Corey Harris had a fairly unorthodox path to the blues guitar – he studied anthropology and French at Bates College in Lewiston.
Harris played a little guitar and sang while at Bates more than 20 years ago. But he certainly wasn’t focused on a career in music.
Instead, his liberal arts education at Bates helped fuel his curiosity about the world and its various cultures.
And that interest led him to the blues.
“I went to Bates because I wanted a good liberal arts experience, and it inspired me to travel. I wanted to meet people from everywhere,” said Harris, 44, who grew up in Denver, Colo.
This weekend, Harris will be one of the performers at the 20th North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland, where he will share the bill with Mavis Staples, The Holmes Brothers, Alvin Youngblood Hart and others.
The festival features more than a dozen nationally known blues acts playing outdoors near the water Saturday and Sunday. There are also club shows in Rockland the night before the festival, and an organized “club crawl” on Saturday night.
The festival’s headliner – she’s closing the festival Sunday afternoon – is 74-year-old Staples, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who began her long career in 1950 by singing with her family in churches and on local radio. In the 1970s, as part of The Staple Singers, she had two No. 1 hits: “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.”
Like Staples, Harris bridges the gap between early 20th-century roots music and contemporary blues and R&B. He has recorded new versions of old songs while also composing new songs that take older musical styles to new places.
Along with Keb’ Mo’ and Hart, Harris was among the performers who helped renew interest in acoustic blues guitar in the mid-1990s.
One of his better-known projects was “Mermaid Avenue,” a 1998 album that consisted of previously unheard lyrics written by Woody Guthrie set to music written by contemporary artists. Harris co-wrote the music for “Hoodoo Voodoo,” and was a session musician on the album and its sequel, “Mermaid Ave. Vol. II.”
That opportunity came about after singer Natalie Merchant read a newspaper review of Harris’ first album, “Between Midnight and Day,” and invited him to open for her at a concert. Then Merchant’s friend, Billy Bragg, told her he was working on a project that would find new music for old Guthrie lyrics, and he needed someone with a blues vibe.
That someone was Harris.
“It’s funny how things work out sometimes,” said Harris, who lives in Richmond, Va.
Sort of like how Harris came to Bates from Denver. He saw a Bates pamphlet on a table during a college night at his high school. Then he found out a school librarian his mother knew had a nephew who went to Bates, and loved it.
After graduating from Bates in 1991, he went to Cameroon on a fellowship in language studies. It served him well later in life, when he toured and spent time in Europe, West Africa, Japan and Australia.
In the early 1990s, Harris moved to New Orleans, where he began playing guitar in clubs. That’s when he decided to really focus on the blues.
Harris has released 12 albums on blues or roots-flavored labels such as Alligator, Rounder and Telarc. He also plays major blues and roots festivals around the country, performing with the biggest names in the genre. In fact, he did a show with Staples in May in Albuquerque, N.M.
But Harris is quick to point out that, in his mind, he plays roots music – all kinds of roots music, which includes the blues.
“I’m not ashamed of blues, but (roots) music is bigger and older than the blues,” said Harris. “I think roots music is a good name for what I do, because I play the whole tree, you know?”
Corey Harris is also playing in Lewiston this month. He’ll perform at 6:30 p.m. July 18, at Bates College, on the quad, College Street and Campus Avenue. Admission is free, and audience members are encouraged to bring picnics and chairs or blankets. For more information, please call 207-786-6400 or visit http://bit.ly/bates-concerts-quad.
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: