Blues & More
Interview* with
Nick Katzman

Your audience knows you as an excellent blues artist rooted in the country blues and ragtime music of the 1920s and 1930s. A few weeks ago you surprisingly performed classical lute music. Where did you perform, and who are your favorite composers of lute music?

I played in a 10-minute segment as a participant in a Vorspiel for school children in a music school in Märkisches Viertel.** My favourite composer of lute music is Sylvius Leopold Weiss, the great lute virtuoso-composer from the Dresden court during the mid 1700s. I like Johann Sebastian Bach's music, as well, but his music has only a tenuous connection to the lute. It is questionable as to whether his so called lute suites were written for lute or for a keyboard-lute hybrid instrument.

Is the era of Weiss and Bach the heyday of lute music?

No. The term "heyday of the baroque lute" would more appropriately apply to the earlier baroque, decades before Bach and Weiss, in Paris. These were times when the lute was in fact the instrument that was played and listened to by all. "The heyday of the lute", if we don't restrict ourselves to the baroque period, is certainly the renaissance, the era of the English lutenists, for example: John Dowland, and the Italian masters. Despite this, Weiss' works are undeniably one of the all-time high points of lute composition, although the lute had by then fallen out of favour, replaced by newer keyboard instruments of the day.

Which other composers wrote music for lute?

It is again important to make a distinction between the lute styles of the 18th century and that of the century preceding it. This involves not only a difference in the musical conception but a considerable difference in instrument design and tuning. The renaissance lute had fewer strings in the bass. In the later baroque period extra bass strings were added. By the time the instrument disappeared from use, the standard lute had become a 13-coursed giant (two single strings on top and eleven doubled strings for a total of 24). Other composers for the baroque lute were, for example: in France: Gaultier and Mourton, and later in Germany: Hagen, Falkenhagen, Kellner, Conradi.

Do you think the lute is the queen of guitars in a way?

It is a different instrument - it's not a guitar. It is related to the so-called modern guitar, but the development of the plucked instruments involved a myriad of other instruments. I suppose one could call it the queen of the plucked instruments.

What kind of lute do you play?

I play a very large 13-course baroque lute with so-called double-stop neck in the style of the Bohemian master-builder, Jauck.

Do you think that classical music and popular music such as blues are just the two sides of the same coin... or what is, in your opinion, the link between these different kinds of music?

Classical music has always been built on folk elements... but the folk elements that form the basis for what we know as baroque music are different from what "folk" music is in the 20th century. Composers in the past have always based their writing on folk music sources. The composed "classical" music of this century has drifted further and further away from these sources and consequently lost connection to the "folk". As to being different sides to the same coin, I guess maybe in some sense.

You studied classical music and jazz at Antioch College, Ohio. In the booklet notes of your new CD "Songs & Bloozes", I read that your musical journey has already been started in the 1960s folk boom of New York City. Would you say that the so-called folk revival really has been a "boom" featuring unknown artists, or is this impression just another exaggeration of posterity?

It was certainly a time when everyone was listening to and playing lots of music. For this reason, many unknown artists were in fact discovered that would have otherwise been ignored and lost. The music industry found itself confronted with a seemingly endless demand, and in the 60s, there wasn't yet such a formulated, mechanized system to exploit that market. So they were willing to invest money in different kinds of music to see what they could sell. Those companies were all out to discover "the new sound" of the week and make a killing. So it seemed like they were willing to sign up anyone. Then they'd "throw you up against the wall and see if you stuck to it" as the expression went.

Which of the legendary blues artists of the 1920s have influenced you most?

Robert Johnson, Willie Brown, Charlie Patton, John Hurt, Kid Bailey, and B.B. Fuller.

Did you meet some of the well-known or even famous blues artists?

I met John Hurt a couple of times. One time I had a lesson with him. Mance Lipscomb, the same. Of course, I took lessons from Rev. Gary Davis as well. I was a bit young and shy to try hanging out with everybody that was hanging out at the festivals... but I was there and certainly did get introduced to a number of musicians that I would call legendary. It wasn't so hard getting back-stage at folk concerts... the superstars hadn't been invented yet and the stars were all people who were playing music I wasn't that interested in. For me it was often enough to be able to hear Son House or Skip James play back stage or off stage casually. I don't remember having any really long conversations with any one.

Have you ever shared the stage with any of them?

No. It was time for me to listen. I played privately a couple of times for people like Hurt. But the stage was their territory. I was just a kid learning about music.

Blues men often claim to be taught by another well-known artist. Is there a teacher or mentor you would like to mention?

No single one. I was taking guitar lessons with Stefan Grossman and Gary Davis, but I was taking stuff off the old records on my own and listening to all kinds of different music besides that. I was like a kind of musical flypaper at that age. I still am actually.

You were born in Paris, you are a U.S. American citizen, grown up in New York City, but you have been in Berlin, Germany, for almost 20 years. What makes you stay so far away from your uncontested U.S. American cultural roots?

I stay here as a sort of cultural Gastarbeiter. I can live from music here, which is very difficult in the United States. Despite the commercialism of the music business, blues is, at least in Germany and other European countries, still quite popular.

What would you advise young musicians who start playing blues music?

Write your own songs and try to figure out what you have to offer to the music. Then package it and sell it as well as you can. Try not to restrict yourself to what Europeans expect and want from blues. Learn how to express yourself with your voice and your bodily rhythm. Make your instrument a conduit for that rhythm. Try making people dance. Find out how to affect others emotionally with your voice. Try to convert your anger - or other strong feelings - into music.

When and where is the next opportunity to experience another lute concert by you?

When I finally learn how to play it.

* Interview by Alexander Wandrowsky, 2001
** in Berlin, Germany

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