Acoustic blues favorite Eric Bibb joined us for “Concerts and Conversations” in collaboration with AMP Concerts recorded live at the Outpost Performance Space in Albuquerque. Eric talked in depth about his creative process, his choices, and what makes the blues such a timeless and compelling expression.
Viv: So, to start things off, and I think everybody has read bios and read about your travels, read about where you’ve come from, but we’d like to re-visit that in your words, because there’s also something new and fresh. There’s always the press and then there’s always the story. So, if you would tell us a little about where you come from, Eric, and where you’ve been.
Eric: Well, born and raised in New York City. First in Queens so I grew up with grass and trees and basketball and bicycles and that stuff. By the time I got to high school, which was the high school of music and art, my parents decided to move to Manhattan, which was great because I was just about outgrowing the stuff that was happening in Queens. All of the sudden, this whole new world, Manhattan, opened up to me. I’d had a chance to make forays into Greenwich Village from age 11. I would pack up my guitar on Sundays and, on my own, my parents let me travel to Greenwich Village to Washington Square Park for the great hootenannies that took place weekly there. One and a half hours on the subway landed me in the village. There I was surrounded by banjo players and guitar players and mandolin players and harmonica players and steel pan players and it was thrilling for me. It was thrilling for me to have that world so accessible. My dad, wonderful singer, Leon Bibb, 89 years old, still singing like an angel, was really my portal to this wonderful world that I inhabit. My dad came to New York from Louisville, Kentucky and wanted to sing. He wanted to sing on Broadway stages. He went to all the auditions he could, found that he was more or less confined to the chorus roles and it frustrated him so he decided to create his own repertoire based on music that he had grown up with: folk songs, work songs that he heard growing up in Louisville. He became a part of the New York folk city boom that included his contemporaries like Odetta and Pete Seeger and Josh White. All of these people became not only heroes on vinyl and people I could see in concert, but also people that, through my dad, I got a chance to meet and befriend. I feel like I had a really blessed upbringing in the world of music because, in addition to all of that, my mother’s brother, my mom from Albuquerque and her brother as well, the wonderful John Lewis. The late great John Lewis from the Modern Jazz Quartet. I was surrounded by musicians and great music and people who were socially very active in trying to make the world a better place. All kinds of political discussions and arguments were kind of a part of my upbringing. Paul Robeson was my godfather. It sounds crazy, but my parents really just came me the whole full Monty. They said, “Alright, we’re going to surround you with loving humanitarians and beautiful musicians.” That’s how I came up.
Viv: It’s still sinking in that Paul Robeson was your godfather. That’s an amazing world to live in as your natural habitat.
Eric: Indeed. I was aware of it then but, of course, I became more and more and more aware of it as I grew up and realized who these people were in a larger context. They were not just my relatives, but they were people who people around the world were aware of and who played a big role in shaping that era.
Viv: Well to paraphrase a line from one of your songs, there you were, at the corner of culture and clash, and you split, in 1969 when the scene was really taking a turn and exploding in a whole new way. You went to Paris.
Eric: I left my studies, my beginning fledgling studies, at Columbia University for another life. I felt out of place at that university. I felt that the world was coming apart at the seams. That little enclave up in the Upper Westside of Manhattan seemed like another world that didn’t really have much relevance to what was going on in my mind and in my heart. The wonderful feeling of hopefulness and togetherness and forward motion socially that was a big part of my upbringing started to disintegrate. It started to fracture into all kinds of factions that were being quite unkind to each other. I felt that former allies in all kinds of movements, whether it was the Civil Rights movements or the anti-Vietnam war movements, allies friend’s former friends started to become almost enemies. It really tore me apart because my whole world was based on that kind of coming together. So I took my guitar and I lit out for Europe. I had the great good fortune of meeting many musicians in Paris, but the one musician who really played a huge role in my future direction was the great guitarist Mickey Baker. Mickey Baker hailed from my dad’s hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, and I was aware of him as a jazz guitarist icon, teacher. Also, I knew him from the pop charts with Mickey and Sylvia. He wrote songs like “Love is Strange”. He’s just a wonderful, wonderful musician and a great human being who took me under his wing. Just briefly, I’ll tell you one little story about Mickey. I came to see him in his Paris apartment and he said, “Ok, I want you to sit in this room, with this tape recorder in this tape, and don’t come out until you listen to it through.” I said, “Ok” and I looked at the tape and it was Robert Johnson, king of the delta blues. I had heard Robert Johnson before, but I wasn’t really that aware of his genius until that day. I came out after listening to it and I said to Mickey, “Mickey, tell me that there’s two guitar players playing. Please.” He said, “No, that’s one guy and I want you to go back and listen to it again.” That put me on a road that led through a lot of the pre-war country blues sounds that were a huge inspiration for me and influenced my writing later and my playing. So I have a wonderful feeling of gratitude for Mickey Baker and his leading me in a way.
Viv: While you were also there (Paris), you discovered world music in a way. This is something that on Art of the Song we refer to as “global roots music”. The phrase that we’ve heard, or the name we’ve heard, is American Roots music, doesn’t seem fair somehow. That we really can’t claim in because it is a global root. A lot of your early albums have these intense arrangements that feature a lot of the stuff that you have learned there plus with jazz and the influences from all over the world, can you talk a little about that and how that shaped your creative voice?
Eric: Growing up in that great folk music world of the late ’50’s and ’60’s, what was really the beginning of a world music type of awareness starting the with steel pan players, starting with people like Olatunji. Other musicians from other parts of the world who were also included in that great genre called folk music. I was aware of sounds from around the world for quite early on. I remember from about age fourteen, I had an incredible experience. A friend of mine brought back a yellow disc, a vinyl disc, like the sun. It was see-through yellow and he brought it from the African pavilion at the World’s Fair. What I heard on that record was Kora music for the first time. I think it was from Guinea. I had this amazing experience because I felt like I knew it. I felt like it was something that had gotten lost, but there was a part of who I was. I’ve been following Kora since. I remember I was very excited a few years later that I heard a record of Kora duets from Mali and it was Toumani’s father who was playing, one of the Kora players. I was so excited, I wrote a letter to Taj Mahal and I said, “Taj, you got to hear this record.” He was aware of Kora music, but he hadn’t heard that record, and this was a seminal record. He taped it and he took it on vacation to Mexico. He was driving around in Mexico listening to Mali and Kora duets. We had this Kora brotherhood thing going on since then. That was quite some years ago. Then some years later, Taj then did the record with Toumani and company called…um…that wonderful record. Kolonje. It’s just wonderful to feel that there is a pattern, a design to our lives and our musical journeys. They are moments when you feel like you’ve seen the future and you don’t realize it until later. That was one of those kinds of moments. In Paris, and later in Stockholm, to answer your question more specifically, Vivian, I met musicians from South America, from Africa, from Eastern Europe and Stockholm at that point when I moved from Paris to Stockholm, was a real melting pot of wonderful cultures. I was able to experiment because I didn’t have a career as such at that point. I was still finding my way into the professional world of music-making. I had great freedom in being able to experiment. I had a group that featured a flamenco singer from Southern Spain, a Kora player from Gambia, a great saxophonist from Oregon. It just went on and on. I really had a wonderful palate to work with and experiment with.
Viv: It seems that blues and jazz really found a home in Europe. Can you a little about why that might be and why it was able to take off so there and why that musical palate was available in a different way then it was here?
Eric: I think that’s a book in several volumes. One of the things that I’ve become really clearly aware of is that, for all of it’s rich, deep music, and rich, deep folks that make it and listen to it here in the States, we are still haunted by the ghost of slavery. We still have huge wagonloads of baggage that we drag around that prevent us from really appreciating who we really are and who we’ve been culturally. It’s a funny phenomenon, but it really almost deafens us because, when you’re in another context, and you hear the same music without the surrounding traumatic/dramatic energy associated with conflict and segregation and racism, you realize what a miracle it is that this incredible music, and I’m not only talking about the directly African-American music, I’m talking about the whole of American music which involved immigrants redefining themselves in their music in the new world. That beautiful music is so surrounded and such a part of the history that we hear it through that filter and we’re uncomfortable because our history is uncomfortable and we haven’t really resolved it. We could hear an incredible singer from the Mississippi delta, we could hear an incredible fiddler from Appalachia, and more often then not, we’re going to immediately do a kind of free association and there will be other feelings that come into the mix that influence the way we hear that music. In Europe, having their own dramatic/traumatic cruel history as well (let’s be real), it’s not exactly that. So their feeling for the new African music that came from the States was not so shrouded in conflict, so they could hear this marvelous music and not necessarily need to block it out with defensive feelings because their comfort zone wasn’t threatened. So there was this great appreciation for African-American music, jazz particularly, in places like France. All of Europe, really. I think when you realize that the whole culture in Europe, let’s take France for a good example, when you realize that there are people who are aware of the music and the musicians who are aware of it not as a marginalized side-bar, but they’re aware of it as music that was celebrated in their mainstream, whether it was Louis Armstrong, or Rosetta Tharpe, or any number of musicians who came over early to Europe, even people like Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, they were certainly more well-known in the mainstream culture than they were in the States. It created a whole other feeling for appreciation. You would find posters of these musicians in a restaurant, not necessarily a jazz cafe, but you’d find photographs of jazz musicians much more prominently displayed across the culture and that was really encouraging to actually find that this music was revered in that part of the world.
Viv: You’ve spoken about how that history really cloud and filters the way we hear, and that things had kind of fallen apart and were getting really factionalized and difficult, even within all of this great desire for peace and understanding. Do you think it’s possible to sing a culture of peace into existence? You think it’s possible for music to bridge that gap?
Eric: I think it’s happening as we speak and I think it’s been happening. It’s accelerating now. I think the technological tools that we have at our exposal are making it easier to do this in a very effective way globally and it’s wonderful. I think of all the people, like myself, who grew up listening to people like Paul Robson or Pete Seeger, who were basically carrying a message that was of course encoded by Martin Luther King. It’s wonderful to be talking about this on the day that we celebrate him specifically, but I think we’ve been singing it into existence for decades. I think it’s just become more apparent in a larger frame.
Viv: In this recent album, Booker’s Guitar, it’s dripped-down, paired-down, and beautifully simple. I read that it was very difficult, that simplicity, and that authenticity was actually a big challenge to achieve. Why is that that something so simple-sounding to our ear could actually be quite challenging to manifest?
Eric: To do justice to this music (and let’s call it early African American folk music which includes blues, of course, in a big way, all of the music whether it’s spiritual or secular), but that moan that became accompanied by a guitar player or a harmonica, that essential music that’s at the core of this genre, is something so truthful born of such troubling circumstances that it can only be seen really, ultimately, as a survival tool that was the product of people’s courage and their spirituality. To me, this music is bigger than just entertainment or what you would do to pass away the time. This music, to me, is essentially what kept the whole tribe flourishing. Not only did it serve that function, but it also became a call to the rest of the communities around the world even. This is what’s amazing: that the music of a group of people in a very dire situation at a certain time in history became a gift to everyone that united people for decades to come and will continue to do that. I can’t tell you how many blues players or gospel singers there are in places like Finland or Poland or the Philippines. It’s just amazing how this music has made itself the collective sound that everybody wants to sing and play. That’s a kind of cosmic joke. It’s like that beautiful cosmic revenge that gives you such hope. So, for me, taking on that role of passing on being a part of something as deep as that is a great responsibility that I never took lightly but I also wanted to enjoy what I was doing. For that, I had to spend the amount of time that it took to get to where I am, to make a record as naked as that and to feel that I had done what I was supposed to do with it. That’s only something that I think comes when you know you’re ready. You do it. So I did it. At this point in my career, because I finally felt really ready to make a statement that focused and that specifically related to that wonderful music that’s inspired me. I also have to say that guitar, vocal, and harmonica, that whole triad is something so deeply a part of the culture that I was waiting for the player, the harmonica player, and I’ve known some great ones, but in meeting Grant, I really knew that I had found somebody with that same reverence, that same feeling for the soul of the music, beyond technique, which he has loads of, but that’s not the point. The point was that when I heard Grant, I heard somebody who felt like he was a true mantle-bearer of this music. So I felt like, “Yeah, you’ve been given everything you need, you’ve spent the time doing it, and now is the time to make that record.” And we made it.
Viv: Just reflecting on what you were talking about: the form. To the naked eye, it’s the twelve-bar blues, it’s relatively simple to follow, to remember, but at the same time it’s very complex in the interpretation. Then this new spirituality that’s on top of the old form.
Eric: Again, a book in several volumes, but a just a page or two on that. I thought the big job, the big responsibility, the personal calling for me was letting people know that I was a part of a lineage and letting them know also that I valued my own experience in the same way that my heroes, whether it be Robert Johnson or Son House or Memphis Minnie, all of those people were in their time or in their place. Very present. Probably not at all aware that their music would reverberate for as long and as beautifully as it’s doing so. They were in their time and place singing of their own experiences. Therefore, there was certain core honesty about what they were doing. They were entertainers; obviously, they knew what worked and what didn’t work. But, at the center of their music, of all of this music, was somebody telling their story. The trick was to tell my story but also connect it to their story, because I certainly felt a connection. There was reason why of all the musics that I’ve been exposed to, and it’s confounded to a degree by my parents, but my experience was certainly not that of a sharecropper in the deep south. As I said, I grew up in Queens in a very privileged zone culturally and was exposed to a lot of things. I traveled to Europe when I was twelve. I had a thirteenth birthday in Kiev. This is something a little apart from what many of my heroes grew up experiences. Nonetheless, I felt from a very early age this very strong link, this connection. I felt that part of what they were singing and the way they were singing it was part of my voice and part of who I was. So, finding a way to talk about who I am and why I’m connected to that was a big part of what I’ve been working on. The spirituality element, which is really what it is, it’s all about that. To me, when you feel linked to something it’s because you’re acknowledging some common spirituality because you’re acknowledging, whatever words you use to describe it, you’re acknowledging a oneness. You’re acknowledging a negation of separateness. A song like “With My Maker, I Am One” was a song where I really saw an opportunity to bring a couple of things together. For one thing, I wanted to really claim my position on the whole blues/spiritual dichotomy. The blues considered, in some circles, the devil’s music. That never worked for me. I don’t know what that even means. I can really understand that in the communities that gave us this music that the guys that were juke-joint denizens and who basically lived on moonshine and gambling were not necessarily the role models that the community was looking for. I understand why parents would warn their young sons to stay away from guys like that. I understand how vital and wonderful the role of the church was in those communities, keeping people together and keeping them focused on positive things and not falling into destructive despair. All of that I understand, but most of my heroes played church music and played blues as well. I never saw that as separate music. So, with that song, “With My Maker I Am One”, I wanted to let people know that I feel like I am that juke joint stomper, and I am that holy roller too. I think that it’s time to claim that and not be intimidated by what other people might think of you if you claim that you are a juke joint stomper and a holy roller at the same time. That’s what this record was really about, letting people know that I was connected to something and that it was like a river and it was in the present, moving through my life in the present tense and not just a museum piece.
Viv: I have one more question. A lot of people think that creative expression is for people who are born under the songwriting star or the theater star or the visual artist star, the dancer star, some kind of creative arts. Could you offer up a piece of wisdom, or just a thought, for someone who’s still laboring under that thought that there’s something between us and our creativity: there are them that have it and them that don’t.
Eric: Yeah, I think there’s a singer in all of us. I really do believe that. I know it. It’s funny when you are growing up in a culture that tends to encourage and maybe even over-encourage the gifted and neglect the less-experienced. That’s kind of really whack. It’s like the people who need the most encouragement are the shy receding types who don’t dare ask for a solo in the choir. I think it’s the responsibility of the gifted, the ones who have been encouraged a lot, to spread that encouragement to others. I think that’s really where it could really change. We’re all teachers and we’re all students. There’s nothing more thrilling than actually discovering a young person who, never mind if they’re talented as such, but who has a desire to do something, if you can get to them before all of those naysayers have pushed them too far down. I think we need to just find a way to encourage young people to reach for not only what they thing they are good at but maybe to explore things that they’re not really sure about, that they might not even be aware of their own talent in that area. Each one, teach one.
Viv: Eric Bibb, thank you so much for joining us on Art of the Song on Concerts and Conversation.
Eric: Thank you. Thank you, Vivian.