“Write this down: Blow 3, blow 4, draw 3, blow 3,” Phil Kaplan said to his new class of Newton harmonica students.
Kaplan told the class he pulled the riff from “Mannish Boy,” the popular 1955 Muddy Waters song. But Ben Schwartz, one of Kaplan’s harmonica students, pointed to how the riff came from a Bo Diddley tune, “I’m a Man,” recorded two months before “Mannish Boy.” Dozens more blues songs feature this same exact riff.
This is the tradition of the blues, Kaplan said, “one of the most beautiful, endlessly variable systems for telling stories.”
Kaplan’s been a school bus driver in Dorchester, an undercoating worker in South Boston, and at times a professional musician, and now every Monday at 5:30 p.m. he walks into Newton North High School’s film lecture hall, grabs a “harp,” and teaches seven adults how to play the blues.
Kaplan said he first heard the blues when he was 8 or 9 years old and his brother brought home a Lightnin’ Hopkins record.
“What I heard was a whole world,” Kaplan said. “And I wanted to live there.”
After college, he attended the New England Conservatory of Music and started playing wedding gigs around town, which Kaplan called “fantastic training.” Despite the practice, Kaplan said he never made it far in the professional music world, and by the late 2000s he was facing economic troubles as well.
“You know that [Tom Waits] line ‘I lost everything in the ‘29 flood?’ I lost everything in the crash of 2009,” Kaplan said. “That was a rough time.”
Kaplan said his life started turning around in 2014 when he met Robin Shaevel, the adult program coordinator at Newton Community Education, which is currently sponsoring Kaplan’s blues harmonica class.
Newton Community Education’s roots trace back to the late 1800s, when the group mainly helped immigrants become United States citizens. Today, the organization offers hundreds of courses for Newtonians with subjects ranging from tree identification to chess.
Over 2,200 adults and children participated in Newton Community Education classes this year, according to details the organization provided.
Shaevel said she hired Kaplan to teach guitar, but he soon pitched an idea for an adult harmonica course.
But Kaplan said “it wasn’t really about harmonica, it was more about blues.”
He spent the first class teaching his students the basic elements of the harmonica, but the next session didn’t go so well.
“The problem was when everyone came back the next week, it was patently obvious that no one had even taken their harmonica out of their little harmonica case,” Kaplan said. “So then what do you do?”
Kaplan said the problem was they wanted to learn harmonica, and he wanted to teach them the blues.
“I’m also asking myself, ‘Did I actually teach anybody anything?’” Kaplan said. “I’ve gotten good feedback, but I’m not sure what people want to learn about.”
Shaevel said Kaplan is a “fabulous instructor.”
“He’s personable, he’s patient, he’s very reliable, and he knows his stuff,” she said.
Samantha Mandel, Newton Community Education’s communications manager said the organization asked people what they liked about the class and “almost everybody mentioned his teaching style.”
Still, Kaplan said he was frustrated, and so for this new semester, he decided to change things up.
“The blues scale, that’s going to be my musical anchor,” Kaplan said. “Then I’m going to put those notes in the context of blues rhythms and blues sounds that create blues moods and blues structures over which one can be free.”
Kaplan began by sending an email to his students that he described as a “warning shot across the bow.”
The email read, “[I]f you’re still up and about, hanging in for the second set so to speak, our synchronicity is humming, because I have the perfect next couple of hours of imagination, music appreciation, and discovery all wrapped up and ready for your enjoyment.”
Below the text sat links to various blues songs, an e-book on blues drumming, and the threat of a blues quiz on Monday.
Finally at 5:30 on a Monday evening in Newtonville, seven new students sat in their socially-distanced seats and got their harmonicas out of their little harmonica cases.
It was his first class of fall 2021, and Kaplan jumped right in, teaching the students some basic blues harmonica notes, chords, and riffs.
One of those students was Ben Schwartz, who traced the riff back to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man.”
Schwartz, who attended Newton North High School and now lives in Jamaica Plain, said he always wanted to learn to play the harmonica.
“I grew up listening to my dad’s music,” Schwartz said. “The song ‘I’m a Man,’ I love that song, so the fact that even at the end of the first day I could sort of play it is really cool.”
At the end of the first class, Kaplan sent his students home with a riff to practice for next week. He said he hopes this group will absorb the blues as he did.
“They’re going to drop everything,” Kaplan said. “They’re going to buy a van and get on the road and take to Route 66 and hit the juke joints. That’s what I think might happen. We’ll see next week.”
Sam Trottenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.