Les Stroud aka Survivorman: Harmonica Player of The Month

By Jaine Rodack

Written by Jaine Rodack on . Posted in Blog: Harmonica Articles, Harmonica Players

Ask Les Stroud about his early years and he’ll tell you that his was a “white bread” childhood, which is to say, uneventful: the same old same old. Nothing that would tell you that he would ever go anywhere, be anything, or do anything that would make him stand out in a crowd.

He grew up in the Toronto, Canada neighborhood of Mimico, where his only contact with the wilderness consisted of watching Jacques Cousteau and old Tarzan films on TV. And while he enjoyed the outdoors, he wasn’t a star athlete.

Truth be told, it wasn’t until he reached the age of 13 or 14 that Stroud found something that got his attention. That “something” was music.

“I realized I had an affinity for it,” he says, and before long he was writing songs and taking guitar lessons at a local music store.

He credits two of his pre-high school music teachers for setting the stage. Both had used the music of the day rather than that of their parents or grandparents to teach and inspire. “We studied Jesus Christ Superstar,” he recalls, “and Elton John’s Good-Bye Yellow Brick Road, and I was smitten. I wanted to be in rock. I wanted to be Neil Young.”

But, Stroud says, he was aware of his own limitations, and focused instead on his strengths. “I knew I wasn’t a virtuoso, but I had a pretty strong command of writing words and song structure, and I thought ‘Hey, I’m poetic!’” His friends agreed. He remembers one in particular who, after reading his words remarked, “Hey, this is pretty cool.”

Pretty cool, indeed.

It was a time for trying things on for size: for dabbling, exploring different genres, instruments and other things that had nothing whatsoever to do with music, and everything to do with the fact that he was a teenager in the 70s.

And so, he says, he took none of the above very seriously, the result of a lack of guidance from faculty or family. “I had zero mentorship,” he explains. “If I had, I might have taken my music more seriously.”

But with no one to point him in the right direction, he “just listened a lot and drank, smoked pot and dreamed a lot.”

And yet he couldn’t help but notice that when he’d play his guitar, the girls took notice. Stroud laughs at the memory, “And I thought, ‘Oh, this can work’.”

Yet and still, had it not been for an invitation to play a couple of his original tunes at his graduation assembly, any interest in pursuing a music career might have ended then and there.

It was, to say the least, a life-changing moment.

“I had been afraid of public performance,” he says, “but for the first time in my life, with a guitar in my hand, all that went away. I got up on stage and played my two songs, and I got three standing ovations! And that was the first time I had gotten any sort of pat on the back ─ any kudos for performing. And I thought ‘I really like this’. And that began a lifelong love of the stage. I’ve never forgotten that moment.”

Stroud says that while there have been more than a few standing ovations over the years, none were as sweet as that day on that stage so long ago.

But, despite that rush, the teenager had yet to find the perfect outlet for his music, or the perfect instrument.

“I had to keep figuring things out,” he says, “and it took a long time. You make mistakes. You end up with regrets you didn’t need to have, and mine were due to immature laziness.”

He did manage to find his way to London, Ontario’s Fanshawe College, where he enrolled in a music industry arts program ─ one of the first of its kind. It was during this period that he gave up smoking and drugs, but, by his own admission, was still more interested in the opposite sex than he was in learning the ins and outs of the music business.

But that was about to change, for it was during his time at Fanshawe that he picked up a harmonica for the first time. And though he doesn’t remember a specific point in time, the fact is that he picked it up and never looked back.

“I never felt like I’d had the dexterity for finger work on strings or the piano,” he says. “I never felt I had the drummer’s rub-your-belly-pat-your head thing, but I always felt an attraction to mouth and reed instruments, and playing the harmonica came easily to me.”

As time went on, he continued to discover what he refers to as his “voice”, and as he did, his confidence grew.

Speaking in the past-tense now, he takes us back to that heady time:

“I’m starting to blow harp in college bands: Not bad! I wasn’t playing amplified, just playing into the mic, but there was a real freedom in dancing around the stage. I could never do that with the guitar.”

As time went on, he formed a band and started playing at local pubs.

“And now I was the lead singer and blowing harmonica, and so my boy/girl shyness in high school was gone. The harmonica gave me a way of standing out. None of the other bands had a harmonica player. And when there was a need for one in school, I got the call. And that was a good feeling.”

Back home in Toronto, he continued writing songs and playing around town with a David Bowie cover band called Diamond Dogs. “It was the early 80s and the era of clone bands,” he explains, a time when “nobody cared about the blues and blues/rock ─ or the harmonica. So, I put it away, and put my energies into playing the guitar and writing songs.”

By his early 20s, Stroud was a published songwriter, and putting his new skill-sets to work as a music video production manager. But, as time went on, he became more and more disenchanted with the artists and music of the day.

“I loved sweat and grit and live performance and the blues, and it wasn’t being appreciated. And I said, ‘I hate where music is going’, and I quit. I had no way of knowing that Stevie Ray Vaughan in blues and Pearl Jam in rock would revitalize the music I loved.”

The year was 1986. Broke, and looking for something that would light his fire, he set his musical dreams aside and began taking survival and primitive living courses.

“I was a late bloomer into the world of outdoor adventure,” he says, adding that survival was just one component of his foray into the sport, dog sledding and white-water canoeing being a couple of others. “I soaked up everything I could,” he recalls, “and doing those things makes you become fit, because you’re obviously very active.”

Stroud spent the next nine years taking courses ─ literally hundreds of them, in every aspect of the sport. And, over time, the student became a full-time wilderness instructor.

His work had taken him to the Northwest Territories and the town of Yellowknife, where his commitment to adventure had overshadowed any thoughts of a career in music. “I hadn’t touched the harmonica in years,” he admits. “I didn’t even own one anymore.”

And then, one day, he heard about a jam session that was about to take place at the Cave ─ or what he refers to as “the world’s most northerly blues club.” And, as the song goes, once again he felt that old feeling.

“I went to the store and bought a C harp,” he recalls, “and went to the jam. And I said, ‘Can I blow my harp?’, and someone said, ‘Sure man; no problem. What song?’ And I said, ‘Mustang Sally – in G.’ So, we started to do it, and from the first moment of starting to sing and play I thought ‘Wow, have I ever missed this.’ And that was it.

“I instantly threw myself back into music, playing and performing in the bars. And this time I didn’t give a rat’s ass about what the style of the day was; I just wanted to play blues. So, I started playing small gigs in northern Canada. And my chops on the harp came back kind of quick. And I started buying all kinds of blues tapes ─ Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton, Sonny Terry. I went to all the masters, especially Cotton and Paul Butterfield, and I was bitten with the blues harmonica bug again. And I kept at it, not only as a hobby, but I was getting three hundred dollars a weekend, and I remember thinking ‘People are digging the blues again. What’s this all about?’

“And my voice came back. And my harp blowing chops came back. And more than anything, I started building my harmonica chops. And it was fun.”

Les Stroud was 37 years old when music reentered his life, at a point where, as he put it, he felt both of his worlds collide. “I continued as an adventurer,” he says, “and began to film my adventures.”

Stroud’s first effort, the filming of a year-long expedition to the remote Wabakimi area of Ontario, would eventually morph into the award-winning documentary Snowshoes and Solitude. Other shorts would follow.

And then, in 2000, CBS cashed in on the hot new reality genre, with a show they dubbed Survivor. It was a ratings phenomenon, and still remains a cornerstone of the network’s programming. But, says Stroud, what the show put forth as ‘reality’ was anything but.

So, he went to the networks with an idea. What if we did a real reality show – a documentary series? No staging. No lights. No director. No camera crew. No teams or tactics other than those used to survive under the most extreme conditions? It would be a show that pitted one man against the elements, someone whose career had been devoted to acquiring, living, and teaching those skills. Someone who knew his way around a camera and the video production business. A man for all seasons and reasons. A man like himself.

The Discovery Channel agreed and signed him for a summer series, which led to a winter series, which led to the Survivorman series we know and love. Sixteen years later, fans can still get their Survivorman fix by tuning in to the Discovery Channel, Science Channel and the Outdoor Life Network, where the series continues to draw fans. New episodes are in the works. But more on that later.

Stroud recently returned from Sri Lanka, where he documented the emergency efforts put forth by Shelterbox, a UK disaster relief organization, after torrential rains caused massive flooding and landslides.

The success of the series gave the producer/star the freedom to incorporate some of his music into the show. “No one else was filming a show alone on TV,” he explains, “and so it gave me the license to do things I wanted to do. And I thought, ‘Why don’t I let the viewers know that I’m not a one-trick pony, that I’m not just a guy who teaches survival?’

“And so, I started bringing out the harmonica on the show as a little bit of comic relief. I’d pull out my harp and say, ‘I caught a fish, I’m going to play a happy song.’ When I had fungus on my feet I played ‘The fungus foot blues’. And the audience loved it.

“And the musicians picked up on that. And Johnny Lang was a fan. And he said, ‘I remember hearing you blow harp and thinking, ‘Wait a minute; this guy’s a real musician!’ And I wound up playing with him on stage.”

He would get many opportunities to play with artists he admired.

As the show gained popularity, the money got better, enabling Stroud to add to his collection of instruments and make some serious inroads in his music.

“The success of Survivorman lit my musical fire,” he says, adding, “Up until that point I blew for fun but, because I was starting to see finances trickle in, I thought I could put together a band and perform and make an album. I started writing again, playing on jam sessions, getting better on the harp, and recording independent CDs.”

It also gave him the chance to play with some of the music world’s biggest names. He remembers well the day he got a call to perform at a charity concert featuring Alice Cooper ─ one of his teenage idols. Says Stroud, “I’m as star struck as anybody, and I thought, ‘Who would have thought it?’”

Similar opportunities followed, adding to his credibility as a working musician. Over time, he found himself sharing the stage with Cooper and other major players, including Robbie Krieger of the Doors, Dave Mason, Slash from Guns and Roses, Journey and the late James Cotton.

Yet and still, Stroud continues to play down his way around a harp. “I’m not as good as a lot of players,” he says, “Brendan Power, Jason Ricci and Jay Gallant ─ they’re dialed in on harmonica.” So, rather than trying to be something he’s not, he says he concentrates on carving out his own style.

“I really like to mess up the sound and do a lot of crazy things with it,” he says, “so the purists aren’t going to like it. But I like to play the harmonica like a guitar and have that bravado ─ the swagger of the blues.

“A criticism I have of a lot of blues players is that they’ve forgotten about sexuality, swagger and sweat, and that’s what I like to bring out on stage. So, while I’m not as dexterous, and don’t have those kind of chops, I’ve got my own deal.”

And what a deal it is. Ask him and he’ll tell you that he sees his life as having come full circle, having returned to his musical roots, while enjoying the fruits of his adventurous nature. To point, two new albums produced by legendary producer Mike Clink.

And Stroud is far from done. His latest venture, SMTVNetwork.com, is up and running, giving him new and exciting ways to reach beyond the confines of stage and screen. The new online network is divided into a number of channels, each one featuring another side of his multiple talents and personalities.

As an example, Survivorman TV features re-mastered, fully up-to-date streamable versions of previously aired episodes, behind-the-scenes content, director’s commentary and additional footage that has never been seen before. New episodes dubbed Survivorman and Son featuring Stroud and his son, Logan, are in the works.

Another arm of the network ─ Envirofilms TV ─ gets its name from his environmental side, with films by Stroud and others, including Off The Grid, and the aforementioned Snowshoes and Solitude, while the network’s Music TV channel features his CDs, videos, concerts and performances, along with the much-anticipated Campfire Interviews, a series of one-on-ones with Stroud sharing the screen with other artists as they discuss their work, social and environmental causes and concerns.

Stroud says, that like Survivorman, the music he does is about connecting with nature.

It’s a lot to take in, but Mr. Stroud is loving every minute of it: writing, playing and recording his kind of music, sharing his love of adventure, the environment and meaningful conversation in one easily-accessible package. Subscribers are treated to new content every month, much of it based on their feedback.

Given all of the above, you can see where it’s hard, if not impossible, to pin a label on Les Stroud. Adventurer. Musician. Author. Songwriter. Producer. Editor. Environmentalist. Entrepreneur. He is all of these things and more. And, despite his hesitancy to toot his own horn, Les Stroud is one heck of a harp player.

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