Corey Harris

February 19, 1997

Corey Harris

Making the blues his own


Staff Writer

Blues artist Corey Harris, who will celebrate his birthday tomorrow, has a voice that sounds bigger and wiser than his almost 28 years. His steel guitar is strongly rhythmic, and his slide makes some of the recordings sound almost like two people singing.

Harris will bring his own version of traditional acoustic blues to Hagerstown Junior College's Kepler Theater Saturday night. The performance, which is being presented by Mountain Green Concerts, begins at 8.


In the liner notes of his debut CD "Between Midnight and Day," Harris says he was musical "from the youngest, from the beginning," - even before he was born. His mother tells a story of having to leave a concert because Harris, the baby she was carrying, "would start kicking so bad."

Harris grew up in Denver, Colo., - not generally thought of as a blues capital. He listened to a wide variety of musical styles, and credits his mother with introducing him to acoustic blues through the music of Lightnin' Hopkins. His formal training includes piano lessons, and he played trumpet in his school marching band.

He graduated from Bates College in Maine with a degree in anthropology, and went to Cameroon in West Africa on a fellowship to study pidgin, a creole-like language. While there, what he observed informed him more about the history of the music, Harris says. He was able to learn firsthand the rhythms and songs and dances of Africa.

He returned to America and taught sixth-grade English and seventh-grade French in a school about an hour from New Orleans, his grandmother's hometown. He went into the city on weekends and began playing and singing on the street.

He moved into the "Big Easy" when his year's teaching commitment was done, and bought an acoustic guitar because it would travel well. He played in New Orleans, Texas and Mississippi, booking his own gigs when he could, playing in the street when he couldn't.

Harris says he knew what blues was before he played.

"It is our heritage. I wanted to play something that was so rooted in tradition. Blues and jazz - it is the bedrock."

Harris is on the road most of the time. He toured with Dave Matthews and with Natalie Merchant last summer. He has opened for B.B. King and will leave in May with him and Buddy Guy for a tour of Japan. He has traveled extensively in Europe, playing at clubs and at festivals.

He still listens to a lot of different styles of music. He loves the 18th-century acoustic dance music he heard in Europe.

"All music that comes from the human soul is universal," he says.

He believes that these European traditions should be preserved - as he is preserving traditional blues. He says European musicians are playing American blues and jazz, and he wonders if their ancestors aren't turning over in their graves.

Harris says he doesn't wear the "requisite blues uniform" of hat and tie. He wears what's comfortable for him. Although Harris performs in the Delta blues style, covering classics of the blues masters, he's doing it his way.

"Something has to be done to make it your own," Harris says.

His second CD, scheduled for release in March, includes nine original songs.

Family stories inspire his compositions, says Harris, whose wife, Kore Obialo, often travels with him.

"I use what's going on around me today. I write about what I know."

Tickets for Corey Harris

Tickets are $8 for Mountain Green Cultural Arts Association members, $10 for nonmembers, $5 for children younger than 12 and free for Hagerstown Junior College students and staff.

For tickets, call 790-2800, extension 309.

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