I first heard live blues in high school when I sneaked into Crawford’s Grill up in the Pittsburgh Hill District with the boy next door.
Before that I lived in South Portland Maine in a small house at the end of a dead-end street surrounded by woods and fields. When I was seven I visited Mrs. Mahoney down the street and fell in love with the old piano in her basement. Every night I’d fall asleep playing ‘air piano’ on my pillow. Soon a little Baldwin piano arrived at our house. Lessons! I was delighted! When I wasn’t climbing trees and running in the fields I was playing the piano.
When I was twelve a new job moved us – Dad, Mom, and little brother – to Pittsburgh, Pa. Within six months we suddenly lost my Mom. The family was shocked and alone. I found release in my piano – thundering out the Warsaw Concerto and filling the neighborhood with the slow sad 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 treasure each note of Bach, to play him slowly, and to fill a room with sound where each harmonic change was so beautiful you could almost taste it. It was immensely satisfying and has stayed with me forever as a way to ease my heart and bring magic into a room.
At Syracuse I studied Literature, Painting, and Music, and also played harmonica in a zany jug band just to let off steam. I met Michael Kohnen in Alaska where I went during the summers for money and adventure. After graduation I married Michael and we moved to a yellow farmhouse on Puget Sound in Washington State and had three little children. The changing 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’.
Raising a family in a failing economy was a struggle and as soon as the kids started school I found a job as a computer database designer for a large bank. I also began playing gospel harmonica in a little church for comfort.
Beth with Son Jed
In 1998 the kids were grown up and I decided I needed to deepen my relationship with my harmonica. In search of a teacher I went to a Harmonica Convention in Detroit and met Joe Filisko from Chicago who decided he would be my long distance teacher. Joe introduced me to the deep harmonica blues of Big Walter Horton. That was it for me. I couldn’t get enough of Big Walter’s sound and depth of feeling.
I spent the next two years actively listening to Big Walter, deepening my harmonica 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 learning Big Walter’s songs brought back my years learning Bach on the piano. I played him s-l-o-w-l-y – with the lights out – and learned to treasure each note and breath. Soon I was able to fill my room with sound that felt so wonderful I could almost taste it. You might ask ‘Why copy 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 surrounded and guided by his. The same with Big Walter. Why not learn from the person you most deeply relate to?”
Finally it was time to leave the safety of my music room and find other 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’ didn’t quite know what to do with us when we showed up expecting to take our places on stage. So they basically ignored us. Years later I shared my early experiences with an excellent woman friend who had played bass for Cirque de Soleil and she agreed. We called it “The invisible woman syndrome”. So Blues Jams were not going to work for me. I knew I had to find another way.
One day I heard that the last guitarist to play with Big Walter actually lived nearby in Vallejo and often played locally at the Ivy Room. His name was Steve Freund.
With hopes that someone who loved Big Walter as much as I did might understand my music and accept me as a musician I recorded a tape of me playing three Big Walter tunes just bare bones with no backing but my foot – and took it to the Ivy Room. During the band’s first break I walked up to Steve 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 and said “What – you want guitar lessons?” To my surprise he sounded just like my uncles and cousins. We came from the same tribe! Suddenly relaxing I grinned and said “No, I want to learn how to play harmonica with a real guitarist.” So Steve graciously took the 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. As a regular guest on Steve’s stage I got a chance to meet and play with world class blues artists Rusty Zinn, Wendy DeWitt, Barrelhouse Chuck, RJ Mischo, Bob Welsh.
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.
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 get gigs and 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. By 2008 though, the economy had forced many live music venues either to close or hire DJ’s. It was time to quit my day job anyway so I flew to Europe and spent two months in France. The American musicians I met there played mostly on the streets, did well, and were actually able to support their families. I was inspired and encouraged! So when I got home I took my music to Farmers Markets in SF and all over the East Bay and started to book as a solo musician using a beautifully elegant backing made for me by Rusty Zinn.
Now, years later, my solo Market gig is booked over a year ahead and growing. I call it my bread and butter gig. Also, if you’ve read page one you know about my wonderful new Red Quilt Trio with Bob Welsh and Willy Jordan.
Discovering the beautiful old blues of Big Walter and his friends was the final step in a long search for a personal, evocative music that could truly ease my soul. Playing the deep blues and creating a magical atmosphere is my way of giving back the joy I feel when I play. So – J.S. Bach and Big Walter Horton – my musical heroes who bring me to that same deep place when I play them. Not to mention Otis Spann – Sunnyland – Slim Harpo – well, you get the picture.
Finally, in the light of Smoky Joe’s review about finding someone ‘unexpected’ behind the harmonica, let me tell you a funny story:
A little while ago a young black man walked into an outdoor farmers market on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito drawn in by the mellow old Chicago harmonica blues filling the market air. He walked slowly down a row of flowers and vegetables enjoying the music, and finally stopped in front of a small white woman holding a harmonica. She noted a look of confusion on his face. Finishing her song and having a hunch about what he was thinking, she raised her eyebrows, and said with a mischievous Jewish accent, “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”.