Eric Bibb is a star in the firmament of acoustic blues musicians. With two Grammy nominations and multiple Blues Foundation awards, he’s forged a hard-working career over five decades and gathered a multitude of fans all over the world. If you’ve ever been to an Eric Bibb concert, you’ve come away with a smile on your face that probably lasted a week. His songs are rooted in the blues but have a lightness of touch and a joy that is infectious.
He’s a very fine guitarist, song-writer and singer, but it’s the humanity, challenge and soulfulness of his performances, all spiced with a gentle humour, that linger long after the last resonating note of his guitar.
Eric’s father, the late Leon Bibb, was an activist, actor, and folk singer who marched at Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King, and Eric carries on the dream of a better world. His songs are infused with notes of challenge and gospel hope. His latest album, Migration Blues, is a record for our times, highlighting the plight of immigrants everywhere, through songs about the injustices of the American South and the hardships of those currently fleeing war and disaster. The album features the excellent Michael Jerome Browne, a Canadian Folk Awards artist of the year, and J J Milteau, top-notch harmonica player.
Down at the Crossroads had a conversation with Eric before his gig that night in the Tivoli Theatre in Dublin. The conversation ranged over music, the Grammys, immigration, war and racism – and, of course, hope for the future.
DATC: Last time I saw you, Eric, was at the City Winery gig in New York City the night before the Grammys. And you stood up and sang – I think it was “Refugee Moan,” from last year’s Migration Blues album. It was spellbinding, and we all felt the goose bumps – it seemed very significant to be singing that song about that subject right there in the heart of New York. Tell us about that song and choosing to sing it in that way that night.
Eric Bibb: I’ve been singing it like that for a while now. The response has always been remarkable. Yeah people get it, they really do and I’m thankful for that.
DATC: I was very disappointed to see the next day that the Rolling Stones won the traditional blues category that you were nominated for. Any of the others would have suited the category much better. How did you feel about that?
Eric Bibb: Ugh. It was a strange choice I thought in that category. But, I don’t really know what drives these things. My conclusion is that this is not based on serious music analysis or cultural analysis. Other factors have a role. What that mix is, I really can’t say. In the end I was happy to have been nominated, but I do think it was a bit absurd.
DATC: Yeah, I think a lot of us did.
Eric Bibb: Traditional blues album – really? Really guys? OK. And then I don’t know if politics plays a role in it, you know. It’s hard to say, I know that the Recording Academy has a first selection and then it goes out to members, who those people are…
DATC: The whole Migration Blues album bemoans the state of the world. You’ve got lyrics like: “Heart full of Trouble, weighted down like lead, temperature’s gone sky high, can’t find no work, no matter how hard I try.” In these songs I hear you addressing climate change, the woes of immigrants, the devastation of war, poverty – you must have felt quite strongly about things to make an album like this?
Eric Bibb: Yeah, I was trying to connect the dots. It’s all related. It’s good to be reminded I think. For example, it was a hot topic back in the late sixties when Dylan came out with Masters of War. But, you know, that doesn’t seem currently to be part of the big debate. Who’s manufacturing all this stuff? I mean, who’s making money on it? You’d be surprised at some of the players.
DATC: And the biggest part of the refugee problem is because of war.
Eric Bibb: This is it. It’s driven millions of people away from their homes. This is serious beyond belief. And I think if we knew the facts – which we don’t – we would be appalled. In Europe they have to deal with this flood of refugees, but the reasons behind all of this is not really talked about.
DATC: Yeah, there’s a lot of vested interests when we talk about war and conflict. But this was an album you really wanted to make, Eric, at this time?
Eric Bibb: The idea to make an album based on the theme of migration came to me from my good friend Philippe Langlois at Dixifrog Records, who is my European partner in recording and distribution, and he just said, “You know Eric, it’s a current topic, it interfaces with your own ancestral history.” So, food for thought there, and I began doing some research and I connected the current refugee crisis together with the Great Migration in the United States. Then it really started to unfold and I realized, you know, everybody’s got a migration story. Everybody’s been on the lam from some natural disaster or oppression or whatever. Which is interesting because it’s almost like if you vocally support migrants, you’re some kind of…
DATC: Some kind of left wing radical.
Eric Bibb: Yeah, yeah. Come on, get your empathy together. You were there once, too, you know, so I don’t know what’s radical or left wing about having some kind of empathy for people who are forced out to leave their ancestral homelands. But everything has become so politicized.
DATC: And I was interested in you saying in one of the songs, “Migration is not a problem, it’s an opportunity.”
Eric Bibb: It’s true. Listen, it’s because of migration that everything good about human civilization has come into being. It’s all about culture collisions, some of them gentle, some of them not, but all the forward steps of human kind have everything to do with that type of blending of the tribes. It’s obvious.
DATC: The song Blacktop – is that a version of Hayes McMullan’s Everyday Seems Like Murder Here? It seems similar:
Eric Bibb: Yes it is, I think Michael [J Browne] and his writing partner, B.A. Markus, they wrote that song inspired by particularly that line. Michael is encyclopaedic in his knowledge of the music he plays. He’s a scholar. So, that he would use that quote is not surprising.
DATC: So it’s great that he’s contributed to this album. I’ve listened to and appreciated his music for many years and it’s great to hear the two of you together.
Eric Bibb: Yeah, he’s a treasure. Michael is in the band on this tour along with Neville Malcolm on bass and Paul Robinson on drums. Michael will probably do a number tonight on his own. In some shows, Michael has been the opening act.
DATC: And then in the midst of all the reality, the darkness, on the album, you give us Brotherly Love – “I still believe, we can find a way to live in peace.” Is that what keeps you going?
Eric Bibb: It is. For all of the stuff we are fed by the major new outlets, I think there’s a lot that’s going on that is very positive in the world that just never gets publicized. I’m encouraged, just because I travel a lot and see people who really seem to understand where the world is at and what needs to be done, and seem to be on board with doing it, particularly young people.
But I see no choice but to hold out in my music and my songs a message of hope because otherwise, everything becomes pointless. And I think that that’s not the way it should be. I think we’ve definitely cocked things up in a big way and been party to people doing some major harm to the planet and to our communities. But for all of that, I actually think awareness is shifting. I think there are more and more people who are tired of conflict. I see music playing a major role in connecting cultures, exposing people to cultures that they might not have much to do with. And that produces a kind of softening. You know we’re tribalistic – we’re human – and it takes time to break down that old, almost genetic, tendency to separate “us” and “them.” But – it’s happening. And I think the young people, connected by the Internet, is a big part of it too. So, I am hopeful, despite all of the conflicts that are raging around the world. I think we’ll come out the other end.
DATC: Well, I guess if we can do it up in the north of Ireland…for many years it was “us” and “them.” But we’ve moved on a lot.
Eric Bibb: Yeah, big time.
Eric Bibb: I grew up with that song. I was very happy to realize how well it fit in and how it ties things together. Particularly in this era of Trumpism. It strains the imagination to think of this guy as the President of the United States of America.
Bu these are interesting times, I think a lot of people have basically become separated from reality. You can tune into certain television channels and basically live in a bubble that has nothing to do with what is really going on in the world. I think there are a lot of people in America who seem to have the free time to sit on the couch and watch Fox News. And with a diet of that and little else, it’s very possible to get a very distorted view of the world – where a guy like Donald Trump could be appealing.
Also, mainstream politicians have also lost contact – that’s obviously the main reason why Trump could even exist as the President.
DATC: That’s why I think your art is very important. You’re connecting the history and the situation in the American South and the blues tradition with what’s going on in the rest of the world. And when you talk about Jim Crow and the sundown towns in your songs – it seems to me that the reality of that is something that large swathes of Americans haven’t ever really come to terms with.
Eric Bibb: They don’t even know it actually happened! The ignorance factor when it comes to awareness of our own history is so huge. It’s not taught properly in schools – and yet this information is out there. I think the solution is a really serious educational push to acquaint Americans with their history. And the reason it’s been submerged and marginalized is that, to say the very least, it’s uncomfortable for everybody. It’s uncomfortable to the ancestors of slaves, for the ancestors of slave owners, and it’s something people want to skim over rather than understand in depth the horrific dimensions of it and how it’s left its prints on contemporary society in a major way.
You know, when people talk about the concept of a post-racial America, I say – are you kidding me? What? Just because a brown skinned man got elected? There’s nothing post-racial about America. The poison of racism is so deeply engrained in the tradition of that hierarchy, it’s going to take a massive facing of it and re-education.
But, who knows? I see very encouraging signs in factual books and literature; I’m seeing a lot of writers – not necessarily African American writers – who are saying, “Hey, we really need to take a good look at what has really happened in this country,” starting with the genocide with the indigenous people and continuing through the slave trade, and really try to understand the stage we’re at right now. How did we get to be this very divisive society? I mean we’ve not even made a symbolic attempt at reconciliation. Like, take the Germans – they’ve done an amazing job – credit where it’s due.
DATC: There’s a song that was on the North Mississippi Allstars album from last year, and then the Blind Boys of Alabama took it up on their Almost Home album. It’s a great song, actually, and decries the “ignorance and hate” of racism that is around today, and says, “I hate to think that our grandmothers would be broken hearted, to see their children’s children right back where we started.” It also says, “I wish we all could be colour blind,” which seems to me to be a fine aspiration, but I kind of wonder, is colour-blindness what is needed right now? Maybe coming face to face with it, coming to terms with it is what is needed?
Eric Bibb: Yes, exactly. It’s about first recognizing that – in the modern age, in the West for sure, there’s just been a tremendous prejudice against what is referred to in the news as people of colour. And this orientation is so engrained, so institutional, that people don’t think about it. This is what needs to be reversed, what needs to be addressed, in a very specific way. And it’s possible, we can do it, you know? But I agree with you, colour blindness is not the solution, we need to face the fact that people look the way they look and there’s a variety of looks and tones and get over it! And accept it and embrace it and be happy for it!
I mean we’re all African people. We all emanated from East Africa, from a brown-skinned woman!
DATC: So, tell me about the collaboration with Michael Jerome Browne, who’s a wonderful artist, great guitar player. Tell us about that.
Eric Bibb: I met Michael at Calgary Folk Festival years ago. He was playing a gourd banjo, a slave banjo – it sounded amazing – and I didn’t expect to see someone who looked like him playing it! And I thought his playing was just a revelation, so we got in touch and we started working together after a while. I know a lot of great musicians, but Michael is all on his own when it comes to his awareness and knowledge of the language of the country blues and beyond. It’s unique.
DATC: Now let me ask you this Eric – you’ve been a hard-working professional musician for a long time now. And, like the rest of us, unfortunately we’re not getting any younger – of course, you look about 15 years younger than me, at least! How tough is touring; does it seem any harder than when you were younger; or does the joy of it, what you get back from the audience sustain you?
Eric Bibb: I still have the joy of it for sure. The physical side of it – it’s not the playing, it’s the hauling of your instruments around from place to place and so on – that can be a strain. It’d be great just to be able to turn up and do the show! But I still have to be on the ground involved with the logistics and stuff. Actually, I’d like to stay home more and teach more, but I don’t want to stop touring. It’s an essential part of what I’ve enjoyed and still enjoy doing.
And the opportunity to travel so often and widely is the greater blessing. The strain of it and how it wears you down is minor compared with what it’s given me as a human being. Just to be in touch with so much of the surrounding world. It’s a huge blessing.
DATC: Eric – thank you!