BIBLICAL BLUES: The Ruby
Harris Electric Violin Blues Review's Almost Home
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- MANY types of music have emanated from Chicago over the years, and Jews have been part of the scene as long as they've been here. The city's Jewish stars have shown the range of its offerings- from Benny Goodman to Steve Goodman, Cantor Jeff Klepper to Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi, and Debbie Friedman to... Mel Torme!
However, although the town is best known for its blues, there has been no major Jewish blues player in Chicago. Until now.
Born in Queens, Ruby Harris began playing classical violin at age 6. He moved to folk guitar at 14. Then he heard Willie Dixon's lyrics performed by the Rolling Stone, and Frank Zappa's 1969 Hot Rats album, which featured electric violinist Sugarcane Harris. He went back to violin. Harris attended art school, then the Manhattan School of Music, focusing on classical works. After graduation, he continued his musical studies- first with a stint under John Cage, then by hitching through all of the Lower 48 with a harmonica his grandfather had given him, learning from the locals he met along the way. Among those he encountered who gave him lessons: Muddy Waters, Rev. Gary Davis, harmonica legend Sonny Terry, and Ray Nance, a violinist with Duke Ellington's orchestra.
Having thoroughly seen the U.S., he started swinging through Europe. Harris became a favorite in Ireland, Italy, and Israel. Although by now a true rambler, Harris was struck by something unique about Israel and enrolled in Talmudic Research Institute, where his art training helped him become curator of the Museum of King David. He continued the violin as well. From 1977-86, he played with Avharam Rosenblum Jerusalem's Diaspora Yeshiva Band. Adam Wexler, Peter Himmelman's cousin, was their bass player, and all of its members became friends of Shlomo Carlebach. The band is now Avraham Rosenblum and Diaspora; their most recent CD is Jerusalem is Calling. Back in the States, Harris became a studio musician for CBS Records. As his reputation grew, he performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. He jammed with Junior Wells; he showed up on MTV with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. His audiences have included mayors Daley and Guliani and heads-of-state Clinton and Rabin. One particularly poignant concert- the funeral of his longtime inspiration, Wille Dixon.
In 1989, Harris moved to Chicago to marry, and bought a sign shop. Like many Jewish musicians, he played at weddings and other simchas, and still does. But his blues blood still boiled; in 1994, he formed Ruby Harris Electric Violin Blues Band. The band's first CD, Almost Home, was released last year. It features true-blue blues overlaid with deeply felt opinions on Jewish matters. If any people has the right to play the blues, it's the Jews, as Harris explains in the tracks "Nine Days," "Broken Glass Blues" and "Midnight Blues." All of these make use of Job- and Jeremiah-like imagery to bemoan the sufferings of the Jews through the ages. "Broken Glass" sings a my-baby-done-left-me blues, but to G-d; this is not the broken glass of the chuppah, but Kristallnacht. There are many notes of hope, however. "Midnight Blues" ends with the dream of "flying on wings of eagles." It is a hope fulfilled in the aliyah rave-up "Almost Home," with its refrain of "Goodbye, Wandering Jew!" Another uplifting song is the hand-jive shuffle "Pour That Water," about the cleansing of the Altar in the Holy Temple. This act, as described by the sages, was accompanied by the some of most intense rejoicing in Jewish history.
If Almost Home were an LP, Side 1 would be the Jewish side. It opens with "I'm Gonna Leave," a tongue-lashing of those who would engage in lashon harah, which Harris translates as "evil talk": "Stop telling those lies about me/ And all those true things, too/ If you ain't got something right to say/ There's something wrong with you!" Israel comes up again in "Double Standard," which, let's just say, will probably not be played during any upcoming meetings of the Peace Process. And "Hard-Headed Woman"- about Eve, Delilah, and Jezebel- is not going to win any feminist applause. Those worried about missing the Jewish references need not fret, however; they are couched in very general, Biblical terms. The thematic "Side 2" (tracks 8-13) is the blues session. One of Harris' signature covers, "You Can't Spend," is a traditional down-and-out blues, played appropriately sorrowfully. An energetic, down-home rendering of Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" returns this early rock chestnut to its blues roots. The last track, "Jimi With Strings," credited to Hendrix himself, has Harris startlingly emulate Hendrix's psychedelic virtuosity on the violin- it even sounds like an electric guitar. But "You've Got to Watch Yourself" is pure junkyard-dog meanness and one of the best tracks overall. On Almost Home, Harris is once again in the company of greatness. His pianist, Pinetop Perkins, recently won a Grammy; the band was named top entertainers for 1999 by the local variety TV show Wild Chicago. Avraham Rosenblum, leader Harris' old band Diaspora, plays lead guitar on "Broken Glass." Chideco Zydeco's Guy Lawrence splashes on a generous dash of Cajun-spiced accordion, most notably on the CD's title track. And Chicago favorite Sugar Blue lends his fine harp to the Berry number. As with other musical genres, there are shades of the blues; Harris is far more authentic than, say, the Blues Brothers, but closer to the easy-going B.B. King and Buddy Guy than scorched-earth performers like Howlin' Wolf or Big Mama Thornton. His voice is not nearly as powerful those of some of his blues compatriots, but is still quite expressive, reminiscent of, more than that of other blues singers, Jerry Garcia's or Levon Helm's.
Harris is one of the few blues violin players alive. Blues
violin was popular in the 1920s, but the instrument wasn't a financial
possibility for most blues musicians, and since then, the guitar has been
the main blues instrument. The fact that he doesn't simply coast on his
novelty, but always reaches for a higher degree of playing, is a testament
to Harris' musicianship and his dedication to the blues. Harris argues for
the blues as an art form worthy of his 170-year-old violin. But Harris
also makes an excellent case for the violin as a blues instrument. In
Harris' fleet hands, it certainly has the emotional range, the ability to
slide and bend notes, and the capacity for leadership of a blues ensemble.
If the violin is to be reintroduced as a serious blues instrument, Harris
makes a persuasive ambassador, and Almost Home an irrefutable piece of