With songs by Gladys Bently, Eric Bibb, Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Blind Boys of Alabama and Kirk Franklin
A couple of years ago President #45 claimed he had “made Juneteenth very famous…nobody had ever heard of it.” Utter nonsense, of course. Happily his successor signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, enshrining June 19 as the national day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. Nevertheless, more than 30 states have not as yet authorized the funding to allow state employees to take the day off and it’s been said that not enough people know about the holiday to make the effort worthwhile. This, in spite of the fact that In June 2022, the percentage of Americans who said they knew about the holiday, was around 60%, rather than the 37% of the previous year. Still…60% isn’t terribly good, is it? – I mean, this Irishman knows about it!
Anyway, the day is also sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.”
Juneteenth celebrates the 19th June, 1865, when Union soldiers read the announcement in Galveston, Texas, that all enslaved African-Americans were free, two months after the South has surrendered in the Civil War, and more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is African-Americans’ Independence Day and has traditionally been celebrated with barbeques, parades and parties.
It’s an important day, it seems to me, not only for African Americans but for the whole country. Historian Kate Masur says that “Juneteenth…should serve not only to remind us of the joy and relief that accompanied the end of slavery, but also of the unfinished work of confronting slavery’s legacy.”
Down at the Crossroads celebrates Juneteenth with four songs. The first is Juneteenth Jamboree, recorded by Gladys Bentley, a Harlem singer, well known in the 1920s and 30s, who hits a note of celebration and joy.
There’s no shirking, no-one’s working Everybody’s stopped Gums are chompin’, corks are poppin’ Doing the Texas hop
Eric Bibb’s album Dear America, he says, is “a love letter, because America, for all of its associations with pain and its bloody history, has always been a place of incredible hope and optimism.” [check out our terrific interview with Eric here] In the title track, he addresses the open wound of America’s racial divisions in a way that is both personal and hard hitting. His simple appeal is, that although the “temperature’s rising”
“Don’t let hatred’s fire burn you and me”
Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd recently joined forces with Robert Randolph on steel guitar and veteran blues drummer Tony Coleman to record Hit ‘Em Back, a song which addresses divisiveness and anger within the greater blues community. Copeland said, “I don’t want my music to come from a place of anger because when it does, no one hears you. Let’s educate; let’s open people’s eyes; why can’t we be united?”
The song appeals to our common humanity and the power of love as an answer to division:
Don’t care where you’re born Don’t care where you been The shade of your eyes The color of your skin We all join together
Hit ‘em back Hit ‘em back with love
Our next Juneteenth celebration song, is the Blind Boys of Alabama singing Luther Dickinson’s Prayer for Peace. The song celebrates progress made, but bemoans continued racial division. The song wishes we all could be “color blind.” In the voices and harmonies of the Blind Boys of Alabama, it’s another appeal to our common humanity. [check out our interview with Jimmy Carter here]
The innocence and love seen in our children’s face Makes me pray ignorance and hate disintegrate into space Shall we pray Pray for peace.
And finally here’s the “Black national anthem” in the United States, a hymn written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson. This is a truly inspirational song, and Kirk Franklin and this fabulous choir, really hit the heights.
God of our weary years God of our silent tears Thou who has brought us thus far on the way Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light Keep us forever in the path, we pray Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee
Kreg Yingst is an artist, originally from Chicago, but now living in the warmer climes of Pensacola in Florida. He specializes in unusual and rather fabulous portraits of musicians, mostly from the blues, but also from jazz, rock and country. On the wall facing my desk, I have a wonderful wood-based print of Rev. Robert Wilkins, complete with some lyrics from his famous Prodigal Son song.
In his catalogue, blues fans will find work representing Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon…the list goes on. They are all superb and every blues fan ought to have one of Kreg’s pieces on display.
With art degrees from the Trinity University,Texas, and Eastern Illinois University, Kreg was originally a painter, but has come to specialize in printing carved wooden blocks. He describes himself as a narrative artist, where the story of the person he is dealing with becomes represented in the finished art-piece. Along the way, Kreg ruminates at length on the story, and then produces a sketch which gets transferred to a block of wood or linoleum, which he then will carve, before ink-printing.
As well as his music range of art, Kreg also has a body of work which focuses on sacred themes, ranging from illustrations of the Psalms to Celtic saints to the Passion of Christ. During the pandemic, when he could not exhibit as usual in the art festivals and fairs where he normally sells his work, he was surprised to find that, when his online sales spiked, it was the sacred art that was being sought.
His hand-coloured woodcuts of the parables illustrate Kreg’s concern that faith be grounded in real life. So, in Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan, an African-American man rescues a Ku Klux Klansman, while in his Lazarus and the Rich Man, a beggar grabs for the cigarette butts tossed by a limo rider.
In similar vein, Kreg has published a book called Glory among the Ruins: The Homeless Project, a portfolio of 15-linocut portraits of homeless men, a portion of the proceeds of which go toward feeding programs in the Florida panhandle. He says, “I joined a group of like-minded men and women from various churches to provide food, clothing, and spiritual nourishment for the homeless of our city. Over time, as I heard their stories, I began to know them individually, and not just as a people group. They had names and faces, hopes and dreams, and a past that would play into the situation they currently found themselves in.”
Kreg is soon to publish a new book entitled Black Light. I’m honoured to have been asked to write a forward, and I’ve seen an early copy of it. I can tell you that it is a stunning piece of work. It’s 28 portraits of black gospel blues artists, with a Kreg Yingst image of the each one along with a short introduction/reflection on each. The book celebrates Black History Month, which occurs in February in the US and Canada, hence the 28 portraits.
I got the opportunity to talk to Kreg and ask him about his work and the new book.
First off, I had to ask him about his name – there aren’t a lot of Kregs or Yingsts in my part of the world, nor, I’m guessing in North America. Kreg told me it came from his German ancestors who came to America in the 1700s and got a bit changed along the way from Juenst to Yingst. That settled, we talked about Kreg’s approach to his art.
“Well, I’ve been working with printmaking probably since the mid-1990s. I was always somewhat interested in narrative or storytelling arts and so I connected initially with the magic realists. I just loved their work from the 1940s, 50s, in America – people like George Tooker and Paul Cadmus. I liked the quirkiness about it. It felt inquisitive, there was something very magical to the work.
“In terms of the narrative aspect of my work, I’d go to libraries and fiddle through different books and try to find artists. And I came across two artists who were working with wood cuts at the time, Lynd Ward, an American, and Frans Masereel from Belgium. They had done what were called wood cut novels. You could read these visually no matter where you lived in the world. And I found that really fascinating. The graphics really appealed to me. And so I started moving into doing wood cuts and lino cuts and relief prints.
“Now the musicians, the subject matter – I think part of that was I had struggled with creating people in my art, so I started doing figurative art just because it was more of a challenge. I used to do more cityscapes and I was very good at it, but I felt it was somewhat of a dead end. So I started doing people, which I wasn’t very good at. To be honest, I still struggle with it!
“At some point I might like to get back to my painting, but at this time I enjoy the printmaking for a number of reasons. It’s more affordable art – that appeals to me. I’ve always liked, say, the Mexican socialist artists for making art so accessible for people. I don’t like painting that is only for the ultra-rich or museums. I like this aspect of art in our daily life.”
And what, I asked him, about the music aspect of his art?
“I remember the first piece I did was a Robert Johnson piece and it was just because the story appealed to me, the myth, the legend. So I did it and I thought it worked well. It was on aged paper, it had particles of the bark or the plant still in it, and to me, it seemed like a tobacco paper and it just represented Johnson’s time. I did it very scratchy with my cutting and I liked the outcome. I then started digging into the blues guys – not that I knew many of these people. So, my art became more of a journey into people I didn’t know, areas I don’t know. And something from it evolved into a work of art on my part.”
Kreg has a wonderful gallery of art covering blues artists, but he also has covered jazz, rock and country artists as well.
“The rock came a little bit later and doing that allowed me to bring in colour. And again, I was trying to represent the time period. On a technical level, it was more difficult because now you’re using multiple blocks, you’re using multiple colors. I also dabbled a little bit with jazz but with jazz, I started doing backgrounds with multiple blocks that I would piece together in different ways and I’d use different colors. And then I would bring the face as the last block on top. So, in a sense, I was able to improvise. I was trying to do visually what I was hearing audibly. So, you got the scratchy blues, you got the high key powered colors of rock and you got the improvisation of jazz.”
All of Kreg’s art has a spiritual element to it, sometimes explicitly, often just in the way that he creates, as an artist. But as well as the extensive music-related catalogue, he has a range of specifically sacred art.
“There’s a spiritual line that runs throughout the entire body of my work and I’m looking for that same element, I guess, that John Coltrane would’ve talked about with the audio.
“I’m looking for that with the visual, but that’s, I guess, part of my faith and my faith journey that has been embedded in my work. I did a whole series on the parables quite a while back. At the time I was looking at the German expressionists and they were very loose, and I tried to translate the parables to a modern-day context.
“And then eventually I went to do the Psalms in the same manner, but the Psalms were not narrative, so that proved difficult. And to be honest, I thought I was gonna knock out this project in about a year. But it transitioned into more of my own spiritual journey, where I was reading the desert fathers and a lot of monastic literature.
“And I started to incorporate these visual blocks into my own prayer life. Where I would read through a Psalm and I would take something with me, maybe just a sentence. That’s the sort of thing the desert fathers would do, they’d sit around, they’d listen to the speaker, they would take this line and then they would kind of ruminate on it throughout the day. That’s what I would do. And then I’d find the visual within that. And that whole project took me eight years. So, it became kind of my daily practice, taking the Psalm, embedding it, saying it, speaking it, and then doing it visually.
“And then I did another thing too, after the school shooting at Sandy hook, which kind of devastated me. I had young children at the time and I couldn’t understand how these people could live with that. It happened in December, and I decided the following year that I was going to find a prayer and I was going carve one piece per week until that whole year had gone. My output then became an opportunity to change this darkness into light for me. In my work, you start with a black block, basically, and every mark you make, you’re making white into the block. You’re literally carving light out of darkness. If this evil’s gonna happen, I wanted to have something good come out of it.
“And I like the idea that these prayers that are carved, they continue on in life, in somebody else’s reading. And then I started using these books I’d produced of my work as fundraisers so the profits would go to an orphanage. To support the children that don’t have parents, that did survive somewhere in the world. So, I didn’t want the darkness to win out in this. Like some light’s gonna come out of this.”
As Kreg talked about his approach to his art, it made me think of iconography, the icons that have been done in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where the painting of those is a spiritual exercise in and of itself.
“The icons are very interesting. I’ve recently finished a series on Mary, in conjunction with a book that’s coming out by an American author who now lives in Ireland, Christine Valters Paintner. Whereas with the Psalms, I was taking a word, this project, with the Mary series, I was taking an image – I would take the image through the day and see then how that was going to be interpreted through my concept of what was going on.
“But I have a couple of icons of my own and it’s a calming thing. I like the idea of it – it isn’t really a cognitive thing. We take in art, we take in music, we take in smells, our senses, directly. And so it is with our experience of God or our communication with God. By doing art this way, you’re making a deliberate act and saying, use this time, and this time is going to be with God. And this is going to be prayer.”
As I look through Kreg’s catalogue of art, it seems to me to have a potentially wide appeal. What sort of people, I asked Kreg, buy his art?
“A real mix. It’s kind of fun to be in the booth selling because you have this interaction with the people that are actually buying. It may be people covered with tattoos that love it for the black and white graphics. Or maybe a little grandmother buying one of the icons – so you get a real mix. And sometimes people will unload on me. I’ve had people come in and buy a piece, say like my Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. And the person’s about to walk out the booth but they turn around and say, this means so much to me, my son just died last week. You get that kind thing.
“Sometimes it has a lot of meaning to them. I’ve seen people laugh. I’ve seen people cry. I’ve heard miracle stories.”
My ears pricked up at that – let’s hear about the miracle stories, Kreg!
“I was doing a show in Texas and one person was buying a piece based on Here Comes the Sun, you know, the George Harrison song. And she goes, ‘Oh, I gotta tell you about this. This piece means so much to me.’ She said her son had been diagnosed with a rare disease and she was supposed to meet with the specialist after the weekend. She’d gone home and was really distraught and she’s praying, just pleading with God. It looked like her son had been given a death sentence basically.
“Monday, she gets in her car ready to leave. And she goes, ‘God, if this is gonna work out well, let Here Comes the Sun come on the radio’! So, she turned on the radio and after a moment of dead air time, the first notes of George’s guitar come in. So, she got to the hospital specialist, and he says, ‘I don’t understand this, we’ve taken the test again, and it’s has come back negative.’ And the doctor said, ‘Do you believe in God?’ And she’s like, ‘I do now!’
“Another lady on that same weekend came in and she’s got two of my Psalm prints in her hands and doesn’t know which one to take. So, I said, get the one which speaks to you more. She asked me if I believed in God and I said yes, I do. She told me, ‘You know, I used to. But my brother got sick and I prayed and prayed but he died.’ I replied, ‘Listen, I don’t have the answers, I don’t know why this happens, but I do know God loves him. And he loves you and he’s always there.
“On my iPad, I had all the psalms and I was going back through them and I was trying to find what prompted the image from the Psalm. I had something highlighted and it said something like, ‘I’ve never left you,’ that kind of thing. And I said to her, ‘I don’t know what this means, but I think maybe this is for you.’ And I turned the iPad round and she read the two highlighted lines, ‘I’ve always been there, I’m not gonna leave you’ whatever the Psalm had said. And she goes, ‘I think that’s for me.’ So, I found it very fascinating that, that weekend there were two diverse but related things. One was a miraculous healing, the other not, and yet both in their own individual way, there was a miraculous encounter with God.”
I was very interested to hear about Kreg’s new forthcoming book, Black Light, the one that celebrates Black History Month with the portraits of the gospel blues artists. What’s the story behind it?
“It kind of developed on the spur of the moment and it was my wife that suggested I do this project. I’d done a lot of black musicians and gospel blues is my real interest. So, I thought, I could do something to take us through black history month. So, I started going back through all the people that I’ve done and, sure enough, I had more than enough images. I like the concept of ‘black light.’ I’m living over here in the thick of it. It’s been some crazy times, these last couple of years over here.
“So, I want to get out the history and what this group of people came through and what their faith did and supported them to get through this. And is still having to get through. And I’ve seen how, even as artists or whatever, people misunderstand black and white. I do graphics of black and white, and we’ve always associated black with evil and white with goodness. I want people to know this is incorrect. So that’s why I call it black light. It’s light, but it’s coming from blackness.
“I like the gospel blues. It’s deals with hard times. It deals with reality. It’s the good and the bad, it’s, you know, on the one hand, why is this happening to me, but on the other, praise God for that. I like how it kind of merges these two things. I mean, your book touches on all of that. [here Kreg refers to my The Gospel According to the Blues.]
“So, you get the highs and you get the lows, whereas sometimes, gospel music is just one extreme and full out blues might go to the other. But the gospel blues deals with both of these issues. And that always intrigues me. Most of the people in the book are gospel blues artists who are fairly obscure to most people, but I’ve also included some people like Marvin Gay and Aretha Franklin who are more well known.”
Take it from me – the book is quite wonderful, and you’re going to want to get yourself a copy. It’ll be printed quite lavishly on heavier, coated paper and will be around 8” by 6”. It’ll be a book you’ll be proud to have in your home, and Kreg tells me it will be available from Juneteenth this year – that is June 19th – and you can order it from his website. Proceeds from the book will go to orphanages that Kreg knows.
While you’re waiting for Juneteenth to come around, head over to Kreg’s site and browse through his catalogue of wonderful and remarkable art. But don’t just browse – find a piece that speaks to you and buy a copy.
A Baker’s Dozen of Great Mississippi John Hurt Songs
Mississippi John Hurt has been one of the most influential of the Delta bluesmen, influencing generation after generation of blues guitar pickers and his songs covered by a who’s who of artists since he re-emerged in the 1960s after years of quiet obscurity as a farmer in Mississippi.
By all accounts he was a delightful man, soft spoken and polite, exuding a quiet wisdom and loved by everyone who met him. His faith was important to him, which became apparent to those who knew him during the years of his rediscovery. Holly Ochs, who hosted John during his early days in New York, said, “The depth and quality of that faith was so powerful that it would touch thousands of people in the few remaining years of his life.”
His biographer, Philip R. Ratcliffe notes that Hurt “was always aware of the presence of his God and would always say his prayers at night.”
Born the son of former slaves in 1892, John Hurt started playing guitar when he was nine and by his late teens had developed his own particular style. After hearing John play in 1928, The OKeh Records’ recording director invited him to Memphis where he recorded half a dozen songs and then to New York for another recording session. Songs recorded at these first sessions included many of Hurt’s best loved songs, like Louis Collins, Avalon Blues, Stack O’Lee Blues, Got the Blues Can’t Be Satisfied and Blessed Be the Name.
The Great Depression and the subsequent collapse of record sales, however, ensured that John Hurt’s musical career never took off and he returned to life as a farmer in Avalon, playing occasionally at country dances and parties.
When he was 70, still tending another man’s cows and keeping a few hogs and chickens, and he and his wife Jesse dirt poor, Dick Spottiswood happened upon some of Hurt’s 1928 Okeh recordings and went searching for him. John, though he had no guitar and hadn’t played for at least two years, agreed to go to Washington D.C. with Spottiswood and his friends. Seemingly he assumed he was in some sort of trouble with the government and thought he’d better go!
John Hurt ended up recording again and performed to appreciative audiences in festivals, coffee houses and concert halls until his death in 1966.
John Hurt’s guitar picking style has become a template and springboard for, probably, all acoustic blues guitarists. That solid, rhythmic, alternating base with a syncopated melody on the upper strings is the basis of the guitar work of Chris Smither, Rory Block, Eric Bibb and a host of others. Stefan Grossman played a big part in introducing aspiring musicians to John Hurt’s guitar style through his Guitar Workshop and instructional videos.
Happy Traum, who also met Hurt in the 1960s, has also done his part with his instructional videos. Whatever limited skill I have in playing finger-style blues guitar was set in motion by painstakingly working my way through The Fingerpicking Blues of Mississippi John Hurt, Happy Traum & John Sebastian, on Homespun.
So, in celebration of the great Mississippi John Hurt, here are 13 of his most famous songs covered by other artists. Of course, you ought to go and check out John Hurt himself, and before we get to the covers, here he is with Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor.
For a completely different take on it, check out Gillian Welch’s version from her 2003 Soul Journey. But here’s Happy Traum’s version.
Maria Muldaur, Richland Woman Blues
First recorded by John Hurt in 1963, Maria Muldaur’s version appears on her 2001 Richland Woman Blues album, where she is accompanied by John Sebastian, who had named his 1960’s band The Lovin’ Spoonful after a lyric in Hurt’s Coffee Blues. [check out our interview with Maria Muldaur here]
Eric Bibb, Stagalee
Stack O’Lee, Stackalee or as Bibb has it, Stagalee, references a murder in a barroom in St Louis. John Hurt, who first recorded the song in December 1928 in New York, insisted the two men involved were white men and the fight took place in a mine where Stackolee was trying to rob the miners who were gambling. Bibb’s version appears on his 2011 Blues,Ballads and Work Songs, after a live version in 2009 on Live à FIP, 2009). [Our recent interview with Eric Bibb is here]
Chris Smither, Candy Man
Chris Smither has played Mississippi John Hurt songs throughout his long career and his Candy Man appears on his excellent Train Home album from 2003. Candy Man Blues was first recorded in 1928 by Hurt and was a staple of his performances in the 1960s. It’s a bawdy song, rather at odds with the spirituals Hurt would often play, although apparently he was always reluctant to play ribald songs to people he didn’t know, especially ladies. [You can find our interview with Chris here]
Rory Block, Frankie and Albert
This very old song was first recorded by The Leighton Brothers in 1916, and is about an event said to have taken place in a St. Louis barroom where Frankie shot a ragtime pianist for his infidelity with his lover. The song was recorded by John Hurt in his very first recording session in Memphis in 1928 and then in 1966 for his second studio album of the 60s, Today! Rory Block was influenced by John Hurt as a young guitarist in the early 1960s in New York. She recorded a terrific tribute album to Hurt, Avalon Blues in 2013, with ten favourite John Hurt songs. [check out our interview with Rory Block here.]
Mary Flower, Monday Morning Blues
Mary Flower is an amazing acoustic guitarist who specializes in Piedmont-style finger picking with dashes of Delta, ragtime and jazz and jazz. Her Monday Morning Blues is on her 2007 Ragtime Gal album. John Hurt first recorded it in Memphis in February 1928. [You’ll find our interview with Mary here]
Brooks Williams, Louis Collins
John Hurt said that “He [Collins] was a great man, I know that, and he was killed by two men named Bob and Louis. I got enough of the story to write the song.” Hurt’s is the only version of the song and is almost certainly about a real event. He first recorded it in 1928 in New York. (Check out Patrick Blackman’s take on the song here). Brooks Williams is a sensational acoustic guitarist and singer and his version of Louis Collins on his 2010 Baby O! album is masterful.
Taj Mahal sounds remarkably like John Hurt on his recording of the song on his 2016 Labor of Love. John Hurt recorded the song in 1963 on Folk Songs and Blues, his first recording on the Piedmont label after being rediscovered. Creole Belles was a song by Lampe and Sidney, first recorded in 1901.
Lonesome String Band, Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me
Originally written by William Myer, and set by John Hurt to the tune of Jimmie Rodgers’s Waiting for a Train, this is one of the lesser known Mississippi John Hurt songs, which he recorded in 1966. The Lonesome String Band on their When the Sun Comes Up album in 2018, give it a quite different feel, with the banjo and fiddle to the fore.
Catfish Keith, Satisfied and Tickled Too
Catfish Keith is a quite remarkable exponent of acoustic blues and his Satisfied and Tickled Too, which also features his wife, Penny, on his 2007 If I Could Holler album, features everything you expect from Catfish’s outstanding guitar work – slides, bends, rock solid rhythm and complex picking. [Here’s our interview with Catfish]
Hans Theessink with Big Daddy Wilson, Pay Day
Danish blues guitarist Hans Theessink has been one of Europe’s top blues artists for decades and his version of Pay Day, with his warm baritone voice melding with Wilson’s sweet tenor on their 2021 Pay Day album, is delightful.
Bruce Cockburn, Avalon Blues
Avalon in Mississippi was, of course, John Hurt’s home town, and the song records Hurt’s preference for the rural scene he was used to over the big city: “New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine, Goin’ back to Avalon, near where I have a pretty mama all the time”. Bruce Cockburn, a hugely skilled finger-style guitarist, performs his version of the song on Avalon Blues: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt from 2001. This is a wonderful album of John Hurt songs by a top-class field of roots musicians. Avalon Blues is the second song.
Gillian Welch, Beulah Land
Hurt’s faith was important to him and he recorded a number of gospel songs, including Beulah Land, an old spiritual, in 1966 on his Today! album. Gillian Welch’s version on the 2001 Avalon Blues tribute album is very different from Hurt’s – more O Brother Where Art Thou, but a very fine version, nonetheless.
And it’s worth including this short video of John Oates telling the story of John Hurt’s guitar, which also features a version of Spike Driver’s Blues.
Finally, don’t miss this Mississippi John Hurt Documentary (20 mins)
“Where there is light there is hope; and where there is hope, there’s a chance” Jimmy Carter, Blind Boys of Alabama
During 2021, we had the opportunity to speak to 15 great blues and roots artists, as well Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records and Tim Duffy of the Music Maker Foundation. All of them, plying their trade, entertaining us, at times challenging us, against the significant odds posed by the pandemic. Each of them doing what they do with determination, grace and even joy. Pick any one of the interviews if you feel in need of a little inspiration – go ahead, you’ll come away feeling just a bit better about life.
So, looking back, what did we learn from talking to each of these exceptional people?
1. Age is no barrier to following your dream. Several of the people I talked to are in their eighth or ninth decade of life. A time when many people just want to sit back on the sofa and start watching daytime TV, thinking their best days are behind them. Not so with people like Jack Ward or Elizabeth King, who at 83 and 77 respectively had just released their first solo albums and were looking forward to going on the road to promote them. Or Maria Muldaur, in her late seventies, who teamed up with a bunch of young people to record Let’s Get Happy Together, the most upbeat, cheerful album I heard all year. She told me simply, “you have a choice every day – you can be bummed out of you can be happy.” Atagirl, Maria! And I love the positivity in Bryn Haworth’s Boom Baby Boom, which he wrote about getting older: “you’ve got one life and so much left to give…there’s still time for one more dance.”
Jorma Kaukonen, now turned 80, told me he was just about to embark on a new tour with Hot Tuna. He has just released a new album and has been performing regularly online from his Fur Peace Ranch during the pandemic. He told me performing was “just as energizing as it ever was.”
And then there’s Jimmy Carter of the Blind Boys of Alabama, who’s 88 and has just released Blind Faith, a terrific album of Americana/gospel songs – his first solo album – and who told me that he hopes the album “will energize people and change lives.” Now that was impressive – Jimmy’s still wanting to be a blessing to others.
2. Music can be a great vehicle for not only entertaining us, but challenging us. Guy Davis, Eric Bibb, and Leyla McCalla didn’t make protest albums, but they included songs that highlighted injustice and made us think about our response to that. Davis’s God’s Gonna Make Things Over about the Tulsa Massacre and Eric Bibb’s Emmett’s Ghost dealing with the murder of Emmett Till both used historical tragedies to shine a light on the present. And Leyla McCalla’s stark Song for a Dark Girl, about a lynching “way down in Dixie” is as arresting as Strange Fruit. She told me that music isn’t some sterile environment where an artist can simply be apolitical. Musicians want to entertain us; we want to be entertained – but music, the blues in particular, has always been an important way for artists to comment on what is going on around them, and to help us all to see the injustice that many of us, in our comfortable lives, might miss or ignore.
3.Faith is a vital life-force for quite a number of these artists. Jimmy Carter told me “my faith is strong” and “when it gets rough, I pray.” He and Elizabeth King and Elder Jack Ward have had considerable challenges in their lives, but each told me how important their faith in God was for them. Jack Ward came from a life of poverty as a sharecropper and told me “when you weak, God will make you strong; when you lonely, he would never leave you alone.”
Ms. King, who also grew up picking and chopping cotton, told me the incredible story of how God had healed her after a horrific injury from a drunk driver; now she says, her job “is just to encourage people…when you’re going through something, just turn to God.” Maria Muldaur told me she’s being going to her neighbourhood African American church for the last 40 years and is inspired by joyful worship.
Bryn Haworth, slide guitarist par excellence, who’s featured on the albums of a who’s who of top rock artists, as well as having an excellent back catalogue of his own, spends a lot of his time visiting prisons and talked about the “amazing stuff” he’d seen happen through prayer. His vibrant faith shone through our conversation – a faith, which, incidentally, has him on a mission to save the trees in England, about which he has a song on his new album.
4. Blues music is alive and kicking. It may have been around for more than a hundred years now, but artists old and young are breathing new life into the genre all the time. Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records spoke of his optimism as he looked around at the blues and roots scene and saw people “taking the blues and gospel and making it their own.”
Grainne Duffy, a young Irish guitarist and singer, who’s performed on stages with Keb’ Mo’ and Van Morrison, has recorded an outstanding album, Voodoo Blues, with a set of original songs that both tap deeply into the legacy of the blues and breathe positivity. Joanna Connor, whose terrific 4801 South Indiana Avenue was produced by Joe Bonamassa and is packed with raw, high energy musicianship, is one of today’s great electric guitarists. She told me she was “fleshing out” stories as she played the songs, and making them sound epic in the process. She talked about the joy in the blues, despite the hardship out of which they emerged and the way they speak to the human emotion, And Carolyn Wonderland, the blistering Texas guitar-slinger, just finishing a stint in John Mayall’s band, whose vocals and guitar work on Tempting Fate are positively spine-tingling, talked about the fun and joy in making her music.
5. And the blues is a worldwide phenomenon. Yes, the blues are founded on the experience of African Americans, and are deeply rooted in the souls of people like Guy Davis and Eric Bibb. And Tim Duffy, through his Music Maker Foundation, is working hard to preserve the tradition of unsung Southern musicians and present them to the world – he talked about the “very special people” in the communities he works with and the need to “amplify their voices” and promote “cultural equity.”
But I talked to Paul Cowley, an Englishman living in rural France, playing traditional acoustic blues – which he discovered relatively late in life and was smitten with; and to Mark Harrison, another Englishman, whose story-telling blues reflect deeply on the human condition; to Leyla McCalla, whose family roots are in Haiti; to Grainne Duffy from Ireland; to Bert Deivert, an American who’s lived most of his life in Sweden, and who says “it’s the soul of it, the emotion, which drives me.” Eric Bibb, of course, has also made his home in Sweden for many years.
All these people are doing more than just keeping the blues alive – they are, of course, deeply drawing from the well of music and blues feeling from the past, but as well, lyrically, they are applying the blues to new and current situations, and musically, they are either forging new directions or keeping it fresh by their talent, dedication and musicianship.
There are links to all the interviews below for you to read and enjoy:
What a great year it’s been for blues albums. Whether it’s acoustic blues, blues rock, traditional, modern, gospel or funk, there’s been something for everyone. Some artists – like Eric Bibb, Guy Davis and Corey Harris – have included important social commentary in their music; we’ve had great music from a bunch of…well, let’s say mature musicians, like Dion, Alabama Slim, Elizabeth King and Hans Theessink; and some terrific output from young musicians, like Christone Ingram and Selwyn Birchwood, who are making it clear that the blues are alive and well.
We’ve chosen our top 25 albums – arranged in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them. Enjoy!
Here’s our top 12.
Dear America, Eric Bibb Dear America is a collection of thirteen Eric Bibb originals, all testament to his outstanding song-writing skill, ear for a good tune and top-notch guitar chops, but what makes Dear America such a great album – and an important album – is not just the music but the nuanced social commentary and challenge he presents. But like every Eric Bibb album you listen to, there’s a thread of hope and joy that comes through strongly. Here’s our interview with Eric.
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.
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 Comin‘, has 12 acoustic blues songs, 5 traditional songs from the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell and 7 originals. It’s outstanding, and hugely enjoyable. We talked to Paul about the album here.
Dion and Friends, Stomping Ground Another great blues album from the erstwhile wanderer, Dion. As with his last album, he’s collaborated with a bunch of his friends – probably a list of your favourite artists. They’re mine, anyway – Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Keb’ Mo’, Mark Knopfler, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton…It’s the blues, but it’s positive and upbeat, and it’s an album you’ll return to again and again.
Corey Harris, Insurrection Blues Corey Harris’s 20th album is what acoustic blues is all about. Fourteen traditional blues songs performed with passion, rawness and fine guitar picking. The spirit of the blues breathes in every song. This is a rich feast of acoustic blues, all the more satisfying for presenting the tradition with freshness and originality, and for showing its relevance to current times. Check out our full review here.
Christone Ingram, 662 There’s never a dull moment in the album, with a nice blend of styles and approaches to the songs – to his guitar and singing skill, add song-writing too. Ingram’s singing throughout is outstanding and his guitar solos glorious. At the end you’re left wanting more. If he can keep up the quality shown in this release, Christone Ingram has a stellar career ahead. Highly recommended. Here’s our full review
Catfish Keith, Land of the Sky Catfish Keith’s full range of acoustic guitar pyrotechnics are on display in his 20th album, Land of the Sky – picking, plucking, pinching, bending, sliding, harmonics-ing, on his wide collection of guitars, which include parlours, full-size 6 strings,12-strings, Nationals and a ukulele. It’s a feast of hugely enjoyable guitar fare for any guitar, blues, roots or just music fan. 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. Check out our full review here.
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. Here’s the link to our full review.
Joanne Shaw Taylor, The Blues Album Taylor’s incredible guitar chops are well in evidence, but it is perhaps her singing that stands out on this album. At turns intensive, gritty, raw and husky, she makes these songs her own, grabbing your attention, and wresting every ounce of emotion out of the music. Joanne Shaw Taylor has made a huge statement with The Blues Album, and take it from me, it’s an album you will want to play repeatedly. Here’s our full review.
Hans Theessink and Big Daddy Wilson, Payday It feels like payday for all of us who get the opportunity to hear this fine album from two blues artists at the top of their game. Hans Theessink and Big Daddy Wilson join voices and blues spirit for sixteen songs of exceptional acoustic blues. It’s joyous stuff, the songs driven by Hans’s sure and characteristic rhythmic finger-picking and the lovely harmonies and melding of baritone and tenor voices. Check out the 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. And here’s the full review.
And the next baker’s dozen
Joe Bonamassa, Time Clocks It’s heady stuff, with complex arrangements, full orchestrations, bending of genres and a breathless energy from the first song to the last. All the ingredients of his previous work are here – the blues basis, the guitar solos, his soulful vocals, the attention to detail in the production – but this is a bold step forward, a cinematic palette of modern rock guaranteed to both surprise and delight. Our full review is here.
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.
Tommy Castro, A Bluesman Came to Town A blues “concept” album from the veteran bluesman, who’s “never made the same album twice.” Tracking the progress of a blues artist with all the ups and downs of the itinerant musician’s life, it is classic stuff, solid, no-nonsense blues from a man whose gritty vocals and searing guitar solos reach right down inside you.
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 hard-hitting strong social commentary going on. An outstanding release from Davis and M.C. Records. Read our great interview with Guy here.
Chris Gill, Between Midnight and Louise 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. Here’s the full review.
Government Mule, Heavy Load Blues Warren Hayes’ vocals and guitar work, some nicely placed organ and horns, and thirteen fine solid blues songs combine in what is a hugely satisfying album. There are covers of songs by Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Junior Wells, Tom Waits and the Animals, as well as originals from Hayes. 78 minutes of great blues, and you get an extra 50 minutes worth if you go for the 2 CD deluxe offering.
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 the blues are never far away. This is a collection of songs that transport you to another place, make you contemplate the world around and, as well as that – most importantly – entertain you. Read our great interview with Mark here.
Colin James, Open Road Over the years, Colin James has racked up 20 studio albums and a sack-full of awards, and yet is relatively unknown. Put that right straight away by listening to this terrific album of blues covers and originals from a very fine singer and guitarist. Consistently good and hugely enjoyable.
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, bluesy, 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 interview with this amazing woman.
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. Full review here.
Elder Jack Ward, Already Made Jack Ward was a successful Stax recording artist, but, remarkably, has never made an album – until now. At a lively 83 years old, he has released a fabulous album of bluesy, soulful gospel songs. The ten song program features the warmly-recorded winning ingredients that are becoming a trademark of Bible and Tire’s patented Sacred Soul sound, from Ward’s spirited vocals to the crack studio band laying down the grooves behind him. We talked to Jack about the album here.
Carolyn Wonderland, Tempting Fate Glorious ten song tribute to her scorching guitar skills and rockin’ vocals. As well as blues, there’s some country, some Tex-Mex, and a whole lot of heart. The guitar work on the album is outstanding – all you’d expect from a Carolyn Wonderland record, but hot though it is, the her vocal performance in this album – the range, the dynamics, the emotion on this album – seems better than ever. And here’s our interview with Carolyn.
This episode features a chat with blues troubadour, Eric Bibb, about his new album Letter to America. He says he “was very aware going into this project that we were dealing with very uncomfortable issues.” Nevertheless, the album is full of great songs, wonderful musicianship from Eric and his musical guests, and features Eric Bibb’s characteristic hopefulness in the midst of difficult times.
Eric Bibb – blues troubadour, global griot, as a recent album has it, whose music always seems to arrive at the Needed Time – considers his Dear America album to be his finest work yet.
Bibb, originally from New York, but now resident in Sweden, has been delighting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember, with his finely honed guitar picking, his honeyed vocals, his good humour and all-round positive vibe. No matter what sort of day you’ve had, when you go to an Eric Bibb gig, the weight of the world disappears and you’ll find yourself with a smile on your face that doesn’t go away for a week.
He’s a Grammy nominated, Blues Music Award winning song-writer and performing artist who is very much at the top of his game, as is evidenced by Dear America, which he says is “a love letter, because America, for all of its associations with pain and its bloody history, has always been a place of incredible hope and optimism.” On this record, he says, “I’m saying all the things I would want to say to somebody dear to me.”
Thanks to the wonders of Zoom, I got chatting to Eric at his home on a farm south of Stockholm where he has spent the last 18 months, like the rest of us, keeping safe. He has, however, been able to work online, performing and giving guitar lessons – “I haven’t suffered like many of my colleagues, so I feel quite, quite blessed.”
I asked him, first of all, about the making of the album and his musical collaborators and guests. He told me that, although he’s proud of the body of work he’s created in the past, both he and his producer, Glen Scott, who has worked with him on many previous projects, agree that “this is our best work.”
The album, on the Provogue label, features a number of well-known guest artists, the result of Scott’s vision, who had said to Eric a while back, “Eric, one day, we’re just going to go to New York and you’re going to have like the best rhythm section in the world, and we’re going to cut some tracks.”
So, the album features top notch players like Steve Jordan on drums, who has worked extensively with Keith Richards and John Mayer, Tommy Sims on bass, “a great musician all around, but amazing bass player and singer and guitar player, who’s worked with everybody from Bonnie Raitt to Bruce Springsteen,” Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers who plays lap steel guitar on Different Picture, Billy Branch on harmonica, and Ron Carter, again on bass.
Of the legendary Ron Carter – the most recorded jazz bassist in history – Eric talked about the first time he’d played with him more than fifty years ago, as a young man of sixteen.
“He was the bass player who had the bass chair on my dad’s television show in the late sixties. My dad [Leon Bibb, the renown folk singer, actor and civil rights activist] had a TV show called Someone New that featured young talent – nine-year-old Yo Yo Ma was on that show. I was sixteen years old and my dad put me in the guitar player’s chair. It was the first time I was in a completely over my head situation. I had to get a union card and there I was with Ron Carter playing bass and I’m trying to read the chart! So it was an amazing reconnection with him.”
Other guests include Lisa Mills, who duets on the album’s last song, the exquisitely beautiful Oneness of Love, and Shaneeka Simon, a gospel singer from the UK – “just a gem of a musician, a great singer, a fine person” – who makes a telling contribution on Born of a Woman.
The songs on the album are quite bluesy both musically and lyrically. None more so than Whole World’s Got the Blues, which bemoans the state of the world – “everywhere you turn you’re looking at sad, sad news.” The song is taken to a new dimension by the appearance of Eric Gales’s guitar, which weaves in and out of Bibb’s lyrics and then breaks into its own protesting, moaning solo, echoing eloquently the sombre message of the song.
“Eric Gales – his palette is so huge, and when it comes to blues, he’s the epitome of the best of old school and modern sensibilities. He’s in a class all by himself and also a fine person to work with, to vibe off. Because he’s spontaneous, straightforward, honest, you know, a heart open-on-his-sleeve kind of guy. I met him on a Joe Bonamassa blues cruise and Ulrika [Bibb’s wife] caught him on film, kind of dancing to a song during my set. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good sign.’ And then I heard him and I was completely blown away, so I went up to him said, ‘listen, would you guest on my album if I could make the thing happen?’ And he said, ‘it’s going to happen’!
Dear America is a collection of thirteen Eric Bibb originals, all testament to his outstanding song-writing skill, ear for a good tune and top-notch guitar chops, but what makes Dear America such a great album – and an important album – is not just the music but the nuanced social commentary and challenge he presents.
Dear America addresses the troubled racial history of the United States and what is still, sadly, going on. A number of the songs are quite explicit and quite hard hitting. In White and Black, he highlights the “crooked thinking, white is good, black is bad”; in Dear America, “on the one hand to be called your citizen, on the other to be excluded because of the colour of my skin”; and in Different Picture, the repetitive nature of America’s racial problems are firmly in view.
I wondered how important it was for Eric to make this record, to say the sort of things that he’s saying here and to ask the sort of questions he poses.
“I think the whole world has been preoccupied with current events in America for some time – the whole Trump era unleashed a lot of monsters that we’ve been trying, as a collective people, to sweep under the carpet. I think that, with that, and with events like the George Floyd murder and so on, things just seem to be coming to a head.
“And it was like everything was conspiring to make the world pay attention to these issues in a new way. This was borne out by the fact that so many young people ended up becoming involved, and not only African-Americans, but others with the whole Black Lives Matter movement. And, you know, this is ongoing. It’s not new, but it’s certainly more in our face than ever before.
“I was very aware going into this project that we were dealing with very uncomfortable issues. But to pretend that it doesn’t exist or minimize its impact on our lives is to end up being much more uncomfortable. And I think the more we understand that, the better off we’ll be. So, I knew I wanted to say something about all of this and say it from a perspective of an American living outside of America.”
One of the very sobering songs on the album is Emmett’s Ghost. The gentle, almost cheery finger-picked guitar introduction belies the dreadful historical event the song refers to. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, who was falsely accused of offending a white woman and then brutally lynched, before his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Outrageously, his murderers were acquitted, but Emmet Till became an iconic figure in the Civil Rights movement.
Bibb sings about his own experience of coming to know about Emmet Till as a boy himself, of coming to realize “from that day on, some hated my kind.” Sadly, this is not just an event from the past – Emmet Till’s ghost still haunts America, “we can’t move on because hate’s still going strong all over this country.”
Events like this still clearly reverberate; another recent blues album, Guy Davis’s Be Ready When I Call You, shines a light on the appalling Tulsa Massacre of 1921 [see our interview with Guy here]. I asked Eric if America has really come to terms with its past, with the brutality and inhumanity of events like these?
“Well, the hatred mentioned in the song refrain is still going on, and one of the reasons for that is because it’s never been properly acknowledged, it’s never been properly taught about in schools. It’s that part of American history that has often been whitewashed. There are people who told me – and I’m talking about educated people, man – they had never heard of this story.
“But African-Americans have been aware of it because it was pivotal in the history of the whole Civil Rights movement. But the number of people who were unaware of this story was quite shocking to me. Emmet was 1955, half a century ago or longer. The George Floyd murder, for example, to me was a very palpable reverberation of the same energy, the same attitudes.
“The fact that the guys who perpetrated the Emmett Till murder got off, the fact that the policemen who murdered George Floyd didn’t get off, tells me something about the evolution of consciousness and that we’re growing. And I also found out the Emmett Till case has been reopened and in absentia could possibly get a guilty verdict. [This Guardian article reviews the re-opening of the case.]
“So, as uncomfortable with this history is, as long as it’s taken to even get to this point and, let’s face it, these are what seem like minimal steps forward, I have a feeling that the process is accelerating.
“And I think being in a position to add my voice to this ongoing conversation is really good for me because this is what I do. I’m a troubadour who is aware of my surroundings and the world that I live in. And if there’s any way this troubadour can influence a conversation and perhaps promote change, that’s good.”
Although Dear America addresses some serious issues, Eric wanted to make clear that “this is not a protest album.” Growing up in the ‘60s in New York, with a father like Leon Bibb, Eric was well acquainted with folk protest songwriters like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. And so, although he never considered himself an artist in that vein, “it was impossible for me to not take on board in my songwriting all of these things. It was just impossible.”
“I consider myself some kind of storyteller. Who’s got something to say, with a history that gives me a platform for speaking out and being a voice for promoting certain kinds of conversations that will hopefully lead to change. That’s part of my chameleon background. But I also wanted it just to be a groovy album, you know, that people would get into. I didn’t want to just be on a soap box. So that was in itself challenging, but I think I had help from above in pulling it off, you know?”
That’s a delicate balance to achieve, but I think he has, indeed, pulled it off. Because, like every Eric Bibb album you listen to, there’s a thread of hope and joy that comes through very strongly. And the music is great.
I did want to ask him about one other song on the album, which I think is a hugely important one. Born of a Woman, which features Shaneeka Simon, addresses the tsunami of violence against women all over the world.
“Yes, I’m very glad that song came to me because I want to weigh in on this and basically draw attention to something that is really, as you say, global and alarming, to say the least.
“Again, to me it is indicative of the fact that we’re in a time right now, where it seems that all of the issues or whatever trauma that is holding the human community back from becoming this loving family – the misogyny, racism, all of that – seems to just being pushed to the front of our awareness in dramatic ways, and people are taking sides.
“And young people, fortunately, are kind of getting it and stepping up in more numbers than ever before. But the pushback is also quite intense right now, there are people who are really resistant to looking at all of this and coming to terms with it.”
While Eric, rightly, points to the hope lying in the younger generation, a thread of hope is never far away in an Eric Bibb album. Take the first song, Whole Lotta Lovin’, where we find Eric giving thanks for the simple things in life. “A whole lot of thank you, Lord, for all you provide.” It’s a wonderful way to start the album and we get threads of this thankful attitude right the way through. I wondered how important gratitude is to him and how important gratitude is in the midst of all the difficulties we’ve be talking about?
“It’s essential to me personally, and I think it’s an essential attitude and emotion for the healing of all of us. I’ve written a couple of songs, even one with the title Gratitude [On Roadworks, 1999]. It’s central to my way of going forth in the world. And it’s really helped me, I think. Without that the possibility of tipping over into the lane of cynicism and bitterness is quite huge. So that’s the antidote to that.
“And it’s funny, you mentioned the first song. This album is called Dear America and I call it a love letter. If I can think of one or two things about the American experience – speaking personally, but I think it’s also a universal feeling – it would be the food and the music, you know, because there’s something poetically and cosmically fitting about a music that spans so many different kinds of expressions – jazz, calypso, blues, gospel, whatever, music born of a history and a people who have been really hard done by. And this fascinates me.
“It’s like, it tells me something about the creator. Giving the gift of a certain kind of irresistible music that not only makes the whole world joyful, but makes whole world connected in its love of it, makes the whole world want to play it, sing it, understand it, know about it.
The fact of where it’s come from is a beautiful, beautiful comment on life in general. And I want to make it clear that this gift from the African-American tribe to the world, that has basically brought so many people together in so many ways, is the way I want to think about America when I think about what’s great about it, you know, what it’s given us. And I wanted to start there because I knew I had to go other places, but I really wanted to start there. And I’m glad you mention that.”
In similar vein, Love’s Kingdom, strikes that same note of hope and thankfulness – “Everything can change, if we believe,” and “Let’s start with being grateful for being alive.” There’s a defiant hope here against all the darkness, hope which almost goes against the grain.
“That song, really, I guess you could say, summarizes my philosophy. I really think at the end of the day this is the way. And I think it’s not a simple path, getting there is not simple, but it is a simple solution. Making that decision to step into Love’s Kingdom, to basically really follow the great teachings of all the great teachers, whoever you want to follow, that was the message. And we have that possibility and I just felt like saying it as simply as that – if we can step into Love’s Kingdom, you know, turn it over and really trust in some kind of loving higher power, however you want to frame it or put it into words.”
It’s a fabulous song, though not a typical Eric Bibb arrangement. A collaboration between Eric, Glen Scott and Tommy Sims, it’s got a kind of retro soul feel to it, which lifts you up and carries you along. Right into the closing song, Oneness of Love, a beautiful, gentle song, with a simple accompaniment, graced by the sweet voice of Lisa Mills added to Bibb’s own. It’s a fitting way to complete the album, where a letter that is painfully honest, but never hopeless or cynical, is sandwiched between notes of thankfulness, hope and love at the beginning and end.
Eric Bibb’s is a voice we need to hear. In a world where there’s so much aggression and hatred, a voice for peace, for unity, for humanity is one that needs to be heard. And Dear America is especially timely – shining a light on much of what is pulling people apart and giving rise to bitterness and division, but never giving up on the possibilities that love can bring.
[See our extended comment on Born of a Woman here]
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.
The blues emerged in the context of the oppression and suffering of Black communities in the southern US, and singing the blues was a means of responding to that oppression – of giving voice to great sorrow, lamenting the current state of affairs, but also of expressing dignity in the face of injustice. The blues also were a means of protest against this injustice.
That’s worth noting at this time when the United States is facing a reckoning for the racism that has dogged it for such a long time. The push-back against white supremacy, police brutality and a myriad of social barriers faced by Blacks and other people of colour can’t be simply ignored or written off.
There have been plenty of today’s artists protesting the current lamentable state of affairs and all that has led to it – Leyla McCalla’s recently released Vari-Colored Songs, an album’s whose centerpiece, Song for a Dark Girl, is a stark account of a lynching “way down south in Dixie,” a powerful reminder of the relatively recent history of terrorism against Black communities.
Gary Clark Jr.’s This Land is a howl of protest which rails against the suspicion he gets as a Black man in Trump’s America; Shemekia Copeland’s Would You Take My Blood on her America’s Child album gets to the heart of racism; Otis Taylor’s trance blues in Fantasizing About Being Black, a history of African-American life, from slavery onwards, has Jump Out of Line, an edgy piece about civil rights marchers’ fear of being attacked; and Eric Bibb’s last album had What’s He Gonna Say Today, protesting the “bully in the playground,” aimed directly at Trump.
But the history of the blues is littered with songs protesting inequality, discrimination and White violence against Blacks. Given the huge inequality that existed, and the whole structuring of society that existed under Jim Crow, it would have been impossible for blues artists to sing protest songs in the way that they were sung in the 1960s when the Civil Rights’ movement had gathered momentum. Often the protest was coded, although sometimes it broke through the surface quite clearly. Although the majority of blues songs are about the troubles of love, there is a steady stream of social protest from the early days right through to the present.
In 1930, Huddie Ledbetter – Lead Belly – recorded a song entitled simply Jim Crow, in which he bemoans the state of affairs facing him every day of his life, everywhere he goes:
I been traveling, I been traveling from shore to shore
Everywhere I have been I find some old Jim Crow.
He can’t get away from the racial discrimination he faces – it’s there even when he goes to the cinema to be entertained:
I want to tell you people something that you don’t know
It’s a lotta Jim Crow in a moving picture show.
And finally he pleads with his hearers, “Please get together, break up this old Jim Crow.”
In the early 1930s, nine Black teenagers from Scottsboro in Alabama were accused of raping two white women aboard a train. The case highlighted the racism of the Jim Crow system and the injustice of the entire Southern legal system. In a series of trials and re-trials, which were rushed, and adjudicated on by all-white juries and racially biased judges, the nine boys suffered incarceration in the brutally harsh Kilby Prison in Alabama, and attempted lynching and mob violence.
After three trials, during which one of the young white women who were alleged to be victims had confessed to fabricating her rape story, five of the nine were convicted and received sentences ranging from 75 years imprisonment to death. The one who received the death sentence subsequently escaped, went into hiding and was eventually pardoned by George Wallace in 1976. The case was a landmark one and led eventually to the end of all-white juries in the South.
Lead Belly recorded Scottsboro Boys in 1938, where he warns Black people not to go to Alabama lest they suffer the same fate as the Scottsboro nine:
I’m gonna tell all the colored people
Even the old n* here
Don’t ya ever go to Alabama
And try to live
Lead Belly was clearly not afraid to voice his protest against what he experienced. He also wrote Bourgeois Blues, perhaps the most famous example of 1930s blues protest songs. Leadbelly here sings about his experience of discrimination in the nation’s capital city:
Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a n* just to see him bow
Lord, it’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around
Lead Belly talks about looking for accommodation and being turned away by the white landlord:
Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say “I don’t want no n*s up there.
America, according to Lead Belly may have been hailed as “The home of the Brave, the land of the Free,” but it was just somewhere where he was “mistreated” by the “bourgeoisie.”
The Great Depression hit black communities in the South particularly hard. Skip James’s 1931 Hard Time Killing FloorBlues captures the grim reality of the time for many people, with James’s high eerie voice and his D-minor tuned guitar. “The people are drifting from door to door” and they “can’t find no heaven.”
Hard time’s is here
An ev’rywhere you go
Times are harder
Than th’ever been befo’.
One of the blues artists who was most articulate about civil rights during this period was Josh White, who was born in 1914 and recorded under the names “Pinewood Tom” and “Tippy Barton” in the 1930s. He became a well-known race records artist during the 1920s and 30s, moving to New York in 1931, and expanding his repertoire to include not only blues but jazz and folk songs. In addition, he became a successful actor on radio, the stage and film. White was outspoken about segregation and human rights and was suspected of being a communist in the McCarthyite era of the early 1950s.
In 1941 he released one of his most influential albums, Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues. The title track pulls no punches:
Well, I work all the week in the blazin’ sun,
Can’t buy my shoes, Lord, when my payday comes
I ain’t treated no better than a mountain goat,
Boss takes my crop and the poll takes my vote.
The album of mostly 12 bar blues songs, included Jim Crow Train, Bad Housing Blues, and Defense Factory Blues. White attacked wartime factory segregation in the latter with, “I’ll tell you one thing, that bossman ain’t my friend, If he was, he’d give me some democracy to defend.”
In Jim Crow Train, he addresses the segregation on the railways:
Stop Jim Crow so I can ride this train.
Black and White folks ridin side by side.
Damn that Jim Crow.
On White’s 1940 Trouble, he leaves no doubt about the cause of black people’s problems: “Well, I always been in trouble, ‘cause I’m a black-skinned man.” The rest of the song deals with the failed justice system of the time and the inhuman conditions which black inmates suffered when incarcerated:
Wearin’ cold iron shackles from my head down to my knee
And that mean old keeper, he’s all time kickin’ me.
As a black man under Jim Crow, all White could expect from life was “Trouble, trouble, makes me weep and moan, Trouble, trouble, ever since I was born.”
Big Bill Broonzy was one of the most popular and important of the pre-World War II blues singers, who recorded over 250 songs from 1925 to 1952, including Key to the Highway, Black, Brown, and White, Glory of Love and When Will I Get to Be Called a Man. He was a very talented musician, song writer and singer, who Eric Clapton said was a role model for him in playing the acoustic guitar.
Broonzy claims in his autobiography that he joined the army sometime after 1917, and fought in World War I in France, and on returning to the South, he found conditions there quite intolerable. A more recent biography of Broonzy doubts his story of joining up, but there can be no doubting the injustice which Broonzy encountered as a black man in the South. He refers to the way in which black men were referred to disparagingly as “boy” by whites in his 1951 song, I Wonder When I’ll Be Called a Man.
When I was born into this world, this is what happened to me I was never called a man, and now I’m fifty-three I wonder when…I wonder when will I get to be called a man
Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?
Black, Brown and White, recorded in 1951, rails against the discrimination that Broonzy found everywhere, be it getting a drink at a bar, being paid less money for doing the same job, or even just getting a job:
They says if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, stick around
But as you’s black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back.
Muddy Waters also highlighted the patriarchal attitudes of whites to blacks in his 1955 release Manish Boy, which on the surface is a rather sensual blues song declaring, “I’m a natural born lover’s man,” and “I’m a hoochie coochie man.” (The hoochie coochie was a sexually provocative dance that became wildly popular in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. The dance was performed by women, so a “hoochie coochie man” either watched them or ran the show). In the context of a black man never being recognized as anything other than a “boy,” however, the song asserts black manhood in the face of white suppression. “I’m a man, I’m a full grown man,” sings Muddy, “I spell M-A, child, N”
Another major and influential blues artist from Mississippi was John Lee Hooker, son of a sharecropper, who came to prominence in the late 1940s and 50s. His House Rent Boogie from 1956 protests the all too familiar tale for black American of losing a job and not being able to make the rent payment; “I said fellows, never go behind your rent, ‘cause if you did it, it will hard so it’s cold in the street.”
The wail of protest in the blues continued on into that decade most associated with protest songs, the 1960s. From 1961 we have the guitar – harmonica duo of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee singing Keep on Walkin’ which takes up again the theme of Blacks being worked hard for little pay:
The bossman was so mean, you know, I worked just like a slave
Sixteen long hours drive you in your grave
That’s why I’m walkin’, walkin’ my blues away.
And then we have Vietnam Blues by J.B. Lenoir, from 1966. Drawing an elegant parallel between the US’s presence in Southeast Asia and the Jim Crow South, Lenoir demanded of President Lyndon Johnson, “How can you tell the world we need peace, and you still mistreat and killin’ poor me?”
Lenoir came to Chicago via New Orleans and became an important part of the blues scene there in the 1950s, performing with Memphis Minnie and Muddy Waters. He was a fine singer and a great showman, sporting zebra striped costumes and nifty electric guitar licks.
But Lenoir composed a number of political blues songs bringing sharp social commentary to bear on events going on around him. Songs like Born Dead, which decries the fact that “Every black child born in Mississippi, you know the poor child is born dead,” referring to the lack of opportunity in his home state; or Eisenhower Blues, which complains that the government had “Taken all my money, to pay the tax.” Lenoir also composed the haunting “Down in Mississippi,” which he performed on his 1966 Alabama Blues. “Down in Mississippi where I was born, Down in Mississippi where I come from,” sings Lenoir,
They had a huntin’ season on a rabbit
If you shoot him you went to jail.
The season was always open on me:
Nobody needed no bail.
He concludes about the place of his birth, “I count myself a lucky man, Just to get away with my life.” The definitive version of the song, however, was to come some 40 years later, when Mavis Staples recorded it on her album We’ll Never Turn Back, Staples adding a little to the song about segregated water fountains and washeterias and how “Dr King saw that every one of those signs got taken down, down in Mississippi.”
Mavis Staples had already made her protest against three hundred years of injustice in 1970 with the no-punches-pulled When Will We Be Paid? The song demanded an answer to the exploitation of Black Americans in the construction of America’s roads and railroads, in the domestic chores their women have done and the wars in which their men have fought. Despite this contribution to the making of America over 300 years, all the remuneration Staples’s people got was being “beat up, called names, shot down and stoned.” “We have given our sweat and all our tears,” she sings, so, “When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?”
In a similar vein, complaining about the discrimination they faced, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee & Earl Hooker in Tell Me Why in 1969 sang,
Every war that’s been won, we helped to fight
Why in the world can’t we have some human rights?
Tell me why?
They give the cruel answer themselves – “It’s got to be my skin, that people don’t like.”
And one of the most hard hitting of songs in the blues genre is Mississippi Goddamn, written and sung by Nina Simone in 1964.
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last.
The song was Simone’s response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black children. She performed the song in front of 10,000 people at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches.
The blues chart the history of the indignities face by African Americans over the decades. The blues allowed Black Americans to assert their humanity and dignity in the context of an oppressive system that declared they were less than human. Whether the songs expressed explicit protest at this or not (and most blues songs didn’t), the blues, nevertheless, was Black music and, whether they were complaining about unfaithful lovers or problems with the landlord, whether they were performed as dance music in the juke joint or sung on the street corner, they reflected the abuse and indignities suffered by blacks under Jim Crow and beyond. No wonder Black theologian and writer, James Cone, said, the blues are “the essential ingredients that define the essence of black experience.”
Willie Dixon gets it spot on when he says “The blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding.” In telling the truth about the misery of black experience, but as well as that, a hope for change, the blues were a part of the endurance and resistance of the Black community.
For many white listeners to the blues, the blues are at heart a genre of music, a certain musical form, twelve bars, flattened notes, blue notes. But if we listen carefully, we can hear the history of people who have been sorely mistreated; we can, perhaps, get some understanding of what it means to be Black. But it does require careful listening. And that listening is as urgent as ever just now.
Finally, to help us stop and listen, here is the ultimate protest song written by Abel Meeropol and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. Strange Fruit.
The railroad has a special place in the blues. Lovers leave on the train, singers go searching for them by the train, the gospel train is on its way, and the ramblin’ bluesman needs to board that train and ride.
Railroads were one of the major infrastructural and economic achievements of the nineteenth century and loomed large in the lives of people as the blues began to develop. You recall that the story of the very beginnings of the blues was at a railway station – in 1903, whilst waiting for a train in Tutweiler, Mississippi, bandleader W.C. Handy heard a man running a knife over the guitar strings and singing. He said,
“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. ‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’ The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.”
Handy later published an adaptation of this song as “Yellow Dog Blues,” and became known as the “Father of the Blues.”
Freed slaves had built the railroad with their blood, sweat and tears, and in the early years of the twentieth century, it was the primary means of transport for people for longer distances. For itinerant blues musicians like Robert Johnson, trains allowed them to move from place to place and ply their trade. Johnson’s sister, Annye Anderson, in her book, Brother Robert, remembers Robert “hoboing” around on the train, going back and forth from Memphis to the Delta for his music. His famous train song, of course, is Love in Vain.
The train was the means of escape, too, for black people wanting to leave behind the injustice of the Jim Crow South and seek a better life in the North and West. From 1916 onwards, around 6m people moved away from the racist ideology, the lynching and the lack of economic opportunity to cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and New York. Famously, McKinley Morganfield – Muddy Waters – boarded a train for Chicago in 1943 to become the “father of Chicago blues” and pioneer electric blues.
Trains in the South were, of course, segregated. In the “colored” section, there were no luggage racks, requiring travellers to cram their suitcases around their feet; and the bathroom there was smaller and lacked the amenities of the “whites” bathroom. All these were subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that you were not as good as the people in the other section.
So James Carr’s Freedom Train of 1969 was significant. Attorney General Tom C. Clark had organized a Freedom Train as “a campaign to sell America to Americans” to try and bolster the sense of shared ideology within the country. The train was integrated, but several Southern cities refused to allow blacks and whites to see the exhibits at the same time, and the Freedom Train skipped the planned visits. Carr’s song celebrates a new Freedom Train, free from segregation and discrimination. where “every man is gonna walk right proud with his head up high.”
So, here’s to trains, and may the Freedom Train keep on rollin’ down the track!
Here are 20 blues train songs for you to enjoy.
Trouble in Mind (1924)
In this old blues standard, things are so bad, the singer wants to end it all – he’s going to lay down his head on that old railroad iron, and let that 2.19 special pacify his mind. It never really gets to that point, happily, because, “sun’s gonna shine in my back yard some day.” First recorded in 1924, it’s been done by Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Snooks Eglin, Lightnin’ Hopkins and many more. I like this jaunty version by Brooks Williams from his Brooks Blues album of 2017.
Railroad Blues , Trixie Smith with Louis Armstrong (1925)
Trixie Smith, not related to Bessie Smith, paid her dues in vaudeville and minstrel shows, as well as performing as a dancer, a comedian, an actress, and a singer. Here she is backed by Louis Armstrong’s muted horn, as she is “Alabama bound” on the railroad.
The Mail Train Blues, Sippie Wallace (1926)
The Texas Nightingale recorded 40 songs for Okeh during the 1920s before going on to be a a church organist, singer, and choir director, and then eventually reviving her performing career in the 1960s. In Wallace’s 1926 Mail Train Blues she bemoans her sweet man leaving her and wants to go looking for him aboard the mail train.
Spike Driver Blues. Mississippi John Hurt (1928)
This and other songs recorded by Hurt in 1928 were not commercially success and he reverted to the farming life until being found in 1963 by Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins, and persuaded to perform and record again. John Hurt had a wonderful guitar picking style which is credited by many guitarists as their inspiration. Spike Driver Blues is a John Henry song where the “steel-driving man” dies as a result of his hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel.
Long Train Blues, Robert Wilkins, (1930)
Wilkins was a versatile blues performer from Mississipi who gave up playing the blues to become a gospel minister in 1936. An excellent guitarist, he came to light again in the 1960s and recorded some of his gospel blues. Long Train Blues, which he recorded in 1930 tells the tale of a lover who has run off on the train.
Too Too Train Blues, Big Bill Broonzy (1932)
There’s some nifty acoustic guitar work here by the hugely talented Bill Broonzy, with another “my baby done left me aboard the train” blues. Broonzy sustained his career successfully from the 1920s to the 1950s, performing both traditional numbers and his own compositions, recording more than 300 songs.
The Midnight Special, Leadbelly (1934)
Recorded in 1934 by Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter at Angola Prison for John and Alan Lomax, the song has been covered by a host of artists, notably John Fogerty’s Creedance Clearwater Revival. The Midnight Special is said to be the name of a train that left Houston at midnight, heading west, running past Sugarland prison farm, the train’s light becoming a symbol for freedom for the inmates. The song also references the injustice of black men being incarcerated for minor infractions.
Love in Vain, Robert Johnson (1937)
Famously covered by the Rolling Stones for their 1969 Let It Bleed album which featured some tasty electric slide guitar, Love in Vain is a Robert Johnson song recorded in his last studio session in 1937. Johnson’s guitar work is outstanding, as is his singing. The sense of loss is palpable, and you hear Johnson crying out his lover Willie Mae’s name near the end of the song.
This Train, Rosetta Tharpe (1939)
This old gospel song has been around since the 1920s and has been extensively recorded. Bruce Springsteen’s Land of Hope and Dreams takes This Train as its starting point but reworks the ideas of the original so that everybody can get aboard. Tharpe’s more original version has “everybody riding in Jesus’ name”; it’s a “clean train, which won’t take “jokers, tobacco chewers and no cigar smokers.” The song was a hit for Tharpe in the late ‘30s and again in the ‘50s. This live performance gives some sense of what an expressive and incredible performer Tharpe was, not to mention her impressive guitar chops. The 1939 version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame
Lonesome Train, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee (1952)
Just a great train song, with Sonny Terry’s harp driving the train down the track in this instrumental track. There are a few “whoooos” hollered along the way by the duo, who had a 35-year partnership. A masterclass in harp playing. The song was recorded by Sonny Terry in 1952 along with the Night Owls.
Mystery Train, Junior Parker (1953)
Mississippi bluesman Parker’s 1953 hit inspired a number of later versions, notably Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s take in 1965. In Parker’s version the drums mimic the rattle of the train on the track and the tenor sax the wail of the whistle. Butterfield adds a nice bit of harmonica.
Southbound Train, Muddy Waters (1957)
This is another Big Bill Broonzy song from 1957, which Muddy Waters recorded on his tribute to Broonzy in 1960, Muddy Waters Sings “Big Bill.” Broonzy had mentored Waters when he came to Chicago. Waters version isn’t too far removed from Broonzy’s, both piano driven blues, but Water’s version features some nice harp from James Cotton. The song has the singer heading South to the lowlands to escape his faithless lover.
Freight Train, Elizabeth Cotton (1957)
The song actually is about dying and being laid to rest at the end of Chesnut Street, so “I can hear “old number 9 as she comes rolling by.” Remarkable really, when Cotton said she composed the song as a teenager (sometime 1906-1912). She recorded it in 1957 and it’s been covered by many artists, including Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and Odetta. Cotton was a great guitar picker and this song has been a favourite for aspiring acoustic guitar players to learn. (Guitarist – check out Tommy Emmanuel’s lesson here (easy!!)
Freight Train Blues, Bob Dylan, 1962
Bob Dylan here echoes Elizabeth Cotton’s song in this 1962 recording from his debut album. Dylan tells a tongue-in-cheek but atmospheric story of poverty, rambling and the freight train. It’s typical early Dylan, all strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica.
Freedom Train, James Carr (1969)
A 1969 R&D hit for James Carr, Freedom Train reflects the Civil Rights movement of the sixties: “It’s time for all the people to take this freedom ride, Got to together and work for freedom side by side.” Born in Mississippi, Carr grew up singing in the church, but his R&D success led to his being called “the world’s greatest R&D singer.”
Hear My Train A-Coming, Jimi Hendrix (1971)
Hendix’s train song is typical Hendrix – overdriven, psychedelic guitar pulsing. It’s on his 1971 Rainbow Bridge album, but Hendrix performed the song in a BBC performance in 1967. He has also been recorded doing an acoustic version of the song on a 12-string guitar, giving it a Delta blues sound, Hendrix clearly familiar with the style of the acoustic blues masters of the past. Here’s some rare footage of Jimi Hendrix playing acoustic guitar.
Get Onboard, Eric Bibb (2008)
The title track of blues troubadour Eric Bibb’s 2008 album. Bibb, in his customary positive fashion, wants us to get on board the “love train.” There’s “room for everybody,” he sings as the band, including some nice harmonica, rattles us down the track.
Slow Train, Hans Theessink, 2012
Good times, bad times, tired and weary – Dutch guitarist and songwriter Hans Theessink has been singing the blues for a very long time and knows how to craft a blues song. This one is from his excellent 2012 Slow Train album, and features Theessink’s superb acoustic finger-picking and his rich bass-baritone voice.
When My Train Pulls In, Gary Clark Jr. (2013)
“Everywhere I go I keep seeing the same old thing & I, I can’t take it no more,” sings Clark, surely against the backdrop of racism in America. Hailing from Texas, the Grammy winning Clark is an outstanding guitarist and prolific live performer. This performance of the song which appears on his 2013 Blak and Blu album, showcases Clark’s guitar chops and his classy vocals.
Train to Nowhere, J J Cale (2014)
Eric Clapton recorded this previously unreleased J J Cale song on his tribute to Cale, The Breeze in 2014. The song features Mark Knopfler singing and playing guitar and is both unmistakably a J J Cale song and a train song. The lyrics look to be about that last train ride we all have to take and are a little bleak.
This Train, Joe Bonamassa (2016)
It’s full steam ahead for Joe’s train, in this case his baby who “comes down like a hammer” and “hurts him bad.” It’s all good stuff, with the usual Bonamassa guitar pyrotechnics. But Bonamassa has become a fine singer as well, which This Train amply demonstrates. The song is on his 2016 Blues of Desperation album, but there are some great live versions available too.