HIGH NOTE

Midge Mars­den’s 50-year career

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"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."

Midge Mars­den

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.’’

After more than 50 years, Midge Mars­den is still sing­ing the blues.

TONY COWPER

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.

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