By Tracy Morin | Photography by Tracy Morin
With his unique style and one-man-band approach, Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean travels far from his Pontotoc home to keep Mississippi’s blues traditions alive.
Terry “Harmonica” Bean was born into the blues. His father, Eddie, and grandfather, Rossie, played in local juke joints around northeast Mississippi, performing alongside men shooting dice and sipping bootleg liquor.
Packed into a large family with 24 siblings, Bean emerged as a special talent, but playing blues music wasn’t his original career plan. He was a star baseball player, eyeing the Major Leagues in 1980, fresh out of high school. A serious motorcycle accident derailed those plans, and he started playing blues on the side.
“I played at friends’ houses, then the next thing on street corners, just having fun,” Bean recalls. “I’m like Grandpa Rossie — waiting on a big fish to come, I’ll catch a lot of little bitty ones. The big ones come once in a while. But I played on street corners for eight years, for nothing.”
That changed when some Italian visitors looking for bluesman John L. Watson stumbled upon Bean in West Helena, Ark. Bean not only led them to their target but got picked up himself to play in Europe. That was in 2001, and word of mouth grew from there. Bean eventually found himself traveling the world to spread his style of the blues.
Pontotoc may not be as famous as the Mississippi Delta or Memphis for its blues traditions, but in fact numerous musicians have been shaped in this Hill Country setting between the Delta and Tupelo, the latter the home of the legendary rock-and-roller who helped “open the door for black people’s music,” according to Bean. Pontotoc has its own rich musical history, full of names remembered like Muddy Waters band member Leroy Foster, but also many who never recorded and who are lost to history. But those unnamed musicians are alive and well in Bean’s memory, and in his songs — along with the traditions of the Delta and Hill Country legends like Mississippi Fred McDowell.
“You have to do your own thing, so I just mix it all up together,” Bean says. “I got my grandfather, the Delta, the Hill Country, and Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean in there. I never had money to promote myself. I just got out and let people see me. You have to do it for nothing to get something.”
Luckily, Bean’s unique style is one that audiences around the world love to see. He was able to commit to his music and touring full-time in the late 2000s, and for the past 15 years or so — in addition to annual gigs at major Mississippi events, like this month’s Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale — fans can find him throughout the year in far-flung locales, from Australia and Africa to Russia and Japan.
“The blues carried me to places I never thought I’d be,” Bean says. “My father told me, ‘Son, you didn’t make the Major Leagues. You was good at that, but that’s not what God planned. Just play the blues, it’ll do something for you.’”
And, even when Bean travels no farther than Clarksdale, the world comes to him, with blues lovers from around the globe making the pilgrimage to down-home clubs like Red’s Lounge, which keep the traditions of real-deal blues alive and well today.
Though Bean maintains relations with a full band to work with upon request, he usually appears solo, one man band-style. That evolution happened naturally back in 1989 when his band had booked a gig and he was the only one who showed. A fellow bluesman told him, “You play harmonica. Why don’t you play by yourself, and you won’t have that problem.”
“The next week, I bought me a harmonica rack and started playing by myself,” Bean remembers. “That’s when everything took off for me. Now, people want me to play alone.”
Of course, that arrangement not only simplifies the operation; it puts any performance money solely into Bean’s pocket. In fact, even today, he doesn’t take bookings through an agent, preferring to arrange gigs personally, accepting them on his own terms. In other words, he remains a one-man band even in business.
“I don’t want to be controlling no one, and I don’t want to be controlled,” Bean explains. “I’m my own man, and I play for whoever. I think that’s the way it should be. When you take the fun out of anything, you might as well throw it away; it ain’t no good no more.”
Bean, who turned 60 last January, also enjoys breaking myths about the genre so often called “the devil’s music.” Tracing its roots in Africa to the farmed fields of Mississippi, Bean asserts that the music is no different than gospel tunes played in church.
“When I’m playing blues, I’m going to give you some history on it,” Bean says. “The blues is a very serious kind of music, but when I was a boy coming up, I saw people listening to the music and having a good time. It’s fun to me. I love people, myself, and I love making people smile.”