Eric Clapton was once “god,” the best rock and blues guitarist on the planet, adored by fans of his time with John Mayall, Cream, Derek and the Dominos and then his solo career.
Now, aside from the recent nonsense of joining in with Van Morrison in a petulant wail against pandemic restrictions, and touting unscientific and dangerous claims about fertility against vaccines, he is a figure who seems to divide blues fans.
This is clear whenever you see something about him posted on blues-related social media – the negative reaction can be visceral. There’ll be those who won’t even bother to read this article and will simply react to the mere suggestion that Clapton’s Unplugged could be a classic blues album.
Others will take a more considered approach to Clapton, understanding his lifelong obsession with the blues and the contribution he made to the genre during the 1960s when the genre was in steep decline in the United States because of the rise of pop, rock’n’roll, soul and R&B. That was B.B. King’s view, who said that he and Clapton had been friends since they met in the 60s and that Clapton “plays blues better than most of us.”
The album the two made in 2000, Riding with the King, which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues album, shows two men in love with the blues, their music making flowing effortlessly off each other. And, of course, the admiration was not one way, Clapton thanking King “for all the inspiration and encouragement he gave to me as a player over the years,” and hailing Live at the Regal as the album which got him started with the blues.
Clapton was also very close with Muddy Waters, whom he described as “the father figure I never really had” and his greatest influence. His playing was also deeply influenced by Robert Johnson, who amazed him with his guitar chops and singing. “There were very few people on record who sounded like they were singing from the heart,” said Clapton, “there’s no comparison, this guy’s got finesse. His touch was extraordinary. Which is amazing in light of the fact that he was simultaneously singing with such intensity.” Clapton’s 2004 album, Me and Mr Johnson plays tribute to his lifelong fascination with Johnson.
So, given the association Clapton has had over the years with the greats in the blues Pantheon and their high opinion of his blues contribution, it’s hard to understand how he gets dismissed so readily by some blues fans. Clapton himself has said of his commitment to the blues, “I recognise that I have some responsibility to keep the music alive.”
All that said, on to Unplugged as one of our “Great Blues Albums.”
Playing his Martin 000-42 acoustic guitars, and accompanied by a small group of musicians, including Andy Fairweather Low and Chuck Leavell, Clapton performed the songs for a small audience in England in 1992 at a particularly emotional time for him. His four-year-old son Conor had died four months previously after falling from his 53rd floor apartment. Tears in Heaven – clearly not a blues song in form, but arguably in content – was one of the fourteen songs on the original album, which became 20 in the 2013 remastered version.
The album won three Grammys at the 1991 awards and became the bestselling live album of all time, and Clapton’s bestselling album, selling 26 million copies worldwide. It was released in August 1992 to wide critical acclaim and revitalized Clapton’s career.
The bulk of the setlist consists of traditional blues, including Big Bill Broonzy’s Hey Hey, Robert Johnson’s Malted Milk and Son House’s Walkin’ Blues. Songs from Jimmy Cos, Lead Belly, Muddy Water, Bo Didley, and Robert Cray, along with a couple of Clapton originals complete the set. One of these is an acoustic version of Layla which works surprisingly well.
Clapton breathes new life into these songs – his version of Jimmy Cox’s depression era song Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out has become something of a definitive version, his Walkin’ Blues with its cool slide guitar recalls Robert Johnson’s version, and Muddy Waters Rollin’ and Tumblin’ still rocks as an acoustic number.
Although the blues songs here are all cover versions of old blues songs, aside from the fact that the album just sounds so good, the significance of the album is the effect it has had on acoustic blues music. Subsequent to Unplugged, during the 1990s, you see artists like Keb’ Mo’, Kelly Joe Phelps, Eric Bibb, Rory Block and Guy Davis all seeming to come to prominence. For sure, these and other great artists whose music was based on acoustic guitar had been plying their trade for some time before that – some for a long time, reaching back to the 60s – and had a loyal following. But Clapton’s Unplugged brought blues music – and acoustic blues – to a much wider audience and got a new generation of fans interested in these other artists and then also beginning to listen to the original artists as well.
Testimony to that is conversations I’ve had recently with professional acoustic artists who hail Unplugged as being formative in their awakening to the blues.
Plus, Unplugged stands the test of time. It’s an album anyone can listen to and hear a modern interpretation of the blues that is not dated and is hugely enjoyable. Purists may prefer that everyone listens to Lead Belly or Bill Broonzy, but for everyone else, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged is their way into appreciating the blues.
I’ve seen a few shows of varying quality during the pandemic restrictions of the past year. But none comes close to Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom gig. Granted, it wasn’t a live gig, although you kinda got that impression from the advance publicity.
But the quality of this pre-recorded show, the surprising setting, and Dylan’s performance was such that any initial gripes were quickly forgotten. Shot in black and white, mimicking a smoky down-at-heels club in the 1940s, Dylan was in full cabaret singer mode, all gestures and stances, singing positively tunefully.
Where was the raspy, near-croak we’ve become use to in recent years? Gone completely as he treated us to a romp through his early back catalogue – mainly 1960s and 70s with What Was It You Wanted from 1989’s Oh Mercy the most recent one covered.
When you go to a Dylan gig, you expect the songs you know and love to be completed re-reworked, sometimes so you can barely recognise them. Here with the backing of a young band playing largely acoustically – double bass, acoustic guitars, mandolin, accordion, occasional electric guitar and no percussion – the songs sounded fresh, instantly recognizable and utterly captivating. Especially with the man in such good voice, at times strumming a couple of arch-top acoustic guitars and blowing a tasteful harmonica.
The dim lighting and the black and white shooting lent a considerable amount of atmosphere to the show, with patrons sitting around tables being served drinks and – à la 1940s, smoking. No wonder the band had their masks on – presumably to shield from the cigarette smoke rather than the virus. Though, actually, I kinda suspect the cigarette smoke might have been faked.
It worked rather well, though. The only thing else needed, said one wag on the online comments, was a “bar room brawl off stage.”
Dylan at 80 still managed to look rather cool, with his white jacket or – my favourite and I want one – his black embroidered one. The man still has a decent head of hair, though the low light suitably concealed his creased, craggy features.
He kicked things off with When I Paint My Masterpiece, probably the best version of this song he’s done, followed by Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine, before the exquisite Queen Jane, with Dylan standing at the mike, articulating the lyrics almost sweetly and the band paring things back to put the spotlight on the song and the singer.
I’ll Be Your Only Baby Tonight, musically was very cool, but I have to say, I felt rather uncomfortable about Dylan being flanked by two young women as he sang. Didn’t seem a good look. My feminist daughter, however, reckoned that the scene was supposed to subvert “the male gaze” (Google it!) – the women actors looked right into the camera all the time and not at Dylan. If so, it was clever work by Israeli-American director Alma Har’el, who did a superb job overall. Watch this song yourself for yourself and decide.
A few songs later we got What Was It You Wanted from 1989’s Oh Mercy, a quite beautiful acoustic version, with a little plaintive harmonica from Dylan, which brought out the yearning and pathos of the song. And that’s the thing about these arrangements – it helped you appreciate just how strong Dylan’s songs are, both lyrically and musically. In some concerts I’ve gone to in recent years, the songs were all but obscured by the rockabilly or rock’n’roll treatment.
He followed that with a tenderly sung Forever Young. I’ve always loved this song, but tonight, it seemed particularly poignant. That’s what we want for Dylan, for his songs, the albums, are so much a part of our history and we can’t bear to think of him aging. Because that means we’re aging too. And although we want it to be true, that he and we could stay forever young, we know, at 80, we’ll not have him performing and writing songs for much longer.
It was nice to get a song from John Wesley Harding in the mix, the lyrically opaque Wicked Messenger, whose title is based loosely on a verse from the biblical book of Proverbs. The obscurity of the lyrics was nicely emphasized by Dylan either being hidden entirely by the guitar player or almost completely in shade.
The final song, I hope we can’t read too much into – It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, sung with some deliberation, the band following Dylan’s careful enunciation, and highlighting the lyrics much more than the jaunty version on 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home.
Suddenly it really was all over, just 48 minutes. But 48 utterly absorbing and totally entertaining minutes. The good thing is, having paid my $25, I can watch it again a time or two over the next couple of days.
When I Paint My Masterpiece Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go MIne Queen Jane Approximately I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues Tombstone Blues To Be Alone With You What Was It You Wanted Forever Young Pledging My Time Wicked Messenger Watching The River Flow It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
“Rapidly becoming a British national treasure.” Blues Blast Magazine
Mark Harrison’s sixth album, The Road to Liberty, showcases his adept story-telling and clever lyrics, his knack for composing a catchy tune, and his never-less-than-engaging performance as a singer and guitarist. He’s hard to pigeon-hole, not quite blues, but blues never far away, somewhere in the folk-blues-country continuum.
That’s not a bad thing, given the unique talent that he is, able to write songs that transport you to another place, to make you contemplate the world around and, as well as that – most importantly – to entertain you.
Harrison is an English singer songwriter, who plays a nifty acoustic guitar, who has been delighting audiences over the last ten years with his carefully crafted songs and witty banter. He was a late starter as a professional musician, not picking up a guitar and singing until his fifth decade, but he’s made up for lost time, touring the country and supporting such artists as The Holmes Brothers and Doug MacLeod, along with major festival and radio appearances. He’s also released now six albums, all of which have been eagerly received and critically acclaimed. If you haven’t come across him as yet – put that right straight away and grab yourself a CD or download.
You could start with The Road to Liberty, a double album of 21 songs, featuring Harrison and his two bandmates, Charles Benfield on double bass and Ben Welburn on drums and percussion.
I got chatting to Mark about the new album and his musical journey. His previous albums, he told me, had been the “standard studio procedure of layer upon layer,” but that the band had felt that this album ought to reflect much more Mark’s live performances – “this business of singing your songs, standing up in a booth with headphones on, when do you ever do that in real life?”
A double album is a little unusual these days, and I wondered how that had come about. Mark said that he’d a lot of songs in the bank, so to speak, and, although he thought they’d only choose the standard 12 or 13 songs, the band like the lot of them, “so we thought, well, let’s just record them all. So, I’ve actually cleaned out everything I’ve got now!”
I remarked on the quality of the album’s cover and artwork – so often you get flimsy, pared back packaging these days and you wonder why you didn’t just buy the download. The Road to Liberty, however, feels quite luxurious.
“Well, it’s Andy Hall, who’s done everything for me from the very beginning. He and Rick, his business partner, ran a website called Blues in London when I got started, which was a sort of central thing for the blues scene in London. That’s how I met them, doing jams down at the Green Note in Camden. So when it came to do my first album, they said they’d like to do the cover. And so, it’s gone on from there and Andy does really wonderful things that make everything look great.”
The album has more of a band feel about it than some of Harrison’s previous albums. Charles Benfield and Ben Welburn, Mark’s two band members, are very talented musicians, whom he met on the blues jam scene at the very beginning of his career. They’ve been playing as a settled trio since around 2017, and sound a very solid and tight little outfit.
Mark does some solo gigs as well, depending on the venue and the promoter’s budget, but increasingly, it’s the trio. “I’d say it’s more fun when it’s the three of us.”
The album’s title, The Road to Liberty, is intriguing and one reviewer rather poetically suggested that it describes a “set of observations set to the heartbeat of humanity which exemplify the struggle of narrative freedom being taken seriously.” The phrase occurs in the song Restless Mind, a clever, jaunty number, with the band in full flight, which takes an ironic look at what happens when you let your mind become too restless.
“Well, I always take a phrase from a song, not a song title. So all the albums have a phrase or a word that is in one of the songs as the title of the album. I felt that I wanted a title that reflected some upbeat message because, in my opinion, the music generally speaking has an upbeat message in the words, even if it might not appear that at first glance.”
For sure, the tunes in the album are very upbeat, very optimistic sounding. At times they almost seem to belie the lyrics, a deliberate ploy by Harrison: “I’ve always felt that the music itself is uplifting or is meant to be, so you have perhaps a contrast between what is often a jolly tune, with what might be called slightly acerbic lyrics. And I think that’s probably where I’m at.”
As you listen to the songs, you’ll find yourself in turns amused, intrigued and puzzled. I asked Mark about one song in particular, which is great fun and had piqued my curiosity, Don’t Let the Crazy Out of the Bag (Too Soon).
“A woman friend told me a little while ago that if she was in a successful relationship that was going well, she would often find that the worst possible thing she could say would pop into her mind. And yet knowing that, she would find herself saying it! And then there came a point where she got engaged. But later I noticed on social media that she was no longer engaged. So I asked her about it. And she wrote, ‘I think I let the crazy out of the bag too soon.’
“And that one does have a happy ending by the way! It’s like a lot of things, you come across a phrase and you think it has a much more general application perhaps than the context in which you’ve heard it. And so, as well as that being a bit of fun, I thought that was a suitable subject for a song.”
Mark Harrison’s songs typically address a wide variety of situations and snapshots of life – on this album, you’ll find a song about the life of Skip James, Skip’s Song, a song about working in a factory in an economic downturn, Toolmaker’s Blues, and one about a poor guy on trial before the judge, All Rise. As you listen to this set of all-original songs, you can’t help but pick up echoes of blues music. Harrison plays a National resonator and has a cool kind of bluesy, picking style. You might expect him to throw in a few old blues songs, but that tends not to be what he does.
Mark told me that when he first got started, he tried to work out a few old blues tunes on the guitar, but found he couldn’t do it. The second song on the album, Everybody Knows, is a nice guitar-driven song in a Mississippi John Hurt style, but Mark said it was actually the first song he wrote using the 12-string and he had thought at the time he was working out Blind Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues. “So the short answer is, I don’t do covers of them because I’m not capable!” (Unlikely, Mark is an accomplished guitarist.)
Mark’s back story as a musician is a remarkable one. He’d played guitar seriously in his youth, but only returned to it much later in life, about eleven years ago.
“I got this guitar shortly before I started in 2010. And that transformed everything. I had absolutely no intentions at all of launching it into anything. I didn’t expect to make an album or do a gig, and so for a little while, I just went and played a little bit at jams and it was a social thing. But the London blues jam scene is pretty good – a bunch of really good people and very high standards. So then, I’d written some songs and I thought I’d commit them to posterity and that was the first album [the acclaimed Watching the Parade]. I had no inkling of what would happen. It sounded okay to me. I put it out there a little bit cautiously and I got a few gigs and it built from there. So it’s a rare case of something in life that’s just taken on its own momentum. And it hasn’t been a big struggle!
“One of the advantages of the changes in society in my lifetime is that it doesn’t matter what age you are with music. In fact, the acts most likely to sell tickets and do main stage at festivals probably have an average age that’s pushing 70! Most theatre listings of music and festivals are all about nostalgia. So, the idea that you couldn’t be doing this at a relatively older age, that doesn’t exist. Which is pretty good.
“And people with my musical background would tend to be what you call old school, which is that you’re not going to go out there and inflict yourself on people then unless you’ve worked out something that’s of a really high level professionally. So I carry that sort of attitude with me.”
We chatted a bit about the economics of being a musician and how embarking on a career or going out as a professional musician is a pretty uncertain enterprise.
“It’s pretty obvious to anyone involved that the demise of recorded music as a commercial enterprise has had an enormous effect. In the past you could shift a lot of albums, but by the time I got started, that ship had sailed. So you need to form your plans realistically with that in mind. I do really pretty well for someone that wasn’t established many years ago. But in terms of making money, nobody is.
“I used to listen to radio when there were a limited number of radio shows and I would buy albums straight off hearing people on, say, the Paul Jones show and others. Now I’ve been on those shows subsequently, and I think in the past, if you got played there, let alone did a session, like we have, that would have led to very significant sales of your albums. But these days it doesn’t. So there’s no point complaining about that. That had already kicked him by the time I got going. So it’s a question of understanding the environment you’re operating in and being realistic. There’s no point being in music if you’re going to complain about not being famous.
“For me, it’s going out and playing, the audiences, the people that come up and talk to you, the places that you go, the experiences that you have.”
Part of Mark’s story is acquiring a guitar previously owned by Eric Bibb, whom he admires a great deal.
“I started to listen to music again about 2000 after a long time of not listening to anything. I saw in the gig listing of one of the papers, “Eric Bibb, Sublime Bluesman.” I thought, I didn’t know there were any sublime bluesmen still alive. So, I went to see him several times and I thought what he was doing was great. And it showed you that you could get a really great big sound with a band that had an acoustic guitar leading it, not an electric guitar and someone pulling faces.
“Years later, I went to a shop in London – it doesn’t exist anymore – The London Resonator Centre and I thought I’d buy one of these guitars. They got me trying out some of the new Nationals, which are great. And then the guy running the shop said, ‘Ah, the way you play, you might like this that’s just come in.’ And he said that Eric Bibb had just brought it in. So I ended up getting that and subsequently I’ve met Eric numerous times, and he always hails me whenever I go to one of his gigs – “Mark!” from across the room.”
If you like acoustic blues music, you’re almost bound to appreciate Mark Harrison, even though his music can’t be pinned down to simply that genre.
“I think that I’m in the tradition of those guys that called themselves songsters. Back in the twenties and thirties, they would do a whole variety of stuff. I mean, if you listen to the full output of Robert Johnson, very little of it, actually, is what would now be called blues. Variety and entertainment were the key factors. So I’m in that tradition.
Entertainment is certainly what you get with a Mark Harrison performance and with a Mark Harrison album. But it’s not just entertainment. He’s a thoughtful artist who appraises life’s peaks and valleys and converts this into stories with wry and incisive lyrics, but never short of compassion. He’s a unique talent and one you ought to be familiar with.
It’s been a great year so far for blues albums. Whether it’s acoustic blues, blues rock, traditional, modern, gospel or funk, there’s been something for everyone. We’ve chosen our top 15 albums – arranged in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them. Enjoy!
Selwyn Birchwood, Living in a Burning House
Fresh modern blues, featuring Birchwood’s bluesy voice, and top-notch guitar and lap steel playing. Thirteen original energetic songs with a blues rock sound, with a jazzy feel at times. Birchwood is quite a talent and this is his best album yet.
Joanna Connor, 4801 South Indiana Avenue
An absolutely top-notch set of blues rock that clearly has a Chicago blues heritage, yet sounds completely fresh and modern. Connor’s killer slide guitar and vocals are augmented by some characteristically fine guitar work by Joe Bonamassa and a tight-knit top-class band. Superbly produced, and packed with raw, high-energy musicianship. Check out our interview with Joanna here.
Paul Cowley, Long Time Comin’
Paul Cowley is an outstanding musician, a fine guitarist, with a deep appreciation for the acoustic blues tradition. Long Time Coming, has 12 acoustic blues songs, 5 traditional songs from the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller and Blin Willie McTell and 7 originals. It’s outstanding, and hugely enjoyable. Here’s our great interview with Paul.
Steve Cropper, Fire It Up
Legendary guitarist, songwriter and record producer delivers his first proper solo album since 1969. Thirteen well-constructed songs, with a terrific band, excellent guitar work by Cropper and an outstanding vocal performance from Roger Reale. Check out our full review here.
Guy Davis, Be Ready When I Call You
Great songs, featuring Guy’s distinctive, growly vocals and rhythmic guitar work, good humour and engaging stories. More than just blues musically and most of the songs have a shard-hitting strong social commentary going on. An outstanding release from Davis and M.C. Records. Guy spoke to us about this important album.
Robert Finlay, Sharecropper’s Son
Finlay’s rasping, soulful voice is distinctive and memorable, and shines on this terrific album of blues, gospel, soul, and R&B. Produced by Dan Auerbach, the album evokes Finlay’s life of struggle and determination. Finlay is one of those musicians helped by the Music Maker Relief Foundation and his first album only appeared in 2016. Auerbach says simply, “Finlay is the greatest living soul singer.” To judge by this album, he’s not wrong.
Chris Gill, Between Midnight and Loiuse
A stripped-down recording, just two microphones, a small amp, no overdubs and a lot of love for the blues. Relax on the back porch as Gill takes his acoustic, resonator and cigar box and performs nine originals and Virgil Brawley songs. It’s finger picking good, good old-fashioned acoustic blues played with considerable depth and passion.
John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band, Leftover Feelings
A rewarding set of songs from Hiatt and Dobro master Jerry Douglas. Hiatt taps a rich vein of song-writing skill and experience in a mixture of ballads and blues songs with compelling stories. The combination of Hiatt’s always interesting voice, Douglas’s jaw-droppingly good guitar work and eleven good tunes makes for a hugely enjoyable experience.
Kelly’s Lot, Where and When
Kelly Zirbes’s band, which hails from the Los Angeles area has been plying its trade for the last 25 years, mostly as a blues rock outfit. Where and When sees them stripping things back, performing 11 acoustic blues songs with resonator-slide guitar and Zirbes’s gritty voice to the fore. It’s fabulous stuff, six originals written by Kelly and rhythm guitarist Perry Robertson that evoke the blues of a bygone age and five reworked traditional blues songs, including a terrific version of Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passageway.
Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days
Wonderful set of bluesy gospel songs from gospel singer King 50 years after she stopped performing and recording professionally. It’s a funky, blues, soul-filled pot of rich gospel fare, an album full of great songs, music that touches you, and Ms. King’s powerful vocal performance. It’s a gift for us all. Check out our great interview with the wonderful Ms King.
New Moon Jell Roll Freedom Rockers, Vol 2
Classic old-school recording from a kind of blues super-group, the musicians sitting together in a circle in the studio and playing amongst the microphones. It’s a joyous exploration of the blues, with great heart and soul A fine tribute to Jim Dickinson and a huge treat of an album for all of us. Our full review is here.
Gary Moore, How Blue Can You Get
If you buy one blues album this year, this is it. A set of eight songs, some previously unheard and unreleased, from the Moore family archives, will move you, excite you, get you on your feet, and make you regret all the more that Gary Moore is no longer with us. Released on the tenth anniversary of Moore’s passing How Blue Can You Get proves, if there was ever any doubt, that Gary Moore was a master of the blues. Our full review is here.
Reverend Shawn Amos, The Cause of It All
“I want to bring the ancestors into the room,” said Amos of this set of blues classics by the likes of Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. The songs are stripped to the bone, with Amos on harmonica and vocals, and his longtime collaborator Chris “Doctor” Roberts on guitar. Check out Amos’s hair-on the-back-of-your-neck-raising vocal performance on the wholly acoustic Hoochie Coochie Man.
Alabama Slim, The Parlor
Approaching his 82nd birthday, close to seven feet tall, and typically dressed in an impeccable tailored suit, Alabama Slim has given us a perfect, classic blues album which recalls the boogie of John Lee Hooker. It’s delicious, pared-back, but tasty fare from a man whose soulful and oh-so-cool vocals are served up in a wrap of sweet guitar groove from Little Freddie King, Slim’s cousin. Check out our full review here.
Christina Vane, Nowhere Sounds Lovely
Sit up and take notice of Cristina Vane, whose Nowhere Sounds Lovely is a terrific amalgam of blues, bluegrass and country – a thoroughgoing bluesy Americana, you might say. Whatever way you want to describe it, she’s a wonderful talent – a skilful guitar picker and slide player, a fine songwriter and a beautiful singer. We reviewed this excellent album here.
“You have a choice every day, you can be bummed out or you can be happy.”
Having a tough week? Feeling a bit down? Here’s a sure fire-remedy – click on the video below and catch Maria Muldaur singing with New Orleans band, Tuba Skinny, and feel your cares slip away as your smile gives way to a big grin and you suddenly find yourself on your feet dancing.
If you’re a roots music fan you’ll know Maria Muldaur from her many albums of blues, jazz and roots music over the last five decades; if not, you’ll surely know Maria’s big hit song from 1973, Midnight at the Oasis, with its sand dunes, camels and cactus. She’s still going strong, as upbeat and positive about life as ever, and has blessed us with a new album, recorded with Tuba Skinny, a group of traditional jazz musicians, entitled Let’s Get Happy Together.
Recorded in New Orleans last October during the dark days of the pandemic, but released as some semblance of normally seems to be returning (at least to America and Europe), Let’s Get Happy Together captures the note of hope we’re all looking for, not only in its title but in the exuberance and joy of the songs.
Maria Muldaur has had a stellar career, with a back catalogue of 43 albums, six Grammy nominations, multiple Blues Music Award nominations and a Lifetime Achievement Americana Trailblazer Award from the Americana Music Association in 2019. And that’s before we get to the hordes of fans all over the world.
The new album is one of the best you’ll hear this year and features twelve songs from the 1920s and 30s that Holger Petersen, the album’s executive producer and founder of Stony Plain Records, its label, says “is a historic project that pays reverence to many of the early New Orleans women of blues and jazz.”
Muldaur says that she hopes listeners “will be inspired to look up these wonderful artists yourself on YouTube and start exploring and enjoying the endless abundance of incredible music they left us.”
I got chatting by phone to Maria at her home in California about the album and about life in general. She was a breath of fresh air. I asked her, first of all, how the album came about, and she told me this remarkable story.
“Well,” she said, “a few years ago, I was shopping in a store in Woodstock, New York, and this wonderful, exuberant, toe-tapping music came over the speakers and it just sounded like the most wonderful vintage jazz. So, I remarked to the shop gal how cool it was that the local radio station would be playing this hip jazz. And she said, ‘Oh, that’s not the radio. That’s a band. That’s Tuba Skinny.’ Well, you know, I’ve studied that kind of music all my life, really immersed myself in it, since I was in a jug band back in the sixties, and I’d never heard of them. She said, well, they are a young band from New Orleans and they play on the streets. And I couldn’t believe that they were young because they were playing with such soulfulness and such authenticity. So I just was immediately smitten with their music.
“Long story short, she knows some of them. So she hooked me up with five of their albums and I became an ardent fan. It was like they were channeling not just the music itself, but the very atmosphere and aura and rhythms of life from that bygone era. It’s almost like going back in a time machine to a time when things were not as mechanized and digitalized and, you know, industrialized.
“It just makes you happy to listen to it! Well, anyway, I was making my last album two years ago in New Orleans where I was paying tribute to a wonderful New Orleans blues woman named Blue Lu Barker, who originally wrote and recorded a tune that’s been in my repertoire for almost 50 years, called Don’t You Feel My Leg. So I made it my business to go see Tuba Skinny every chance I got, whether they were playing on the street or in clubs. And eventually the washboard player recognized me. I didn’t go up and talk to them or anything – I just was there as a fan. And he said, is your name Maria? Maria Muldaur? I said, Yeah. And he couldn’t believe it!
“So I ended up sitting in with them a couple of times. And then in January of 2020, I was invited to come to New Orleans and do a special guest showcase of the International Folk Alliance, and I wondered if Tuba Skinny would play with me. So I got in touch with them. We had one quick rehearsal, and it immediately felt like going home because it just was a natural fit. Even though they were several generations younger than me, it’s clear we’ve all been drinking out of the same musical fountain.
“So anyway, we did the gig, it was wildly received and an old friend of mine, Holger Petersen happened to be there because he was getting a lifetime achievement award for having had a roots music show on the radio for 50 years in Canada. And over lunch the next day he asked me about doing an album with them. And I loved the idea. So that’s how this album came about.”
The album has songs originally done or written by Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis Armstrong’s second wife, Dorothy Lamour, Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon, Sweet Pea Spivey (sister of Victoria Spivey) and the delightfully named Goofus Five. The music is infectious and upbeat and the lyrics are clever, at times funny and uplifting. It’s music, I suggested to Maria, that stands the test of time.
“I would say that these songs were written in a time when things were more kind of heartfelt and genuine. And I go out of my way to choose songs that have relevance for me. Now, I figure if they resonate with me a hundred and some odd years later, then there’s a good chance they’ll resonate with my listeners. The very first day when Holger took me out to lunch. I got really excited about the project, and we said, well, what kind of songs will we have? And he started scrolling around. And we had the idea that a theme of the album could be paying tribute to women artists from New Orleans.
“And he came across Lil Hardin’s Let’s get Happy Together. Which we both found immediately appealing. I said that it should be the first song on the album – in fact it should be the title of the album. But little did we think that barely a month or two later, we’d all be locked down and put into hibernation? And so for the album to come out in May like it did it, just as people are starting to be vaccinated and come out of hibernation, it couldn’t be a more timely title.
“But that song was written over a hundred years ago, and it’s got very hip lyrics and is very lighthearted. I think people didn’t take themselves too seriously back in those days, because there’s all kinds of lighthearted, goofy songs. People weren’t expressing their inner anger. All my life I’ve gone for songs that have some kind of uplifting message.”
As you listen to this album, there’s a lot of positivity throughout. From talking to Maria you can’t help but suspect that these songs are reflective of her as a person.
“I’m disgustingly positive, some might say! The kids in the band say to me, ‘You’re always so upbeat, so cheerful!’ Why live here on this planet, if you’re not gonna at least attempt to be that? You have a choice every day, you can be bummed out or you can be happy. My motto is ‘No problems. Just solutions.’ That’s who I am as a person. And I always choose songs that reflect who I am as a person.
“After Midnight At The Oasis, they realized they had a possible hitmaker on their hands, and Warner Brothers were trying to duplicate that success, trying to figure out how to get that to happen again. So they brought me a song called You’re no Good [which the Swinging Blues Jeans had had a hit with in 1963]. And I listened to it and said, ‘Why in the world would I put that message out over the airways? Husbands are telling their wives they are no good; parents are telling their kids, they’re no good. Why would I amplify that message?’
“Well, my dear friend Linda Ronstadt had a huge hit with that about a year or so later, and took that all the way to the bank! But I never regretted it because I’m all about putting out a positive message.”
One of my favourite songs on Let’s Get Happy Together is Valaida Snow’s 1935 Swing You Sinners. Snow was a virtuoso jazz musician known as “Queen of the trumpet,” and hailed by Louis Armstrong as the “world’s second-best trumpet player.” The song celebrates faith as being something joyful and upbeat.
“If you’re going to have faith in God,” said Maria, “it might as well make you happy, right? Rather than, you know, cowering and graveling before some angry father God, just looking to punish you at every turn. That’s one kind of religion, but my religion is let’s get happy together!”
She told me she’s attended an African American church in her neighborhood for the last forty years where she enjoys the kind of worship that is always joyful and full of music. “And that song, I think, puts that across. It’s just swinging so hard for one thing, and without saying anything too religious, it basically says, when those old blues come around, you don’t have to wear a frown, just swing out, boys, and let the sweet tones ring!”
Even the blues, for which Maria Muldaur is well-known, shouldn’t be something downbeat and depressing. “The blues is always about surviving by the time you get to the end of it. ‘Trouble in mind, I’m blue but I won’t be blue always, the sun’s gonna shine in my back yard some day.’ That could sum up the theme of so many blues songs. It’s not about wallowing in self-pity. It’s about expressing your sorrow or your disappointment, but finding a way to transcend it. And that, to me, is the magic of the blues and why the blues will never go out of fashion.”
Talking to Maria Muldaur is a ray of sunshine. Like Rory Block, whom I spoke to a while back, who told me that at 70, she was “just getting going,” and whom Maria referred to as “her little sister,” Maria told me that, “I certainly don’t feel like I’m slowing down very much.” She’ll keep on making great music “as long as I can find some kind of music that interests me.”
I wondered as she looks back over her career, all the albums, all the awards, all the accolades, what stands out for her, what is she most proud off?
“Well of course I just always followed my passion or philosophy – Joseph Campbell used to call it following your bliss. That’s what I’ve done without ever thinking about the commercial success that might or might not be involved in a particular endeavor. It’s been all about the music. When I look back, I’ve been so blessed to work, to record, and to perform with so many of my own musical heroes. Everyone from Doc Watson to Ry Cooder to Dr. John, to Mavis Staples, to Bonnie Raitt. Working with Benny Carter in an all-star big band was certainly the thrill of a young singer’s life, as was singing a duet with Hoagy Carmichael. And singing a duet with Ralph Stanley was an out of body experience.”
And then Maria told me this great story about her 2008 album Yes We Can! for which she had formed a “peace choir” of women’s voices.
“I had originally thought of it as a protest album about the issues that were going on in the day. Then I remembered that I actually didn’t like protest music! I liked the causes they were espousing, but I didn’t like the music itself. So I quickly changed the idea to turn it into a pro-peace album. And the first song I thought of was Yes, We Can, which was an Allen Toussaint song that had been a Pointer Sisters hit around the same time as Midnight at the Oasis.
“So I formed a choir of women who have raised their voices for peace and social justice. It included Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Odetta, Jane Fonda, Phoebe Snow, Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir – and that names just a few. And so I put together this really cool album, and someone who worked in the studio where we were mixing said, you know, there’s a guy running for president and he’s using, ‘Yes we can,’ as his slogan, you should send him that song. I said, ‘yeah right, some guy running for president is gonna listen to my song!’ And then two weeks later, someone else was in the studio and said the same thing. But I wasn’t interested – because I was planning to vote for Hillary – this was early in that election year.
“But I ended up sending the album through someone I knew who could get it to him and expected nothing at all. A week later I got a handwritten letter from Obama himself thanking me for the song and saying it perfectly fit the spirit of his campaign. And he was going to have it played at his rallies and speeches. I thought, you know, I have mail on my desk I haven’t answered in four years and this guy took time out personally thank me! I ended up voting for him of course. So that’s something I’m really, really proud of.”
Now you can’t talk to Maria Muldaur without asking about that song – Midnight at the Oasis. Does she still enjoy performing it?
“I do. That song put me on top, not just in the States, but all over the world, for some strange reason. It’s a song about a camel! But, first of all, it’s a very hip song musically. A lot of jazz artists have covered it over the years because it has really hip jazz chord changes. And it’s a song that’s enjoyable to play. It almost kind of plays itself and I can improvise on it every night. God forbid if my biggest hit had been some three-chord song! So I’m just grateful every day for it; it’s a delightful song to sing.
“And as if that weren’t enough, when we get to that song, which we do almost at the very end of set, we see people in the audience, couples grabbing hands and giving each other knowing looks. Because for some reason, that song, so I’m told, was the soundtrack to many a love and lust, and it brings back hot sexy memories! So I’m happy to have provided something like that; it’s a song I’ll forever be grateful for.”
Having said that, we’re all grateful that Maria Muldaur hasn’t rested on her laurels – not at any stage over the past fifty years. And here she is, still making great music that entertains and uplifts. Quite rightly she’s very proud of Let’s Get Happy Together, which may be her best work yet. Her good friend Bonnie Raitt certainly thinks so.
That being the case, she says, “I must be still slowly but surely improving my skills as a singer. So, I’ll just keep doing it until nobody wants to hear it anymore!”
As long as Maria Muldaur keeps on making music, we want to hear it.
With songs by Gladys Bently, Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Blind Boys of Alabama and Kirk Franklin
Last year President #45 claimed he had “made Juneteenth very famous…nobody had ever heard of it.” Utter nonsense, of course. Happily President #46 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. 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.
However, a 2021 Gallup survey indicates that more than 60% of Americans know “nothing at all” or only “a little bit” about Juneteenth, which makes the current action to enshrine the day as a national holiday all the more important, as American seeks to comes to terms more fully with its racial history.
It’s an important day, then, 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
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 final 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.
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
One of the songs on Eric Bibb’s Dear America album, to be released in September, on the Provogue / Mascot label is Born of a Woman. “On this record,” says Bibb, “I’m saying all the things I would want to say to somebody dear to me…All of America’s woes, and the woes of the world, can only come into some kind of healing and balance with that energy we call love. That’s my conviction.”
Born of a Woman decries all forms of violence against women and makes the simple appeal to men: “Every woman, every girl in the whole wide world deserves your respect.” Bibb is joined in the song by Shaneeka Chin Simon, a creative singer-songwriter, with a degree in Theology and an experienced gospel-singer and choir leader.
Between them, they highlight domestic violence, religious-motivated violence, and enslavement of women. “Lord,” sings Bibb, “How can a man treat a woman that way?”
Sadly in 2021, women all around the world are still experiencing a tsunami of violence. Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture, and starts alarmingly young, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization. Across their lifetime, 1 in 3 women are subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner – a number that has remained largely unchanged over the past decade.
Add to that practices like female genital mutilation (FGM), the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons, which can cause severe bleeding and a range of other serious medical problems. FGM has been perpetrated on more than 200 million girls and women in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15.
Tragically, one could go on and on, talking about sex-trafficking, which affects nearly 4m women, and women trapped in prostitution and the pornography industry, and the picture emerges of the shocking way women are so often treated by men. And that’s before we get to the abortions carried out on baby girls simply because of their sex, in a range of countries in East Asia and South Asia, and even in the United States.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, says that violence against women can only be fought “with deep-rooted and sustained efforts – by governments, communities and individuals – to change harmful attitudes, improve access to opportunities and services for women and girls, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships.”
As Eric Bibb and Shaneeka Simon say, “Every woman, every girl, deserves your respect.” Aside from any action governments or corporations need to take, that comes down to us, every man of us – refusing to be involved in anything that exploits women and affording the women in our families, workplaces, churches and clubs, dignity, respect and equal opportunity.
“Guy Davis is an authentic and spell-binding bluesman, with an incredible voice and a great sense of humour.”
Guy Davis is a hugely talented blues artist, who delights his audiences with his snappy guitar work, gritty vocals, humorous monologues and impressive stage presence. He’s been on the road and making records for more than forty years and is a Grammy nominee, an Emmy-winning actor and author, a multiple Blues Music Award winner, and a past winner of the Blues Foundation’s “Keeping the Blues Alive Award.”
He’s a talented guy who has at times juggled several careers, including author, teacher, and actor on Broadway, film and TV – but it’s as a musical artist and exponent of the blues that he is best known. Although he was raised in New York City, Davis grew up hearing accounts of life in the rural South from his family, especially his grandmother, all of which has inspired his music making which is rich in story-telling. He taught himself guitar and learned by listening to and watching other musicians, becoming a fine country blues acoustic guitar picker.
He’s just released his 19th album, Be Ready When I Call You, released on the M.C. Records label. In some ways it’s what you’d expect of a Guy Davis album – great songs, featuring Guy’s distinctive, growly vocals and rhythmic guitar work, good humour and engaging stories. In another it’s quite different, both musically and lyrically, most of the songs having a strong social commentary.
I was delighted to catch up with Guy to ask him about the new album. How different does he think it is from previous Guy Davis albums, musically or otherwise?
“Well,” he told me, “it’s more World music and more Americana than it is strictly blues. Blues is, I guess, what I specialize in, but some of these other songs were in me and they had to come out! Musically you’ll hear, well, some of the same instrumentation I’ve been using with Professor Louie and those guys, but my arrangements, some are almost orchestral, some have a little Middle Eastern something to them.”
You can definitely notice the blues influence here and there in the album, but as Guy says, it’s musically quite varied. Looking back through his extensive back catalogue, his previous albums have been mostly Davis on acoustic guitar, playing his own style of country blues, but on Be Ready When I Call You, there are songs with a full band. I asked about the band and recording with the other musicians.
“The reason I choose to record so regularly with the guys that I use is that I trust them. I trust them for the way they handle my music, even when I go beyond the blues. I’ve played with them on stage, of course, which is the best way to play with a band. But a lot of the music I created on my own, and when I brought my creations into the studio, I didn’t know all of what these gentlemen were going to do. I would say, I have this idea for so-and-so, and that idea for this song, but they brought something of their own to it. Ultimately, I would approve or not, but more likely I did than not. It made me feel so good.”
Davis wrote all the songs on this album, apart from Howling Wolf’s Spoonful. That suggested that the last year with the pandemic and all of that had been conducive to Guy’s writing process.
“Oh, yes. I have been writing and writing and writing. I have no excuse not to! At the moment I’m down with my daughter and with my girlfriend, but I’ve spent most of the time up in the Bronx, New York, and I had no excuse to not write. So I’ve written a bunch of things that are not on this CD, I’ve got newer stuff than is on here.”
Which sounds like we can look forward to much more good stuff from him before long.
The album has a very interesting range of songs, a number of which address issues in the United States and indeed around the world. One of the stand-outs of the album is God’s Gonna Make Things Over, which addresses the Tulsa Massacre, a horrific incident that took place which took place from 31st May 31 to 1st June, 1921.
In one of the worst incidents of white on black violence in US history, a white mob, many of whom had been deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked the vibrant and prosperous Black Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, reducing it to rubble. In an unspeakable orgy of violence, residents, homes and businesses were subjected to machine gun fire, bombing from the air, arson, looting and beatings. Hundreds were killed and thousands left homeless. Shamefully, there was a news blackout about the event, followed by decades of deliberate cover up – the history was hidden, distorted, and deformed by conspiracy theories or attempts to both-sides it.
It’s the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, so Guy’s song is fitting. The song focuses on the story of a doctor who was accosted and, despite raising his hands up high, was shot dead. Guy told me that he had been at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, and had read a moving account of this doctor who was saving lives. I asked him about the song and the need to deal with the past.
“Well, yeah, to deal with the past, but there is a message from the past, which is that people need humanity, that is, to be treated as humans in order to live. And that is a message for all people. And this particular example shows the tenuous lives of so many black people, especially back then, and it reflects on them now. Humanity is not exclusively an African-American proposition or any one group of people. So hopefully in the midst of pointing out this piece of history – and all of our pieces of history need pointing out – people will recall that this is for all of us. American history in a black perspective.”
The song seems to become personal. The lyrics say, “watch my body, burn me from a tree.” And I wondered if that reflects a sense of the ongoing trauma that African-Americans feel to this day?
“There is indeed a sense of ongoing trauma – the past continues into the present. That was a deliberate choice to switch from the third person to the first person. I decided not to restrict myself in this song and in other songs on this album – they were my impulses and I’ve become willing to take more chances. I am exercising a quality I don’t exercise enough. That is, courage to stand up and say what’s in my heart honestly. And in this song, it was to point at it in an objective historical sense and then to bring it into us.”
That begged the question from me about how important Guy thinks it is for artists to be aware of, and to reflect upon the stuff that’s going on in the world today. How important is it for musical artists to do that?
“I believe it is of paramount importance. But art is informed by the facts of historical reality, and then artists are free to bend it, to stretch it, to do what they need to do. You take, say, Garrison Keillor or even William Shakespeare. What they wrote about was fictional, but just because it wasn’t “true” did not mean that it did not tell the truth. It is an artist’s job is to be able to take the truth and find a new way to express it. That might not be just stating the facts.”
The last song on the album Welcome to my World, which sees Guy in rapper mode, is pretty hard hitting and explicit about America. “You’re rotten to the core, took all we got and you still want more than is due to you.”
He told me that this was how he was feeling at the moment he wrote the song. But, he admitted, “a person my age shouldn’t be involved in rap music probably! Nonetheless I will, because this modern rap has been around for a long time, making up rhymes about what’s going on around us. So welcome to my world! There’s some bitterness in the song, there’s some sarcasm. It’s my attempt to expose things that are true, at least true as I perceive them.”
The lyrics go on to say, “no more, you’re running out of time. You’ve got to toe the line or we’ll make you”, and “you made the movie, but we’re making the sequel,” which is a line I loved. What, I asked Guy is his sense of the possibility for change and for things improving?
“Oh boy, change is a very touchy kind of subject! The one thing I know about human nature is that men and women do not learn from history; we say we do, but we don’t. So, I have to chalk up change as an evolutionary process. Real change happens incrementally with struggle over time. It is the 2020s and we still have to make sure that there’s voting legislation that is in place and that is constitutional – and it’s still a struggle. There are always people who will choose just what is expedient. So, it’s going to take time and a lot of struggle. Change is on the way, but it’s an ongoing process that is slower than it looks like.”
Having said that, as we look at what happened during 2020 with the George Floyd and other murders, I wondered if Guy thought that had accelerated any sort of change?
“It has accelerated all of our recognition of the need for change. There are some people still who are intractable and they think what’s important is money and conservative ethics. Change takes a lot of nurturing, but now our knowledge that change is needed is greater. And so that makes me feel good. And this new generation coming up. They are much more about change, much more willing to change.”
There are a wide range of important issues in Guy Davis’s sights on this album – there are songs addressing refugees, asylum seekers, the poison water in Flint, unemployment, and poverty. He wasn’t holding back!
“No, I’ve never really held back, but these things are so much at the forefront of my consciousness, as well as what’s going on in the world. These are the kinds of issues that would be discussed when I sat at the supper table with my family – the political injustice, the racism, all sorts of things that the world needs to deal with.” Guy went on to say that the music reflects this expansion of his lyrical horizons, in that it goes beyond his normal boundaries in the blues to World music and Americana music.
In terms of World music, there’s a song on the album with a Middle Eastern musical feel to it, Palestine Oh Palestine. Listening to this at the moment is very poignant because of the flare-up of the conflict there. But Davis does the song quite sensitively – important, because obviously that’s a conflict where opinions can be very polarized and there’s been a lot of suffering. He told me that the song was arranged so that the voices representing the two enemies sing on top of each other in such a way that it is ultimately harmonious.
“And that’s my way of saying, everybody needs a voice in this process. The one voice I’m not hearing is from the Palestinians. I want to hear from Palestinian people. And even my song is not a real Palestinian voice. It is just my voice interpreting the situation.”
There is one traditional blues song on the album, is Spoonful, written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960. It’s a great version with Guy and the band rockin’ their way through it. He told me that it’s a song he really likes, and although it’s a Howling Wolf song, it kind of reminds him of Muddy Waters and has a good feeling to it.
Once Guy gets out playing again, it’s a number that is sure to down very well. I asked him about getting out and playing these songs at some stage.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’ve done a few minor outings in the past weeks. But I’ve forgotten so much about the automatic way I do things when I go somewhere! I don’t know which wire to put where, which box to put here. I have to recreate all of this. People who are my dear friends, we’ve all been vaccinated, but when I went to hug them, I automatically turn my face to the side. I just don’t know what to do anymore!”
Be Ready When I Call Youis on the M.C. Records label, the fourth record they have released together. His previous release on the label was the 2017 Grammy-nominated record with Fabrizio Poggi, Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train.
Paul Cowley upends everything you might expect of an acoustic country bluesman. He’s never been to Mississippi and says he has no desire to go; he’s a white English guy living in the French countryside; he heard the blues for the first time when he was about 40; and he started playing the guitar late in life because an uncle had left him on in his will.
And yet…Paul Cowley is an outstanding musician, a fine guitarist, has a deep appreciation for the acoustic blues tradition and has become an outstanding exponent of that tradition, whether it’s re-interpreting songs from the past or writing his own.
He has five albums behind him and we thought his 2018 Just What I Know was outstanding. He has now released Long Time Comin‘, with twelve acoustic blues songs, five traditional songs from the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell and seven originals. This one’s even better.
I review a lot of albums, some of which I like, some not really so much, some of it very worthy, great musicianship, maybe important lyrically – but it’s always good to listen to something that is just…well…enjoyable. And that’s what you’ll find with Long Time Comin’.
I got talking to Paul in his home in Brittany about his music. I asked him first of all about the album’s title – in the title track he sings, “I’ve got my mojo, I’ve found my voice.”
“Yeah,” he replied, “For many years I’ve questioned what I do, how I sing, how I play. Should I do something different? But over more than a 20-year period I’ve now arrived at this point with age, wisdom and all the rest of it. And actually, it’s just me being me, and I can’t do any more than that really. I’ve always wanted to be authentically me. I don’t want to study John Lee Hooker for ten years and become a fantastic interpreter of John Lee Hooker. I’ve done what I do long enough that I have my own unique style and take on this music. So over a period of time, it’s become a sort of definite style. The songs I write, you can recognize it’s me.
“But I’m most pleased this time, because this time in the recording process I found a new level of certainty. So yeah, long time coming, I do feel I’ve got my mojo and my voice and I’m happy!”
Paul is the most refreshingly unassuming professional musician you could meet, but I put it to him that what he does in taking a traditional song that everybody knows, like Louis Collins, which appears on the album, and reinterpreting it, not playing note for note John Hurt’s version, say, seems to me, takes quite a bit of skill and ability.
“When I begin with a song, I almost always start trying to play the original, the “proper” way, but it’s never right. So, somehow it kind of gets massaged and changed and I think, well, it’s nothing like Mississippi John Hurt anymore, but it feels right for me. I’m not a technical musician, it’s all by feel and instinct. But over the years, there’s a bit of experience built up as to how one can flesh out a very simple arrangement. If you can move the chords up and down the neck, you get these different dynamics, I’m never stopped learning. I’m more interested now than ever in learning things that can just expand my options.”
In Cowley’s hands Louis Collins isn’t the rather jaunty version you often hear, which maybe doesn’t do justice to the song’s terrible story. He slows it down and adds some very cool slide guitar, and it becomes, fittingly, a bit more sombre, but at the same time, it never gets morbid. It’s a great version.
There are a half a dozen Paul Cowley originals on this album. As with all the songs, it’s mostly Paul singing and accompanying himself, picking acoustic guitar and adding some delicious and judicious slide here and there. I asked him about the song writing process.
“The first album I recorded here in France was a hundred percent original songs. I don’t have a problem coming up with original songs, and I love the album and I’m proud of the songs, but I think my audience likes a little bit of something they recognize as well.
“But the song writing process – I’ve got a studio across the yard in the barn upstairs. I never think I’ll go and write a song. I play guitar generally speaking, twice a day, couple of hours in the morning, a couple of hours in the evening. And almost without fail, I will find something on one of the guitars, just a simple phrase, two notes or two chords or some chords other people don’t tend to use, but there’ll be a feel or a timing to it. I do that frequently and often it goes no further than that. But sometimes I come up with that little phrase or whatever it might be, maybe three words that suggest the lyrical subject or topic, and that’s how they come. I can’t predict when that will happen, but when it does happen, very rapidly the song comes together.
“With the guitar part, that hook thing or whatever it was, there’ll be this period of embellishment, maybe I play it for two years and a few more bits and bobs come in, so songs are constantly changing and evolving. So – simple!”
One thing you’ll notice when you listen to the album, is the sound quality. It sounds like Paul is sitting right in your living room playing for you. It’s crystal clear and the instruments and vocals are perfectly balanced. On the album liner notes. Cowley says that, although he recorded the album in his barn/studio, he’s “low tech.” Yet the sound on the album is superb.
“Well, my background is I’m a builder, so there’s a little bit of understanding of buildings and shapes and materials. I’ve got this studio over in the barn upstairs with sloping ceilings, oak rafters, beams, chestnut flooring – all cobbled together from materials left over from renovating the house. Think of the Robert Johnson thing where he turned his back and played into a corner. and the sound was remarkable.
“I’m comfortable here at home, fleshing out these ideas on my own, nobody around me. If I was in a studio, however nice the engineer might be, I’d be wanting to play the song again and again because I’m not quite sure whether that was the right take. And he’s looking at the wall. I don’t like any of that.
“But the stroke of luck that I’ve had is called Pascal Ferrari. He’s a musician from Marseille, really high calibre. He’s a guitarist, a bass player, and he’ll pick a trumpet up. His musicality is quite remarkable. I met him five years ago, and we’ve done some gigs together and he’s fantastic in the studio. So I did the recording here straight, no effects whatsoever, into a fairly dated Korg mini recording machine. And then I physically carried that across Brittany to Pascal’s house. He then, transferred this into his computer and he’s a really very talented mixer. And then he sends that to his friend and they listen to it on some big, serious equipment, and tweak it from there. So I feel very fortunate that I’ve stumbled across Pascal!”
It’s pretty unusual to find a traditional blues picker living in the French countryside, instead of in a big city or somewhere in the Southern United States. I wondered how that worked for Paul in terms of performing his music – granted that the last year has been more than a bit unusual. He told me how he’d been building up his gigs across France and then popping back to the UK for small tours – and along the way discovering that French hospitality for the traveling musician is so much better than what he often gets in England.
I wondered also what attracts Paul to this traditional country blues music. Here he is, an English white guy based in the French countryside playing the blues of African-Americans from a hundred years ago – it all sounds a bit unlikely. But perhaps it says a lot about the universal appeal of the blues. Paul began to tell me about his own journey.
“I discovered this music relatively late in life. I’d had a few Spanish guitar lessons in my early teens and I love the sound of an acoustic guitar. But my teacher didn’t inspire me and I stopped playing music for 20 years. I became a self-employed builder, but I never stopped listening to music. But when I was 40 my wife Diana bought me for my father’s day present from the kids, Clapton’s Unplugged. And I remember, I was decorating the room and I put the CD on and Signe and Before You Accuse Me came on and it was instantly like, “What’s this?” And there was this lush interpretation of Walking Blues, just a beautiful sound and Clapton’s softer kind of vocal style and I thought, this is marvellous! And then I thought, well, I wonder who is that Big Bill Broonzy bloke that does the song. Hey, Hey? Well, I looked into that, and it was a delight.
“And then I was given a guitar. My uncle died. I probably wouldn’t have bothered to go out and buy one, but I got this steel string guitar. And I got a very basic blues tutorial book with the tab and I thought, I can play this – it wasn’t fantastic but it was delightful to me. And I’ve never looked back.
“The Clapton album made me want to get some proper old blues to listen to. So one Saturday I went into Cobb Records – an old-fashioned record shop – to the blues section, maybe 20 CDs in all, if that. And I leafed through and I didn’t know any of those names at all, but on the one towards the front, there was this picture of a very cool looking black guy, hat on, guitar in hand, looking exactly like what I expected a blues player to look like, and he was Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“Coffee House Blues was the album and we put this on in the car on the way home and played it for two years. He’s important to me because it was him that got me into this…fantastic voice, proper steel string, acoustic guitar. I just love that and still do to this day.”
Paul has worked hard at honing his guitar chops over the years and explained that one formative stage in his development as a guitarist came at a Woody Mann workshop he attended in Liverpool.
“Woody Mann gave us a general philosophy about how to go about getting better. He talked about keeping the repertoire relatively small but well played, and effective use of your time. And because I went home on the train alone, I made all these notes of the key points. You don’t get good at anything without applying yourself hard to it. And to this day, I’ll get up, I have breakfast and I go and play for maybe two hours. I try and pick the guitar up again during the day for a few minutes. And then I’ll play a couple of hours in the evening, But that’s nothing compared with some guys – we had Steve James staying here, and he plays six hours a day – for the past 50 years!”
To start with, Paul never thought he’d perform publicly, but from first steps playing in the round with friends at his local blues club back in Birmingham, he’s developed into a fine acoustic blues artist and song-writer with serious guitar chops. Ever self-deprecating, he told me, “I’m quite surprised that I do it, but I love it!”
As well as Paul’s own songs, Long Time Comin‘ has songs by Blind Boy Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton, Blind Willie McTell and Ray Charles. But I wondered if Paul has any artists that he’s particularly fond of?
“I love Lightnin Hopkins. I find Mississippi John Hurt songs come into your repertoire, whether you want them to or not. His music is so playable, they’re great songs and I love his music. I like Blind Willie McTell, I’d like to do more of his. A long time ago I heard his Love Changing Blues on the radio played by John Hammond and I never in my wildest dreams when I took my sandwich that lunchtime listening to that, thought that one day I’ll be able to play that kind of stuff! And I love Fred McDowell’s stuff – there’s just something about him.”
It’s fair to say that Paul Cowley’s been smitten with the blues. And if you get yourself a copy of his Long Time Comin’, you will be too. This album is one of the best acoustic blues albums you’ll hear this year – check it out www.paulcowleymusic.com or Bandcamp.
And if you’re in Southern Brittany sometime when this pandemic has passed us by, listen out for the sounds of the Delta where you least expect it.
In celebration of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday (gosh that makes me feel old!), I listened to a lot of songs in my Dylan collection and confirmed what I had long suspected – that Dylan is fine blues artist, with a deep sense of and respect for the blues tradition.
Look through the canon and you’ll find versions of traditional blues songs, new songs that are out-and-out blues in form, songs that are blues-infused, and some that are clearly not musically blues, but nevertheless have a blues lyrical content (and on occasions, title).
The blues slips through throughout his long career, but is most evident in his very early work and then the latter albums, from Time Out of Mind onwards. But can a wealthy white guy really be said to be a bluesman? Of course, Dylan wasn’t always wealthy and paid his dues as a homeless, penniless young musician before things took off for him. But that’s a debate I’ll leave you to think about if you read Adam Gussow’s book Whose Blues? All I’ll say here is that from the beginning of his career until now, Dylan has drunk deeply at the well of the blues tradition and has done his bit in rehearsing that tradition over the years, through performing traditional songs and his own compositions. And he’s proved to be a thoroughly able exponent of the blues – in his own idiosyncratic, characteristic way.
We’ve selected 12 of Dylan’s blues songs for you to enjoy.
First, six traditional blues songs:
Corina Corina From Dylan’s 2nd album, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, the song was first recorded in1928 by Bo Carter, and then by the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930 (turning Corina into Sweet Alberta). Many other early blues artists recorded it, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Joe Turner, Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb, as well as jazz artists and exponents of Western Swing. Dylan’s version borrows from Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passageway, including the lyrics, “I got a bird that whistles, I got a bird that sings.”
Fixin’ to Die Dylan’s first eponymously titled album, released in 1962 features mostly folk and blues standards as well as two Dylan originals. Fixin’ to Die is a song by Delta blues musician Bukka White, recorded in 1940. The song reflected White’s experience in the notorious Parchman prison in Mississippi, where he “got to wondering how a man feels when he dies.” Dylan’s version changes the melody and adds some lyrics.
See That My Grave is Kept Clean Another song that appeared on Bob’s debut album. It was first recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927 and 1928 and became his most famous. Dylan manages to keep the rather sombre nature of the topic in his version, possibly more so than even Blind Lemon. The song has been recorded by a host of artists, including excellent versions by B B King and Mavis Staples.
Stack a Lee Dylan’s version appears on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong, a raw sounding collection of traditional folk songs, which was critically acclaimed and won a Grammy for Traditional Folk Album. The song is known in a number of variants – Stagger Lee and Stagolee amongst them – and is a traditional song about the murder of Billy Lyons by “Stag” Lee Shelton in St. Louis in 1895. It was first recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. Shelton, nicknamed Stag because he had no friends, and Lyons were members of the St. Louis underground. They got into dispute over Lyons’s hat one evening while drinking and Shelton shot Lyons, and was subsequently convicted of his murder. The song celebrating this unsavoury incident has been recorded by many artists over the years, with Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 version often considered the definitive one.
Frankie and Albert The song appears on Dylan’s 1992 album, Good As I Been to You, another album made up entirely of folk and blues songs and Dylan’s first entirely solo, acoustic album since Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964. Rolling Stone viewed it as positively as “a passionate, at times almost ragged piece of work.” Frankie and Albert, again, was inspired by real life, the story of a woman killing her unfaithful lover. There have been hundreds of recordings of the song, starting from as early as 1912, including versions by Elvis and Johnny Cash. Dylan’s version features some nifty acoustic guitar work and some lovely vocal phrasing.
Rollin’ and Tumblin’ Dylan’s version of this old blues standard song is on his 2006 Modern Times album. Dylan had come into a rich vein of form starting from the 1997 Time Out of Mind, which was to continue right until the present, with a number of well-received, critically acclaimed and enjoyable albums. It reached No.1 in the album charts in the US and was ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Dylan’s version of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ follows Muddy Waters’ famous version, which had taken the tune from Robert Johnson’s If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day. Dylan’s version gives a rockabilly feel to the song and has some nice slide guitar along with his increasingly croaking vocals.
We might also have included Dylan’s versions of Blind Boy Fuller’s Step It Up and Go and the Mississippi Sheiks Sitting on Top of the World, but let’s choose another half dozen of Dylan’s own blues songs.
Dylan’s Own Blues Songs
Everything is Broken Dylan’s 1989 album, Oh Mercy, produced by Daniel Lanois, after a couple of poorly received albums, was viewed as a return to form, with Dylan himself claiming, “There’s some magical about this record.” Everything is Broken is rife with blues sentiment, with Dylan bemoaning the state of the world, with everything broken, from kitchen implements to bodies to treaties. The final lines, “Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking, Everything is broken” echo the empty, hollowness of a broken world. It’s been described as a Louisiana, swamp blues, and the reverb-drenched guitar work, with a simple three chord blues structure, matches the near-despondency of the lyrics.
The Levee’s Gonna Break Another one from 2006’s Modern Times. It’s a straight 12 bar blues based on When the Levee Breaks by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie from 1929. The song references the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, a hugely destructive river flood that inundated 27,000 square miles up to a depth of 30 feet and displaced 200,000 African Americans from their homes, forcing them to live in relief camps or migrate north. Dylan uses only a few lines from the original song, with the rest his own. Interesting note: the line “Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones” probably comes from Ovid’s Tristia, Book 4: “there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones.”
The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar The song was recorded in 1980, but not included in the first version of Shot of Love in 1981. It appeared on the vinyl version of the album and in all subsequent versions released. Both Rolling Stone and the Guardian hailed it as one of Dylan’s best songs. It’s a brilliant piece of blues rock and the November 13, 1980 performance from San Francisco, which is included in the Trouble No More Bootleg release, features Carlos Santana on guitar with a couple of blistering solos and Dylan as intense as you’re likely to hear him, in enigmatic prophet mode, speaking of a world of chaos, madness, war and misunderstanding. The song is a powerful one – “a fiery piece of molten fury” [album liner notes] and the repetitive blues riff drives home the prophet’s urgent message. [For more on this song, click here]
Lonesome Day Blues This is a straight 12 bar blues song from 2001’s Love and Theft. In Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track, authors Margotin and Guesdon call it an exemplary blues performance – it “demonstrates how easily (he) can sing the genre. His voice takes on the atmosphere of Muddy Waters’ electric period. The support of his musicians is extraordinary.” It’s a good ‘un, all right!
Beyond Here Lies Nothing From 2009’s Together Through Life, the song’s title is a quotation from the ancient Roman poet, Ovid. It was for nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Solo in 2010. There’s a nice loose feel to the arrangement, with judicious use of horns, and Dylan’s vocal performance is very cool.
False Prophet From Dylan’s highly acclaimed Rough and Rowdy Ways from 2020, an album that proved Dylan’s staying power and his song writing mastery had not diminished. The music on False Prophet is based on Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s 1954 Sun Records single If Lovin’ Is Believin’ and features some nice guitar work by Dylan’s long-time guitarist, Charlie Sexton. The song is rather enigmatic, with Dylan claiming to be “no false prophet” kind of echoing here previous denials of being the cultural prophet that many had set him up to be over the years. Notwithstanding what he has said or sung, Dylan has proved himself to be a prophetic voice, whether it has been pointing to the broken nature of the world and its injustices or the broken nature of individuals, with the hope that can come through faith.
We’ve left out no end of fine songs, including: Man in the Long Black Coat, Ain’t talking, Trouble, Shot of Love, High Water, Jolene, Shake Shake Mama, It’s all Good, World Gone Wrong, Black Crow Blues, Gotta Serve Somebody. Go check them out, if you’re not familiar with them.
But we’ll finish with a song that claims to be a blues song, but isn’t really. But it’s one of my favourite Dylan songs, so here it is, from his Modern Times album.