America’s ‘Blues Review’ describes him as “An International Blues Treasure” and with 7000 concerts over 40 years Dutchman Hans Theessink carved out his own place in the modern Blues pantheon. Our own Delta Bluesman John Harrison caught Theesink on part of that long concert road when he visited Bad Honnef’s Folk im Feuerschlösschen.
A little background setting is always useful, but in the particular case of Hans Theessink’s long and fruitful journey discovering the blues, I consider a little more background than usual to be appropriate:
Juta Mensing who organises the folk concerts in FiF admits that she first met Hans Theessink in Eckenförde in Schleswig Holstein in north east Germany at a concert over forty years ago at a time when Hans Theessink was living in Denmark and traveling and playing extensively throughout Scandinavia. If I tell you that Hans Theessink was born in the Netherlands and now lives in Austria, but has a Danish passport, you might have an inkling of the type of Dutchman we are dealing with here. The type who became a little confused with the free movement of peoples, first within the EEC and later within the EU. It was meant to be a right that a person could travel from one European country to another to live and work there. These special types of Dutchmen thought it was a duty and not just a right and so country-hopped around Europe, using initially their language, and then their social, skills to settle and flourish wherever took their fancy. In one sense this may be one of the reasons why he has such a prodigious understanding of the blues. Perhaps, some time from now, future social historians will confirm it for us.
Dodging censorship and discrimination have been driving forces since time immemorial in honing languages over time, and the English language in particular has risen to this task possibly better than many others. Striding the rich treasure chest of all European languages and helping itself to this rich buffet on offer whilst being wide open to change, when beneficial, and yet tightly closed traditional when not. Never was a language so wide open and inviting and undiscriminating at the lower level as a lingua franca and yet at the same time being a defender of extremely well defined words and philosophical thoughts up on the 50th floor. Indeed, one would probably have to seek out “music” as a contender for being a more universal language, which could mean so many different things to so many different people at one and the same time.
The geo-politics of Holland determined an open, multi-lingual society of agriculturists and sea-faring traders and when television invaded Europe in the second half of the 20th century the Netherlands opened their airwaves and embraced everything with open arms. Unlike Germany, they neither had the mentality nor the resources to dub all foreign films and television programmes. They either left them as they were, or at the most sent them out with written subtitles at the bottom of the screen, but always with the original tone. This has given the Dutch the possibility to assimilate an anglophile sense of humour and enabled them to understand English like a mother language yet at the same time be able to stand back and appraise English from a multi-linguist point of view, which sadly so few British or North American people are able to do to the same extent. I have always maintained from my own personal experience that you only have to take any ten Dutchmen perfectly at random in order to have the very good makings of a five or possibly six piece jazz band. That is an astonishing fact and helps to explain why Hans Theessink understands the blues as well as he does, both linguistically and musically.
The English language has shown itself to be able to accommodate Shakespeare’s punacity without finding it pugnacious, as equally well as it allowed the negro slaves to adopt this language to send signals under the radar of people who were unaware of, and unattuned to, the linguistic and musical nuances of those human beings whom they more often than not, ignorantly considered to be primitive, culturally worthless, chattels.
Anyway, since first meeting Jutta Mensing four decades ago Hans Theessink has been on the road these last forty years and has travelled all through Europe and all over the world, he’s played over 7000 gigs and well, quite simply he’s paid his musical dues good and proper, because that’s an average of not playing just two or three gigs a month, but averaging playing every other night of the year. It’s no small wonder that he’s an extremely accomplished performer and blues musician and he boogies and bottlenecks with the best of ’em. He’s not just cut a couple of albums, he’s recorded over thirty and brought out a DVD and a song book to boot. He’s studied blues roots music and various guitar styles with a detail and devotion which is almost unmatched.
Hans sets the evening in motion by putting a blues harp in a rack picking up the guitar and playing a number by Big Bill Broonzy, one of his greatest idols, and a number which is a musicians’ favourite everywhere and it’s easier to list who’s not covered it, than who has, “Key To The Highway”. In a similar vein it’s easier to ask who Hans doesn’t know and who he hasn’t played with in the blues world, rather than try and list all the others. He’s certainly travelled a lot through the South of the the USA getting right to the roots of the blues roots.
Second up is “Mercury Blues” with its crazy refrain “crazy about a Mercury” dedicated to the recently demised US car marque owned by Ford Motors. When Hans was listening to the radio in Holland in the 1960s he might just happened to have heard this song recorded by its co-author K. C. Douglas. Listening to the radio in Holland then was certainly where he would have first of heard of Big Bill Broonzy, a blues hero we have in common, who’s song “All By Myself” was certainly a personal inspiration to me, that one could also play music outside of the confines of a band, and is the musical equivalent of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” in terms of empowering a human being to do things, alone if necessary, that he might have thought otherwise impossible.
More often than not, it’s the smaller, what other people might consider to be the “less significant”, memories which stick in one’s personal mind for an extraordinary disproportionate length of time, and when later recalled to an audience, singe also in the listener’s mind with the burning intensity, almost of a branding iron. For Hans Theessink, being such a fan of Big Bill Broonzy, and being taken personally by Bruce Kaplan the founder of Flying Fish Records in Chicago, where he recorded his first album to see and feel and hold Big Bill’s guitar meant an awful lot to him. Flying into Chicago to attend Kaplan’s funeral later reminded him of this and he wrote the fitting tune “Big Bill’s Guitar” to commemorate Bill, the Guitar and Bruce. A song written by Hans completely in the style of Big Bill Broonzy. A most fitting and well honed tribute. Hans sings in this song the line “Hooked on the blues, Big Bill is to blame, since that night his music moved me, my life hasn’t been the same.”
Not surprisingly Hans Theessink does not exist purely in a Big Bill Broonzy time warp, pleasant though that particular thought may be. It is difficult to describe in words just how instantly refreshing and vibrant Big Bill’s songs and attitudes were in comparison to what was happening at that particular time and anytime that had immediately preceded it. It was certainly much more than a massive musical breath of fresh air.
With his self penned song “Wishing Well” which is also the title track of a recent CD, Hans revealed a somewhat softer side and a song which I later discovered was written in India. A lovely soft lilting song from a veritable man of the world.
One of the benefits of a long life on the road is collecting anecdotes and in 1992 Hans was a supporting act for Johnny Cash in Vienna and the backstage accommodation was not spacious and meant that he had to share the only dressing room with Johnny Cash, June Carter and the band. The result was Johnny Cash asking, “do you mind if we sing here?” and after an affirmative reply from Hans Theessink a two hour pre show warm up by Johnny Cash and the band, “just for fun”, and Hans later, realising his good fortune, in ultimately penning the Johnny Cash like song entitled appropriately “Wayfaring Stranger”. This song is also on the CD “Wishing Well”.
It’s always a wonderful joy to identify fellow musical travellers and once again with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, I share with Hans being a life long fan.
They were also the very first authentic blues musicians that I ever saw play live. It was in Coventry in the 1970’s and Hans puts a capo on the third fret this evening in Bad Honnef and plays their “Born And Living With The Blues”, with a vibrancy which well recalled the original. It’s a very normal E-A-E-A-B blues progression type of song, but Brownie just cheekily slips in a G#7 which is not “normal”, but fits like a glove and makes this a memorable song indeed. Hans admits himself he was in search of that holy grail of that “missing” chord for a while, once upon a time. I suppose Hans could have turned off his amplifier and microphones and played purely unplugged and acoustically to the quite densely seated, attentive audience of some eighty blues devotees here this evening without any problem, as indeed the Irishman Martin Donnelly had done at a concert here last year. However, when none other than his guitar idol Brownie McGhee told a very young Hans Theessink all those years ago, “Play acoustic Hans, but plug it in!” ignoring that advice would be pretty hard to do.
Hans Theesink was born and raised in the Dutch city of Enschede close behind the Dutch German border. Thus he is a true European, and also a world citizen. who has not only benefited himself, but has also bettered Europe by ignoring the only barriers left (i.e. those in the mind) and by transcending those other borders where suddenly a different language is spoken, and by definition, a different culture exists.
One of the nice things about such a concert like this is being able to listen to the sort of short story tales, between the actual songs, which put the “Rambling” into “Rambling Jack Elliot” for example. One of the furthest things away from one’s mind when listening to am accomplished musician performing live, is his or her own thoughts and original motivations for them doing what they are now doing, trying to envisage where it was, when exactly the need and desire to perform, first inspired and then overwhelmed them. It’s actually not rocket science, but it’s one of the last things that one imagines, especially the more famous the performer may be. It’s invariably their local record store! Hans was torn between the choice of “Knopf” and “Demut”, which shows the proximity of Enschede to Germany as no German would have any problem recognising the choice as being between “Button” and “Humility”. Hans went looking for a blues record, but was sent off with a Dixieland record – also no bad thing.
Next up is a true blues classic and one of the rare blues songs in a minor key and Hans puts a capo on the third fret of his Canadian Larrivée guitar transposing it from Am to Cm. “St James Infirmary”, as Hans discovered on a recent UK tour could possibly be about literally everybody’s local hospital, and people in Liverpool, Glasgow and Wales are all happy in wishing to claim it as their own. You can find many different versions of the lyrics to this song on the Mudcat Café website http://email@example.com?SongID=5526 which is a very useful reference site for any one interested in the history of particular songs.
Since a talented British comic actor and a US straight actor named Hugh Laurie outed his love of the Blues and especially the New Orleans variety thereof, the origins of this song were given more scrutiny than usual and its English origins as a song about a young woman (or man) unfortunately cut down in their prime may or may not go back to the song “The Unfortunate Rake” and the “St James” may even refer to the London residence “St James Palace” occupied by the current successor to the British Throne, but which was in the 16th the site of London’s leper colony and hospital. What’s not in doubt is that is unusual being in a minor key and it is an extremely very powerful and emotive song, re-telling the story of a man in a bar, relating his visit earlier that same day to the morgue of a local hospital and the sadness and the emotions that he felt seeing his demised girlfriend “stretched out on a long white table, so cold, so sweet, so fair”.
Perhaps, as both a tipped hat to those ancient English musical roots of the song, and the certain need for a little levity in such an intrinsically sad song, Hans throws in a musical instrumental interlude of “Greensleeves” into the middle of “St James Infirmary”.
This man is nothing if not mischievous, and as I mentioned at the beginning, he’s also paid his musical dues. One of the places he paid those dues in his earlier days was on a North Sea ferry night time crossing from Denmark to Sweden where he was required to play seven concurrent 55 minute sets with a 5 minute break in between each set. The drunker the audience became, the wilder and more abstract his musical fantasies grew and became and this was one that has since become a firm part of his repertoire. I remember travelling on such a boat from Esbjerg to Harwich which set off on a Friday evening and arrived Harwich just after midday Saturday, in time for loyal Danish football supporters to visit all of Ipswich Town’s home games once a fortnight, before sailing back to Esbjerg four or five hours later to arrive back home on Sunday morning. The fans excuse for the prolific consumption of Aquavit was that the “fish must swim” and after they had consumed copious quantities of, often raw, fish from the Smörgåsbord buffet. My sympathies were certainly with Hans in performing in the face of adversity as a “human juke box” in such circumstances, often in severely rolling seas!
Not yet rolling, but certainly rocking, was how it progressed with Hans selecting the 12 string Stella type guitar which was tuned down four semitones to an “E shaped” open C tuning and donning his bottleneck to give us some Leadbelly and Blind Willy McTell. If you are a fan of rural country acoustic blues then Hans Theessink will send you home well satisfied. The level of joy which he attains when playing Blind Willie songs is visibly and audibly infectious. Certainly listening to his rendering of Leadbelly’s “Beorgoise Town” reminds us of something that we must never forget, the inner pain which Leadbelly must have felt upon finding that Washington D.C., the capital of the USA was in some ways no better, behind the beorgoise net curtains, in terms of the discrimination that he experienced as a Negro in remoter parts of the USA and was far removed from his previous conception of the town which housed the seemingly benign new non racist lawmakers who so publicly welcomed and revered him.
Mississippi John Hurt just kindly invoked a smile upon every face that he ever set eyes upon and played for and probably none so more than on his wife’s face when he promises her in his song “Pay Day” to take her to see her Moma the following weekend. Hans turns his attention now to the Tom Waites’ song “Way down in the hole” where his original National single cone metal resonator guitar, made in the 1930s and tuned in open G tuning gets an outing with some grooving bottleneck. The song is about keeping the devil, right down in the hole, and is an accomplished interpretation, with forceful singing on the chorus from the audience.
“Slow Train” is one of Hans’ own songs but which sounds like a traditional song. The name is on the box on this song and the refrain of “let me ride, let me ride on the slow train, carry me home” finds the audience helping him out with the singing once more. Hans actually played this song at the funeral of Barney Mckenna, a friend of Hans and the Dubliner’s banjo player who died in 2012 and was the last survivor of the original four members of this iconic Irish band.
After the break the second half kicks off with another self penned song called “Demons” which he has recorded together with blues guitarist Terry Evans and Hans said they once played this song with a wry smile in the Swedish town of “Hell”. One of the reasons that Hans doesn’t have a set list is that he usually takes a lot of requests during the break, and this evening it’s five, and when he announced that he’s been asked to do a Mance Lipscomb tune I was quite surprised that the couple in front of me had even heard of this somewhat obscure Texas blues singer and guitarist, but the recognition turned to positive joy as they watched Hans drop the low E string down two semitones to dropped D tuning, slap a capo onto the second fret of his workhorse Larrivée guitar and start picking Mance’s blues classic, “Sugar Baby Blues” .
Next up was a cover of the slow Bob Dylan ballad “Shelter from the storm”, not an obvious choice for a blues evening but Bob Dylan did spend some of his early formative time sleeping on the sofa of Dave van Ronk’s flat in Greenwich Village in New York. Hans has also stayed there, although not for three or four months like Dylan, and Hans also knew this very influential blues and folk guitarist who has more recently become immortalised with the Coen Brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis”. Keeping right in this vein Hans sings the traditional song “He was a friend of mine” which Dave van Ronk made his own and which Hans learned directly from from Dave whilst staying with him. A wonderful song which is featured in the film and has everybody joining in on the chorus.
We are now transferred, by means of an old J B Lenoir number, way down south where it’s much hotter, down to “Mississippi, where the blues was born” and with the twelve string again now and a harp in the rack Hans launches into a haunting Tony Joe White like swamp groove and proceeds to name every southern US blues musician there’s ever been, including some which neither I, nor the very learned couple in front of me, had ever heard of.
Peetie Wheatstraw wrote a song called “The devil’s son-in-law” but we’re now going to hear one of Han’s own a song entitled “Johnny & the devil” and Hans tells us there are many instances in history of musicians cutting deals with the devil and selling their souls in return for enhanced supernatural musical skills. The most common in recent history was Robert Johnson, who disappeared with meagre guitar skills and returned a short time later with phenomenal fretboard fingering and who wrote “Crossroads”, which many believe to be autobiographical about a meeting at the crossroads at midnight with the tall man in the black suit. Hans reminds us, however, that such stories exist from time immemorial and he discovered a similar legend in Sweden where fiddlers visited the river on midsummer night in order to enter a bartering deal for better fiddling skills. The truth normally lies however with many long hours of hard work and practise and the rumours arise from jealous fellow musicians who have not worked as heard as the best ones have. Hans lets us have some awesome vocal harmonies at the end of this song though:
“Sometimes in the dead of night
There’s music sounding through the trees
The devil plays a tune on the bank of the river
Johnny’s soul sings harmony
The river runs on so freely …”
The bottleneck played on his beautiful old 1954 Gibson J-50 Jumbo guitar tuned to open D is not bad either! Sticking with the Gibson we’re treated to a version of “Walking the dog” a Rufus Thomas classic which contains some guitar riffs from Blind Blake’s “Police Dog Blues” which is the same tuning. Once more we are treated to some fine bottleneck from Hans and he must have played this one on his long all night ferry stints, as, like in St James Infirmary with Greensleeves earlier, in this song he manages to jokingly sneak in the melody of “Mary, Mary how does your garden grow” without loosing the groove.
The Chuck Berry classic “Maybellene” was his first single ever and was put out on Chess records in 1955 and by the end of that year had sold over a million copies, to both black and white audiences. Not bad for a song about a man driving a V8 Ford chasing his unfaithful girlfriend in her Cadillac Coupe DeVille. “Maybellene” gets the personal workover stamp of Hans Theessink good and proper and he reigns supreme over both the bottleneck high melodies and the flash bass runs. Halfway through he even, whilst playing a Bo Diddley rhythm, tunes down his high E string way down by what seems to be a whole octave and then just as cheekily, all the way back up again, without ever missing a beat, and more surprisingly without the string snapping. Superb virtuoso playing from Hans. a beautiful simple love song:
“I can’t bring you the rainbow
Promise you silver nor gold
Oh but darling – I can reach out a hand to hold”
Just “call me”, a fitting end to a wonderful evening and if you want to know what over forty years of paying one’s blues dues sound like, just call Hans, it sounds damn good and vintage good at that.