Otis Taylor Brings His Trance-Blues to Long Beach Bayou Festival
Otis Taylor is melodic and hypnotic, making trance-like music that awakens those who listen with open ears and soul, to sadness and joy, loss and gain, all that cuts to the deepest musical bone of his and our ancestry. His people have been enslaved and freed, beaten, broken and triumphed in the way of the underground that runs through the bloodstream of our culture, in its most influential places — its music, the voices of the forgotten, the disenfranchised, the redeemed. When he sings, “My World is Gone,” he’s speaking to the experience of native Americans, but he’s also singing to the oppressed in his own bloodline — the uncle who was murdered, segregated masses — and, ultimately, he’s singing to us all. After all, those who have been the oppressor also lose something significant in themselves, and the entire world is lost.
But, it’s in his songs, his trance of music and light that returns us to ourselves. So, for Otis Taylor, on his 2013 album with native American guitar great Mato Nanji (Indigenous), who inspired the title track, My World is Gone, we hear the voices of lost Native American cultures over the last 200 years.
The album, like Taylor’s previous work, is an act of painful but creative healing, conjuring up images of injustice from within as well as outside the indigenous world of the Native American experience. He takes us through a blues journey in the most original and authentic ways possible. Some of this involves his flourishes of delta blues and urban jazz, as though John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis met for a summit near the Mississippi River. He is brilliant in his fearless originality.
Along with his songwriting, which is engaging and ethereal, it’s his use of traditional country and bluegrass instruments like the banjo, that helps to give him his edge. The banjo, on the song “Sandy Creek,” isn’t there for show or entertainment; rather it calls up the intensity of the scene he creates as the Cheyenne and Arapaho are slaughtered. In his hands, the banjo becomes intense and haunting.
Originally, his first instrument when he was growing up in Colorado, Taylor forsook the banjo after one of the Dillards recommended he take his banjo playing down South in ’65, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, he says, “I realized the South he was talking about was where I could get lynched if I showed up. So, I asked myself, ‘Why am I playing this?’ I just played guitar after that for quite a while.”
Later, he picked up the banjo again, when he learned that the instrument originated in West Africa and had been taken over by white entertainers during the minstrel show days, when painted black-faced musicians adopted the instrument. Eventually, as he adapted the instrument to his own sound and writing, he released his masterpiece of roots music, Re-Capturing the Banjo, in 2008. For that project, he brought together musicians like Alvin Younblood Heart, Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Don Vappie and Keb’ Mo’ for a song cycle that accomplishes the album title. From the opening track, “Ran So Hard the Sun Went Down,” to each succeeding song, there is a drive and relentless passion to each performance. The live-in-studio feel of the record is raw and exhilarating. In true Otis Taylor fashion, the past is brought to the present in a way that is engaging, urgent and so authentic, it haunts after each listening.
When asked, in the light of his musical journey and considerable contributions, how he defines Americana music, Taylor shrugged a bit and said, “I don’t really like the term ‘Americana.’ I prefer roots music. When I hear people talk about Americana, they’re usually referring to white people doing alternative country music… When a songwriter is white, he’s called a singer-songwriter. When he’s black, he’s called blues.” He shrugged and then laughed, “Don’t get me started on that!”
This conclusion is hard to argue with, considering that an artist like Taylor — one of the most original, innovative, and inspired artists today — isn’t recognized by Americana music culture in terms of honors, awards, and sales. At least the race-based type-casting Taylor refers to has not been supported by No Depression, where he has received a great deal of ‘ink’ over the years.
As he began, Taylor will continue to be heard as his legend will continue to grow. His music runs strong in today’s current of Great American Music that broadens its banks, as he allows the songs and his performance speak for themselves. That flow will continue, as the themes he writes about have continued and cannot be silenced, even though it seems they may be gone. The stream of music meets us at every turn and reminds us we cannot limit or lose music or artists as good as this — they will be heard. The stories will continue to be told as Otis Taylor has been telling them, or else our world truly will be gone.
Otis Taylor is making a rare Southern California appearance headlining the 28th annual Long Beach Bayou Festival on June 22nd. The festival runs on June 21 and 22. This article is based on my recent interview with him.