Midge Marsden’s 50-year career
He’s been everywhere, man. It’s been more than 50 years since Midge Marsden first had his world shaken to the core by the sweet sounds of rock’n’roll, and he doesn’t show any signs of stopping.
‘‘It’s a bit of a milestone,’’ says Marsden, who has just released a two-CD box set, The Collection ,to mark that half-century of recording. ‘‘Really, is it that long?’’
Technically it’s been even longer. One of those rare creatures – a Kiwi bluesman – Marsden has been playing since way back in 1964. Over the course of his career he’s toured New Zealand and beyond, had a gold album (1991’s Burning Rain) and been made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music. Not bad in a country where blues is little more than a musical footnote.
Marsden’s initial experiences with music came through radio, but it was down by the docks in his home town of New Plymouth that he first heard the sounds that turned his world on its head.
Bubbling with energy, he still gets excited when recalling those early days. ‘‘I was living in a port,’’ he says. ‘‘Merchant seamen were a huge part of spreading music around. In New Zealand all these ships would come in by the dozen, and we used to go down to the wharf and they’d invite us on and show us records. And, wow! They’d give 45s to the local milk bar right on the wharf, and we were hearing all this stuff that was not played on any of the government radio stations.’’
Back then it wasn’t necessarily Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Marsden remembers early rock’n’rollers too, men like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, who were one step removed from the blues but had their music saturated by it. Even now he tries to avoid being pigeonholed strictly as a bluesman – instead, he says his music is the sum of all those early influences, blues and otherwise.
Listening to the rock’n’rollers, though, naturally led to their roots. The first straight blues players he fell for were the urbane, sophisticated duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
‘‘That would have been the first, the first time I’d ever heard real harmonica,’’ he recalls. ‘‘I thought wow, what is this? Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were sort of middle of the road ... they were quite accessible to a white audience, if you like. But after them a few things started to sneak in ... and it opened up big time.’’
Hooked on music, Marsden began playing far and wide, most notably behind early rock’n’roller Johnny Cooper – ‘the Ma¯ ori cowboy’ – and Bari and the Breakaways. In the latter he crisscrossed the country, playing venues big and small and towns and cities of all sizes. One day he’d be playing Wellington, the next, Carterton.
The rambling around the country went on for years, interrupted by compulsory military service, trips overseas and stints in more reliable forms of employment. But he kept playing, and when the opportunity came to head to the United States in 1982 he took it.
‘‘When I went to Mississippi the first time ... you know how Muslims go to Mecca?’’ he says. ‘‘Well, for me Mississippi was it. The land where the blues began.’’
Over the years he spent there, Marsden and his band ended up touring the country, even playing shows at places like New Orleans musical institution Tipitina’s. He even lived there for several years, shacking up in weird and wonderful Texas.
Mississippi pulled on his heartstrings the most, and it was there, in the early 1990s, that he opened one of the most incredible chapters in his life. ‘‘A friend I met in Texas told me I should go to Mississippi,’’ he recalls. ‘‘He said ‘look, there’s this old guy in Greenville in his 70s, he’s really good. Hasn’t done a lot in the last 10 years, but he’s sort of come out of retirement ... he’s the real deal’.’’
Marsden and his band figured they’d check it out, making the trek across from Texas, crossing through Louisiana and into Mississippi’s wide, open delta plains. Reaching Greenville, they soon found the man they were looking for, Mississippi Willie Foster. ‘‘He had glaucoma and couldn’t see real well,’’ Marsden remembers. ‘‘We were all quite small and gabbled really fast, so at first he didn’t think we were English – he thought we were Japanese.’’
Despite the cultural misunderstanding – when Foster sat in with Marsden’s band, he exclaimed, with admiration, ‘‘yeah, you guys ain’t bad for Japanese’’ – the two hit it off. Marsden saw an opening. ‘‘I thought here’s a guy who’s in good health, who’s playing really well, so let’s pay back the music we love and take him to New Zealand.’’
It proved to be a second coming for the bluesman. Foster travelled to New Zealand several times and fell in love with the place. ‘‘It was just so completely different to what he was used to,’’ Marsden says. ‘‘There were all these little Kiwi girls going up to him and giving him hugs, it was like Christmas. And he learned a lot about Ma¯ ori culture, which he enjoyed, and he came back again and again. After that he went to Europe, he had a bloody good little career ... I felt like I’d kind of given something back to the culture that I’d made a living out of.’’
Marsden also came across his fair share of up and comers during his American travels. The one who sticks out the most was a very young Stevie Ray Vaughan, who he first met when the future guitar superstar played a Dallas club in 1983.
The memory is still fresh in his mind. ‘‘I was at a bar watching a band play and then he arrived,’’ he recalls. ‘‘My friends said, ‘Hey, Stevie’s here, should we get him up for a song?’ I’d never heard of him and [my friend] Chuck said this guy’s good, he’s making a name for himself.’’
Vaughan ambled onstage, plugged in, and soon Marsden couldn’t believe what he was hearing. ‘‘He was smaller than me, he wasn’t very big, but he played about three songs and my mouth just dropped. I thought this guy is reinventing the music yet again. Good God.’’
After being pushed into meeting the young guitarist the two became firm friends. Yet although they shared many moments, and Vaughan joined Marsden on his 1987 song Travellin’ On, Marsden is reluctant to talk publicly about their friendship.
‘‘To be fair, I’ve never dined out on the Stevie Ray Vaughan thing. I’ve never said ‘look at me, I was his best friend’ because I never was. It was a private friendship and haven’t talked about it much, but looking back my life was enriched by meeting him.’’
What’s clear even now is just how much Vaughan meant to him. Talking about Vaughan’s death in a 1990 helicopter accident still brings emotions to the surface.
‘‘It just destroyed me,’’ Marsden says. ‘‘It seems like only yesterday I was talking to him on the phone, you know? The whole thing was bloody awful and hard to believe.’’
Over the years, Marsden admits music hasn’t been a full time gig. Now, in an age of falling audiences for live music and online music consumption, making money as a professional musician is tougher than ever.
‘‘I taught at Waikato polytech [Waikato Institute of Technology] for 10 or 12 years, and I’ve worked in a retirement village for six or seven years. I’m doing the gardening, and though I don’t enjoy it so much in the heat and the cold, you can’t live on fresh air. The live music thing has changed, times have changed. Unless you’re Fleetwood Mac selling out stadiums or something, it’s not the same as it was. Now it’s all ticket sales and door sales, you don’t get guarantees very much in the business. You just have to hope people turn up.’’
But they say you can’t be a bluesman without a bit of struggle. ‘‘I’ve eased back a bit, you know, less is more,’’ he says. ‘‘I haven’t been playing music full time all the time ... I’ve taken time off and travelled, been coming and going all these years. But I’ve always come back to it.’’
"When I went to Mississippi the first time ... you know how Muslims go to Mecca? Well, for me Mississippi was it. The land where the blues began."
After more than 50 years, Midge Marsden is still singing the blues.
Midge Marsden and Stevie Ray Vaughan fool around while recording Travellin’ On in the late 80s. From left: Murray Grindlay, Midge Marsden and Stevie Ray Vaughan.