Blues harmonica player Mark Hummel, 63, returned to San Quentin State Prison in August to discuss his music and to play a few tunes for the men in the guitar workshop.
Kurt Huget, who teaches guitar on Thursday afternoons, introduced Hummel to the class before playing a blues tune as Hummel played improvised riffs on one of five harmonicas he brought with him to entertain and teach the class.
Hummel described the different techniques for playing the harmonica in first position, second or cross position, and third position. Then, he demonstrated as Huget played a Jimmy Reed blues tune on acoustic guitar.
“That’s how Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie played,” Hummel said about playing first position. “A lot of stuff I do when I play is called tongue blocking.”
That is a technique that involves using the tongue to ob- struct air passing through the holes of the harmonica.
“He’s the gentleman of the blues,” said Huget.
He also said Hummel has been wanting to come back to San Quentin for years. “He’s a busy man.”
Hummel travels all around the world to play harmonica, but when he had a window of opportunity he returned to the guitar workshop. It was his second visit to the guitar work- shop in five years.
“I’ve been going to Europe since 1986,” said Hummel. He said that sometimes his band tours with him or he’ll use some of the European bands and that the Finnish bands are really good. “Playing in Russia was one of the high points.”
“I’m self-taught by listening,” said Hummel. “As a harmonica player, we play by ear.”
Hummel played the song “St. James Infirmary” on the harmonica in the third position, in the key of A minor, as Huget accompanied him on guitar. The class listened, observed and applauded when the two finished.
“That’s a real hard position to play in because you’re start- ing on a bent note,” said Hummel, adding that all the music theory he knows is in relation to the harmonica. He said he uses chromatic and diatonic harmonicas.
“You can play four or five keys on harmonica if you know what you’re doing,” said Hum- mel. He also played octaves and said, “It gives kind of like an accordion effect.”
It was a show-and-tell performance where Hummel ex- plained drawing (sucking in air) on the harmonica, and blowing (pushing out air), blows and bends, how to change keys, and how he “learned a lot of what (he) know(s) by listening to re- cords” from artists such as Little Walter, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Sonny Boy (both of them), Jimmy Reed, Paul Butterfield and many others.
To share his experience, Hummel has written a book, Big Road Blues: 12 Bars on I-80.
“I called it that because that’s the road we’d start a tour on and end a tour on,” he said. “We’ve played hundreds of bars along I-80.”
Hummel said the book title has a double meaning because it could mean 12 bars to drink at along the Interstate 80 free- way or 12-bar blues on High- way 80.
“It’s always better when I practice,” said Hummel, but he admitted he doesn’t play every day. Two and a half years ago he suffered a heart attack but said he’s proud of the fact that he’s experienced 34 years of sobriety. “You gotta stay in shape to do this.”
Inmate Gary Harrell, 64, was the only one in the room who played harmonica. “It was awesome,” said Harrell. “The theory and concept and commitment to the harp. He was willing to share (his knowledge). It humbled me. It made me know that people care.”
“You guys are really fun to hang with,” said Hummel. “I love comin’ here to talk music with you.” But he cautioned, “If you get out (of prison) and are thinking of making a liv- ing playing harmonica—good luck!”
Hummel said a blues show audience in the United States is usually older, but that’s not the case in countries such as Russia. “Blues really needs a young audience to help us survive,” he said.
Hummel is also one of hundreds of musicians who work with the organization Bread and Roses, founded more than 40 years ago. The follow- ing week he was scheduled to start a tour in Edmonton, Canada; Alameda, Calif.; Martinez, Calif.; Providence, R.I.; and Hartford, Conn.
“One thing about the blues,” said Hummel, “if you don’t know them, you’ll learn them.”