They hung him on a cross…for me.
The Welcome Wagon takes up Leadbelly’s lyric, “He never said a mumblin’ word.”
The Welcome Wagon takes up Leadbelly’s lyric, “He never said a mumblin’ word.”
Janiva Magness has recently released Love is An Army, her 14th album. She’s a highly accomplished artist, honoured with seven awards in the last 6 years by The Blues Foundation of Memphis, including B.B. King Entertainer of the Year and Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year. She was also nominated for a Grammy for her last album, Love Wins Again.
As well as being a talented songwriter, outstanding singer and hard-working performing artist, Janiva has served passionately as Ambassador for both Foster Care Alumni and Child Welfare League of America for many years, standing up for young people, having herself overcome much adversity earlier in life.
Love Is an Army has twelve hugely enjoyable songs which tap into a deep well of both Americana and Memphis soul. She is joined by a number of guest luminaries, such as Charlie Musselwhite, Delbert McClinton, Texas singer-songwriter Bryan Stephens, Poco frontman Rusty Young, Mississippi hill-country blues artist Cedric Burnside, and bluegrass guitar and banjo virtuoso Courtney Hartman. These are stirring songs of protest, empowerment and hope which will capture your soul and move your feet.
Down at the Crossroads caught up with Janiva prior to an extensive tour of the United States.
DATC: Janiva, congratulations on the new album. It’s very upbeat, it’s very inspirational and it’s already had very fine reviews. What was the impetus behind the album?
Janiva: I’m very glad you connect with the music. My producer, Dave, and I wanted to make a record that was very current, not just sonically current, but topically current. And we had quite a sense of urgency about it. There is so much stress in the world these days, there is so much, upset, anger, pain. In a global way. And we really wanted to speak to that. And do everything we could to encourage and inspire people to stand up and speak up, and for change. Because clearly – clearly great change is needed.
But the older we get the more we realize that change begins at home. The revolution begins at home. You know I’m old enough to have seen this before. It feels a little bit, in many ways, like 1968. And so we wanted to speak to that. And that’s really what the palette of the music was aimed towards.
DATC: And I saw that you said that you thought the album might be a challenge for some of your fans. Why do you say that?
Janiva: Because in the world of blues – contemporary or traditional – in the world of roots music, there’s a lot of love and affection for the tradition. And I think that this album contains some of that. But its pushing out further. And I think if you were to look at the arc of my recording career, if you were to listen to each album back to back, you would find a continuum. I have never wanted to make the same album twice.
There is a big shift in the sonics of the album. Some of the instrumentation in there some of the traditional blues people might absolutely love – or might absolutely be upset by! And there is also an element of empowerment that upsets people.
Just yesterday on social media, I got called out by one of my fans for posting too much political stuff.
DATC: Oh dear!
Janiva: I’ve never been the person, the woman, who has gone quietly into the night! And I have no intention of beginning that now.
DATC: Good for you!
Janiva: Yeah, I was getting called out – “I love your music, you have an amazing voice, one of the best voices in the blues today, but you’re upsetting me by putting all these posts about people asking in this county about gun control. Stop it!”
DATC: Yeah, well, in looking at this album you’ve already been quite outspoken about that. If you read the lyrics to Love to a Gunfight – which incidentally is a wonderful song – in the light of recent events that’s hugely topical – you say “now is not the time to pray” You know, thoughts and prayers and all that – it’s the time for action and not simply platitudes.
Janiva: I believe this to my soul. These are not just things I say, or – what’s going to be the popular thing, let’s see if I can catch a wave? The place that I come from and have always come from is to stand up and speak out. And be accountable. Accountability as a human being; accountability as a neighbourhood; as a state, as a nation. Wait – how about accountability as the human race?
So clearly that person who was calling me out on social media has not heard the new record. I’m not the shut up and sing type!
DATC: You’ve talked about the loss of kindness and respect for each other and how upset you are about that. We see that, clearly, in American politics – but is it the same more generally, do you think?
Janiva: Absolutely. A lack of consideration of other human beings. A lack of basic fundamental kindness. Please and thank you – where did that go? Where did respect for the older generation go? Where did the basic fundamental capacity to listen to someone else go? Because we don’t listen any more.
And that is global in my experience; it isn’t just the United States or the UK – it isn’t just anywhere. It’s all of us. And I am saddened by that and I think it has a great deal to do with the state of affairs we are collectively in. Add in the level of greed to that and it’s quite ugly.
DATC: The good thing about this album though, is you don’t dwell on the problem too much – you move pretty swiftly to the answer. Your album asks: But what if love was in charge and calling the shots? So, I suppose my question is, how possible do you think that is? People seem so entrenched in their mindsets; hemmed in by the social media they subscribe to – can we get to the place where love is in charge?
Janiva: I absolutely believe we can. I’ve seen such magnificent transformations in people as individuals; I’ve seen transformations in communities; I’ve seen absolute miraculous transformations in…myself. So – how is it not possible?
But – there is a caveat. My experience says I have to be willing. Change is always closer than I think it is. It’s more within reach than I imagine. But I have to be willing. And that means there needs to be a burning to change. There can be so much fear. Fear is such a negative force. It’s cruel. And yet, it’s part of the human condition. So, what do we do about that? I have to be willing to face these things. And move beyond them. My mind tells me it’s a great brick wall, but my experience is that it’s simply a veil. Every time I have faced these fears, it’s a veil, not a brick wall. I practice a lot of yoga and they say the mind is a monkey [i.e. unsettled, restless] and I can’t disagree with that.
DATC: You’ve said you believe in the power of helping others. That love is an action. That reminds me of John Mayer’s song – Love is a Verb; or St John, who a long time ago said, “if you see your needy brother or sister and you look the other way, you know nothing about love.” So, fs that’s what it’s about, if love is an action, what would you like to see happening? What do we need to do?
Janiva: Along the lives of it begins with us; it begins with us, it begins at home. Helping someone who is in need. It begins there. Do it. Do something every day to help someone else.
DATC: “Swing the hammer every single day …and watch the walls come down”
Janiva; Yeah, pretty much! So what is that – is it carrying someone’s groceries? Helping an elderly person across the street? Is that taking a meal to someone, feeding someone? Does that mean going and volunteering for an hour or two? Does that mean canvassing locally to get the news out about some current legislation that is on the chopping block or is about to be passed, that is harmful, or that is helpful? Or about going out and helping people register to vote? To engage with our neighbour, our community. And by the way – do something kind and tell no one. Just do it.
That was something I learned long ago and it has been a profound practice.
DATC: It reminds me of a YouTube video I’ve seen of Bob Dylan, it’s called the Holiday Blues. And in his own inimitable fashion, with that laconic drawl of his, he asks, “what’s the cure for the holiday blues?” And he says, just go out and do something for somebody, volunteer in a soup kitchen, whatever, and you’ll soon find your blues go away.
Janiva: It’s a funny thing, but it works. It seems almost too simple.
DATC: I really like that song Hammer where you sing “Just got to swing the hammer every single day …and watch the walls come down”. Charlie Musselwhite is fantastic on this. And you’ve got some other great contributors on the album.
Janiva: I’m very excited about this. Very few of my albums have had special guests, but we decided to just take the gloves off on this one and just go for it. And I was very, very grateful that we got yeses from the people that we asked that ended up appearing. I’m very grateful that it worked out.
DATC: And how would you characterize the style of the album? Some have said it sounds like Memphis R&B, or soul, and one reviewer wanted to term it Americana-Soul, which I think is quite interesting. How would you characterize it?
Janiva: I would say Americana Soul covers it. Because the definition of Americana as a genre encompasses elements of several different kinds of American roots music. So it encompasses folk music, blues and also soul music. It encompasses elements of early or traditional country music. And so I think Americana Soul is a pretty accurate place to put it.
DATC: It’s very listenable. I think people from various backgrounds and tastes will find something to really like in this.
Janiva: I hope so. My digits are crossed!
DATC: Let me ask you this: Yesterday was International Women’s Day. What has it been like for you, as a woman, building your career in this industry?
Janiva: It’s been a tremendous amount of hard work. I’m grateful that I have a very strong work ethic. If you are pushing on the idea that women have a different experience than men in business, I can absolutely speak to that, of course I think that that’s true.
I do not believe that it is the case that men have an easier time than women, overall. I do believe it is difficult for men on different levels. But the fact that there are certain disadvantages because I have different plumbing than you – that’s real. That’s not based on skill, or ability, it’s certainly not based on talent, so those prejudices are based on some very old distorted thinking and philosophy.
And I have to raise my hand on the #metoo movement. So, it’s been very real; it’s been part of the experience. I have absolutely dealt with sexual harassment my entire life. I’m a woman in the world. Anyone who is surprised by that is either not paying attention or is on some level some kind of perpetrator.
Now, it took me quite some time as a young woman in business of music to understand that these prejudices that exist in the business world and in the world at large – it’s really not my problem. If someone sees me as worth less, that’s not my problem, it’s theirs. I get to make a decision whether or not to endorse that perspective. The song Hammer speaks to it: when they tell you “you’re too black, too white, too blues – they’re just words.” Now those can be hurtful. But I have to make a decision. Whose problem is that? Am I going to take that on, am I going to carry that prejudice? – “yes, I’m not worth as much because I’m a woman, or I’m not worth as much because I’m not a white blues artist” – who’s problem is that?
That’s not my problem. I’ll leave that with the person that brought it into the room. Take it with you when you leave. I’m not taking that. Now that needs some discipline. And there are some days – well I’m an artist and some days I’m going to question myself, I’m a human being. But this is not my problem, it’s their problem.
We fight it. I stand up to it all the time, it’s very real.
DATC: Janiva, you’re touring the US during March and April?
Janiva: And May, June, July and August! It’s looking to be a good year and I’m grateful for that. But I definitely want to come over to Europe in October – November. So digits crossed.
DATC: Janiva, great to talk to you, thank you so much.
I stood beside the Blues Trail Marker for the sharecropper’s shack that Muddy Waters grew up in, in what was Stovall’s Plantation just outside Clarksdale, and gazed over the landscape. The vast fields were ploughed but unplanted, the alluvial soil brown and fertile. The sun was low in the sky but shone brightly against the bluest sky imaginable. And it was cold – a dry, bitter cold that chilled your bones.
But it was strangely warming to have reached this point in our blues pilgrimage. It was here in 1941 that Alan Lomax found McKinley Morganfield and recorded his Burr Clover Blues, a song he’d written at the request of Colonel Stovall, who six years previously had invented the burr clover seed harvester. Muddy Waters’s house also served as a juke joint where Waters entertained field hands. Waters left the plantation in May 1943 after the plantation overseer refused his request for a raise from 22 and a half cents to 25 cents an hour. The rest, of course, is history, Muddy going on to become a preeminent Chicago blues artist and a musical inspiration to subsequent generations of blues and rock musicians.
If you head on out past the famous Crossroads at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, you’ll soon come to the Shack Up Inn, on the site of Hopson Plantation. In 1928, this plantation had over 3,500 acres and was farmed by black sharecroppers and mules, working from 4.30am until 6 in the evening. You can get a sense of plantation life here, as you wander round the sharecropper shacks, with their tin roofs and Mississippi cedar walls (now available as (basic) hotel accommodation), the original cotton gin and seed houses and other outbuildings. I was taken by the old rusting vehicles, including old cars, a tractor and a derelict fire truck. An ancient railway line runs through into the distance, giving a further sense of timelessness to the place. As does the Bottle Tree, with its host of blue bottles, traditionally used to ward off evil from the family home.
The sense of poverty exuded by the sharecroppers’ shacks was very tangible and striking. Sharecropping was a system that came to dominate agriculture across the cotton-planting South from the end of the nineteenth century. Black families would rent small plots of land from white landowners, to work themselves. Often, the landlords or nearby merchants would lease equipment to the renters, and offer seed, fertilizer, food, and other items on credit until the harvest season. At the end of the year, tenant and landlord would settle up, often with the sharecroppers owing more to the landowner than they were able to repay with the sale of their crops. It was an exploitative system that resulted in debt and poverty from which the sharecropper found it difficult to escape. It was out of this situation that the blues began to emerge in the early part of the twentieth century and it’s no surprise that many of those we now consider blues legends worked the land themselves.
If you go to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale itself, you’ll see Muddy Waters’ shack reassembled inside, a kind of shrine to perhaps Clarksdale’s most famous son. Not that Muddy was the only legendary blues artist from round these parts – born and raised nearby were John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Junior Parker, and W. C. Handy. In addition, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Charley Patton are all associated with the town, stopping by in their constant traveling. All of this history is preserved and these artists celebrated in the Museum, which makes for an excellent visit.
Talking of blues museums, on the way down from Memphis, we’d stopped at the Tunica Gateway to the Blues Visitor Centre and Museum. Set in an old, refurbished train depot, this is a fabulous introduction to the land of the blues – great exhibits, well displayed, which tell the story of the origins and development of the blues in the Mississippi Delta.
Back in Clarksdale, right across the road from the Delta Blues Museum is Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club (Clarksdale being the blues’ “ground zero”). We stopped by for lunch and enjoyed the general vibe, though sadly, there was no live music. We were wonderfully served by Stella, who took one look at my scrawny looks and said, “Well now, a’body’s momma wanna take him in an’ feed him up. Mmhnnn”. I had the barbeque pork in a spicy pancake – absolutely delicious, but laced with a thousand chillies which quickly had my mouth on fire.
On down the street and you come to Blues Town Music, owned by the inimitable Ronnie Drew, who welcomed us warmly and regaled us with stories of visits to Europe in days gone by. I enjoyed playing one of his acoustic guitars and then chatting to Ronnie’s good friend, an older gentleman, an ex-bass player, with long seventies-style hair and a droopy moustache to match, who intrigued me with tales of visiting New York City as a boy and watching the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
And then, right across the road we found the treasure trove that is the Cats Head Delta Blues and Folk Art store and had the pleasure of chatting to proprietor Roger Stolle. I was interested to meet Roger, having read his excellent book, Hidden History of Mississippi some time ago, and being aware of his work to help regenerate Clarksdale. The store is quite unique, selling everything from books to posters to art to CDs, vinyl records and DVDs, all with a blues theme. Even if you don’t buy anything (but please do! My Cat Head poster is now framed and hanging in my office!), it’s a fabulous place just to browse around in.
And Roger’s such a nice guy, full of positivity and enthusiasm, and wondrously knowledgeable about the blues and the Mississippi Delta. Glad to say he agreed to a follow-up interview, which will appear before long here at Down at the Crossroads.
Actually, once again, I have to comment on the welcome and friendliness of everyone we encountered in Mississippi. We were quite charmed. We got on our way in the early evening, unable to take up Roger Stolle’s suggestion of staying for the show in Red’s Lounge later on, and drove back to Memphis on the legendary Highway 61, Mississippi saying farewell to us by means of a spectacular sunset, the sky changing colour dramatically as the sun sank below the horizon.
As somebody famously once said, “I’ll be back!”