Words by Nick Carter. Photo by Lily Chau.
Authentic, wise and worn, Mark Lavoie (pronounced La-voy) has seen it all. From mega-blues festivals in Norway to down-and-out clubs in New Orleans as the driver for blues great Sunny Terry in the ’70s, to the stomping ground of folk legends Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, harmonica player and singer Lavoie wants to bring blues back to the front and center of the American musical palate.
In-between teaching gigs at Middlebury College and maintaining a robust touring schedule, Lavoie sat down with Big Heavy World writer Nick Carter for a few words on his experiences as a blues man and what needs to be done to keep the American blues scene alive.
Reclined and relaxed on the radiator couch, Lavoie dives into his experience with the blues and a little insight on the beauty of the harmonica.
Nick: You’ve been a musician for a long time, at least 30 years, how’d it all get started?
Mark: Well, I’ve always been a singer and I picked up the harmonica when I was 20 years old, when I heard Sonny Terry from Terry and Brian Mcgee and got totally hooked on his style and just went for it, ya know? Got to meet him, befriend him, was his driver in the summer of ’76.
Mark: Well, I left Burlington and flew into Atlanta and we did an East coast tour and we went down to Atlanta, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, up the coast to Richmond, Delaware, ended up in New York at The Other End where Joan Baez and Dylan got their start.
Nick: So, you’ve been around. How’ve the blues changed since your start int he ’70s?
Mark: the blues is definetely taking a beating, in this country, I mean its our American art form and as Willie Dixon once said, “the blues is the roots and everything else is the fruits,” ya know? I mean it is losing ground. You go to festivals, it’s basically a bunch of grayhairs and of course the legendary blues cruise and there’s that demographic that was in college in the ’60s, and early ’70s and all these blues greats, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Papa John Creech, Sun House, John Lee Hooker, you saw all these blues acts on the college campuses and it got its surge and the blues was really big in the late ’60s and ’70s and started sliding away in the ’80s. And there’s still festivals and this whole clique of people that go to Memphis every year for the Blues Awards which I go to as a member of the American Blues Roots Duo on the Delta Groove Label, which I’m a part of with Bill Simms Jr.. Even at those festivals there’s very few young people, like 5%.
Nick: Why the drop in interest amongst the youngins?
Mark: It’s America, it’s the American public and the media and they don’t play blues. I mean Buddy Guy was just at the Flynn, OOOO MMM GGG I mean hes still keeping it alive but still most stations don’t pay the blues. But once you get out of the U.S., you go to Europe? Huge. Canada, you’re talking Norway, Spain, France, go to Brazil, Argentina, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, parts of China… I mean the blues, our American art form, they just want it and Bill Simms plays over in Europe with the Heritage Blues Orchestra and Tatum in Norway, biggest blues festival, and whoever gets booked there and all the buyers buy those artists for US festivals.
Nick: Funny how we get our blues clues from Europe.
Mark: Check out my website with videos of me and Bill, I’ve tried to get this music alive in college campuses ’cause that’s the only way to keep it alive. We gotta have workshops and performances or otherwise it’s going to be long gone, like ragtime.
Nick: Keeping blues alive, 2013. You sound like a blues activist to me. How’ve you been keeping it alive and well in VT?
Mark: I teach at Middlebury College, and the reason I got hooked in was Bill Simms Jr. who is the real deal, old school African American. We been together since 1993, and since 2003 we’ve been very active. Got us on the Delta Groove Label now. Bill and I perform and Peter Hamlin, professor of music asked me to come on board, and they appointed faculty to teach harmonica and I also build harmonicas and it’s been a really wonderful experience because when you teach, you learn a lot.
Nick: There’s something very basic about how the blues is played, not too much gear and stuff, ya know computers and what not.
Mark opens up his harrmonica case of about 30 custom-made little zingers. Some gems, made out of titanium, Vermont maple, and each with a distinct intonation, color and tone.
Mark: When you get playing and your ear hears something and it gets tougher down the line because it gets very specific and all the harmonica players, even if you have three of the best harmonica players sitting here and each one of us played the same harmonica it’d sound different.