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Saturday, May 27, 2017

"Leeds Point Blues": The Charmed Life of Deak Harp

"Leeds Point Blues": The Charmed Life of Deak Harp 
By T. DeWayne Moore
An excerpt from Contemporary Lore and Legend (Forthcoming)

I was similar to the casual listener at one time. I never put much stock into any of the myths or crazy stories folks told about musicians and the blues. I had lived hard and fast, and I had found no supernatural demon outside of myself. To look at him is not much. Medium height. A nice enough demeanor. I know I was certainly not blown away by his greatness. Not yet anyway.


A heavy shot of fast-paced blues harmonica in front of over one hundred happy, young people at Rock Springs Nature Center was my introduction. There was only one man on stage, a harmonica virtuoso named Deak Harp who claimed to hail from Oakland, California. I would later learn of his origins on the opposite coast, but he managed to make it sound as if someone had flown in a full band from the Mississippi Delta. Playing his custom-built harmonicas, attached to a cradle around his neck, he strummed--what he called--one of his diddley-beast guitars. I later learned that he crafted all his own instruments with his own hands--the tough, worn hands of a carpenter, a vocation given up long ago for a life on the road.

The instrument was made from a cigar box and a broom handle with built-in electrical amplification. His flying feet worked a base drum setup and stamped rhythm on a wine crate with an internal microphone. The three-string diddley bow and the percussion provided a soaring, hard-driving backdrop to the harmonica, which he could play with astonishing speed and even turn into the sounds of a horn-blowing freight train, pounding across the prairie. "It's hard to explain, but when I play the blues, I feel good," Harp exclaimed, having been playing music for almost 40 years. "There's mechanical music, and there is music that comes from your soul. With the blues, you can really feel it." His audience certainly did, clapping along with his strumming and enjoying lyrics about everything from the agonies of musicians forced to live in their cars to the need to down a beverage at the local watering hole. Though he told his audience that the blues had its origins in the Jim Crow South at the turn of the century, his music was from somewhere else. After all, according to Willie Dixon "not everybody's blues is the same."
Deak Harp holding a MZMF rack card

Deak was born and raised in New Jersey, far from the bay area and the Mississippi Delta. At the tender age of twelve, a young Deak Harp had realized his life was meant for more than offered on the boardwalks of New Jersey. He spent most of the next several years learning, training, bleeding, giving his all to his musicianship craft. His biggest early inspiration came when his brother introduced him to the music of James "Superharp" Cotton, who Deak subsequently followed up and down the east coast for close to five years. Cotton eventually offered the young turk a job driving his van, but no matter how long and hard he practiced, the aspiring musician never quite felt the peak of human potential was reached.

Deak was correct. He was a bit depressed too, but he was willing to put all on the line to reach the pinnacle of dextrous perfection. On the advice of locals, he decided to visit the southern New Jersey town of Leeds Point, where a supernatural being had supposedly setup in the nearby Pine Barrens. Having been scorned by its mother and transformed into a blood-curdling creature, it was said to possess great powers. It led a charmed life, according to one story. Despite being hunted for years and shot several times with silver bullets, it roamed the forests and doled out dark favors to those who crossed its path.
Not long into his search, Deak came across a spot in the road that crossed a gas main easement, and he found himself face-to-face with the infamous Jersey Devil. Some folks claim it is often possible to see the infamous cryptid standing beside the soloist on stage, guiding his hand at a frenzied pace...
He never relayed anymore of the story, and I never asked about it either. Go down to his store--located at 13 3rd Street in Clarksdale, Mississippi--and watch him work sometime. Then attend one of his performances and close your eyes. It will sound as if more than one man is on the stage performing, and when it does, open your eyes and look behind him. You may learn that he is indeed not alone....

Below is an article that summarizes the lore surrounding 
the supernatural figure; "Jersey Boasts its Own Devil," 
The (Wilmington, DE) Morning News, April 25, 1976.