An Appreciation of John Popper
Note: this material is a slightly edited version of a note I posted to the Harp-L list on Saturday, November 4, 1995.
John Popper is a fine musician and songwriter whose recent success is much deserved. His music is far better than most of what inhabits the Billboard charts at any given point in time. He sings with great sound and feeling, writes terrific lyrics and strong melodies, and plays harmonica in a style which is thoroughly original and technically demanding. The last point is probably the most important to harmonica players and fans, and I will elaborate on it briefly.
Popper’s harmonica work is strikingly original, which is the source both of its strength and of the knee-jerk rejection that it has inspired in many harmonica players. Emotionally and technically Popper is coming from somewhere besides blues harp. Emotionally, his playing is about ecstasy; his cascades of notes are a volcanic eruption of sheer joy. You can hear the same love of life in his singing, although the means of expression are very different. Technically, his playing derives far more from saxophonists (e.g. Coltrane and his teacher Arnie Lawrence) and guitarists (Hendrix, perhaps Van Halen?) than from any harmonica-based source. I fail to see why his sources are inferior to any found in the blues canon, or why anyone should demand that John sound more like a typical blues player, no matter what his band is named. (I suspect that the name of the band derives from something Arnie Lawrence told John, as reported by Winslow Yerxa in his HIP interview: “The blues is the sound a baby makes when it cries for the first time, ’cause after that he knows it’ll get picked up and it’s all show business.” Perhaps “Blues Traveler” refers to the journey back to that first cry from the heart?)
I revere Little Walter as deeply as anyone on the planet could, but I will never agree that any harmonica player who does not drink from Little Walter’s (or Big Walter’s, or Sonny Boy’s, etc.) well is somehow disloyal to the cause, as if 1) there was a cause and 2) the cause was to sound as much as possible like someone else.
As to John’s reputed disdain for many of the harmonica players he has met and heard, I believe that it is 1) overstated has anyone ever heard John diss another player by name? and 2) too often deserved by those who receive it. The overall level of musicianship among harmonica players is in fact very low. How many harmonica players could adequately fulfill the role played by the rhythm guitarist in a typical three-chord rock band (to pick something well within the capabilities of any second-rate musician)? How many harmonica players can’t play in 7/8 or 5/8 time (as John does), or even name the chords they’re playing over? How many of the players reading the last two lines thought to themselves “Well, why would I ever want to do that?”, as if accepting incredibly constricted limits on one’s musicianship was somehow praiseworthy?
I meet far too many harmonica players who stick to playing the blues because they think it’s technically easy. Those players haven’t listened to Little Walter, Sonny Terry, Kim Wilson, or Ray Charles (to pick a few) carefully, never mind Popper. I suspect that the idea of the blues as a safe refuge for third-rate musicians is far more dear to the hearts of casually committed players than it is to Popper. In any case, any player who is threatened by John’s very mild comments on the general level of musicianship displayed by harmonica players is well advised to improve his or her musicianship to the point where he or she no longer feels threatened, and quit blaming John for his largely accurate comments on the state of the harmonica playing art.
In the final analysis, what any of us thinks of John’s work is almost besides the point. He has created a new style and approach to playing the harmonica which cannot be ignored by harmonica players, any more than classical pianists can ignore Beethoven. His playing is arguably the most influential contribution to the basic vocabulary of rock harmonica since Little Walter. (I say “influential” here purposely to avoid denigrating the many fine players whose work has not yet found a mass audience.) He is connecting with a mass audience emotionally and intellectually, not surprising given the high quality of feeling and ideas in his music. Players who refuse to give John his due should know that in the not very distant future (like now, maybe?) a minimally competent professional must certainly be able to produce a passable imitation of John’s style for 16 bars or so on demand, that being the kind of thing any record producer might request from a
supposed professional. If any reader thinks that’s an impossible or unfair demand, that’s his or her problem, not Popper’s.
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