Hans Theessink: A life in the blues
Hans Theessink, is one of the fiercest acoustic players in Europe and one of the top acoustic blues stars worldwide–a man who has played with the best and is one of the best, American or European, black & white, old and young, since the 1960s. This guy is the real deal, simply a blues master who is as good as it gets on every level.
Down at the Crossroads (Gary Burnett): Hans, you’ve been playing the blues, releasing albums, and entertaining people for over 40 years now. It’s clear from listening to your music that you have a deep appreciation and love for the blues. How did this all start? How did this music come to make such a deep connection with you, particularly for someone from the Netherlands and not some Southern U.S. state?
Hans Thessink: Actually I’m celebrating 50 Years On The Road this year! My musical journey started when my dad gave me a mandolin. A few years later, I got my first guitar and just loved it. I liked the songs that I heard when the skiffle craze hit Europe–exciting music. Later on, I learned that they actually were adaptations of southern folk and blues (Leadbelly e.g.). I didn’t know of the existence of the blues as a musical genre; just loved to play around with what I knew. One night, I heard Big Bill Broonzy on the radio–a revelation to me that touched me and sent the shivers down my spine. Great guitar playing and a voice full of emotion. Big Bill Broonzy set me off on my blues journey.
Over the years, I’ve met quite a few colleagues in different parts of the world that had a similar key experience. It’s probably just about having your feelers/antenna out and tuning into the signal. For a kid from the Netherlands, this music was exotic, new, and exciting. I suppose that if you grew up around it somewhere in the South, it was more like a common everyday kind of thing. Maybe the guy next door was a great bluesman but you probably didn’t think too much of it unless you had your antennae out and were tuned into that certain something. Of course I travelled to Mississippi and other Southern states to experience the blues in its original surroundings. That was like blues heaven to me–I sucked it all in.
When I started working with African-American tuba player Jon Sass, I played my kind of blues to him, and he said: “My grandfather in West Virginia used to play like that.” That was his natural family connection, but musically he had classical training and was much more into James Brown, Steely Dan, and jazz. The blues came back to him via Europe, so I suppose it’s a two-way system.
The blues arose in the context of black experience and suffering in the Southern states, in the early part of the 20th Century. How aware are you of that as you sing the songs you sing? How straightforward is it for a white European to perform the blues?
Of course, the blues hails from Southern black context, where hardship and suffering was a daily experience, but that’s most likely also the reason why this music is so vibrant and appeals to people all around the globe, who have had their share of troubles too. Most people can relate to a person/musician that survives all the hardships helped by the power of his/her music. The feel of the music is glorious and comes across to anybody with some sort of sensitivity. Maybe people in Europe (and North America for that sake) sometimes tend to romanticise the black blues experience. I’ve met and played with lots of blues old-timers over the years; they all had one thing in common: a great sense of humor and their own kind of philosophy and wisdom about life. Great people to be around.
For all of them, blues is a feeling–it’s not about a million notes, but about the feeling and the emotions in the music and their performances were a one hundred percent, all the time. If you feel it and are earnest about it, you can do it; black, yellow, or white, young or old.
I’m not a Mississippi sharecropper or Louisiana cotton picker–I’m alien to that side of the blues experience. But, there are many other aspects of human condition–love, death, hardship, joy, etc.–that I do understand very well as a common human experience. So I got plenty of things to sing about from my own experience, and use the country-blues vehicle as a musical art form. I just love the sound of the blues. It got a hold of me when I was a kid and heard Big Bill Broonzy on the radio–a key experience to me–so I suppose that I just do the music that I love and enjoy doing. Since the early ’90s, I’ve had collaborations with Terry Evans–one of the great American voices–who hails from Vicksburg, Miss., and is old enough to still have had the cotton picking experience. On our latest duo album Delta Time, Terry does a haunting version of J.B.Lenoir’s “Down In Mississippi” that silences audiences all over the world; people sense the truth and feel the urgency of hard times and prejudice that the song relates.
How often do you get to play in the U.S., and how you been received there?
Some of my earlier records were released on the Flying Fish label out of Chicago in the late 1980s. [Unfortunately, Flying Fish stopped their activities after the untimely death of record boss Bruce Kaplan.] These records made some impact and I got really good reviews that led to invitations from clubs and festivals in North America. I’ve made regular trips to North America ever since that time. The reception has always been really good and, for me, it was a real bonus to bring American style music back to the U.S. by Europe. Playing at the New Orleans Jazzfest and the Chicago Blues Festival were highlights and a wonderful experience for me.
As you look around, how healthy is the blues in Europe–in terms of both performing artists and in terms of the appetite of audiences?
I think it looks pretty healthy. Blues societies get established in many places and do a great job spreading the news. Also, lots of younger musicians seem to be drawn to the blues or a blues-based kind of music. There’s an audience there, especially if you, like me, have built up a following throughout the years. Young musicians probably may find it a little harder to make a name for themselves. My brand of acoustic blues-based music attracts audiences that listen carefully. The music takes center-stage, be it in small intimate clubs, concert halls or big festivals.
I’m sure you’d say there have been many influences on your music and your guitar playing. Are there any in particular that stand out?
There are so many, but I should probably mention Broonzy, Mississippi John Hurt, Yank Rachell (mandolin), Sleepy John Estes, Fred McDowell, Brownie McGhee, Mance Lipscomb, Blind Willie Johnson… I’ve had the pleasure of spending time and playing with Yank Rachell, Honeyboy Edwards, Louisiana Red, Champion Jack Dupree, John Jackson, Sam Chatmon, Odetta, Wilsson Pickett, Luther Allison, Bo Diddley, Son Thomas, Taj Mahal, Henry Townsend, to mention a few. I suppose they’ve all influenced me more in the sense of feeling and understanding the music than guitar lines and notes. But, of course, you pick up things left and right. I’m self-taught and learning to play wasn’t easy in the east of Holland in the early ’60s–no teachers, books or videos. Brownie McGhee was the first bluesman that I saw live in concert. I sat in the first row and watched carefully what he did. [It was] my introduction to fingerpicking: thumb + 2 fingers. All of a sudden I was able to figure some things out–a real eye-opener that gave me a direction.
You always make playing the guitar look so easy and effortless. Any advice for aspiring acoustic blues players?
Play, play, play–that’s all I can say. Go to see other good pickers play and play with other people. If you’re dedicated and have the love for the music and your instrument, someday it will fall into place.
Hans, congratulations on your album, Wishing Well. About half the album is traditional songs and the other half has your own compositions–some of which, like “Early This Morning Blues,” sound like traditional blues songs. Tell us a bit about your song-writing. Is that something that comes easily, naturally to you?
Actually I already have another album 65 Birthday Bash recorded live in 2013 and released in April 2014!
Wishing Well is from last year and a pretty laid-back kind of album. Songs that have accompanied me throughout my musical career, e.g. Brownie McGhee’s “Living With The Blues,” that I picked up when I saw Brownie at my first ever live blues experience; or “Wayfaring Stranger,” that I picked up from Johnny Cash at a dressing room session before a concert–I was the support act. Songwriting comes quite naturally to me. I don’t write all the time but I’ve probably written 300-400 songs over the years. Whenever I get some good idea or have a certain experience that’s worth a song, I get going. I suppose that’s a good way too to find your own personal expression. I’ve included a few lyrics: “Big Bill’s Guitar” (about hearing Broonzy and playing his guitar in Chicago) and “Mississippi “(written after my first trip to the state). [Click here]
You seem very much at home performing and recording gospel blues songs or songs with spiritual content. Your album Jedermann is full of such songs–whether it’s “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” or “Oh Sinner Man” or “Way Down in the Hole”… Some of the songs from your collaborative album with Terry Evans have a gospel feel, not just “Heaven’s Airplane.” How do these songs fit in the overall blues genre? And how well do you relate to them?
Musically, it’s more or less the same idiom and both are closely related. Gospel puts “God” or “The Lord” where the blues puts “My baby,” just about. Bluesmen like Fred McDowell used the same musical vehicle to play and sing gospel-style material and blues.
I especially like the vocal aspect of the gospel sound, with its emotional output and great harmonies and spirituality. Especially on our latest collaboration Delta Time where, besides Ry Cooder on guitar, we were backed by Willie Greene and Arnold McCuller with their great gospel blues voices. We got a gospel-inspired sound. I think it has a lot to do with the voices and three- or four-part harmonies. Terry, Arnold, and Willie all sang in church when they came up, and know how to wrap their voices around a song. We’re not trying to put a religious viewpoint across, though. [We] just enjoy singing together and I think it really fits well with the blues. In my band, I work with three singers from Zimbabwe. [It’s] a similar thing: rich harmonies with an African twist. To me the human voice is the greatest instrument and singing with others is an inspiring and glorious experience.
The Jedermann Remixed album is more explicit with its spiritual content. I was asked to do the soundtrack for this film based on an old medieval morality play, where religion and the fight between good and bad–“God” and the “Devil”–play a big role.
Finally, Hans, what does the rest of 2014 hold for you?
Just had my 66th birthday on April 5, where we had two great “Birthday Bash” concerts with myself and musical friends here in Vienna (where I make my home). I’m trying to work a little less as I get older, but it’s hard to say no and I’m still playing many concerts all over Europe in 2014. I play lots of solo gigs but also duos and band gigs…[try to] keep it interesting and varied. There are no plans for North America this year but I may come over in 2015.
(first published at Down at the Crossroads)