“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” Albert Schweitzer
I recently read David Brooks’s excellent The Second Mountainand it prompted me to think about songs that celebrate loyalty, friendship and supporting one another.
Brooks’s analysis of what ails our modern life is masterful – he highlights the ills of lack of purpose, loneliness, distrust and tribalism. And goes on to lay the blame of much of this on the hyper-individualism that plagues society in America, Europe and other parts of the world.
This, he says, “is a system of morals, feelings, ideas and practices based on the idea that the journey through life is an individual journey, that the goals of life are individual happiness, authenticity, self-actualization, and self-sufficiency.” Hyper-individualism, then, undermines our connections to family, neighbourhood and the common good. Ultimately, it is unsatisfying and dehumanizing.
We are more than simply individuals, however, and we need each other. So Brooks points to the need for commitment, affection and interdependence. He says we need to prioritize those actions like “giving, storytelling, dance, singing…dining, ritual, deep conversation, common prayer, forgiveness, creating beauty, comfort in times of sadness and threat, mutual labor for the common good.”
I don’t know about you, but that sounds awfully attractive.
A friend loves at all times (Proverbs 17:17)
Here are ten great songs celebrating friendship and mutual support.
Keb’ Mo’ – Lean On Me
Keb’ Mo’ includes Bill Withers Lean on Me on his album, Good to Be.
We all have pain We all have sorrow… When you’re not strong And I’ll be your friend I’ll help you carry on.
Martin Harley – Brother
English roots artist and slide guitar maestro Martin Harley says of this song on his Roll with the Punches album, “Brother delivers a simple message offering friendship, consolation and an open door. An option to talk in person and to be heard. To be there for someone.”
If the load gets heavy and hard to stand Brother, call on me I’ll be there to lend a hand Brother, call on me.
Luke Winslow King – Everlasting Arms
King’s 2014 title track from his Everlasting Arms album is a joyous celebration of friendship and just lending a hand. It’s a simple, catchy tune with straightforward words, but with a powerful message.
You can lean on me brother I believe you carry too long It’s such a long way back long.
With My Own Two Hands – Ben Harper
From his 2003 album, Diamonds on the Inside, Harper’s song encourages us to contribute to things like make the world safer, brighter, and more peaceful, using “our own two hand.” But there’s a nice undercurrent of working together in the song. The Playing for Change version is a good ‘un.
Now I can hold you, in my own two hands And I can comfort you, with my own two hands But you got to use, use your own two hands Use your own, use your own two hands
Brother’s Keeper – Walter Trout
From Trout’s 2012 album, Blues for the Modern Daze. The song recalls the biblical story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, when Abel, after murdering his brother asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Walter Trout answers a resounding “Yes!” in this terrific song. The live version here features some guitar pyrotechnics from Trout. [Check out our more detailed look at this song here]
We’re supposed to be a brother’s keeper I believe we’re supposed to hear him when he calls I believe we’re supposed to help him I believe we’re supposed to catch him when he falls
Glen Campbell – Try a Little Kindness
Back in time and going a little bit country with this one. This live version of Campbell’s 1970 hit version of Bobby Austin’s song shows off not only Campbell’s great singing voice but his excellent guitar chops. Kindness is sadly lacking in our get-more, achieve-more, be-more world. But it’s a powerful thing.
Don’t walk around the down and out Lend a helping hand instead of doubt And the kindness that you show every day Will help someone along their way You got to try a little kindness Yes, show a little kindness Just shine your light for everyone to see
Let Us Walk Together – Rev Gary Davis
Hailed as “one of the greatest figures in twentieth century American music,” Davis is all but unknown these days save to blues fans. His guitar wizardry came to the fore in the folk revival of the early 1960s and he influenced a generation of singer-songwriters and rock musicians. He sang mostly gospel songs and Let Us Walk Together is a typical Gary Davis song, with a simple melody and lyrics, brought to life by his mesmerizing guitar picking. [You can check out our piece on Gary Davis here]
Let us walk together Right down here
Do Something – Matthew West
Matthew West is an American singer-songwriter and actor. This song is from his 2012 album Into the Light. This song was inspired by West meeting a young woman who had gone to Uganda and found an orphanage in dire straits and had worked to create a safe space for the children to flourish. She told West about her fight for these children, “I just kept thinking, ‘if I don’t do something, who will?”
People living in poverty Children sold into slavery The thought disgusted me So, I shook my fist at Heaven Said, “God, why don’t You do something?” He said, “I did, yeah, I created you
James Taylor – You Got a Friend
No collection of songs of this nature would be complete without the Carole King song that James Taylor has made his one from 1971 onwards. No need to say anything more.
You just call out my name And you know, wherever I am I’ll come runnin’ To see you again Winter, spring, summer or fall All you have to do is call And I’ll be there You’ve got a friend
I Think It’s Going to Rain Today – Nina Simone
Our final song is Nina Simone singing this Randy Newman song. This beautiful jazz version is on Simone’s 1969 album Nina Simone and Piano, and the simplicity of the arrangement and Simone’s voice make for an emotional appeal for the milk of human kindness to overcome frozen smiles, indifference and need.
Right before me, the signs implore me Help the needy and show them the way Human kindness is overflowing And I think it`s going to rain today.
And if you want to find out more about what caring for our fellow humans means, find a Bible and go to 1 Corinthians chapter 13. Here’s a snippet:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant. It is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury.
No shortage of terrific blues albums this year thus far. We’ve chosen 15 of the best, including albums of traditional blues, blues rock, and bluesy Americana. We’ve maybe been a bit light on acoustic blues albums so far, but let’s see what the rest of the year brings. In the meantime, go check out each of these outstanding albums
Elles Bailey, Shining in the Half Light
UK Blues Award winner’s Bailey’s third studio album of soulful and passionate blues. She’s a remarkable talent, and here delivers ten songs that highlight just how good her powerful, but beautifully controlled voice is. If you’re not familiar with Ms. Bailey, put that right, right now with this terrific album.
Dana Fuchs, Borrowed Time
Dana Fuchs has a wonderful, nuanced, blues-tinged voice with just the right amount of huskiness. This album of rock songs has heaps of blues feeling and soul, along with some delicious guitar work. [Check out our interview with Ms. Fuchs here]
Eric Gales, Crown
This is a remarkable piece of work from the talented Eric Gales, stretching the boundaries of blues rock and setting a new standard for the genre. The musicianship and arrangements serve the strength of the song-writing perfectly, Gales’s singing is versatile and powerful and, of course, as you’d expect, his guitar work is all you’d want from one of the world’s great electric guitar players. [Full review here]
Katie Henry, On My Way
Stylish album of bluesy Americana from the very talented New Jersey native Katie Henry. There’s nice variety in the songs, from the blues of the opening song to more jazzy or country-tinged numbers. Ms. Henry is a terrific and versatile vocalist and a talented pianist and guitarist to boot.
Son House, Forever On My Mind
Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label is restoring and releasing Dick Waterman’s archived tape collection of Delta blues artists, and this collection of Son House songs, Forever on My Mind is the first instalment. The sound quality on the album is great and it contains eight classic House songs, including Preachin’ Blues, Death Letter, Pony Blues and Levee Camp Moan. [Full review here]
Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder, Get On Board
Mahal and Cooder’s set of Terry and McGhee songs tries to recreate something of the rawness of the blues recordings of yesteryear, and it has the feeling of two old friends thoroughly enjoying themselves. Taj Mahal said, “There are basic things in our culture that connect us, that allow us to be able to reach back and connect to a history of people, the things that nourish us as a people, and music, this music is one of those things.” In Get on Board, Mahal and Cooder reach back and connect to a part of blues history, helping to make sure it is not forgotten. [Full review here]
Dom Martin, A Savage Life
Dom Martin’s new album, A Savage Life, sees him fulfil the potential that his acclaimed 2019 album, Spain to Italy, pointed to. Martin is a multiple UK and European Blues Award winner who seems equally at home playing the acoustic blues of Blind Blake and the blues-rock of Rory Gallagher. Add to that his expressive vocals, and you have in Dom Martin the real deal. His guitar work and vocals throughout are stellar and the arrangements and musicianship from the rest of the band, are excellent. [Full review here]
Keb’ Mo’, Good to be Home
Another fine and hugely enjoyable album from Keb’ Mo’. It’s not exactly the blues, but – hey, it’s Keb’ Mo’! It’s feel-good stuff all the way, Sunny and Warm, the third song, describing things perfectly. Mr Mo’ is joined for good measure by Darius Rucker, the Old Crow Medicine Show and Kristin Chenoweth. Good Strong Woman continues Keb’ Mo’s recent affirmation of women, as opposed to the sexist lyrics often heard in the blues.
John Mayall, The Sun is Shining Down
You expect a John Mayall album to be good and this one doesn’t disappoint. 89-year-old Mayall is joined by a number of guests, including Marcus King, Buddy Miller, Scarlett Rivera in eight covers and two originals. It’s top-notch, modern blues rock, and you’ve got to hand it to John Mayall – for 60 years he’s been leading the charge with the blues and The Sun is Shining Down shows no sign of waning performance.
North Mississippi Allstars, Set Sail
An album from these Mississippi hill country guys is always welcome and Set Sail doesn’t disappoint. It’s a bit different from previous albums, not so much blues rock as funky R&B with a hint of gospel. Luther Dickinson’s unmistakable, laid back vocals are augmented in a few songs by Stax legend William Bell and the Allman Brothers’ Lamar Williams. It’s fine, upbeat stuff pointing us to brighter days.
Charlie Musselwhite, Mississippi Son
Fourteen mostly original songs from the 78-year-old veteran bluesman, Musselwhite, who plays guitar and harmonica and handles the vocals throughout. Songs like In Your Darkest Hour and Rank Strangers are perfect front-porch blues, with Musselwhite’s searching harp and raw vocals. Mississippi Son puts you right back in the heat and sweat of Musselwhite’s home state and bears testimony to the man’s lifetime in the blues. (And what about that album cover? Very cool).
Bonnie Raitt, Just Like That
Her first album in six years, it’s all you’d want from a Bonnie Raitt album. Cool songs, Raitt’s characteristic slide guitar and her ever soulful vocals. The ten songs are strong, narrative-based, and well-arranged, and Raitt, now in her eighth decade delivers a classy performance throughout. The title track is a wonderful treat, pretty much just Raitt picking her acoustic guitar and singing plaintively.
Mavis Staples & Levon Helm, Carry Me Home
Carry Me Home is something of a masterpiece, it would not be too bold to suggest, a celebration of friendship, mutual admiration and faith. You can’t help but be moved by both the poignancy of the selection of songs and the pair’s performances, now knowing that Helm was to pass shortly after and that Staples is now in her 83rd year. It’s simply a great set of songs, a wonderful collection of blues, gospel and Americana. [Full review here]
Cristina Vane, Make Myself Again
Cristine Vane is a quite wonderful talent – a skilful guitar picker and slide player, a fine songwriter and a beautiful singer. It’s the sign of a talented songwriter and musician to give a traditional feel to a song, and yet have it feel bang up to date. Vane says she’s “essentially a rock kid who is obsessed with old music.” And that’s a winning combination. This is a top class album of 13 well-crafted songs, blessed by Vane’s silky vocals and guitar chops.
Edgar Winter, Brother Johnny
Several years in the making, Brother Johnny is a labour of love, a warm tribute by Edgar Winter to his brother, who passed away aged 70 in 2014. Brother Johnny features a star-studded cast of musicians, including Keb’ Mo’, Ringo Starr, Joe Bonamassa, Robben Ford, Warren Hayes, Billy Gibson, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. With 17 tracks and clocking in at 76 minutes, it’s a huge treat of an album and a fine tribute to one of the giants of blues rock. [Full review here]
With songs by Gladys Bently, Eric Bibb, Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Blind Boys of Alabama and Kirk Franklin
A couple of years ago President #45 claimed he had “made Juneteenth very famous…nobody had ever heard of it.” Utter nonsense, of course. Happily his successor signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, enshrining June 19 as the national day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. Nevertheless, more than 30 states have not as yet authorized the funding to allow state employees to take the day off and it’s been said that not enough people know about the holiday to make the effort worthwhile. This, in spite of the fact that In June 2022, the percentage of Americans who said they knew about the holiday, was around 60%, rather than the 37% of the previous year. Still…60% isn’t terribly good, is it? – I mean, this Irishman knows about it!
Anyway, the day is also sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.”
Juneteenth celebrates the 19th June, 1865, when Union soldiers read the announcement in Galveston, Texas, that all enslaved African-Americans were free, two months after the South has surrendered in the Civil War, and more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is African-Americans’ Independence Day and has traditionally been celebrated with barbeques, parades and parties.
It’s an important day, it seems to me, not only for African Americans but for the whole country. Historian Kate Masur says that “Juneteenth…should serve not only to remind us of the joy and relief that accompanied the end of slavery, but also of the unfinished work of confronting slavery’s legacy.”
Down at the Crossroads celebrates Juneteenth with four songs. The first is Juneteenth Jamboree, recorded by Gladys Bentley, a Harlem singer, well known in the 1920s and 30s, who hits a note of celebration and joy.
There’s no shirking, no-one’s working Everybody’s stopped Gums are chompin’, corks are poppin’ Doing the Texas hop
Eric Bibb’s album Dear America, he says, is “a love letter, because America, for all of its associations with pain and its bloody history, has always been a place of incredible hope and optimism.” [check out our terrific interview with Eric here] In the title track, he addresses the open wound of America’s racial divisions in a way that is both personal and hard hitting. His simple appeal is, that although the “temperature’s rising”
“Don’t let hatred’s fire burn you and me”
Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd recently joined forces with Robert Randolph on steel guitar and veteran blues drummer Tony Coleman to record Hit ‘Em Back, a song which addresses divisiveness and anger within the greater blues community. Copeland said, “I don’t want my music to come from a place of anger because when it does, no one hears you. Let’s educate; let’s open people’s eyes; why can’t we be united?”
The song appeals to our common humanity and the power of love as an answer to division:
Don’t care where you’re born Don’t care where you been The shade of your eyes The color of your skin We all join together
Hit ‘em back Hit ‘em back with love
Our next Juneteenth celebration song, is the Blind Boys of Alabama singing Luther Dickinson’s Prayer for Peace. The song celebrates progress made, but bemoans continued racial division. The song wishes we all could be “color blind.” In the voices and harmonies of the Blind Boys of Alabama, it’s another appeal to our common humanity. [check out our interview with Jimmy Carter here]
The innocence and love seen in our children’s face Makes me pray ignorance and hate disintegrate into space Shall we pray Pray for peace.
And finally here’s the “Black national anthem” in the United States, a hymn written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson. This is a truly inspirational song, and Kirk Franklin and this fabulous choir, really hit the heights.
God of our weary years God of our silent tears Thou who has brought us thus far on the way Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light Keep us forever in the path, we pray Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee
There are no shortage of cover albums – call them tribute albums – of Bob Dylan songs. Over the last 20 years or so, in particular, there have been a slew of them. These have included both well-known artists paying homage with a complete album of Dylan songs, and a number of compilation albums of various artists performing Dylan songs. Three of these I particularly like are the 1993 The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, 2001’s A Nod to Bob and 2003’s Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan.
But it’s the single artist albums we want to highlight here, and in particular those done by women artists, which, in my view, are particularly good. Interesting that that should be the case, given the accusations from time to time that some of Dylan’s lyrics are sexist (Just Like A Woman comes to mind). The man is, of course, now over 80 and his early songs stretch back to another age, about 60 years ago, and might be expected to share the broad values of society. Anyway, that hasn’t stopped women enjoying, performing and recording Dylan songs, and we’re thankful for that, listening to the following albums. Here is Down at the Crossroads list of the 12 best.
Odetta, Odetta Sings Dylan (1965)
It was Odetta who set Bob Dylan on his path as a folk singer. After hearing one of her records, Dylan said, “Right there and then I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for a flat-top Gibson.” In 1961, he performed for Odetta, who told him she thought he had a chance to make it in folk music. As big a star as Odetta was at the time, she was eventually eclipsed by Dylan and in 1965 she recorded what was the first major album of Dylan covers. It included some of Dylan’s famed protest songs like Masters of War and Blowin’ In the Wind, as well as some tracks that are now quite obscure, like Long Ago, Far Away and Paths of Victory.
Judy Collins, Judy Collins Sings Dylan (1993)
Collin’s soaring vocals work surprisingly well in this set of mostly early Dylan songs. Collins sang with Dylan on a number of occasions in the ‘60s, and Dylan wrote a song for her, I’ll Keep it with Mine. Here she includes I Believe in You, which seems to lose the force of Dylan’s passionate confession of faith and Like a Rolling Stone, which takes the sting out of the resentment in the song, but nevertheless sounds pretty well. And yes, she does Just Like a Woman, which is quite beautiful.
Barb Jungr, Every Grain of Sand (2002)
In this and her 2011 Man in the Long Black Coat, Barb Jungr gives Dylan a throughgoing jazz treatment. This may be the most unusual of the covers’ albums, with Jungr’s well-phrased vocals, the cabaret piano accompaniments and the jazzy arrangements. She includes some classic songs like Blowin’ in the Wind and Masters of War as well as some lesser known songs from the canon. Perhaps the most unusual one served up is You Gotta Serve Somebody.
Mary Lee’s Corvette, Blood on the Tracks, 2002
This album by Mary-Lee Kortes’ band focuses on just one album of Dylan songs. At first glance, Blood on the Tracks, arguably Dylan’s greatest album would appear to be a brave one to cover. Mary Lee is a cross between a country and rock singer and has more than enough vocal chops to pull off these songs. It’s enjoyable stuff, although I found Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts jarring – seemingly not knowing what to do with the song, the band chose to send it up with mocking imitations of Dylan’s singing inflections.
Maria Muldaur, Heart of Mine: The Love Songs of Bob Dylan, 2006
Fine collection of Dylan love songs like You Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Make You Feel My Love are given some delicious blues-soaked vocal treatment from the ever-entertaining Ms. Muldaur. Muldaur, who played with Dylan in the ’60s, said, ““It occurred to me that while Dylan is mostly known for his scathing, perceptive, brutally honest and insightful songs of social consciousness, he has in fact, over the years, written many deeply passionate, poignant and moving love songs.” She brings her usual passion and heartfelt approach in an album well worth checking out.
Janet Planet, Sings The Bob Dylan Songbook Vol. 1, 2010
Janet Planet is a successful Australian jazz singer and her 13 Dylan songs are given the full late-night jazz treatment. She restricts herself to the classics from Dylan’s early years, all songs that can stand the sort of drastic rearrangements she gives them. Planet is a first-class singer and her performance on Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat is top notch.
Thea Gilmore, John Wesley Harding, 2011
English artist Gilmore has taken a rather different approach to covering Dylan songs, here focusing on a single album, Dylan’s 1967 John Wesley Harding. Although Dylan’s album was well received at the time, it flew in the face of what other major rock artist were doing. Said Jon Landau, “Dylan seems to feel no need to respond to the predominate [sic] trends in pop music at all. And he is the only major pop artist about whom this can be said.” The songs lend themselves to the more acoustic approach of the original album and to the Gilmore singer-songwriter take on them. The songs are timeless and Thea Gilmore’s reflective take on them works extremely well. Her I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine is simply brilliant and the stripped back I Am A Lonesome Hobo gives you an opportunity to appreciate the quality of her voice.
Joan Osborne, Songs of Bob Dylan, 2017
Joan Osborne famously and quite beautifully covered Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat in her acclaimed and Grammy-nominated album Relish in 1995. Ten of the thirteen songs from Dylan’s early period sit alongside Ring Them Bells, High Water, Dark Eyes and Tryin’ to Get to Heaven. Osborne’s distinctive, world-weary voice gives a wholly enjoyable and fresh interpretation to some classic songs.
Betty LaVette, Things Have Changed, 2018
Betty LaVette brings her lifetime of experience as a soul and blues singer to bear on a judiciously chosen set of Dylan songs. As soon as you hear her launch into Things Have Changed, singing “tha-ings” with two syllables, you know this is going to be a big treat. She includes a couple of songs from 1989’s Oh Mercy – Political World is performed as a slow, funky blues and features the guitar of Keith Richards, and What Was It You Wanted becomes a laid-back jazzy number with the help from Trombone Shorty. This is a stellar album, with LaVette pulling more emotion out of Emotionally Yours than ever Dylan did.
Emma Swift, Blonde on the Tracks, 2020
Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift pulls off her covers album with considerable aplomb. Most of the songs are from Dylan’s early period, but interestingly, she includes I Contain Multitudes, from Dylan’s 2020 Rough and Rowdy Ways. Nice to her do Queen Jane Approximately and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. At 57 minutes, the deluxe version of the album, which includes some live versions of the songs gives good value.
Chrissie Hynde, Standing in the Doorway, 2021
Lead vocalist of The Pretenders gives us a terrific selection of songs from throughout Dylan’s career from 1965’s Love Minus Zero/No Limit to 1997’s Standing in the Doorway. It kicks off with Shot of Love’s In the Summertime, just Hynde and a 12-string guitar and you know this is gonna work. Her strung-out vocals on Blind Willie McTell are masterful.
Lucinda Williams, Lu’s Jukebox: Bob’s Back Pages, 2021
Lucinda Williams’ world-weary, at times croaky voice, with the slurred lyrics is perfect for Dylan songs. Her Everything is Broken, with just a hint of menace, is just about perfect. She includes a few dark Dylan songs – Not Dark Yet, Political World, Man of Peace and Trying to Get to Heaven – all performed with a full band and yet sounding suitably sparce. Williams can do tender as well though – Make You Feel My Love is all that, in a decidedly Lucinda Williams kind of way. Her Blind Willie McTell is maybe the stand-out track.
Mavis Staples & Levon Helm, Carry Me Home, ANTI-Records
Mavis Staples and the late Levon Helm recorded the songs on Carry Me Home at Helm Studios in Woodstock in the summer of 2011. It was to be one of the final recording sessions for Helm before he died the next year.
The pair are icons of Americana and roots music, Levon Helm, the drummer and one of the lead vocalists of the Band, and Mavis Staples, celebrated gospel and blues singer and civil rights activist. Both performed their music for more than 50 years, from the early sixties on through the heydays of rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues.
Carry Me Home is something of a masterpiece, it would not be too bold to suggest, a celebration of friendship, mutual admiration and faith. You can’t help but be moved by both the poignancy of the selection of songs and the pair’s performances, now knowing that Helm was to pass shortly after and that Staples is now in her 83rd year.
“It never crossed my mind that it might be the last time we’d see each other,” says Staples. “He was so full of life and so happy that week. He was the same old Levon I’d always known, just a beautiful spirit inside and out…
“…we hugged and hugged and hugged. I just held on to him. I didn’t know it’d be the last time, but in my heart and in my mind, Levon will always be with me because I take him everywhere I go.”
But even aside from that, this is simply a great set of songs, a wonderful collection of blues, gospel and Americana. The music, powered by Helm’s and Staples’s combined bands, is compelling, with everyone sounding like they are having a fine old time of it.
The album kicks of with a Curtis Mayfield’s This is My Country, a protest song from 1968, deeply embedded in the Civil Rights movement:
I’ve paid three hundred years or more Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back This is my country
Staples sings it with considerable gusto and passion, several years in to the Obama presidency with the right beginning to flex its muscles. More than ten years on, the song still sounds relevant for America – more’s the pity. Musically, as the album’s opener, you know you’re in for a treat, with horns, organ and ooh-ooh-oohs from the backing singers ushering you into things.
Trouble in (My) Mind is a rockin’ version of the old blues standard, Staples’s raw vocals and the bluesy piano driving things along. After This is My Country, this feels like another defiant assertion that no matter how bad things are and might be in America, there are surely better times ahead – “sun’s gonna shine in my back door some day.”
Staples performs Farther Along, an old gospel song, unaccompanied, apart from some gorgeous harmonizing by Amy Helm and Teresa Williams and others. It’s another poignant one, with the lyric “When death has come and taken our loved ones” coming with slow-tempoed clarity.
It’s a song of faith, however, and despite the song musing on loved ones passing while “others prosper, living so wicked year after year,” it asserts “we’ll understand it all by and by.” Staple’s faith led her to comment about Helm, “Some sweet day, we’ll be together again.”
Faith shines out of this album. Nothing frothy or glib; but faith that has been tested and tried and remains defiant. That’s been Mavis Staples’s experience – remember, she was once arrested at gunpoint by the police after a racially charged incident at a gas-station in Memphis and has lived the recent history of black America from the Civil Rights movement on.
The songs, even when packing a punch like Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free, have a positive, upbeat feel, as if the very force of Staples’s faith and positivity would make all the changes she longs for. The horns, harmonies and Mavis’s vocals, combined with the gospel chords, make for a thoroughly uplifting listening experience.
There are a couple of songs regularly performed by Levon Helm, When I Go Away and Buddy and Julie Miller’s Wide River to Cross have a thoroughly traditional feel about them and fit right in to the set. In the latter, the lyrics seem to have a dual meaning, referring to both the individual journey of life and the struggle for equality that Staples has been engaged in for so long –
I’m only halfway home, I’ve gotta journey on… I’ve come a long, long road but still I’ve got some miles to go I’ve got a wide, a wide river to cross.
There’s a great version of You’ve Got to Move. The harmonizing vocals and Larry Campbell’s guitar work is superb and once again the two-sided nature of the lyrics becomes apparent. As a traditional gospel blues song, it’s about the Christian hope of resurrection – “when the Lord get ready, you gotta move,” in, as another song has it, “that great gettin’ up morning.” But whether you’re “high or low”, there’s a hope for the present as well that the Lord might move things in the right direction.
The penultimate song is Bob Dylan’s gospel classic, Gotta Serve Somebody. It’s fitting of course, to include a Dylan song, given Staples’s history with him (she has said Dylan was “the love that I lost”). Staples adds her own faith assertion to the song – he’s (God is) my doctor, he’s my lawyer, he’s my friend.” “Whether you got faith or you got unbelief,” as Dylan might have put it, the song has always been a powerful one, and Staples does it more than justice, making it her own, as she sings convincingly, “I got a royal telephone and the line is never busy.”
Mavis Staples pretty much handles the vocals throughout, with Levon Helm adding colour here and there with harmonies. His drumming, however, is stamped all over things. Helm does weigh in on the final song – fittingly The Weight. Mavis Staples, of course, had shared the vocals with Levon Helm when the Staples Singers accompanied the Band for the song in the Last Waltz in 1968. Staples’s voice is a little deeper and raspier, but it’s still powerful and more than capable of sending shivers down your spine. There’s a quirky, but rather wonderful what sounds to me like a tuba solo in the middle of the song.
This is simply a glorious album of songs to challenge, encourage and inspire. It’s a fine tribute to Levon Helm, and another reminder of the immense talent and force that is Mavis Staples. I saw her perform in London just before the pandemic and it was an evening that left me with a smile on my face for a week afterwards. At 83 she’s on tour again, along with Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter, and if they are anywhere near you, don’t hesitate. And get yourself a copy of Carry Me Home – you won’t regret it.
Dedicated Men of Zion – or let’s use the more cool abbreviation, DMZ – is band with a powerful combination of soul and gospel that will make your day brighter, your smile broader and get your feet dancing. It’s infectious, inspirational stuff, packed full of tight harmonies and funky rhythms. The music is traditional in many ways, with a clear heritage in 1960s and 70s soul and gospel, but it’s got a very contemporary feel. It’s music for today. It’s what Music Maker Relief Foundation co-founder Tim Duffy calls “sacred soul.”
And that’s what Bruce Watson of Fat Possum Records recognized three years or so ago, when he signed DMZ to his new Bible and Tire label. [check out our interview with Bruce Watson here.] The band recorded its first album Can’t Turn Me Around, in Watson’s Delta-Sonic Sound studio backed by his all-star band, in Memphis in 2019 and have followed that up now by The Devil Don’t Like It. Like the first album, it’s bursting with positivity, gospel truth, beautiful harmonies and sweet lead vocals.
DMZ emerged in 2014 in eastern North Carolina, a region renowned for its musicality and gospel harmonies. The music made in rural Black churches for many decades has, in fact, been the foundation for so much of the commercial music we’re familiar with. DMZ taps into the deep roots of gospel which its members have experienced in the church, as well as classic sounds of soul and R&B.
Anthony “Amp” Daniels is the eldest of the group, and he’s had a successful a career in R&B down in Atlanta, backing up the likes of Bebe Winans and Toni Braxton, and producing records.
The other vocalists in the band, all fine singers, Antwan Daniels, Dexter Weaver, and Marcus Sugg, are all related by blood or marriage.
I got talking to Anthony about DMZ, the new album and making music. Our conversation sparkled with joy. I asked him first of all, about his musical background. He told me,
“My family was very musical and from a small child, that’s what we did. As a small boy, it’s just music and singing. My mother, she taught me to sing. It’s always been a very serious thing in my home, singing. My mother was more serious about singing than my education! Later she started being more serious about my education, but singing was just so important to her. It came from her father and then from her to my brother and sister and me. So it’s just something we always did.”
I assumed that the singing was really fostered in church but Anthony said that, although he sang in church, it was really his home environment that was his training ground and where his love of singing was nurtured.
“It was a home thing and it was something that we had to do every day. My mother would come in and we would have to sing. In fact, we had to talk in harmony as children! That’s how it was.
“But we started out in the choir, church choirs, and just traveling to other churches and singing. And even when I visited with my grandmother, she would have my brother and my sister and me sing for her all the time. It’s just singing, singing, singing. I love to sing though. So, it wasn’t a problem. I loved it. And I love to sing now.”
Anthony is a talented guy, not only a terrific singer, but an experienced keyboards player, having played in church and then for years with his mother’s group, the Glorifying Vines Sisters, a longstanding Farmville gospel institution. He’s also had a career as a record producer, producing recordings for the Glorifying Vines and also for R&B and pop music artists. His nickname is “Amp,” which I assumed had some association with amplifiers, but Anthony told me he wasn’t entirely sure how he got it.
“As a child I grew up with that. I guess it’s an abbreviated kind of thing. Sometimes it might be hard for children to say “Anthony” and they’ll say “Amp” instead of a “Ant.” It’s a Southern thing. People give you a nickname!”
How, I wondered, did DMZ get started?
“Well, back in 2014, I was working with a relative of mine on his project and it fell through. His guys started leaving his band so I began to recruit some guys that I knew, but the band fell apart. But the guys didn’t wanna quit, so the group became the Dedicated Men of Zion.”
DMZ consists of four singers – Anthony’s son Antoine, his sons-in-law Marcus and Antwan, and Dexter Weaver, his nephew in-law – and four musicians. They perform far and wide in the United States, but Anthony wants to get the band to Europe.
“I performed in Switzerland with my parents and I’m just ready to get back. I’m ready to get back in the UK. I love that. I just want these guys I’m with now to get an opportunity to just experience that. They’ll love it.”
I asked him how the relationship with Bible and Tire, Bruce Watson’s label, came about.
“We actually met Bruce through Tim Duffy of the Music Makers Foundation [check out our interview with Tim Duffy here]. Tim put us together and it was like a great marriage, man. It was fantastic. I love working with Bruce. We just have a great relationship. I mean we’re talking about a third album already.”
Both albums are brimming with musicality, groove and inspiration. They are obviously gospel, but the description “sacred soul” seems to nail it.
“I think so, because sacred soul music is music for the soul, you know. It’s gospel music and sacred soul is like a division of that. It’s very similar to gospel, but I guess it’s just focusing a little bit differently musically. But I love the name sacred soul. I think it describes it really well.”
When people think of gospel music, they often think about a certain musical sound, certain piano chords and a certain feeling from the music. But I wondered, does it need to be more than that? How important for Anthony is the lyrical content?
“It’s very important. Music is good but the message is important. A good song to me has a message. You can have instrumentals, like, for example, a jazz instrumental and all this kind of stuff, and people still call it a song. But to me, a song should have a good lyrical content, a good story, a good message. And it helps if it’s therapeutic. Sometimes you hear music and it’ll take you somewhere, take you back to another time and place in life. You could be in 2022 and you could hear a song and it’ll take you back to 1985 or something, you know? And it’s just a really good feeling.”
Anthony went on to sum up the message in DMZ’s music: “I guess I would say that the message is positive. We want to give a good positive message, we just want to sing something that will lift your spirit and be encouraging.
“We want it to be encouraging, uplifting, inspirational. Just therapeutic. You know, just help to bring people through – sometimes we need that. You can have a bad back and you have to go to the chiropractor, but where do you go when you’re feeling down? When you need to be uplifted, when you just want to get away and free your mind from some other things. We have a lot of things that we go through – people have bills and they’re dealing with sickness and death, but sometimes a good old song will lift you up, make you feel better. Inspire you. So those are the kind of things we want to get across with this music. And make people smile just for a minute anyway.”
I wanted to know about the faith component of the music. You can have a nice song that has a nice feel about it that might make you feel good. But DMZ songs are more than that, there’s a faith component to the songs.
“Well, yeah, there’s definitely a faith component, we’re dealing with faith and belief. But it gives hope and it’s still encouraging and it still can be uplifting [to anyone]. It’s a feel good. When we were in Switzerland playing, some people didn’t speak English, but they were still saying it felt good. One woman told us, my daughter doesn’t speak English, but she wanted to tell you that she really enjoyed it. So sometimes you don’t have to understand it and it still feels good.”
I asked Anthony about the new album, The Devil Don’t Like, which is very, very good, the levels of production, song arrangements and musicality all very high. It was the band’s second experience of working with Bruce Watson of whom Anthony has said has “a way of pushing an artist to get the best out of them without the artist ever knowing that they are being pushed…the guy is just extraordinary as a person as well as a producer. Trust me when I tell you an outstanding band and a great producer can really bring the best out of an artist and a song. Bruce’s vision of preserving the originality of sacred soul music is educational, unique and inspiring.”
On song selection, Anthony said, “Bruce sent us songs and asked us to select ten. So we listened to them and selected songs that really felt good to us, ones we could really hear ourselves doing.”
Most of the songs, I didn’t recognize, but there’s a great version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Up Above My Head. I can imagine a congregation or an audience singing along with it and also God’s Got His Eyes On You. I was intrigued by the title track, The Devil Don’t Like It, which funny enough, isn’t very much about the devil. Most of it is about God “putting his hand on me.” You just get that little phrase at the end.
“Yeah. And that’s the ironic part about that song. It’s a very small portion of that song. But I guess it’s a catchy phrase. But when I first heard that song, I said, I’m doing it!”
The harmonies on the album are stunningly good, but so too are the lead vocals – beautiful, modern-sounding singing. I’m Going Home is a great example, where the lead vocalist is to the fore and the harmonizing kicks in here and there to support. Who, I asked, takes the lead vocals?
“Well, mostly we share the lead parts. Everybody in the group can sing lead and everybody has their own style of singing. We’re all different and everybody sings it their way. I love it that variety, you know – it’s one group with multiple talents, so you don’t get so tired of just hearing that same thing over and over. You need to have a variety, you know?”
I was intrigued by A Change Is Gonna Come. We’re all familiar with the famous version by Sam Cooke from 1964, which came right in the middle of the civil rights movement and was clearly about events of the time. So I wondered what DMZ’s song is all about.
“When we heard that song – my son sings that song – and what we got from it, and what we feel with the conditions in the world…to me, it’s about hope, you know? No matter what we’re going through, especially with all the bad stuff – change is coming. And I know Sam Cooke’s version was totally different but it’s still the same message. When we look at the conditions, the bad in the world, the message is don’t worry, don’t give up. Change is coming. It’ll get better.”
As a non-American, someone who doesn’t live in America, I wondered if there was any particular reference to today’s America. Is there any particular change that needs to come?
“I would love to see change in America. Of course there are some things I would like to see changed. No matter how many times people tell you things are equal, things are not equal. If we had more equality, treating everybody the same, instead of, you know, separation, I think that would really solve a lot of the issues that we have.
“Everybody being treated equal, regardless of race, colour or whatever. We should just treat people like people, everybody just as humans. We know that there’s some bad everywhere. It doesn’t matter about ethnicity, black, white color, whatever. You have bad everywhere. But everybody’s not that way. So I would just love to see every person being treated the same. Regardless. You know what I’m saying? That’s one thing I would love to see change.”
Does America need to make a more progress with that?
“Yes, I think so. I really believe in that. I just wish that it would happen. I wish that there was some way that it could. Even with a job application, just as simple as that – why do we have to put our race on a job application? It doesn’t matter – if a person can do a job, then a person can do a job. But there’s just so much division, you know?”
Again, as a non-American, I was intrigued to ask Anthony about the divisions in church life in the United States, where there are black churches and white churches. Would it be better if it wasn’t that way?
“I think it’s historical. It’s just the freedom of religion. But if we’re both in the same belief, in the same faith, why can’t we worship together? Instead of you gotta be over there in that black church and I’m here in a white church. We’re worshiping in the same faith, but we can’t do it together. So much division, so much separation and it would be so much better together.”
Anthony told me that he saw a little bit of movement towards people worshipping together, towards integration, but he sensed that people can be afraid and so division continues.
We finished off our conversation talking about the music. Anthony was enthusiastic about the band that Bruce Watson had put together for the album – really, the backing band sounds superb.
“We had studio musicians working with us and they were fantastic and their attitudes were awesome. Just awesome musicians. And just the greatest guys to be around, that whole band and I love them. Bruce Watson put those guys together. That’s his studio band. We went into the studio and no one wanted to leave.
“You know, studio work is hard work. They want more than you can give sometimes, but you gotta give some more. But those guys made it so relaxed for us. And Bruce had a way of just pushing you without you even realizing you’re being pushed. It’s cool. He’ll nudge you, all smiles, and he’s just trying to get the best out of you. I love it.”
Like most musicians, the pandemic put paid to DMZ performances, but things are picking up for the guys now, with up to twelve dates a month. And Anthony’s raring to go.
Like the music DMZ makes, Anthony Daniels exudes sunny positivity. If you get the chance to go see these guys, don’t hesitate, and in the meantime, go pick up a copy of their two albums. The devil may not like them – but you will, for sure.
John Martyn was a British singer-songwriter and guitarist, who performed for more than forty years and released 23 studio albums, often to critical acclaim. The Times described him as “an electrifying guitarist and singer whose music blurred the boundaries between folk, jazz, rock and blues.”
Recent events in the UK brought to mind his Glorious Fool song, the title track on his 1981 studio album. The song was covered very well by Sam Butler and Clarence Fountain of the Blind Boys of Alabama on a 2011 tribute album to John Martyn.
Glorious Fool is directed towards the American president of the time, Ronald Reagan, for whom Martyn, it seems, had little time. Leaving aside Martyn’s feelings about Reagan, the song has even more relevance to public life currently;
He lied to his mother And lied to the rest He lied to his brother Who loved him the best He lied to himself.
Another song that captures the death of truth that we’ve seen in the public sphere is Tell the Truth, written by Bobby Whitlock and Eric Clapton and recorded by Derek and the Dominos in August 1970 for Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Whitlock has described it as a kind of coming-of-age song, a reminiscence about getting older, but as you listen to the lyrics today, it sounds like a social commentary on the descent of today’s world into double-speak and deceit:
Tell the truth. Tell me who’s been fooling you? Tell the truth. Who’s been fooling who?
It doesn’t matter just who you are, Or where you’re going or been… The whole world is shaking now. Can’t you feel it?
Back in 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 was published under the shadow of Hitler and Stalin, and portrays a nightmare vision of a future in which truth has been eclipsed. Orwell said he was worried that the “very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” He might have been surprised at where we have now reached, where the bare-faced lie has become perfectly acceptable and truth in the public sphere scarcely seems to matter.
We’re rightly appalled at the lies promulgated in Russia by Putin’s government about his bloody war in Ukraine, where women are being raped, civilians murdered and people tortured. But it’s merely a military operation, Putin says, to neutralize Nazism, and his soldiers are helping oppressed people.
The effectiveness of these lies within Russia was brought home to me a few weeks ago when I had a short engagement with a Russian photographer in a photography site I’m a member of. I objected to his posting a photograph of “Victory Park” in Moscow and he told me firmly that I was being duped by my government and the press and that eventually that would be revealed. This from a clearly well-educated person.
But it’s not just in Russia that truth has died. In the UK, political leaders seem to have taken a leaf out of Donald Trump’s book, with the Prime Minister facing a parliamentary investigation into claims he misled the House of Commons about the partygate scandal.
If you haven’t been following the story, during the lockdown and public health restrictions of 2020 and 2021 there were parties and gatherings in 10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister’s residence), its garden and other government buildings. The police have now fined Boris Johnson, other politicians and government officials for breaches of the regulations – which of course they themselves had set and urged everyone to follow.
As an example, The Daily Mirror reported that around “40 or 50” people were said to have been crammed “cheek by jowl” into a medium-sized room in Number 10 for each of two parties during December 2020. “It was a Covid nightmare,” one source claimed.
But worse than the flagrant breaking of the rules during a period when families could not attend funerals of their loved ones, was the denial of any wrong-doing by Johnson, including a statement to Parliament, for which he is now being investigated.
This does not surprise anyone in the UK – The Independent newspaper has said that Johnson his ministers have made at least 27 false statements to parliament since the 2019 general election – and have failed to correct them.
The idea that you can just lie and get away with it has a long history, of course, with politicians. In American life, Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, and Obama have all been caught in untruths. But it has all come to a nasty looking, pus-filled head of late – during his term as President of the United States, Donald Trump is reported to have made tens of thousands of false or misleading claims – what some have characterized as a “firehose of falsehood” propaganda. Fact-checkers have described it as “unprecedented” in American politics.
What philosopher Hannah Arendt once called “the conflict between truth and politics” has been taken to an entirely new level. Robert Musil, the author of the classic The Man Without Qualities in the mid-1930s, wrote, “No culture can rest on a crooked relationship to truth.” And yet here we are.
Truth has become devalued and our societies imperilled because of it. As the ancient prophets of Israel said, “Truth has stumbled in the street” (Isaiah 59.14) and “lies and not truth prevail in the land” (Jeremiah 9.3).
Someone famously said, “Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth – to see it as it is, and tell it like it is – to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth.” Words to live by – despite the salutary fact that this came from Richard Nixon on the occasion of his acceptance of the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1968. The danger of ignoring the advice writ large.
The lack of honesty and integrity is corrosive. A previous UK Prime Minister, John Major says all this “is a dangerous trend. If lies become commonplace, truth ceases to exist. What and whom, then, can we believe? The risk is … nothing and no one. And where are we then?”
It’s up to all of us to demand the truth of our politicians, no matter if they represent our political viewpoint or not.
And to demand the truth of ourselves as well. Because dishonesty is a temptation for us all. Fyodor Dostoevsky warns us in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that not to tell the truth risks us losing our sense of reality. To lose the truth is to lose your soul. “Above all,” says Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, “don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”
Two thousand years ago, someone said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” This truth is a deep one – as a provincial governor found out a long time ago when he faced his prisoner and asked, “What is truth?” There was no answer because the living embodiment of that was standing in front of him.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (Gospel of St. John)
Son House, who died in March 1988, was one of the original Delta bluesmen, who began singing and playing guitar in 1927, and within a short time became a blues legend. Friends with Charlie Patton, he recorded nine classic songs for Paramount Records in the 1930s and was a major influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. After recording for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress in 1942, he quit playing and moved to Rochester, New York. His music career was revived, however, after his re-discovery in the mid-sixties, recording and touring America and Europe.
His life and later career were marred by his alcoholism – Howlin’ Wolf told him, “You had a chance with your life, but you ain’t done nothin’ with it…See, you in love with one thing, and that’s some whiskey.” Nevertheless, House managed some remarkable live performances and recordings at this time and the songs on Forever on My Mind are from 1964, from a taped performance at Wabash College in Indiana obtained by House’s manager and blues curator Dick Waterman. [check out our review of Waterman’s biography here]
Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label is restoring and releasing Waterman’s archived tape collection of Delta blues artists, and Forever on My Mind is the first instalment. The sound quality on the album is great and it contains eight classic House songs, including Preachin’ Blues, Death Letter, Pony Blues and Levee Camp Moan.
House was first gripped by hearing the sound of glass on steel – the bottleneck slide – when, as a young pastor, he strolled past a house where a party or “frolic” was taking place. He stopped to listen. “Wonder what’s that he’s playing? I knew that guitars hadn’t usually been sounding like that. So I eases up close enough to look,” House said. “Sheez, I like that! I believe I want to play one of them things.”
Whereupon he got himself a guitar, albeit with only 5 strings and a hole in the back and learned to play it, after Willie Wilson (who was the bluesman at the frolic whom he had heard) fixed it up for him. With his guitar tuned in Open G, he soon was “zinging it” as he called it, with the bottleneck slide. Within a matter of weeks, he was out earning money at gigs. And as he said himself, “I kept on playing and got better and better.”
And on Forever On My Mind, there’s plenty of “zinging,” House working his resonator skilfully in accompaniment to his characteristically expressive vocals. The songs sound, perhaps, more reflective and calmer than other recordings, though they still drip with emotion.
Many people will know Death Letter from his videoed 1965 performance (with 3.5m views on YouTube), which is frantic and anguished. House made the song a centrepiece of his live shows during the 1960s, often playing it more than once during a concert. About a man who learns by letter of the death of the woman he loves and who later views her body at the morgue, Paul Du Noyer said the song is “one of the most anguished and emotionally stunning laments in the Delta blues œuvre.”
The version of Death Letter included here is a much calmer version, the slide playing more nuanced. Given the nature of the song, though, it is by no means mellow, and House expresses the tragedy masterfully.
Preachin’ Blues has a nice combination of slide work on both strummed chords and single notes and, no matter how often you hear it, the song is always arresting. This song was something of a signature song for House and it vividly describes the tussle between the church and the blue devils for his soul – a tussle the church kept losing. He sang:
Oh, and I had religion Lord this very day But the womens and whiskey, well they would not let me pray.
By all accounts House had been an accomplished preacher. Yet, for most of his preaching career, he was living a double life, drinking and womanizing. In Preachin’ the Blues, a deacon jumps up in church and accuses the minister:
Another deacon jumped up and said, “Why don’t ya hush?” “You know you drink corn liquor and your life’s a horrible stink.”
Which might well be an accusation that House either had thrown at himself or felt should have been thrown at him. And his disillusionment with religion, or at least his disillusionment with himself as a worthy church leader, comes out in these lines from the song:
Yes, I’m gonna get me religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist Church. You know I wanna be a Baptist preacher, just so I won’t have to work.
The title track is real, old time Delta blues, bleak but articulated beautifully by House and accompanied mostly by sparse single note guitar work. Never officially recorded and released before, it’s a fine introduction to forty-five minutes of blues history, the recordings superbly re-mastered by Easy Eye Sound.
The final song is another Son House classic, Levee Camp Moan. Levee camps were temporary settlements along the Mississippi River for about 60 years until 1940 for workers on the earthen levees that run along both sides of the river’s banks. The workforce was almost entirely black men who were fearfully exploited – forced to work long work hours, paid badly and harshly disciplined. House’s song laments a man’s separation from his woman and the problem in their relationship “when I done not get the check.”
The album gives us Son House at the peak of his abilities, sober, and singing and playing with passion and clarity. Dick Waterman said of the concert: “The show was held in kind of an assembly hall. There were a few dozen, there may have been up to fifty people, something like that. They were quiet and polite during the performance…There were no barriers, there were no filters between him and the audience. He was just giving them the plain, unvarnished Delta material, as he knew it and as he sang it.”
Plain and unvarnished it may be, but it sounds fresh and clear. Waterman and Easy Eye have given us a great gift in these wonderful recordings of quintessential Delta blues by one of the masters.
Kreg Yingst is an artist, originally from Chicago, but now living in the warmer climes of Pensacola in Florida. He specializes in unusual and rather fabulous portraits of musicians, mostly from the blues, but also from jazz, rock and country. On the wall facing my desk, I have a wonderful wood-based print of Rev. Robert Wilkins, complete with some lyrics from his famous Prodigal Son song.
In his catalogue, blues fans will find work representing Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon…the list goes on. They are all superb and every blues fan ought to have one of Kreg’s pieces on display.
With art degrees from the Trinity University,Texas, and Eastern Illinois University, Kreg was originally a painter, but has come to specialize in printing carved wooden blocks. He describes himself as a narrative artist, where the story of the person he is dealing with becomes represented in the finished art-piece. Along the way, Kreg ruminates at length on the story, and then produces a sketch which gets transferred to a block of wood or linoleum, which he then will carve, before ink-printing.
As well as his music range of art, Kreg also has a body of work which focuses on sacred themes, ranging from illustrations of the Psalms to Celtic saints to the Passion of Christ. During the pandemic, when he could not exhibit as usual in the art festivals and fairs where he normally sells his work, he was surprised to find that, when his online sales spiked, it was the sacred art that was being sought.
His hand-coloured woodcuts of the parables illustrate Kreg’s concern that faith be grounded in real life. So, in Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan, an African-American man rescues a Ku Klux Klansman, while in his Lazarus and the Rich Man, a beggar grabs for the cigarette butts tossed by a limo rider.
In similar vein, Kreg has published a book called Glory among the Ruins: The Homeless Project, a portfolio of 15-linocut portraits of homeless men, a portion of the proceeds of which go toward feeding programs in the Florida panhandle. He says, “I joined a group of like-minded men and women from various churches to provide food, clothing, and spiritual nourishment for the homeless of our city. Over time, as I heard their stories, I began to know them individually, and not just as a people group. They had names and faces, hopes and dreams, and a past that would play into the situation they currently found themselves in.”
Kreg is soon to publish a new book entitled Black Light. I’m honoured to have been asked to write a forward, and I’ve seen an early copy of it. I can tell you that it is a stunning piece of work. It’s 28 portraits of black gospel blues artists, with a Kreg Yingst image of the each one along with a short introduction/reflection on each. The book celebrates Black History Month, which occurs in February in the US and Canada, hence the 28 portraits.
I got the opportunity to talk to Kreg and ask him about his work and the new book.
First off, I had to ask him about his name – there aren’t a lot of Kregs or Yingsts in my part of the world, nor, I’m guessing in North America. Kreg told me it came from his German ancestors who came to America in the 1700s and got a bit changed along the way from Juenst to Yingst. That settled, we talked about Kreg’s approach to his art.
“Well, I’ve been working with printmaking probably since the mid-1990s. I was always somewhat interested in narrative or storytelling arts and so I connected initially with the magic realists. I just loved their work from the 1940s, 50s, in America – people like George Tooker and Paul Cadmus. I liked the quirkiness about it. It felt inquisitive, there was something very magical to the work.
“In terms of the narrative aspect of my work, I’d go to libraries and fiddle through different books and try to find artists. And I came across two artists who were working with wood cuts at the time, Lynd Ward, an American, and Frans Masereel from Belgium. They had done what were called wood cut novels. You could read these visually no matter where you lived in the world. And I found that really fascinating. The graphics really appealed to me. And so I started moving into doing wood cuts and lino cuts and relief prints.
“Now the musicians, the subject matter – I think part of that was I had struggled with creating people in my art, so I started doing figurative art just because it was more of a challenge. I used to do more cityscapes and I was very good at it, but I felt it was somewhat of a dead end. So I started doing people, which I wasn’t very good at. To be honest, I still struggle with it!
“At some point I might like to get back to my painting, but at this time I enjoy the printmaking for a number of reasons. It’s more affordable art – that appeals to me. I’ve always liked, say, the Mexican socialist artists for making art so accessible for people. I don’t like painting that is only for the ultra-rich or museums. I like this aspect of art in our daily life.”
And what, I asked him, about the music aspect of his art?
“I remember the first piece I did was a Robert Johnson piece and it was just because the story appealed to me, the myth, the legend. So I did it and I thought it worked well. It was on aged paper, it had particles of the bark or the plant still in it, and to me, it seemed like a tobacco paper and it just represented Johnson’s time. I did it very scratchy with my cutting and I liked the outcome. I then started digging into the blues guys – not that I knew many of these people. So, my art became more of a journey into people I didn’t know, areas I don’t know. And something from it evolved into a work of art on my part.”
Kreg has a wonderful gallery of art covering blues artists, but he also has covered jazz, rock and country artists as well.
“The rock came a little bit later and doing that allowed me to bring in colour. And again, I was trying to represent the time period. On a technical level, it was more difficult because now you’re using multiple blocks, you’re using multiple colors. I also dabbled a little bit with jazz but with jazz, I started doing backgrounds with multiple blocks that I would piece together in different ways and I’d use different colors. And then I would bring the face as the last block on top. So, in a sense, I was able to improvise. I was trying to do visually what I was hearing audibly. So, you got the scratchy blues, you got the high key powered colors of rock and you got the improvisation of jazz.”
All of Kreg’s art has a spiritual element to it, sometimes explicitly, often just in the way that he creates, as an artist. But as well as the extensive music-related catalogue, he has a range of specifically sacred art.
“There’s a spiritual line that runs throughout the entire body of my work and I’m looking for that same element, I guess, that John Coltrane would’ve talked about with the audio.
“I’m looking for that with the visual, but that’s, I guess, part of my faith and my faith journey that has been embedded in my work. I did a whole series on the parables quite a while back. At the time I was looking at the German expressionists and they were very loose, and I tried to translate the parables to a modern-day context.
“And then eventually I went to do the Psalms in the same manner, but the Psalms were not narrative, so that proved difficult. And to be honest, I thought I was gonna knock out this project in about a year. But it transitioned into more of my own spiritual journey, where I was reading the desert fathers and a lot of monastic literature.
“And I started to incorporate these visual blocks into my own prayer life. Where I would read through a Psalm and I would take something with me, maybe just a sentence. That’s the sort of thing the desert fathers would do, they’d sit around, they’d listen to the speaker, they would take this line and then they would kind of ruminate on it throughout the day. That’s what I would do. And then I’d find the visual within that. And that whole project took me eight years. So, it became kind of my daily practice, taking the Psalm, embedding it, saying it, speaking it, and then doing it visually.
“And then I did another thing too, after the school shooting at Sandy hook, which kind of devastated me. I had young children at the time and I couldn’t understand how these people could live with that. It happened in December, and I decided the following year that I was going to find a prayer and I was going carve one piece per week until that whole year had gone. My output then became an opportunity to change this darkness into light for me. In my work, you start with a black block, basically, and every mark you make, you’re making white into the block. You’re literally carving light out of darkness. If this evil’s gonna happen, I wanted to have something good come out of it.
“And I like the idea that these prayers that are carved, they continue on in life, in somebody else’s reading. And then I started using these books I’d produced of my work as fundraisers so the profits would go to an orphanage. To support the children that don’t have parents, that did survive somewhere in the world. So, I didn’t want the darkness to win out in this. Like some light’s gonna come out of this.”
As Kreg talked about his approach to his art, it made me think of iconography, the icons that have been done in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where the painting of those is a spiritual exercise in and of itself.
“The icons are very interesting. I’ve recently finished a series on Mary, in conjunction with a book that’s coming out by an American author who now lives in Ireland, Christine Valters Paintner. Whereas with the Psalms, I was taking a word, this project, with the Mary series, I was taking an image – I would take the image through the day and see then how that was going to be interpreted through my concept of what was going on.
“But I have a couple of icons of my own and it’s a calming thing. I like the idea of it – it isn’t really a cognitive thing. We take in art, we take in music, we take in smells, our senses, directly. And so it is with our experience of God or our communication with God. By doing art this way, you’re making a deliberate act and saying, use this time, and this time is going to be with God. And this is going to be prayer.”
As I look through Kreg’s catalogue of art, it seems to me to have a potentially wide appeal. What sort of people, I asked Kreg, buy his art?
“A real mix. It’s kind of fun to be in the booth selling because you have this interaction with the people that are actually buying. It may be people covered with tattoos that love it for the black and white graphics. Or maybe a little grandmother buying one of the icons – so you get a real mix. And sometimes people will unload on me. I’ve had people come in and buy a piece, say like my Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. And the person’s about to walk out the booth but they turn around and say, this means so much to me, my son just died last week. You get that kind thing.
“Sometimes it has a lot of meaning to them. I’ve seen people laugh. I’ve seen people cry. I’ve heard miracle stories.”
My ears pricked up at that – let’s hear about the miracle stories, Kreg!
“I was doing a show in Texas and one person was buying a piece based on Here Comes the Sun, you know, the George Harrison song. And she goes, ‘Oh, I gotta tell you about this. This piece means so much to me.’ She said her son had been diagnosed with a rare disease and she was supposed to meet with the specialist after the weekend. She’d gone home and was really distraught and she’s praying, just pleading with God. It looked like her son had been given a death sentence basically.
“Monday, she gets in her car ready to leave. And she goes, ‘God, if this is gonna work out well, let Here Comes the Sun come on the radio’! So, she turned on the radio and after a moment of dead air time, the first notes of George’s guitar come in. So, she got to the hospital specialist, and he says, ‘I don’t understand this, we’ve taken the test again, and it’s has come back negative.’ And the doctor said, ‘Do you believe in God?’ And she’s like, ‘I do now!’
“Another lady on that same weekend came in and she’s got two of my Psalm prints in her hands and doesn’t know which one to take. So, I said, get the one which speaks to you more. She asked me if I believed in God and I said yes, I do. She told me, ‘You know, I used to. But my brother got sick and I prayed and prayed but he died.’ I replied, ‘Listen, I don’t have the answers, I don’t know why this happens, but I do know God loves him. And he loves you and he’s always there.
“On my iPad, I had all the psalms and I was going back through them and I was trying to find what prompted the image from the Psalm. I had something highlighted and it said something like, ‘I’ve never left you,’ that kind of thing. And I said to her, ‘I don’t know what this means, but I think maybe this is for you.’ And I turned the iPad round and she read the two highlighted lines, ‘I’ve always been there, I’m not gonna leave you’ whatever the Psalm had said. And she goes, ‘I think that’s for me.’ So, I found it very fascinating that, that weekend there were two diverse but related things. One was a miraculous healing, the other not, and yet both in their own individual way, there was a miraculous encounter with God.”
I was very interested to hear about Kreg’s new forthcoming book, Black Light, the one that celebrates Black History Month with the portraits of the gospel blues artists. What’s the story behind it?
“It kind of developed on the spur of the moment and it was my wife that suggested I do this project. I’d done a lot of black musicians and gospel blues is my real interest. So, I thought, I could do something to take us through black history month. So, I started going back through all the people that I’ve done and, sure enough, I had more than enough images. I like the concept of ‘black light.’ I’m living over here in the thick of it. It’s been some crazy times, these last couple of years over here.
“So, I want to get out the history and what this group of people came through and what their faith did and supported them to get through this. And is still having to get through. And I’ve seen how, even as artists or whatever, people misunderstand black and white. I do graphics of black and white, and we’ve always associated black with evil and white with goodness. I want people to know this is incorrect. So that’s why I call it black light. It’s light, but it’s coming from blackness.
“I like the gospel blues. It’s deals with hard times. It deals with reality. It’s the good and the bad, it’s, you know, on the one hand, why is this happening to me, but on the other, praise God for that. I like how it kind of merges these two things. I mean, your book touches on all of that. [here Kreg refers to my The Gospel According to the Blues.]
“So, you get the highs and you get the lows, whereas sometimes, gospel music is just one extreme and full out blues might go to the other. But the gospel blues deals with both of these issues. And that always intrigues me. Most of the people in the book are gospel blues artists who are fairly obscure to most people, but I’ve also included some people like Marvin Gay and Aretha Franklin who are more well known.”
Take it from me – the book is quite wonderful, and you’re going to want to get yourself a copy. It’ll be printed quite lavishly on heavier, coated paper and will be around 8” by 6”. It’ll be a book you’ll be proud to have in your home, and Kreg tells me it will be available from Juneteenth this year – that is June 19th – and you can order it from his website. Proceeds from the book will go to orphanages that Kreg knows.
While you’re waiting for Juneteenth to come around, head over to Kreg’s site and browse through his catalogue of wonderful and remarkable art. But don’t just browse – find a piece that speaks to you and buy a copy.
A Baker’s Dozen of Great Mississippi John Hurt Songs
Mississippi John Hurt has been one of the most influential of the Delta bluesmen, influencing generation after generation of blues guitar pickers and his songs covered by a who’s who of artists since he re-emerged in the 1960s after years of quiet obscurity as a farmer in Mississippi.
By all accounts he was a delightful man, soft spoken and polite, exuding a quiet wisdom and loved by everyone who met him. His faith was important to him, which became apparent to those who knew him during the years of his rediscovery. Holly Ochs, who hosted John during his early days in New York, said, “The depth and quality of that faith was so powerful that it would touch thousands of people in the few remaining years of his life.”
His biographer, Philip R. Ratcliffe notes that Hurt “was always aware of the presence of his God and would always say his prayers at night.”
Born the son of former slaves in 1892, John Hurt started playing guitar when he was nine and by his late teens had developed his own particular style. After hearing John play in 1928, The OKeh Records’ recording director invited him to Memphis where he recorded half a dozen songs and then to New York for another recording session. Songs recorded at these first sessions included many of Hurt’s best loved songs, like Louis Collins, Avalon Blues, Stack O’Lee Blues, Got the Blues Can’t Be Satisfied and Blessed Be the Name.
The Great Depression and the subsequent collapse of record sales, however, ensured that John Hurt’s musical career never took off and he returned to life as a farmer in Avalon, playing occasionally at country dances and parties.
When he was 70, still tending another man’s cows and keeping a few hogs and chickens, and he and his wife Jesse dirt poor, Dick Spottiswood happened upon some of Hurt’s 1928 Okeh recordings and went searching for him. John, though he had no guitar and hadn’t played for at least two years, agreed to go to Washington D.C. with Spottiswood and his friends. Seemingly he assumed he was in some sort of trouble with the government and thought he’d better go!
John Hurt ended up recording again and performed to appreciative audiences in festivals, coffee houses and concert halls until his death in 1966.
John Hurt’s guitar picking style has become a template and springboard for, probably, all acoustic blues guitarists. That solid, rhythmic, alternating base with a syncopated melody on the upper strings is the basis of the guitar work of Chris Smither, Rory Block, Eric Bibb and a host of others. Stefan Grossman played a big part in introducing aspiring musicians to John Hurt’s guitar style through his Guitar Workshop and instructional videos.
Happy Traum, who also met Hurt in the 1960s, has also done his part with his instructional videos. Whatever limited skill I have in playing finger-style blues guitar was set in motion by painstakingly working my way through The Fingerpicking Blues of Mississippi John Hurt, Happy Traum & John Sebastian, on Homespun.
So, in celebration of the great Mississippi John Hurt, here are 13 of his most famous songs covered by other artists. Of course, you ought to go and check out John Hurt himself, and before we get to the covers, here he is with Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor.
For a completely different take on it, check out Gillian Welch’s version from her 2003 Soul Journey. But here’s Happy Traum’s version.
Maria Muldaur, Richland Woman Blues
First recorded by John Hurt in 1963, Maria Muldaur’s version appears on her 2001 Richland Woman Blues album, where she is accompanied by John Sebastian, who had named his 1960’s band The Lovin’ Spoonful after a lyric in Hurt’s Coffee Blues. [check out our interview with Maria Muldaur here]
Eric Bibb, Stagalee
Stack O’Lee, Stackalee or as Bibb has it, Stagalee, references a murder in a barroom in St Louis. John Hurt, who first recorded the song in December 1928 in New York, insisted the two men involved were white men and the fight took place in a mine where Stackolee was trying to rob the miners who were gambling. Bibb’s version appears on his 2011 Blues,Ballads and Work Songs, after a live version in 2009 on Live à FIP, 2009). [Our recent interview with Eric Bibb is here]
Chris Smither, Candy Man
Chris Smither has played Mississippi John Hurt songs throughout his long career and his Candy Man appears on his excellent Train Home album from 2003. Candy Man Blues was first recorded in 1928 by Hurt and was a staple of his performances in the 1960s. It’s a bawdy song, rather at odds with the spirituals Hurt would often play, although apparently he was always reluctant to play ribald songs to people he didn’t know, especially ladies. [You can find our interview with Chris here]
Rory Block, Frankie and Albert
This very old song was first recorded by The Leighton Brothers in 1916, and is about an event said to have taken place in a St. Louis barroom where Frankie shot a ragtime pianist for his infidelity with his lover. The song was recorded by John Hurt in his very first recording session in Memphis in 1928 and then in 1966 for his second studio album of the 60s, Today! Rory Block was influenced by John Hurt as a young guitarist in the early 1960s in New York. She recorded a terrific tribute album to Hurt, Avalon Blues in 2013, with ten favourite John Hurt songs. [check out our interview with Rory Block here.]
Mary Flower, Monday Morning Blues
Mary Flower is an amazing acoustic guitarist who specializes in Piedmont-style finger picking with dashes of Delta, ragtime and jazz and jazz. Her Monday Morning Blues is on her 2007 Ragtime Gal album. John Hurt first recorded it in Memphis in February 1928. [You’ll find our interview with Mary here]
Brooks Williams, Louis Collins
John Hurt said that “He [Collins] was a great man, I know that, and he was killed by two men named Bob and Louis. I got enough of the story to write the song.” Hurt’s is the only version of the song and is almost certainly about a real event. He first recorded it in 1928 in New York. (Check out Patrick Blackman’s take on the song here). Brooks Williams is a sensational acoustic guitarist and singer and his version of Louis Collins on his 2010 Baby O! album is masterful.
Taj Mahal sounds remarkably like John Hurt on his recording of the song on his 2016 Labor of Love. John Hurt recorded the song in 1963 on Folk Songs and Blues, his first recording on the Piedmont label after being rediscovered. Creole Belles was a song by Lampe and Sidney, first recorded in 1901.
Lonesome String Band, Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me
Originally written by William Myer, and set by John Hurt to the tune of Jimmie Rodgers’s Waiting for a Train, this is one of the lesser known Mississippi John Hurt songs, which he recorded in 1966. The Lonesome String Band on their When the Sun Comes Up album in 2018, give it a quite different feel, with the banjo and fiddle to the fore.
Catfish Keith, Satisfied and Tickled Too
Catfish Keith is a quite remarkable exponent of acoustic blues and his Satisfied and Tickled Too, which also features his wife, Penny, on his 2007 If I Could Holler album, features everything you expect from Catfish’s outstanding guitar work – slides, bends, rock solid rhythm and complex picking. [Here’s our interview with Catfish]
Hans Theessink with Big Daddy Wilson, Pay Day
Danish blues guitarist Hans Theessink has been one of Europe’s top blues artists for decades and his version of Pay Day, with his warm baritone voice melding with Wilson’s sweet tenor on their 2021 Pay Day album, is delightful.
Bruce Cockburn, Avalon Blues
Avalon in Mississippi was, of course, John Hurt’s home town, and the song records Hurt’s preference for the rural scene he was used to over the big city: “New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine, Goin’ back to Avalon, near where I have a pretty mama all the time”. Bruce Cockburn, a hugely skilled finger-style guitarist, performs his version of the song on Avalon Blues: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt from 2001. This is a wonderful album of John Hurt songs by a top-class field of roots musicians. Avalon Blues is the second song.
Gillian Welch, Beulah Land
Hurt’s faith was important to him and he recorded a number of gospel songs, including Beulah Land, an old spiritual, in 1966 on his Today! album. Gillian Welch’s version on the 2001 Avalon Blues tribute album is very different from Hurt’s – more O Brother Where Art Thou, but a very fine version, nonetheless.
And it’s worth including this short video of John Oates telling the story of John Hurt’s guitar, which also features a version of Spike Driver’s Blues.
Finally, don’t miss this Mississippi John Hurt Documentary (20 mins)