Blues harmonica player Billy Branch has been playing the mouth harp since he bought his very first one at age 11 for just $1.
“As soon as I put it in my mouth, I could play any folk melody or Christmas carol I could think of,” Branch said. “When that harmonica would wear out, I’d go back and buy another one.”
His natural skill quickly turned into a passion. Branch would go on to play professionally for blues legend Willie Dixon and the Chicago Blues All-Stars for six years. It was after playing at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1977 with Dixon and several sons of professional blues players that Branch’s own group, Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues, was born.
“I considered it to be an amazing experience to have gotten under the wire to have played with such legendary greats,” Branch said. “They laid the foundation. I’ve seen a part of my role as a professional musician is kind of to sow the seeds because when I discovered the blues — the beauty of it, the depth of it — I felt like everyone should know about it.”
Despite his national outreach, Branch says there’s more work to be done.
“It needs to be embraced by its creators, because we have situations now where there are blues festivals with no Black performers. That’s kind of an oxymoron if you think about it,” Branch said. “In a perfect world, I would like to see people like Common and Chance who are right here in Chicago … make it relevant to the 21st century. The city as a whole should even more fiercely embrace the blues.”
Branch has received several accolades acknowledging his work as both an activist and musician. He recently created the song “The Ballad of George Floyd” with artist Dave Spector that will be featured in the Woody Guthrie exhibit at the Grammy Museum, and last year was inducted into the 2020 Blues Hall of Fame.
The foundation’s Patricia Wilson Aden had this to say about his induction:
“Once hailed as a leader of ‘the New Generation of Chicago Blues,’ Billy Branch now finds himself a respected elder of the scene, following many of his idols into The Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame. One of the premier harmonica players in the blues, he is also an avid spokesman for the music and the culture and history it represents, dedicated to passing the legacy on to future generations. A two-time recipient of the Keeping the Blues Alive Award in Education, Branch has conducted hundreds of blues classes around the country and overseas, instructing students not only about musical technique but about the roots and cultural importance of the blues.”
As Branch continues to educate and advocate, he says his mission remains the same: to give blues the recognition it deserves.
“As Willie Dixon would like to say: the blues is roots, all the rest of the music is the fruits. Everyone can relate to blues because it is the soundtrack for the human condition. Everybody goes through struggles and has problems, and the blues is a way of making people feel not so bad,” he said.
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Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.