For that we have to turn for analysis to present 21st-century harp players. For this purpose let's attend to about half a dozen current teachers of blues harp who have posted lessons and analysis of Butterfield’s material.

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