Kay Doyle talks to Ireland’s best-loved blues performer Don Baker.
The conversation begins with a memory that would shape Don Baker’s life forever.
“I was helping my mother with the pram up the steps,” recalls the blues musician. “We lived in Whitehall in Dublin, out by the airport in a place called Ellenfield. I drive by there sometimes and see the three steps still at the front of our old house.
“It was one of those really big old fashioned prams and my mother had it by the handles pulling it up those steps and I was pushing it from the other end. But she pulled it too quick, I went flying forward and took a lump out of my tongue. The doctor couldn’t stitch it but they gelled it up.”
An interesting memory from the man who has been performing as a musician, actor and song-writer for over fifty years. But of that accident on the three steps of Ellenfield Don smiles and says, “God works in mysterious ways”.
“Years went by after that little accident and I never really thought about it. Then one time I was adjudicating the World Harmonica Championships and I was playing this particular tune on the harmonica and all the guys there asked me to show them how to play it. A lot of them were better players than I was but they just couldn’t do it, and I couldn’t fathom for the life of me why.
“A couple of weeks later I was brushing my teeth and noticed there was a chunk missing from my tongue, and then the penny just dropped. My tongue is able to manoeuvre around the harmonica in a different way!”
Famous for his harmonica playing, Don Baker is synonymous with the blues and his edgy raw style of performing that he puts his heart and soul into. With songs like Winner In You, Rain On The Wind, Don’t Start Me Talking and Never Let You Down, he introduced Irish audiences to the sounds of soul and blues that many had never experienced before.
Growing up in Dublin in the 1950s, Don describes himself as cheeky and brazen. His early run-ins with the law have been well documented, and are far from the person he is today.
“I was a brazen kid. I was mad. I came from a broken home with a lot of upheaval and I simply rebelled, ran away from home and got into trouble with the guards.”
But every cloud that hung over Don Baker, it seems, would have a silver lining. He was sent to Daingean Reformatory at the age of twelve, which he describes as a horrendous time, and he learned to play guitar in Shanganagh Castle prison as a teenager.
He also recalls another lonely and difficult time many years earlier, when at the tender age of seven, he was hospitalised in Blanchardstown Hospital with TB.
“I was in the ward and there was this man in the next bed lying on his back. He was confined to bed, couldn’t even sit up, so he just played the harmonica. So I heard him play first, and he inspired me to take it up. I loved the lonesome sound of it.”
He asked his mother to bring him a harmonica which he played constantly in hospital. “I drove everyone mad with it,” he remembers. “I was playing little songs like The Black Hills of Dakota , popular songs of the fifties.” However he credits it with his recovery. “I think it was the harmonica that saved me.”
Unable to go out like the other lads of his age, Don immersed himself in ‘The Blues’ and most especially blues harmonica, listening to the recordings of Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf.
“I can look back at it all and say this was all meant to happen so that I’d grow, mature and learn. I’ve still a long way to go and it’s gotten me this far.”
He has spoken openly about his alcohol addiction in the past but hasn’t had a drink for many years and says the spiritual and emotional journey he has gone on in his life has enlightened him.