Corey Harris Is Not an Academic, but His World Sounds Will Take You to School

The last time we spoke to Corey Harris, things didn’t exactly get off to a promising start. The interview, scheduled for an unrealistic 8 a.m. his time, only got so far as his answering machine. We could have guessed that'd be the result. After all, musicians are not especially known for being morning people.

Musically, Harris is less predictable. His mix of blues, funk, world, reggae, and R&B makes him a difficult artist to typecast, even after a dozen albums in just short of 20 years. But his is not some slap-dash conglomeration. Deeply devoted to his roots and culture, Harris made a pilgrimage in the early ‘90s to explore his African ancestry, not only coming away with a greater appreciation for his forebears but also for the music they nurtured along the way. "I always liked African music," Harris told us at the time, pretty much stating the obvious. "There always seemed to be this natural connection."

What’s equally obvious is that Harris has always been the academic type. He received his B.A. degree from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and was later awarded an honorary doctorate in 2007. He also received a Thomas J. Watson fellowship to study language in Cameroon and later taught in Louisiana under the Teach for America program while still in his 20s. In 2007, he was also awarded a fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, worth a reported $500,000 over five years.

Still, it's his music that has imparted the greatest lessons, especially for those of us unschooled in the roots of the blues. His debut album, 1995’s Between Midnight and Day, covered several of the great blues masters: Sleepy John Estes, Fred McDowell, Charlie Patton, and Muddy Waters among them. Still, it was his collaboration with Ali Farka Toure on the album Mississippi to Mali that helped clarify the link between African music and the music of the American South.

A year later, he linked the blues in yet another way by contributing to Johnny’s Blues: A Tribute to Johnny Cash, an album of Johnny Cash covers that took the Man in Black’s music in a slightly different direction. He also played a largely unheralded role in the making of the album Mermaid Avenue, a set of songs that found neo-folk artist Billy Bragg and the experimental Americana band Wilco taking unpublished lyrics by Woody Guthrie and setting them to music. Harris helped compose a song called “Hoodoo Voodoo” and later contributed to the album’s sequel, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II.

His largest leap to the mainstream transpired when he hosted the initial installment of the PBS series Martin Scorcese Presents the Blues in 2002, using his knowledge of America and Africa’s cross-cultural ties to help illuminate the origins of blues music in America. Aside from appearing in the segment, he was also allowed to direct it. All those efforts in education have made Harris’ musical contributions resonate that much more. Clearly, he’s one who appreciates the roots of the music he makes, as well as the sounds it imparts to his audience.

“I'm not an academic," he told us, denying the obvious. "I'm just doing what I do, doing a lot of observation. Besides, if I was an academic, I probably wouldn't be making music."

Corey Harris

Midnight, Tuesday, November 3, at Boston’s on the Beach, 40 S. Ocean Blvd., Delray Beach. Call 561-278-3364.
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Lee Zimmerman