Blues Is My Address or Working With the Language of The Blues: A Dialog with Progressive Preservationist Eric Bibb
“Brooding,” states Eric Bibb, describing the acoustic blues classic “Tupelo” as performed by John Lee Hooker.
“That’s Hooker most of the time,” I said. “But you really manage to walk that line. There is always an air of hope in your songs.” Balance; it’s a theme that runs throughout our conversation.
I’d been wanting to reach out to Bibb for some time. I’d been a rabid follower of his butterscotch voice and homespun-honey guitar since stumbling onto his version of the classic Hendrix ballad “Angel” about 9 years ago and diving headfirst into his substantial back catalog. Bibb has released a steady stream of music since his first record Rainbow People in 1977. On the surface, he fits nicely into the acoustic bluesman box alongside the likes of Keb’ Mo’ and Guy Davis, but Bibb is a decidedly more adventurous spirit. Whether taking a distinctly folk turn on his 2002 collaboration with his father Leon Bibb on A Family Affair, incorporating exotic ethnic instruments on 2004’s Friends or his heartfelt gospel on both 1994’s Spirit and The Blues and 2006’s 12 Gates To The City, Bibb’s voice rings gentle and clear across a wealth of diverse and challenging material. With Booker’s Guitar (released on January 26th through Telarc), Bibb is long overdue for the type of mainstream recognition received by artists’ like the aforementioned Keb’ Mo’.
Inspired by a chance meeting with the legendary steel guitar of Booker “Bukka” White (in and of itself a story made for blues lore), Booker’s Guitar is a stripped down, traditional style acoustic blues record in many respects. In December, I sat down with Bibb while he was at home in (of all places) Finland, and asked him about how he balances those traditional aspects with his clearly experimental nature.
Eric Bibb: I think that eclecticism is a really natural thing. It’s nothing I have to strive for.
J. Hayes: I know that you grew up around a lot of different music as well, with your uncle in the Modern Jazz Quartet. Your father was a performer, of course, your godfather being Paul Robeson… Your childhood was a pretty unique experience.
EB: The influence of that wonderful upbringing that I had has been incredibly deep. I realize how fortunate I was to be that close to this kind of epicenter of a huge movement that started probably way back in the forties. The folk music renaissance started then with people like Pete [Seeger] and Leadbelly and kind of went into the 60’s and evolved into the singer-songwriter thing that included a young Jerry Jeff Walker and Joni Mitchell. All the older guys who were rediscovered playing southern blues music were included under that umbrella. To actually realize how intimate my whole upbringing was, being close to not only the music but the actual players… Getting to meet Rev. Gary Davis, seeing Son House when I was 14 years old, meeting Dylan, Judy Collins, Odetta had a profound effect on me. I feel not only a gratefulness but a kind of obligation to let people know about it in song and just through talking about it. It was really seminal. As you say, the evolution and the indie music thing owes a debt to that whole era.
JH: It’s great watching your records evolve because, obviously, now you are involved with Telarc, but there is still very much an indie ethic in your music.
EB: That’s interesting to hear! Thanks. I’ve been fortunate to keep going and have a real hands on approach in my recording. I just follow my heart without having to deal with too much pressure from my label affiliations. Basically, I own my music and license to different partners in the world, Telarc being the major partner at the moment. It’s been working out well for me.
If owning his music represents a significant step forward for blues musicians, Bibb’s rigorous touring exemplifies his connection to the troubadour tradition of the bluesmen and women of yesteryear.
EB: For somebody that doesn’t have the traditional big machine behind them from year to year, season to season, I’ve been enjoying an appreciation in a wider circle. Word of mouth has always been very effective for me.
There will come a point where I’ll want to spend more time at home, but for the moment I’m enjoying a wave of popularity, so it seems right to keep on riding it. The traditional part of touring as a Blues musician (people have mentioned it in interviews as you have), [is] that I have basically become a modern, wandering troubadour. I actually find being a part of that very flattering, so as apposed to getting weary, I am still excited about the fact that that moniker applies…being connected to that tribe of Blues people.
JH: For all the tradition and preservation in your music, it is never at the expense of the expansion and adaptation, or (for that matter) eclecticism we were speaking about.
EB: It’s nice to hear you say that. [Growing up] I’d be listening to art songs in school, my uncle’s music, Pharaoh Sanders and Coltrane in my own time, The Band, Howlin’ Wolf…it was all at once. That’s the way it comes out on records. Recently I’ve tried to be a little more conscious that I have a presence in the acoustic blues world and certain expectations that come with that. I don’t want to alienate that balance but [I also happen] to be fiercely independent and not wanting to just fit into some convenient sort of box. As Keb’ Mo’ says, “Blues is my address in the record store,” but after that, I am basically a musician and I kinda follow my muse’s guide.
As time has gone on, I’ve found a way to be a composer and realize that I am also, as such, revisiting and reutilizing a lot of elements that are traditional. But because I’ve had my ears opened to other stuff, I’ve found a way to make that other stuff work with the language of the Blues. That’s what’s really been exciting.
JH: You can hear all of that in your music. For me, you are the prime example of what can be done with the Blues when you explore it from a respectful but not a purely preservationist perspective. No disrespect to him, but look at someone like Wynton Marsalis, for whom the preservation element seems to be so important. Sometimes I think it’s a little strange and limiting in the context of Jazz, which was and is really all about moving forward.
EB: Exactly. On the other hand, I think with Wynton, it’s a few things. One is coming from such a traditional background, but the other is being the sort of keeper of the flame. Things move so fast he’s probably thinking, “I need to keep people aware.”
JH: Yeah and we need those people too. Somehow you’ve seemed to do both. In terms of educating the listener, one thing I want to point out, because I think it’s important, is your naming the album Booker’s Guitar, not “Bukka’s Guitar”. Booker White never liked the nickname most of his records got stuck with. So, in naming the album Booker’s Guitar, you’re doing a number of things: righting a wrong and paying a respect to Booker, but also drawing the listener into the historical context of the record and creating a gateway to further investigation.
EB: Absolutely. It was just something that came along and I realized I had a role to play. I’ve kinda naturally been involved in letting people know about where I’m coming from and where they might want to go if they haven’t before. I’ve done it in a couple of songs [like] “Still Livin’ On;” mentioning, name dropping some of my heroes. So, I’ll keep going. It was nice to be able to make that correction for Booker as it were. I wanted to let people know that these guys were real guys. They might have had an almost cartoon-like identity in a certain era, because they were icons, because folks were mad about this music and they were tracking it down. It was the stuff of legend. But in the end, I really wanted to remind people that these were guys with a lot of dignity (if not a lot of formal education), a lot of wisdom and experience and they really needed to be respected after the fact…seen as full-blown men and women as apposed to just a page in a blues book.
Bibb has never shied away from more intellectual or socially conscious subject matter and it seems even more prevalent on this album. The title track, Booker’s Guitar is a tribute to the man that inspired the project, but “Flood Water” is a true stand out track and the spark of our conversation about John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo.” Indeed, Bibb has captured the same haunting romance on many of the tunes on Booker’s Guitar. With a million songs in the past few years about Hurricane Katrina, one might initially expect “Flood Water” to follow suit, but instead Bibb explores the similar (if not much less talked about) incident in 1927 New Orleans.
EB: I remembered talking to my elderly Aunt Addy about that flood when I was a kid. She was from Arkansas and she was talking about a flood in that era. I thought this was an event that was not only sung about but that just about all of the musicians that were in that delta area at that period must have been effected by in some way. So, I was thinking about Katrina and I said, “Let’s put it in some sort of historical perspective and talk about that there was sort of a fatalism about the way people had to live.” It could have been crop failure, or boll weevils or whatever. We think we’re in control of everything because of technology, but we’re still living in this huge system that we don’t control, though sometimes we influence it for the worse. I just want to put a kind of milieu around the music that has inspired so many of us. I wanted to put real places and people in the picture.
The emotive and otherworldly blues harp of Grant Dermody is featured throughout Booker’s Guitar but perhaps most prominently and beautifully on “Flood Water.” Dermody avoids blues harp cliches while creating a truly stirring and honest sound. Whereas on previous albums Bibb has teamed up with myriad collaborators, as the only other musician on the record, Dermody’s role is significant.
EB: I met Grant at a Blues festival at Telluride [Colorado]. I had a workshop and Grant was a part of that. There were a whole bunch of harmonica players in the room and his playing just stuck out to the point that I said, “Hey, when I do my main-stage thing if you’d like to join me on a couple songs at the end, I’d really be happy about that.” We just kind of hit it off musically and friendship-wise and stayed in touch. Originally, with the Booker’s Guitar album, in conversations with Telarc, we thought it would be interesting to just do a completely solo album. I started thinking [about] the whole harmonica-guitar thing, with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. It’s a sound that’s so closely associated with the tradition. As I was presenting new material, for the most part I really wanted it to be associated with that whole trove of traditional stuff. I thought, “Well, that element ‘the mississippi saxophone’ has got to come in there,” and he was my first thought.
He’s from Seattle and he’s had a chance to play and record with a number of wonderful older musicians, some who have passed over the years: John Jackson, John Cephas from Cephas and Wiggins was a friend. He’s just done a record that’s about to come out. It’s got John Cephas’ last recording.
JH: You’ve got a lot of odes to the older players on this record as well. “Tell Riley” is a classic story of the young B.B. King and, for those who buy the CD or download from iTunes, you’ve got some different bonus tracks which are also really beautiful: “Deep River” (Tribute to Odetta) and “Every Day’s Been Sunday to Me” which is sort of the ballad of DeFord Bailey, who is a forgotten hero of the Grand Ole Opry. There’s a really powerful line; “I never grew tall, but I stood proud/Proud as those times allowed.” The history is really important to you, as we’ve discussed, but you also write it really well which is not an easy thing to do.
EB: Well, thank you. It’s been so good to pass on the information in the form of a song, but the main thing is, I just want to let people know that these are stories of these real people who have really inspired me. Reading the story of people like DeFord Bailey and realizing that there is some relationship between his life and mine…I thank these guys for their stories and all of the juice they’ve given me creatively.
His bio is called De Ford Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music, put out by University of Tennessee [Knoxville], I believe. You know where I bought it? I was in Nashville and I was walking around in Ernest Tubb Record Shop, a great record shop for a lot of older stuff that’s hard to find. They have a book section and I just grabbed it.
JH: Speaking of books there’s a great track on the album called “Turning Pages” about your love of literature. In the spirit of “Turning Pages,” tell me about some books that I should check out. I know you like Walter Mosley. Who are some other favorites; authors or specific books?
EB: I mentioned in my liner notes a book that really inspired the song “One Soul To Save.” That was James McBride’s book Song Yet Sung. It’s a book about slaves on the east coast of Maryland. Basically the underground railroad story. It’s a lovely book.
Also, as I mentioned Moanin’ At Midnight, I thought Howlin’ Wolf’s story was just fantastic.
Another book… A great one that may be out of print [that] I would suggest to anybody is Willie “The Lion” Smith’s book… Let me get it…
A friend of Grant’s in Telluride invited us to his house after my second visit and I think he scattered some books on the floor of his entranceway, purposefully, wondering if I would notice certain things. But this is one of the books. It’s called Music On My Mind: The Memoirs of an American Pianist.
JH: And sort of a mythical figure really!
EB: Yeah, this guy was too much. Because it’s basically in his own words, it’s so informative. It’s essentially the whole history of stride piano and it’s antecedents. His pals were James P. Johnson and Fats Waller and he’s talking about the whole scene in Greenwich Village at the turn of the century. It was just amazing. He is hammering home the point that there is this misconception about where this music started, (you know…Chicago, New Orleans…) but there was this whole other school that was happening on the east coast that was not to be ignored. He says, “I really beg to differ with a lot of the historians.” And It’s from a very informed perspective.
JH: Getting back to Booker’s Guitar, there is just so much atmosphere on this record. There is space in the arrangements and production that speaks volumes. “Rocking Chair” is a great story song, love song, anti-love song–whatever you want to call it and the guitar part sits so perfectly in the sonic and thematic space of the album as a whole. But the imagery of making the rocking chair…there’s just something about an acoustic guitar and a rocking chair that fit, isn’t there? It’s like the silent accompaniment.
EB: That’s cool. Nicely put! I was really pleased with that song because musically it was something different and the guitar part was something I was really pleased with. It seemed to enhance the story. That kind of made-of-wood/wooden-music thing really does work with the story and this guys spending the time making a rocking chair is a nice visual.
JH: Your album 12 Gates To The City (released on Luna Records) in many ways feels complimentary to Booker’s Guitar, with it’s barebones soul. You recorded that completely in Banff in Alberta, Canada. As you’re touring and traveling so much, obviously, there’s a lot of opportunity for “field recording” or location recording to happen. In fact, on your record Spirit I Am, there’s the second disc that’s referred to as the “field recordings.” Along those lines, what type of effect does environment and atmosphere play for you when recording an album like this?
EB: It’s so beautiful. Luna Records is [run by] a friend of mine, Brian Luna, [who] took it upon himself to make that record [12 Gates To The City] with me. In this case it really had a lot to do with the way the album impacts the ear of the listener. Michael Bishop, the engineer, is a Grammy award winning sound engineer who worked with Stanley Clarke and other people. He’s really a true, dyed-in-the-wool audiophile with huge musicality and Telarc suggested Michael. It was a great call. Originally Michael had thought of some places in Louisiana, studios that he had worked in that were really “vibey” and would lend themselves to the music. He obviously knows that the environment can really effect the music in a positive way. So, we finally landed on this store in rural Ohio because it was really accessible from where they’re based in Ohio. So, we’re in this one room store, a general store that still had a lot of the artifacts on the shelves. Michael was in the basement with all his gear and I was on the main floor with Grant and basically a jungle of microphones. It had a resonance that really worked, but more than the sound, being around the tools and other stuff that was really of another era that was really the era that these songs are talking about…it really enhanced the experience of recording it.
With so much territory covered of a 30+ year recording career, Bibb seems even more excited about what he hasn’t done.
EB: I’m working again with my friend and musician Glen Scott who was involved in some of the other records, A Ship Called Love and Spirit I Am. We decided we were just going to follow our hearts musically. It’s an album that’s going to combine all of the elements: classic soul stuff, gospel stuff, world music sounds, there’ll be some strings. We are really just gonna take the top off, but in the end you’re thinking about marketing because you don’t want to throw people too much of a curve ball. But it’ll be more adventurous, musically, than ever before, because I feel like I’ve been able to say quite a few things on record that I wanted to. With Booker’s Guitar, it really put something to a restlessness about [how I] wanted to put my claim to that tradition. And even though the music is original, largely, I feel like I accomplished that. So, this next project will be more closely related to a record like What’s Going On.
Son House once said, “There ain’t but one kind of Blues, and that exists between a man and a woman.” But if Blues music began as a voice of the people, speaking of their stories, pains, loves, and dreams and went on calling out across the generations, continents and color spectrum, it’s fitting that in the global community we live in today, Bibb would best serve and preserve the music by allowing it to embrace all that he is and loves; all that people experience now. As our world grows bigger and smaller simultaneously, there will be no shortage of new stories to tell for those like Eric Bibb who…
Live Well & Listen Closely,
read more articles by music writer J. Hayes at: http://www.examiner.com/x-4161-New-American-Music-Examiner
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images courtesy of Telarc Records
special thanks to Mike at Concord/Telarc Records and my editor Kellee Webb.