Bio – finding the music, healing the soul

Beth and Willy Empress Theater

I grew up in South Portland Maine in a small house at the end of a dead-end street.    When I was seven I fell in love with the old piano in our neighbor’s basement.  When my parents realized I was falling asleep every night playing “pillow air piano” a little Baldwin arrived and lessons began.  When I wasn’t climbing trees and running in the fields I was playing the piano.Flo and Cynthia

When I was twelve a new job moved our family to Pittsburgh, Pa.  Within six months we suddenly lost my Mom. There was no such thing as grief therapy in those days.  I found release in my piano – thundering out the Warsaw Concerto and filling the neighborhood with the slow deep notes of the Moonlight Sonata. Neighbors remarked to Dad that they had never heard such sad music.

At sixteen I was chosen to study piano with the head of the music department at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University.  Mr. Franklin seemed to know what my grieving soul needed and taught me how to play Bach slowly  in the dark  and fill the room with sound where each harmonic change was so beautiful you could almost taste it. It was immensely satisfying and eased my heart.

At seventeen with braces on my teeth my cousin Mike took me to hear the Modern Jazz Quartet live at the Hungry I in New York City.   I had never heard live jazz before. Their slow echoing counterpoint was so close to my Bach-in-the-dark I felt like laughing and crying at the same time. They filled the room with such feeling and magic.  I kept that forever.

At Syracuse I studied Literature, Painting, and Music and also played harmonica in a zany jug band to let off steam.   After graduation I flew to Alaska seeking work and adventure away from home.  There I met Michael, married him, and raised three kids in a yellow farm house on Puget Sound in Washington state. The failing economy was like a wind seeping into the cracks of our lives. Soon it became so strong it blew our little family to the San Francisco Bay Area in search of ‘something else’.

In the Bay Area we found jobs but the economy made survival tough. I began playing gospel harmonica and piano in a little church for soul’s ease. Beth and Son Jed

Beth with Son Jed

By 1996 the kids were grown and I was playing harmonica and keys in a folk rock band.  What I really wanted was to play blues harmonica. In search of a teacher I went to a Harmonica Convention in Detroit and met Joe Filisko from Chicago.  Joe introduced me to the deep harmonica blues of Big Walter Horton.   I couldn’t get enough of Big Walter’s sound and depth of feeling.

I spent the next two years in my practice room actively listening to Big Walter, deepening my tone and vibrato,  and being sent rare musical gems from Joe and his friend Dennis Gruenling.  I also worked on tone and pitch with Winslow Yerxa here in San Francisco,

The process of absorbing Big Walter’s blues brought back my years learning Bach on the piano.  I played Big Walter’s rifs slowly – in the dark – and finally started to fill the room with a deep sound that felt so wonderful I could taste it.

You might ask ‘Why play someone else’s music?’  And I’d answer “When I fell in love with Bach, was I copying his music? No. It was my music and my soul surrounded and guided by his.   It’s the same with Big Walter.  Why not learn from the person you most deeply love and relate to?”

It was 1998. I had spent 2 years in my practice room.  It was time to find people to play with.  For several  months I went to blues jams and found myself going home without being called up to play. “Sorry, we ran out of time.”  I noticed the only women on stage were singers.  In those days women who played instruments were rare in the blues world and the guys running the jams didn’t seem to know what to do with us when we showed up.  So they basically ignored us. I realized blues jams were not going to work for me.   I had to find another way.

Years later I shared these early experiences with a woman bass player who was so good she played bass for Cirque de Soleil. As an unknown musician  she had had the same experience when she showed up at jams.  We called it  “The invisible woman syndrome”.

So, back to finding another way …

One day I heard that Steve Freund the last guitarist to play with Big Walter actually lived up the road in Vallejo and often played locally at the Ivy Room. So I made a plan.   With hopes that someone who loved Big Walter as much as I did might accept me as a musician I recorded a tape with me playing three Big Walter harmonica tunes with no backing but my foot.  Then I took that tape to the Ivy Room.

During the band’s first break I walked up to Mr Freund intending to introduce myself  —  and stopped dead, holding the tape out, struck dumb by the enormity of what I was doing.  But Steve looked down kindly at the paralyzed short person holding out the tape and said  “What – you want guitar lessons?”   To my surprise he sounded like my uncles and cousins. So I relaxed and grinned and said  “No, I want to learn how to play harmonica with a real guitarist.”   Steve graciously took my tape.  Three days later he called and said “You’re on”.

For the next three months I drove to Steve’s studio and played harmonica while Steve backed me on guitar,  gave feedback, and told Big Walter stories.   During about the twelfth lesson Steve sat back and said,  “You just brought the old guys into the room.  Come sit in with my band”.   And the world took another turn.

The first time Steve invited me up to his stage the women in the audience rushed up to front and stood hooting and cheering. Whoa I said to myself.   I guess it’s really a big thing to see one of us up here playing. Cool!

As a regular guest on Steve’s stage I got a chance to meet and sit in with world class blues artists Rusty Zinn,  Wendy DeWitt, Barrelhouse Chuck, RJ Mischo, Bob Welsh, and many others.   It was an honor beyond my wildest dreams. And I made lifelong friends.

In the spring of 2003 Steve went with me to Fantasy Records to make  a short demo CD along with Wendy DeWitt, June Core, and Randy Bermudes.

Recording studio, Knee Action

Beth in the recording studio

When the CD came out,  the following review appeared in “Harp-L”, the online harmonica player’s discussion forum:

“Beth Kohnen … a white female from California putting out a harmonica tone that seems surprisingly out of context with appearances. My brain immediately registered 100 when the notes hit my ears.  As an old goof who has heard more than his share of old masters when they were STILL 98.6 and breathing, I personally feel that THIS KID GOT IT.  I have no idea what kind of life she has led or what possible pain, agony, heartbreak, etc. she may have gone through, but some have it and some don’t.  I am sitting here listening to her stuff and it is just great.  I expect to see a LOT more from her.” –Smoky Joe, 2003

With the CD I was able to put a band of excellent musicians together. We begin to play in venues all around the Bay Area including Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco.  I also started to book solo at Farmers Markets as a sort of meditation in filling a space with beautiful sound at just the right volume.

Finally, in the light of Smoky Joe’s comment about finding someone unexpected behind the music,  let me end with a funny story:

A while back  a young black man walked into an outdoor farmers market  drawn in by the mellow old  harmonica blues filling the air.  Strolling down rows of flowers and vegetables he came to a stop in front of the source of the music.   And stood there looking confused.    The musician was a small white woman.   Finishing her song and having a hunch about his mental state, she raised an eyebrow and said   “You were expecting…?”

“A Brother.” he said, shaking his head, “I came all the way into the market to find him.”   Her face broke into a big wide grin.   “Thank you,” she said, sticking out her hand, “my name’s Beth”.


Solo Gig at El Cerrito Farmers Market

Solo Gig at El Cerrito Farmers Market