Exploring Art

Bringing Chicago Blues to the Mississippi Hill Country

Story and photography by Michele D. Baker

Celebrities and blues players alike have come to Deak Harp for his custom-made harmonicas, but the Clarksdale resident is a musician at heart.

Even from his humble beginnings in New Jersey, Delta harmonica musician Deak Harp was always naturally curious.

“When I was little, my parents attached a cord to my suspenders to keep me from wandering off,” says Deak. “I was interested in everything; I would just head over to the neighbor’s house or down the block to see what was going on.”

Deak started playing harmonica at age 12 when his brother introduced him to recordings of James “Superharp” Cotton, who had begun his own career at an early age playing with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and recording at Sun Records in Memphis under producer Sam Phillips.

After college, Deak struck off to follow the man himself.

“I followed [Cotton] wherever he went, even if it meant driving eight hours from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to catch a show,” he says. “Finally, [Cotton] came up to me and asked me why I was following him around, and I told him I was passionate about the harmonica, and I wanted to learn from the best.”

On the spot, Deak got his wish. “Right then and there, he gave me a job driving the van and paid me a $100 a day. Plus, I got to watch the Superharp perform all the time. I must have seen 400 shows. I learned to change my breathing, make the sounds, do the tongue block, vibrato… everything.”

Deak played and toured with James Cotton’s band for six years. “I was the only white guy in the band,” he remembers. 

He left Cotton’s band to make his own music. Using the harmonica as a guide, he taught himself how to play guitar, electric guitar, and the diddley bow, as well as play drums.

Deak has since played with multiple bands, including the Deak Harp Band and the Kilborn Alley Blues Band, and has shown his flexibility as a musician in the varying styles of his performances. From classic blues, to Chicago blues, to Mississippi Hill Country blues, Deak’s repertoire expanded while his performance style has morphed into busking at festivals. With a guitar slung over one shoulder, mouth harp perfectly positioned on a holder across his neck, and drum box beneath his feet, his sound evolved as he transitioned into a one-man-band.

He’s also played throughout the world. “We played in Switzerland, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Chile… you name it,” he says. “I played with all the harmonica greats: Kim Wilson, Billy Boy Arnold, Paul Oscher, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, RJ Mischo, Lazy Lester…we had a great time.”

Throughout his career, Deak has been interested not only in playing harmonicas, but in their design and inner workings as well. He works on and sells harmonicas in Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium, an eclectic one-room shop at 13 Third St. in Clarksdale, Miss., just down the street from Ground Zero Blues Club. Deak has made custom harps for celebrities Ozzy Osbourne and Dan Akroyd as well as blues musicians Charlie Musselwhite and Big George Brock.

“Hohner makes the best harmonicas,” says Deak. He has disassembled a Marine Band Deluxe edition into its component parts. Its pear wood “comb” is clamped into a vise and he is tenderly sanding the square ends of the tines into graceful arcs. The body has already been retrofitted with rounded edges.

“I just upgrade them with the rounded comb and I replace the nails with screws so you can take them apart when a reed cracks. Plus, I fine tune them to perfect pitch. It’s all for comfort.”

These improvements allow a musician to play the harmonica for hours on end, which he did while touring for over a decade. “That way, when you play all night, your mouth just slides across,” he explains.

Now that he’s been playing nearly half a century, his shop is doing well, and his album “Clarksdale Breakdown” is widely available, he has time to pass along some of the wisdom he learned.

“Cotton and William Clarke – who was another great mentor to me back in the ’90s, would always say, ‘Deak, I’ll show you anything you want to learn about the blues and the business, but you’ve got to make your own name, your own music,’” Deak relates. “That was some of the best advice I ever got.”

Much like what Cotton provided him back in the day, paying it forward is what motivates Deak to teach and mentor students these days. “It’s more about passing on traditions than pocketing a paycheck,” he says.

When not touring the world, Deak spends his time in his shop, an affectionate homage to harmonicas and his beloved blues music. The wood-paneled walls are obscured by scores of posters of harmonica festivals and photos of famous musicians and actors buying — and playing — harmonicas. 

Visitors can enjoy his impressive collection of harmonicas: giant and minuscule, pristine and slightly used, and his “museum” of antique harmonicas, which includes a 1920s “rollmonica” (a harmonica sandwiched between two Bakelite tubes).

If you visit, you can purchase a harmonica or have your harmonica repaired or customized, and remember to sign up for lessons from Deak himself.

deakharp.com

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