Grant Dermody and the Spirit of the Harp
Grant Dermody (pronounced Der-mud-dee) is a teacher, seeker, and master harmonica player. As artists go, he is unusually humble, as if he has an innate understanding of humility and the limits to which we do or do not have control of the hand that life deals us. His album Lay My Burden Down, released in 2010, was recorded during a three year stretch during which he lost his friend John Cephas, both his parents, and his beloved wife, Eileen. It would be five years before he released Sun Might Shine on Me in 2015.
His harmonica skills and his range of styles and genres are truly impressive. From the Chicago blues of Little Walter to Cajun, Celtic, and old-time folk, Dermody's mastery of both his instrument and the genres that form the base of Americana reveals him to be a rare and diverse artist.
Able to understand what the song needs, Dermody can move effortlessly from the front to the back of the arrangement, playing the role of both frontman and the supporting player with equal zeal. It requires a strong sense of who you are to make that transition with confidence. But for Dermody, confidence comes wrapped in a soft-spoken demeanor and a gentle sense of humor. In a recent interview, he was an easy conversationalist, yet impassioned when he spoke about his love for the harmonica.
Did you come from a musical family?
Well, kind of. My dad played the violin as a kid during the Great Depression. He and his brother had violins. He was from Massachusetts and went to Holy Cross College. He played in a Crusader big band that did stuff like the Dorsey Brothers that was popular at the time. He went into the Navy and there wasn’t any room on the boat for a violin so he picked up a chromatic harmonica.
I never heard him play violin. His violin sat neglected in a Massachusetts attic for 50 years until it was rescued by my cousin. I had it fixed up and I play it now. I’m still learning how to get around on it. … My dad played harmonica and he bought me my first one when I was 18. My mom was from Ohio. Mom loved singers. She loved Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson, she loved gospel.
Nobody really played instruments around the house but there was always music. The stereo was going a lot -- dad played bagpipe music and mom played vocalists. My sister, who is six years older than me, was big into Bob Dylan, the Association, and Leonard Cohen. This was in the '60s. She took me to my first concert, Bob Dylan and the Band. That was around ’74. I started out, as a kid, banging my mother’s knitting needles around. I was a rhythmic guy. I took lessons from the first chair percussionist in the Seattle Symphony for years. I dabbled with guitar and other instruments, but when my dad bought me that harmonica, that was it.
So you were smitten.
Pretty much. I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. The pipeline was in full swing, there was money everywhere. There was probably 60,000 people there, including the military bases. So there were about a dozen places to hear live music on a given night. I ended up sitting in with everybody. There would be a rock and roll band, a bluegrass band, and all sorts of music. It was there that I really took off.
You were 18 eighteen, sitting in with other musicians. When did you start to think of this in terms of a possible career?
My focus was on trying to get better. I have a friend in Fairbanks, his name is Pat Fitzgerald, and he is a really great musician. He turned me on to Little Walter, the Chess recordings, and Charlie Musselwhite’s Stand Back. Both of those records changed my life. After that I heard Sonny Boy Williamson. It was just this huge world I had been shown, and you get so lost in it, it’s so huge, and so deep.
I was searching for myself, I was searching for a spiritual path, searching for the stuff you look for when you are 18, and music was it. It has stayed that way. I always felt that music was a spiritual path. Making a living at it, teaching music, getting paid for it -- it all evolved from that. It was something I deeply loved and wanted to do as well as I could.
Were you self-taught? Did your father teach you?
He tried to teach me some stuff. When I look back at it, I wish I had been more receptive. When you are 18, you don’t give your dad full credit for what he knows. There was a guy in Fairbanks at the time. He knew some stuff, knew how to bend notes, how to get single notes, some tongue blocking. His name was Jackson Highly, he’s still a good friend of mine.
When I would go down to Seattle to visit my family, there some good players there. The best of all of them, in my opinion, was Kim Field. He later wrote a book entitled Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers. He taught me what good was. I moved back to Seattle in 1982, and took lessons from him. I realized I needed to get better. So we worked really hard. It took me two years of working with him before I played a song all the way through and he didn’t have anything bad to say about it. That song was Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back.” The next week I came back and played Little Walter’s “Just Your Fool” and he didn’t have anything bad to say about that. Either Kim was going through a really great stretch or I was getting better.
You started with Chicago blues, yet you do so much other stuff now.
That came later. Little Walter completely turned my ear around. Before that I was listening to people like John Mayall. Strong players but no Little Walters.
In the liner notes on your records you credit the “Filisko Method.” What does that mean?
Joe Filisko is a really fine player in his own right. He can do more stuff with a harmonica than most people I know -- Chicago, country blues, virtuoso solo stuff, he does a great train piece. There came a point where Marine Bands, made by Hohner, weren’t as good as they used to be. I play Marine Bands because they’re wooden. I don’t like plastic harmonicas, I can’t get the response out of them that I want.
Because of that people like Joe sprang up. He is a harmonica customizer. He takes a Hohner Marine Band and makes it better. He seals it, makes it tighter, gaps the reeds to make it more responsive. You’d have to talk to him to find out exactly what he does. He probably won’t tell you.
So the Filisko style isn’t a playing style, it is about fine tuning the instrument…
So you have these customized harmonicas. How many do you have?
In one of my harmonica cases I have … [he stands and goes to retrieve a case] … see here? So this case holds 18 harmonicas. I have another case that holds 20. First thing that happens is they start to go a little flat. The second thing that happens is they start to not respond the way you want. That’s when you send them back to the guy that makes them for maintenance.
I have A, B flat C, D, low F, G, I have low-pitched E flats and D. I have F sharp. When I tour with Eric Bibb, he likes to sing in flat keys, so I would carry lots of flat key stuff with me.
Did you ever have a moment, maybe it was applause, or just a reckoning when you knew this is what you wanted to do with your life?
It was more gradual than that. A series of moments.
The thing with music, I tell my students this, the musical umbrella is so enormous that you aren’t going to get all of it. So what are you focused on? My focus started to shift from Chicago blues to country blues, Piedmont blues, and old timey stuff. I started getting into Cajun, started backing up singer-songwriters, and writing my own stuff. As I started to branch out and play with different people the connections were there. That is what it is about for me.
I started teaching at blues camps and festivals. John Cephas and Phil Wiggins got me into the Augusta Heritage Blues Week. So I started hanging out with people like John Cephas, John Jackson, Algia Mae Hinton, Big Joe Duskin, Robert Lowery, great older blues men and women. They were very supportive of what I was doing and very encouraging. Those kind of encouragements let you know you are on your way.
Phil Wiggins had some nice things to say about you in the liner notes of your album Lay Down My Burden.
Yeah, he’s a good friend. We have different styles but we think the same things are important about the harmonica. Phil is a monstrously good rhythmic player, and that’s where it all comes from for him. His rhythm chops are fabulous. John Cephas was unparalleled at playing those Skip James tunes so that those open D mournful kind of tunings gives Phil a chance to really dig deep into his tone, and he does that really well.
I want to drop back to something you said earlier. You mentioned the harmonicas you play get sort of out of whack after a while. What is the life span you get out of a harmonica before it needs to be adjusted?
If I go out on the road for a month I will probably send six or seven harmonicas back to be repaired.
Do you go out on the road often, or do you play more local gigs?
I do a lot of teaching when I am home. I do some house concerts. I play with Orville Johnson and John Miller. I’m in a trio with those guys. We’ve got a couple records out. We really like to do the old stuff. We go by the name of Johnson, Miller and Dermody. They are both great guitar players and Orville also plays mandolin. We sort of sound like Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachell. and Hammie Nixon. We sort of sound like those guys although we didn’t start out intending to be that. It’s a country blues trio, guitar, mandolin, and harmonica, and we all take turns singing.
You are not strictly a blues player. Your records cover a lot of genres -- Cajun, Celtic, Appalachian, old-timey stuff. It seems very natural. In one album, you can play all of these and it is a very natural progression as you listen to the tracks.
I think that the lessons you learn as a blues player, getting underneath the song, serving the song, and trying to come from as deep and as honest a place as you can, translates well to other roots music. The song requires what it requires and your job is to get underneath it and deliver it.
I went up to the Alaskan Folk Festival, it happens every year after Easter. Up there I had a lot of incredibly good musicians, but hardly any of them played blues. So that became a quest for me as well. … I have always admired people who can take an instrument like the guitar or mandolin and morph it into whatever they’re doing. I decided I wanted to do that with the harmonica. I never wanted to have to put down the harmonica because I couldn’t make it work.
Your ability to serve the song was apparent on the albums. You also have this instinct for blending in and becoming part of the band that is producing the music. It doesn’t have to be a showcase for you every outing.
I don’t have to be out front all the time. If you are serving the song, there are times your role is supporting, other times you have to step forward. When I have to step forward I really want to bring it. When I am supporting, my job is to make the guy who is stepping forward sound as good as possible. You just try to lay this base for them to do that. That’s really fun to do.
Not everybody gets that. It’s not about just soloing. A lot of the time the really cool stuff is going on underneath. I think of Pops Staples. Underneath all that joy and sweetness, there is this greasy, bluesy guitar thing going on. That’s just one example that comes to mind.
Older musicians aren’t frantic, they play what they need to. And they aren’t afraid to put space into the music.
Music often finds its strength in the quiet spaces.
I think that’s true. You have to be grounded to really pull that off. It’s not an easy thing to do and requires that you are confident in what you have to say and let the space be what the space is, realizing that you’re going to have more to say later. There are times to go balls out, but not every song needs that. You can’t transfer all the licks you know from one genre to another and expect it to work. You have to be able to improvise within those forms in a way that fits the form and fits the tune.
When you work with an artist, like say, Eric Bibb, how long does it take to mesh, to know where you fit in their material?
One of the wonderful things about music is the connections that happen. You can spend your whole life making music, playing with a lot of people, and every now and then you meet somebody where it just explodes. Like everything is there. And you know where they’re going to go before they go there. That’s pretty much what it was like with Eric. I knew the forms because I was familiar with the music. I could hear what he was about and what it was that he needed. He’s not a soloist, so I would play the solos, and you bring it as strong as you can, and then you back off again. It was the same way when I started playing with Dirk Powell.
It is a kind of communication. The sort you hope for in the best of relationships.
It’s the same thing as having a good friend. You haven’t seen each other in five years and you pick up right where you left off, play some Cribbage, and have a cup of tea.
You’ve read the liner notes, so you know a bit of my story. I used to be a full-time teacher of fourth and fifth grade kids, and then I stopped doing that so I could play music full time. And right after that my wife got sick. She had ovarian cancer at the same time my mom had Alzheimer’s, and this was right after my dad died. She was sick for two years and then she died. It took a while to recover from that.
I am at a place with this new record where I am looking for management and booking help. I’d like to get out two or three times a month and just play. I am setting up tours with Orville and with Dirk. If I could afford more people I would love to go out with five or six people and do what I do.
You went through a three-year period when you experienced a lot of personal loss.
It was good to have music to be able to process that. One of the things you realize, going through it, is that you are powerless over it. Lay Down My Burden was recorded during the two years Eileen was sick. She got to hear it before she died. And she got to sing on it. That is something that would have terrified her before she got sick. And then she figured if I can deal with cancer I can deal with singing. She really liked that record. I never set out to make a record dealing with grief, but I have had a lot of people tell me it has helped them through their dark night of the soul.
Sun Might Shine on Me was about the fact that it was time to do something else.
It’s about looking forward.
That’s why the lyrics to that song are different. It’s like “She’s gone/but it’s alright/sun’s gonna shine tomorrow/sun might shine on me.” It’s hope, a new way of looking at things. Yes, grief is part of your story but it’s not incapacitating you anymore. You’re not in bed anymore with the covers drawn up to your chin wondering if you’re going to make it through. Even though my partner has moved on, I still want to live. You make that choice.
For the first year you’re the guy whose wife died. That’s how the conversations start, that’s how they end. That’s where the energy is. And then it becomes that it is not about that anymore. I can think of her now and sing. There’s a line in there that says “whatever else may happen I was loved by you.” I will carry that with me forever.
You mentioned that music is like a spiritual path. You have a faith that influences your style of playing. Talk about that.
I was influenced by a lot of great harmonica players. I have been influenced by anyone I have listened to closely. Early on I got lost in John Mayall’s The Turning Point album. Great record. Then I heard Little Walter and I got lost in that.
Music as a spiritual path is who are you, and what do you have to say? How can you dig deep, and get real? I really like doing that across different genres. I learned to play old timey stuff so I could play with those guys in Alaska at the Folk Festival. So that is part of the spiritual path, being adaptable, being honest, being yourself, and using music to communicate what it is that you are going through.
At first there were songs about grief, and then there were songs about grief in a different way, and then there were songs that weren’t about grief. Music itself has a huge spirit attached to it. And there are different spirits attached to different kinds of music. So you are trying to connect to that energy and become part of it, with other people. The Buddhist Path, the Shamanic Path, both of those things tie into music that way.
Music is a way to articulate what is going on inside, down below the surface, often times more accurately than speech.
I think that is true. And it is what I love about the harmonica. I think that the instrument can express any emotion that you have, but you have to be willing to go there. You have to be willing to sound nasty, to scream through the harmonica if you will. And to also be pretty and sweet and bucolic, whatever.
Do you have plans to make your next record?
Yes, I have been talking to Dirk about that. We had a long discussion about power in music, the stuff that really moves us and gets us going. I think that is what we aimed for with Sun Might Shine on Me. The next one is going to be recorded at his studio in Louisiana.
So much great music comes from that part of the country.
The music and the food. … There are so many great players down there. The only other place I’ve found that is like that is Ireland. I’ve been part of some Irish sessions. Dermody is an Irish name. It’s such a great culture.
Eileen and I were travelling through Ireland and we stopped in a small town. I was playing some blues with a guitarist and this little freckle-faced girl, maybe 11 or 12 yearsold sat down next to me, watching. When we were finished I started talking to her and she told me she had won a national contest for playing harmonica. She hadn’t yet learned about tongue blocking. So I showed her how to do that and her eyes got so big. You know what tongue blocking is?
It is a way to block certain holes and isolate others, and get single notes…
Yeah, but the reason for it is so you can get single notes and play chords at the same time, and provide your own backbeat. [He demonstrates.] If you don’t know how to tongue-block, it’s like trying to play piano with just your right hand.
So you have a story about Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee…
I had been playing about a year when I came down from Fairbanks to be with my family and I saw a poster saying Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were going to be playing a concert. I went down and I [was] the first guy in line. I don’t know how long I waited, but it was a long time. The whole first row was their family and friends so I was right there in the second row. It was around ’78. They didn’t get along that well and used to argue a lot. Sonny must have said something and Brownie took offense and said “I’m gonna go.” So Sonny said, “Go. You ain’t doing nothing anyway.” So Brownie walked off, leaving Sonny by himself.
Sonny starts talking about his woman, that she told him if he didn’t stop messing around she was going to change the locks on the door. He didn’t believe her. He comes home and the lock has been changed. He tells the audience that he figured he’d go around back of the house, and play his harmonica soft and pretty, and see if she’d let him in. So he hits this big fat note, this gorgeous harmonica note. It’s got all the stuff you’d want a harmonica note to sound like. It was just it.
I hadn’t been playing long but I knew enough to know what that was. It just smacked me right between the eyes. And then a woman right behind me goes, “Oh God let him in.” That was the moment that I knew I wanted to play this instrument.