Recently, I read a blog entry written by a Chicago-based harp player named Mr G. (His fine blog can be found here.)
Mr G recently attended the convention hosted by the Socoety fro the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH). He mused,
"The one really strange aspect of the SPAH convention was the lack of African American harmonica players. Some of the best players around are black, particularly blues players like James Cotton, Billy Branch, Sugar Blue and the rest of the "real deal" guys. It would be great if they would join the geeky world of SPAH - we need them."
In the past several years, some of my harmonica playing friends have asked me why I am not a member of SPAH. They answer is quite simple.
The organization only promotes the music they consider worthy of promotion and blues isn't really a part of what they are about.
I'm not really surprised by the lack of black players that are invited to perform and speak at SPAH. A good portion of SPAH's membership isn't really interested in blues, I wouldn't expect much blues content.
However, Billy Branch is also a premier blues educator. He has introduced and taught thousands of children to play the harmonica in the past 25 years. SPAH could learn a lot from Billy about how he reaches youngsters. If it's truly about preservation and advancement of the harmonica, education and exposure should be a significant part of the task. Teaming up with an educator with hands-on experience for over two decades might be a worthwhile endeavor.
Additionally, most of the SPAH attendees that I meet that are blues players only scratch the surface of education about blues. They know about players like Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin and Charlie Musselwhite. They may be aware of people like Cotton, Branch, Billy Boy Arnold and Sugar Blue, but there is no first hand exposure to these artists. They don't listen to these artists. They don't go to see them perform. They form their opinion on what they read from the other members of the group that have little influence on blues music made on a harmonica.
There is no effort to go out, book these guys and expose them. We are losing that generation of players everyday. The focus to introduce these influential players to a new audience isn't there.
In the past several years, we've lost harmonica players with a rich musical history like Snooky Pryor, Junior Wells, Carey Bell and several others. These influential artists have not been recognized or honored by the organization, although they have been highly influential. The population of harmonica players that were directly and personally influenced by John Lee Williamson, Rice Miller and Little Walter Jacobs are dwindling each day.
SPAH does very little to recognize these artists that have been very influential to modern American music. This is why I am not a member of SPAH, nor will I attend their conferences. The genre of music I enjoy and play is almost completely ignored. It's history is also completely whitewashed.