When Ruby Harris steps up to play a solo he looks small, shy, and entirely out of place as he chins a 166-year-old electrified violin. But when he starts sawing out Muddy Waters's "You Can't Spend What You Ain't Got," the notes pour out with demonic intensity--a blistering glissando that somehow sounds both eerily exotic and comfortably familiar. Harris, a 41-year-old sign-company owner and classically trained musician, says he's "reinventing the violin for the blues.
"I have no one to copy," he says. "You can tell a guitar player to comp the chords the way Elmore James does or to play a rhythm the way Blind Lemon Jefferson does. Fine. But you can't do that with a violin."
Though the violin was once central to Delta blues--played often in jug and string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks and the Memphis Jug Band in the 20s--it began to lose its popularity to the cheaper and more portable harmonica. "Maybe they had them in the classier joints," says Harris. "But if you're a poor farm worker you don't have the money for a violin. Every so often I'll hear one on an old Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith record, but it's rare in modern blues." Violinists like Ray Nance from the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Joe Venuti incorporated blues into their playing, "but pure blues violin? Forget it." Harris says he's the only electric violinist to front a blues band.
Harris grew up in New York City and has studied the violin since he was 6. He picked up the guitar when he was 14, emulating folkies like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Phil Ochs. Like many young rock fans in the 60s, he grew up listening to the blues without knowing it. "We heard the Stones and we'd say, "Who wrote that song?' We'd look at the records and see Dixon, Dixon, Dixon. Well, who the heck was this Dixon? And then we'd find out: "Ahhh, Willie Dixon.' And that's how it happened." Harris first realized the violin's potential for playing the blues when an obscure electric violinist named Sugarcane Harris appeared on Frank Zappa's Hot Rats and Papa John Creach started playing for Jefferson Airplane. But rock music started to be less challenging for Harris and he soon began learning jazz, bluegrass, and country.
Harris attended art school and then the Manhattan School of Music, where he concentrated on classical training. Around the same time he took some classes with John Cage, but he was more interested in roots-oriented music. Finished with school, he hitchhiked across the U.S. six times before traveling to Ireland, France, Italy, and eventually Israel, picking up on each country's traditional music. In Jerusalem he became fascinated with the ancient history of the land and enrolled in the Talmudic Research Institute, where he studied Jewish mysticism, illuminated manuscripts, and the Talmud. Eventually he was hired to curate and design the Museum of King David on Mount Zion, a collection of ancient artifacts and holy objects located next to David's tomb. He also began playing with the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, a group that combined rock and klezmer music.
In 1989, after recording six albums and playing Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center with the band, as well as working as a studio musician for CBS, Harris married, moved to Chicago, and bought a sign company. He started sitting in on jam sessions at the Checkerboard, Rosa's, and B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera. Two years ago he formed the Ruby Harris Electric Violin Blues Band, whose rotating lineup includes Joe Thomas, Will Crosby, Tony Dale, Carlos Johnson, Vince Agwada, Chuck-a-Luck, and Brady Williams.
"The violin is not like a guitar where you play a chord and bang it or do what everyone else is doing on lead," he says. "Sometimes I have to tell people I'm gonna do horn stuff. When I say I'm gonna play violin stuff only the really tuned-in musicians say, "What does that mean?' I just say, "I'll have to show you.' But it's not the rhythm section or the horn section. You can make a rhythmic sound, but it's a top-end instrument. Either I'm emulating a horn thing or duplicating a guitar or harp or slide guitar, or I'm doing something that just had not been done before."
Harris says that most of the musicians he plays with can adjust to the instrument but that it keeps them on their toes more. "When people have the same old blues they tend to go on automatic pilot," he says. "When there's a violin, there tends to be a little more competitiveness because it is a very sharp and finely tuned instrument. It invites a higher standard of sophistication. Sometimes I throw in a little bit of the Brandenburg Concerto to see who recognizes it--a little Vivaldi or something. But the real challenge is to know how to play the instrument and to play it with feeling."
Harris, who also fronts an orchestra that plays weddings, has been getting more work lately as a session player. Recently he sat in on a recording session with singer Joan Baby that led to another live gig. Still, Harris says some people think the violin is antithetical to the blues. "A lot of people are afraid of the violin. They say, "I don't wanna hear the violin. I wanna hear the blues.' They can't mix the two. They've maybe heard a lot of people screw it up--classical people who wanna fool around--not a serious bluesman. Once they hear me they say, "Ah, Ruby, it works. Go ahead."'
Harris appears with Mack Simmons and the Mojo Kings every Thursday at 9:30 at Rosa's, 3420 W. Armitage; call 342-0452.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Ruby Harris by Randy Tunnell.