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Harris, Corey 1969–

Corey Harris 1969

Blues singer, guitarist

Studied in Cameroon

Appeared on Living Blues Cover

Moved to Rounder Label

Selected discography

Sources

Corey Harris wants to redefine the blues, noted Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio. Traditional acoustic blues attracted a host of young performers in the 1990s and early 2000s, but Harris set himself apart from the pack by looking both back to the African roots of the blues and forward to reggae, hip-hop, and Latin styles. For Harris, the blues represented not simply a musical style but a manifestation of musical ideas that African-descended peoples everywhere held in common. Not a stereotypical blues musician, Harris earned a degree from a small liberal arts college in New England. In his ability to bring together a variety of black musical traditions, he could be compared with the well-known musician Taj Mahal, who was instrumental in exploring the roots and revitalizing the traditional sounds of African-American blues.

Corey Harris was born in Denver, Colorado, on February 21, 1969. As a small child he demonstrated his musical leanings by banging on pots and pans at home. Both his parents were music-loving southerners, and they encouraged the young musician to explore his talent. Early on, Harris heard the folk music of Odetta and the reggae of Bob Marley. He started taking trumpet lessons at age five, but was greatly influenced by listening to his mothers collection of records by bluesman Lightnin Hopkins, which convinced him to switch to the guitar when he was 12 years old. In high school in Denver, Harris played in a rock band and honed his singing voice in church.

Studied in Cameroon

Harris attended Bates College in Maine, where he studied anthropology and linguistics. He divided a year abroad between France and the West African nation of Cameroon, hoping to study pidginthe simplified form of English that arose in Africa as a way of communicating along trade routes. African linguistic patterns would eventually have an impact on Harriss music, but at this point he was content simply to soak up the African traditions he encountered in Cameroon, fascinated by the links he heard between the juju music of Cameroon and Nigeria and the African-American blues he knew back home. I always knew that the basis of black music is rhythm, but it was a great demonstration to see all the different ways rhythm comes out, Harris was quoted as saying on his website.

At a Glance

Born on February 21, 1969, in Denver, CO. Education: Graduated from Bates College, Lewiston, ME; studied in France and Cameroon; returned to Cameroon after graduation for further musical study.

Career: Taught English and French at middle-school level in Napoleonville, LA; played on streets for tips in New Orleans; made demo tape, 1994; signed to Alligator label; released debut album Between Midnight and Day, 1995; toured with Natalie Merchant; released Fish Aint Bitin, 1997; released Greens in the Garden, 1999; traveled to Mali, 2001; signed to Rounder label; released Downhome Sophisticate, 2002.

Selected awards: Watson fellowship, for study in Africa, early 1990s.

Addresses: Label Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Website http://www.coreyharrismusic.com.

After graduating from Bates, Harris used the proceeds of a fellowship to return to Cameroon for a year. After his return to the United States, he took a job teaching middle-school French in Napoleonville, Louisiana. He had not yet thought of making his career in music, although he sometimes performed at clubs and coffeehouses in nearby New Orleans. But Harris told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that a fellow teacher caused him to rethink his priorities: She said, Youve got so many talents. You dont need to teach. She was supposed to be my mentor. That stayed with me.

Harris began playing for tips on the streets of New Orleans and barnstorming around the South in his car, performing wherever he could. I didnt have a record deal or an agent or anything, Harris told Guitar Player. It was just me and my guitar, making enough money for gas and motels. There were sacrifices, but I was just crazy about playing. In 1994 Harris made a demo tape, and a year later he was signed to the blues-oriented Alligator label, awaiting the release of his debut album, Between Midnight and Day.

Appeared on Living Blues Cover

That album featured Harris and his guitar covering acoustic blues classics such as Charley Pattons Pony Blues, Sleepy John Estess I Aint Gonna Be Worried No More, and Mississippi Fred McDowells Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning. Strong sales and positive reviews for Between Midnight and Day put Harris on the cover of Living Blues magazine and led to an offer to open for 10,000 Maniacs vocalist Natalie Merchant on her 1996 tour. But Down Beat reviewer Robert Santelli, even as he praised Harriss jagged, salt-of-the-earth voice and rough-n-tumble, wonderfully rhythmic guitar style, argued that Harris needs his own songs to make a real splash.

Harris took that advice to heart on his second album, Fish Aint Bitin, which featured New Orleans-style brass on several tracks and offered his own compositions, including 5-0 Blues, one of several Harris songs that would address the issue of police misconduct. That album again snared the attention of alternative rock artists; Harris was asked to perform on the 1998 album Mermaid Avenue, which featured completions of previously unfinished songs by folk legend Woody Guthrie.

On his third album, 1999s Greens from the Garden, Harris gave full expression to the stylistic freedom that had been brewing in his career up to that point. Harris rejected the blues revivalist label. Thats really the nature of the media, he told the Chicago Sun-Times. Anything they can sum up in one simple phrase, theyll do it. Harris produced the album himself, lending it the feeling of a relaxed live performance. Singing in both English and French, and accompanied by his band and various guest musicians, he delved into cajun music, New Orleans funk, jazz, Cameroonian juju, Piedmont blues, and other styles. With pieces such as Basehead, which depicted cocaine users as inheritors of a slave mentality, Harris grew as a songwriter.

Moved to Rounder Label

Greens from the Garden drew critical raves and planted Harris firmly on the playlists of Americana-oriented radio stationsan increasingly common format in the nonprofit public radio sector. The albums only downside was that it strained his relationship with Alligator, a label mostly devoted to straight-ahead blues material. The label insisted on a professional remix of the material Harris delivered, and label head Bruce Iglauer, while supporting Harriss new creative freedom, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the album got away from my personal tastes as a blues fan. Harris recorded one more album for Alligator, a duo collaboration with pianist Henry Butler titled Vu-Du Menz. But he moved to the eclectic Rounder label for his next release, 2002s Downhome Sophisticate.

The album reprised Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning, this time in an explosive electric sermon-like arrangement. Acoustic tracks included Capitaine, an evocation of a Niger River fish, and in several places the album benefited from a fresh infusion of African influencesHarris had traveled to Mali shortly before going into the studio. Harris addressed the theme of African-American mistrust of the police in Santoro, which likened a police car to a frightful biblical beast on the prowl. He incorporated Latin traditions into the album, many of whose song texts were cast in reggae-influenced or African-influenced speech patterns. In all, noted Robert L. Doerschuk of All Music Guide, few artists reflect the breadth of black music as vividly as Corey Harris. Harris was well on his way to becoming the alchemist of black music, recombining its constituent elements into new and powerful substances.

Selected discography

Between Midnight and Day, Alligator, 1995.

Fish Aint Bitin, Alligator, 1997.

Greens from the Garden, Alligator, 1999.

(With Henry Butler) Vu-Du Menz, Alligator, 2000.

Downhome Sophisticate, Rounder, 2002.

Sources

Periodicals

Albuquerque Journal, November 16, 2001, p. 2.

Chicago Sun-Times, May 21, 1999, p. Weekend Plus-9.

Down Beat, March 1996, p. 55; July 1997, p. 63.

Guitar Player, August 1999, p. 35.

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), May 12, 1999, p. El.

Seattle Times, January 20, 2000, p. Gil.

Vancouver Province, August 13, 2002, p. Bll.

Washington Post, May 29, 2002, p. C5; December 6, 2002, p. C4.

On-line

Corey Harris Biography, Corey Harris Website, www.coreyharrismusic.com (March 28, 2003).

Corey Harris, All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (March 28, 2003).

Other

Additional information for this profile was obtained from National Public Radios, Morning Edition program aired on May 17, 2002.

James M. Manheim

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"Harris, Corey 1969–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Harris, Corey

Corey Harris

Guitarist

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

In the 1990s Corey Harris became one of the leading lights of the acoustic blues revival. Along with Keb Mo and Guy Davis, he discovered his muse in pre-war, acoustic blues, listening to artists like Son House and Reverend Gary Davis. I see tradition as something that isnt back there, he told Steven Rosen in the Denver Post, but is with us. Its something you have to nurtureits something you wear on your heart. Despite his identification as a blues artist, Harris has refused to be confined to a single category. With each new album, he adds fresh ingredients, drawing from New Orleans jazz and African drum circles. Corey Harris has earned substantial critical acclaim, noted Steve Huey in All Music Guide, as one of the few contemporary bluesmen able to channel the raw, direct emotion of acoustic Delta blues without coming off as an authenticity-obsessed historian.

From an early age, Harris seemed predestined for a life in music. I had my first toy guitar when I was three years old, he told James Sullivan in the San Francisco Chronicle. I remember banging on things. I had a little wood flute. Music is my companion. At age 12 Harris began playing guitar and listening to his mothers Lightnin Hopkins records. He played trumpet in marching bands while attending elementary and junior high school, and as a teenager, he played his guitar on the street corners of downtown Denver. I needed to play and I needed an audience, Harris told Rosen.

After high school, Harris received a scholarship to study anthropology at Bates College, a liberal arts school in Maine. He traveled to France for postgraduate studies and received a $13,000 fellowship to study African culture in Cameroon in 1991. On his return to the United States, he moved to Napoleonville, Louisiana, and joined the Teach for America program, teaching French and English to middle school students. After completing the program, Harris moved to New Orleans where he spent time playing on street corners. I spent a long time on the streets in New Orleans, Harris told Gregory Isola in Guitar Player, playing eight hours a day, seven days a week. He also, he told Isola, traveled throughout the area, absorbing traditional music. I spent considerable time in Clarksdale, Mississippi, soaking things up. Then, I just traveled in my car, playing wherever I could. I didnt have a record deal or an agent or anything. It was just me and my guitar, making enough money for gas and motels.

At the age of 26, Harris released his debut, Between Midnight and Day, joining a growing cadre of musicians drawing heavily from the acoustic blues tradition. The album included songs by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Boy Fuller, Muddy Waters, and Sleepy John Estes, and Living Blues magazine named it the Best Blues Album of 1995. Whether he is moaning and growling through Robert Johnsons Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning or shuffling through Im a Rattlesnakin Daddy, wrote Norm Shaw in Memphis

For the Record

Born on February 21, 1969, in Denver, CO.

Began playing guitar at age 12; released debut, Between Midnight and Day, on Alligator Records, 1995; recorded Fish Aint Bitin, 1997, Greens from the Garden, 1999, Vu-Du Menz, 2000; released Downhome Sophisticate on Rounder Records, 2002.

Awards: W.C. Handy Award, Best Acoustic Blues Album of the Year for Fish Aint Bitin, 1997.

Addresses: Record company Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: (617) 354-0700, website: http://www.rounder.com. Website Corey Harris Official Website: http://www.coreyharrismusic.com.

Mojo online, you can close your eyes and easily be transported back in time. Positive reviews and media attention led to an opening slot on a tour with former 10,000 Maniacs lead singer, Natalie Merchant.

Harris released his sophomore effort, Fish Aint Bitin, to additional critical fanfare, in 1997. While he continued to draw from traditional blues, he also wrote half of the material. Corey Harris has turned in one great little album, wrote Cub Koda in All Music Guide, that examines the musics past while looking forward to the future for more input. Fish Aint Bitin won the W.C. Handy Award in 1997 for Best Acoustic Blues Album of the Year, an award one writer called the Grammy of the blues world. Harris was also invited to join Billy Bragg and Wilco in the studio to collaborate on Mermaid Avenue, an album comprising songs Woody Guthrie had left unfinished at his death.

In 1999 he released Greens from the Garden. Music is nourishmentits soul food, Harris told Isola. So, for this album, I wanted to prepare a meal with different ingredients. Isola concurs: The resulting musical gumbo is half French cuisine, half backyard barbecuewith dialog snippets of elders reciting greens recipes linking tracks like wine between courses. Greens from the Garden only contains two covers and ventures far outside of traditional blues to include a Cajun waltz and a spiritual re-conceptualized as reggae. Harris also wrote music for Teabag Blues, a Woody Guthrie lyric, and then invited Bragg to join him in the studio.

In 2000 Harris collaborated with pianist Henry Butler, an artist he had played live dates with and who had made a guest appearance on Greens from the Garden. I always learn something new from him, Harris told Blanche Clark in the Herald Sun, because hes very advanced musically and hes also very helpful. Vu-Du /Menzdrew from 1920s/1930s guitar and piano music, covering a broader musical spectrum than traditional blues. With its old-timey ambience, Butlers frilly piano, Harrissmart lyrics, and a nice mix of good-time tunes and serious numbers, noted Ed Kopp in All About Jazz, Vu Du Menz has plenty going for it.

In spite of a number of critically acclaimed albums and awards, Harris has downplayed his role in the acoustic blues revival. I dont think that just because a guy comes out with a CD he should be the future of anything, he told Sullivan in 1998. Im 29, so I have a long time ahead of me to play my music and develop. In 2002 Harris released Downhome Sophisticate on Rounder Records, an album that drew heavily from his experience in Cameroon and expanded his musical palette by adding rhythms based on African drumming. This is music both primitive and elusive, Robert Doerschuk wrote in All Music Guide, easy to absorb and more difficult to play than it seems. While reviewers and critics continued to define Harris as an acoustic blues musician, he resisted all categories. There are no boundaries in music, he told Isola. Its all an expression of your inner self and your experiences.

Selected discography

Between Midnight and Day, Alligator, 1995.

Fish Aint Bitin, Alligator, 1997.

Greens from the Garden, Alligator. 1999.

(With Henry Butler) Vu-Du Menz, Alligator, 2000.

Downhome Sophisticate, Rounder, 2002.

Sources

Periodicals

Albuquerque Journal, May 24, 2002.

Austin American-Statesman, August 11, 1998.

Denver Post, June 15, 1996, p. E08.

Guitar Player, August 1999, p. 35.

Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), October 31, 2001, p. 57.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 15, 1998, p. 45.

Seattle Times, January 20, 2000.

Online

Corey Harris, All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 30, 2002).

Corey Harris, Memphis Mojo, http://www.memphismojo.com/ (November 5, 2002).

Vu Du Menz, All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/reviews/r0500_129.htm (November 5, 2002).

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

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"Harris, Corey." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Harris, Corey." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved October 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/harris-corey