The Philosophy of Modern Song, Bob Dylan, Simon & Schuster
I’ve been a Dylan fan for over fifty years, have seen him in concert on numerous occasions, including that memorable night in London’s Earl Court in 1981. I enjoyed his Chronicles Volume 1 and hoped against hope we’d see volume 2 sometime.
So I was delighted when my daughter bought me The Philosophy of Modern Song for my birthday. The book is sumptuously presented, in large size hardback format, with a glossy dust cover and beautifully weighted pages. It’s jam-packed with lovely illustrations and photographs, all in a matt finish. So, as a physical book, it definitely makes for a nice present.
It’s not, as you might imagine, any sort of dissertation on the art of modern song-writing. Rather, it consists of Dylan’s musings on sixty-six songs, mostly from the nineteen fifties and sixties, and I consumed the book day-by-day beside my Amazon Echo, asking Alexa to play each song as I went along. I confess to not being familiar with most of the songs, so it was a delight to dip in to this cornucopia of Dylan’s musical whimsy and be transported to another musical era.
Dylan can write well – he’s won the Nobel prize for literature, so I guess that oughtn’t to be a surprise – and gives us two or three pages on each song. If you’ve ever listened to Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Show, you can practically hear Dylan read the words to you.
Often we get some background on the artist – so I now know a little bit about a Bobby Darin or a Marty Robbins – as well as Dylan’s thoughts about the song. These can be just sheer whimsy, or amusing, or almost philosophical. Sometimes it’s quite unintelligible (try his comments on religion on the song If You Don’t Know Me By Now); but there are occasional moments of deep insight – I liked this from the commentary on Harry McClintock’s Jesse James: “Criminals can wear badges, army uniforms, or even sit in the House of Representatives. They can be billionaires, corporate raiders or stockbroker analysts. Even medical doctors.”
And his take on Edwin Starr’s War, one of the longest essays in the book, is thoughtful and measured, with some forthright comment on American two Gulf wars and the responsibilities of democracy.
There’s genuine warmth here too, for artists like Johnny Cash, Dean Martin and Roy Orbison, and the sheer depth of Dylan’s knowledge of modern American music is nothing short of remarkable.
But there are also moments that are jarring. Take a comment on Elvis’s Money, Honey for example. Dylan says, “ultimately money doesn’t matter.” Well, OK for you to say, who’s just sold your back catalogue for about $200m. So rich that Dylan can be out of touch with the majority of people in the world who hardly have enough money to get by and to whom money matters a heck of a lot.
Dylan also seems, at times, to have a rather dark imagination. At times I was brought up short by his interpretation of a song, which appeared to me to be much more innocent than Dylan’s thought world.
And then there is the sexism. Now to be fair, when you’re commenting on songs from the 50s or 60s that now feel rather sexist, your comments might simply be reflective of the lyrics. Nevertheless the comments about hard women, teasing women, women with a short fuse, women waiting for her man to come home from work, “foxy” women, two-faced beauties…and so it goes on…become more than a little wearing. I really can’t imagine any woman enjoying this.
Particularly jarring is the chapter on Johnnie Taylor’s 1973 Cheaper to Keep Her. This is an obnoxious little song and even the choice of it is questionable, because Dylan certainly doesn’t use it to be critical of it in any way. Actually he doubles down on the sexism and androcentrism of the song, going off on an extended riff about marriage and divorce, which ends up giving a shout out to polygamy. This is pretty distasteful, as is his appallingly insensitive comment about childless marriages: “A couple who has no children, that’s not a marriage. They are just two friends.”
Out of sixty-six songs in the book, remarkably only four are by women. The Nina Simone song Dylan chose was Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which actually was written by a man, Horace Ott, on the occasion of feeling misunderstood by his wife after they’d had an argument (poor man). Simone changed the lyric from “Baby, don’t you know I’m human, And I’ve got thoughts like any other man” to “anyone“. Still, a pretty poor choice from all the great songs Nina Simone sang,
Still, Dylan does note insightfully, “But the song has taken on more meanings as Nina’s measured, defiant delivery has been adopted by some as an understated social equality anthem. Songs can do that…”
So, it’s a pretty mixed bag from Dylan. A great idea presenting a rather random catalogue of old songs for today’s readers to check out and enjoy. Some hugely enjoyable and at times insightful and amusing comments from Dylan. But hand-in-hand we get some truly jarring and distasteful moments. Oh, and did I mention the f-bombs here and there? Not really needed, Bob.
There’s a lot to enjoy here, but sadly much to skip over. Someone tell him, the times, they are a-changin’.
In celebration of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday (gosh that makes me feel old!), I listened to a lot of songs in my Dylan collection and confirmed what I had long suspected – that Dylan is fine blues artist, with a deep sense of and respect for the blues tradition.
Look through the canon and you’ll find versions of traditional blues songs, new songs that are out-and-out blues in form, songs that are blues-infused, and some that are clearly not musically blues, but nevertheless have a blues lyrical content (and on occasions, title).
The blues slips through throughout his long career, but is most evident in his very early work and then the latter albums, from Time Out of Mind onwards. But can a wealthy white guy really be said to be a bluesman? Of course, Dylan wasn’t always wealthy and paid his dues as a homeless, penniless young musician before things took off for him. But that’s a debate I’ll leave you to think about if you read Adam Gussow’s book Whose Blues? All I’ll say here is that from the beginning of his career until now, Dylan has drunk deeply at the well of the blues tradition and has done his bit in rehearsing that tradition over the years, through performing traditional songs and his own compositions. And he’s proved to be a thoroughly able exponent of the blues – in his own idiosyncratic, characteristic way.
We’ve selected 12 of Dylan’s blues songs for you to enjoy.
First, six traditional blues songs:
Corina Corina From Dylan’s 2nd album, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, the song was first recorded in1928 by Bo Carter, and then by the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930 (turning Corina into Sweet Alberta). Many other early blues artists recorded it, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Joe Turner, Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb, as well as jazz artists and exponents of Western Swing. Dylan’s version borrows from Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passageway, including the lyrics, “I got a bird that whistles, I got a bird that sings.”
Fixin’ to Die Dylan’s first eponymously titled album, released in 1962 features mostly folk and blues standards as well as two Dylan originals. Fixin’ to Die is a song by Delta blues musician Bukka White, recorded in 1940. The song reflected White’s experience in the notorious Parchman prison in Mississippi, where he “got to wondering how a man feels when he dies.” Dylan’s version changes the melody and adds some lyrics.
See That My Grave is Kept Clean Another song that appeared on Bob’s debut album. It was first recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927 and 1928 and became his most famous. Dylan manages to keep the rather sombre nature of the topic in his version, possibly more so than even Blind Lemon. The song has been recorded by a host of artists, including excellent versions by B B King and Mavis Staples.
Stack a Lee Dylan’s version appears on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong, a raw sounding collection of traditional folk songs, which was critically acclaimed and won a Grammy for Traditional Folk Album. The song is known in a number of variants – Stagger Lee and Stagolee amongst them – and is a traditional song about the murder of Billy Lyons by “Stag” Lee Shelton in St. Louis in 1895. It was first recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. Shelton, nicknamed Stag because he had no friends, and Lyons were members of the St. Louis underground. They got into dispute over Lyons’s hat one evening while drinking and Shelton shot Lyons, and was subsequently convicted of his murder. The song celebrating this unsavoury incident has been recorded by many artists over the years, with Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 version often considered the definitive one.
Frankie and Albert The song appears on Dylan’s 1992 album, Good As I Been to You, another album made up entirely of folk and blues songs and Dylan’s first entirely solo, acoustic album since Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964. Rolling Stone viewed it as positively as “a passionate, at times almost ragged piece of work.” Frankie and Albert, again, was inspired by real life, the story of a woman killing her unfaithful lover. There have been hundreds of recordings of the song, starting from as early as 1912, including versions by Elvis and Johnny Cash. Dylan’s version features some nifty acoustic guitar work and some lovely vocal phrasing.
Rollin’ and Tumblin’ Dylan’s version of this old blues standard song is on his 2006 Modern Times album. Dylan had come into a rich vein of form starting from the 1997 Time Out of Mind, which was to continue right until the present, with a number of well-received, critically acclaimed and enjoyable albums. It reached No.1 in the album charts in the US and was ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Dylan’s version of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ follows Muddy Waters’ famous version, which had taken the tune from Robert Johnson’s If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day. Dylan’s version gives a rockabilly feel to the song and has some nice slide guitar along with his increasingly croaking vocals.
We might also have included Dylan’s versions of Blind Boy Fuller’s Step It Up and Go and the Mississippi Sheiks Sitting on Top of the World, but let’s choose another half dozen of Dylan’s own blues songs.
Dylan’s Own Blues Songs
Everything is Broken Dylan’s 1989 album, Oh Mercy, produced by Daniel Lanois, after a couple of poorly received albums, was viewed as a return to form, with Dylan himself claiming, “There’s some magical about this record.” Everything is Broken is rife with blues sentiment, with Dylan bemoaning the state of the world, with everything broken, from kitchen implements to bodies to treaties. The final lines, “Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking, Everything is broken” echo the empty, hollowness of a broken world. It’s been described as a Louisiana, swamp blues, and the reverb-drenched guitar work, with a simple three chord blues structure, matches the near-despondency of the lyrics.
The Levee’s Gonna Break Another one from 2006’s Modern Times. It’s a straight 12 bar blues based on When the Levee Breaks by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie from 1929. The song references the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, a hugely destructive river flood that inundated 27,000 square miles up to a depth of 30 feet and displaced 200,000 African Americans from their homes, forcing them to live in relief camps or migrate north. Dylan uses only a few lines from the original song, with the rest his own. Interesting note: the line “Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones” probably comes from Ovid’s Tristia, Book 4: “there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones.”
The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar The song was recorded in 1980, but not included in the first version of Shot of Love in 1981. It appeared on the vinyl version of the album and in all subsequent versions released. Both Rolling Stone and the Guardian hailed it as one of Dylan’s best songs. It’s a brilliant piece of blues rock and the November 13, 1980 performance from San Francisco, which is included in the Trouble No More Bootleg release, features Carlos Santana on guitar with a couple of blistering solos and Dylan as intense as you’re likely to hear him, in enigmatic prophet mode, speaking of a world of chaos, madness, war and misunderstanding. The song is a powerful one – “a fiery piece of molten fury” [album liner notes] and the repetitive blues riff drives home the prophet’s urgent message. [For more on this song, click here]
Lonesome Day Blues This is a straight 12 bar blues song from 2001’s Love and Theft. In Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track, authors Margotin and Guesdon call it an exemplary blues performance – it “demonstrates how easily (he) can sing the genre. His voice takes on the atmosphere of Muddy Waters’ electric period. The support of his musicians is extraordinary.” It’s a good ‘un, all right!
Beyond Here Lies Nothing From 2009’s Together Through Life, the song’s title is a quotation from the ancient Roman poet, Ovid. It was for nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Solo in 2010. There’s a nice loose feel to the arrangement, with judicious use of horns, and Dylan’s vocal performance is very cool.
False Prophet From Dylan’s highly acclaimed Rough and Rowdy Ways from 2020, an album that proved Dylan’s staying power and his song writing mastery had not diminished. The music on False Prophet is based on Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s 1954 Sun Records single If Lovin’ Is Believin’ and features some nice guitar work by Dylan’s long-time guitarist, Charlie Sexton. The song is rather enigmatic, with Dylan claiming to be “no false prophet” kind of echoing here previous denials of being the cultural prophet that many had set him up to be over the years. Notwithstanding what he has said or sung, Dylan has proved himself to be a prophetic voice, whether it has been pointing to the broken nature of the world and its injustices or the broken nature of individuals, with the hope that can come through faith.
We’ve left out no end of fine songs, including: Man in the Long Black Coat, Ain’t talking, Trouble, Shot of Love, High Water, Jolene, Shake Shake Mama, It’s all Good, World Gone Wrong, Black Crow Blues, Gotta Serve Somebody. Go check them out, if you’re not familiar with them.
But we’ll finish with a song that claims to be a blues song, but isn’t really. But it’s one of my favourite Dylan songs, so here it is, from his Modern Times album.
Former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and now forging a successful solo career, Leyla McCalla is a hugely talented singer and musician who has recently released Vari-Colored Songs, an outstanding album of bluesy, rootsy folk songs. A New Yorker who has migrated to New Orleans, drawn by the music and a more expansive lifestyle, she is a classically trained celloist, who is equally at home on the banjo, and has a singing voice you could listen to all day.
Vari-Colored Songs is a remarkable piece of work, combining as it does the poetry of Langston Hughes and folk songs from Haiti, where McCalla’s family hails from. She showcases her song-writing skills in the delightful melodies composed for Hughes’s poems, her arrangements of the folk song material is masterful, and her work on the banjo, fiddle and cello, the latter revealed as a remarkable rhythmic accompaniment, shows great versatility and skill. It’s a very fine album indeed, and one which you grow to appreciate more with each listen.
It’s also an important album lyrically, especially right now, when issues of race and justice are increasingly to the fore, in the United States and elsewhere. Down at the Crossroads had the opportunity to speak to Ms. McCalla about her music and the album.
I asked her, first of all, about her career as a musician. She studied cello performance and chamber music at New York University, before moving to New Orleans, where she began busking on the streets of the French Quarter. I wondered just what made her move from that more classical, formal side of music to the sort of roots music that she now plays.
She told me that at college she had begun to meet interesting musicians from outside of the worlds of both classical music and pop music, who were exploring different textures, improvisation and music from different parts of the world, which she found very attractive. And when she encountered a group called the Voodoo Drums of Haiti, she encountered the cello for the first time in the context of Haitian music.
That she found “just mind blowing. I felt really drawn to exploring that further. And that’s kind of how it began. But I also worked as a cocktail waitress in Brooklyn and it really spoke to all types of different music and different ways of being a musician. I felt like in college, they sort of indoctrinate you, where you think that there’s one way you can be successful. And there’s a sort of reverence for a Western European conceptualization of what music actually is. And when I didn’t identify with it, all of these things kind of amalgamated, to turn me away from the classical world.”
At college, when she got serious about classical music Leyla realized she wanted to be a professional musician, but her “idea of what that would look like changed over time, because I realized that the models that I was aspiring to didn’t really apply to me or to the world I lived in.”
So she moved to New Orleans, which became formative thing in her musical journey. “I think I left New York because I kind of felt energetically detached from the hustle of just living to pay your rent. And I felt I wasn’t really inspired at all by being there. And I kind of thought, I don’t know if this is what my life is about, you know, just struggling to survive.”
She became a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which sought to revive the sound of the African American string band, and whose 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. After leaving the band in 2013, she released her first solo album, Vari-Colored Songs – last year’s album of the same name is a reissue, albeit with one extra song added. I asked Leyla why she had decided to reissue.
“Well, you know, the Smithsonian were in touch with me for a quite a while, very interested in re-releasing the album. They were very excited about acquiring the album as part of their African-American legacy collection. I kind of went back and forth deciding, is this really the right thing? And ultimately, I kind of felt like a lot of the songs don’t really belong to me, because there’s some poetry and it’s a tribute to Langston Hughes. And he’s one of the most venerated poets in the United States. So, I decided it was indeed the right thing.
“And it’s interesting how those creative decisions kind of coincide with what’s happening in the world, you know? And so as I was getting ready to release this record, there was momentum building in the black lives matter movement, and there were protests throughout the United States – people seeing the iniquity in our society laid bare by this pandemic. And I think that the moment was just really right for this record to kind of have its second day in the sun.”
I, probably like many others, hadn’t heard the album first time around, and hearing it now, with all that is going on, it feels like an important contribution to the conversation that ought to be going on about racial justice. Part of this is down to the songs on the album which put music to the words of Langston Hughes. Not being an American, I was really unfamiliar with Hughes’s work until recently when I read Adam Gussow’s book Whose Blues? Facing Up to Race and The Future of Music. In dealing sensitively with the issue of race in the blues, Gussow discusses not only the lyrics of blues songs, but the literature of the blues, the work of Zora Neale Hurston, W C Handy, and, of course, Langston Hughes. [catch our interview with Adam Gussow here]
Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist who was influential in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, which sought to highlight the real lives of black people in the lower social-economic strata. His work, which portrays the rich variety of their lives – consisting not just of struggle, but also joy, laughter, and music – is permeated with pride in African-American identity and its diverse culture. I asked Leyla why she thought Hughes’ work was still important.
“Well, I think that for me, it all comes down to narrative. Langston Hughes was someone who was really committed to telling stories as a way to increase people’s empathy, and to try to elevate black culture to its rightful place in our society, the culture being disparaged and seen as less than white American culture. And from what I read about him, in the thirties, once he starts to travel outside of the United States and starts to see that his blackness means different things in different places, and that when he was outside the US, he had certain levels of access in society, he started to be able to see more properly the situation in the States. And beyond his poetry, he also wrote articles, children’s books, he was an absolutely prolific artist and he was deeply committed to using simple language, to get people to relate to these issues that he illuminated in his work.”
McCalla’s setting for one of Hughes’ poems, Too Blue, is terrific. It’s got an old-timey blues vibe, helped along by Luke Winslow King’s fine slide guitar, and it really captures some of the humour in the song. The speaker in the poem is considering ending it all with a gun, but wonders if it’ll take one or two bullets, given his head is so hard.
Leyla said, “It’s kind of a dark sense of humour, but it’s just that propensity for survival under extremely stressful or sad conditions. I guess that’s what music is also about. And I like that kind of humour myself, you know, it’s something that I can relate to. I definitely laugh singing that song these days cause I’m kinda like, ‘Oh, this is pretty dark!’”
There’s a new song on this reissue, As I Grew Older / Dreamer, that combines a couple of Hughes’s poems. It features the poems being recited, rather than sung, against the background of an ominous sounding cello, which is then joined by a violin.
That recording, Leyla told me, “came from the original demo that I did before I left New York. I had a friend who said, they songs are really great and I have a little studio set up and I could help you record them, I’m forever grateful for that, And you know, it was at the time that I really didn’t know that I was a singer. I had all these musical inclinations that I wanted to explore. For the voice on Too Blue, I ended up asking a friend of mine, Yah Supreme, and I think he did just such a beautiful job. He’s a hip-hop artist based out of Brooklyn and I also just really appreciated the presence of a black male voice on the record. Having that presence on the album just made it more powerful.”
The album not only has the Langston Hughes songs, but a number of Haitian folk songs, some of them sung in Creole, all of them quite beautiful. I wondered what is the link on the album between these two sets of songs?
“Well, I think the real link is me! But also, I feel like there’s so much wisdom in Hughes’s poetry and then there’s all this wisdom in old Haitian folk songs. So, to pair them next to each other, to me, it’s like they come from the same well. But also, Hughes’s book, I Wonder As I Wander begins in Haiti and he was very impacted by his trip to Haiti.” The book is a humorous and insightful reflection on the people and places Hughes encountered during his world travels through dictatorships, wars, and revolutions during the 1930’s.
McCalla’s family background, of course is in Haiti. I asked her how important that is for her music?
“It’s become increasingly important. I feel the deeper I delve into understanding Haiti and Haiti’s history and culture, especially as an American born of Haitian descent, the more I start to understand the political situation that we find ourselves in in our country. And the more I understand the anti-blackness that I have been grappling with, the anti-blackness in our society that I have been grappling with my whole life in the United States and elsewhere. I mean, all over the world – I have lived in Africa, and there are women there bleaching their skin. So for me, I start to see all those connections.”
McCalla suggested we need to understand Haiti and what it says about the promise of a liberated black state. Haiti’s late eighteenth-century revolution, led by freed slaves, set it from French dominion and it became the world’s first country to abolish slavery and be led by former slaves. A liberated black state, said McCalla, is “something that we still haven’t been able to accept in our world. And that’s at the crux of a lot of my work.”
Photo: Rush Jagoe
McCalla says that her knowledge of Haitian history and culture has deepened her perspective on “blackness, politics and social dynamics.” All of this plays directly into her art, not least the Native Daughters project. Our Native Daughters, consisting of Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla, released an outstanding album on the Smithsonian Folkways label in early 2019, which address issues which affect black women, including slavery, racism and sexism. [Our interview with Allison Russell is here]
“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s in a lot of the work that I’ve done – the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and certainly with the Native Daughters, we speak pretty explicitly about the role of black women in shaping the United States. But I feel that that conversation is always kind of present, you know, and I think Haiti is very much a part of that conversation.”
Leyla McCalla clearly feels it’s important for her as an artist not just to entertain, but to participate in the conversation, the protest, that’s going on in America about race. She said, “I don’t know if I’d be doing the work, making the music that I’m making without seeing it all through this historical lens. That is so much a part of why I am drawn to the stories that I’m interested in telling, and weaving into a song.
“I hope I can offer a perspective that some people may not have been considered, but I’m also just really interested in a conversation about why things are the way they are in the world. I don’t feel that music is this sterile environment. I don’t believe that we can be apolitical. There’s a lot of people who say you need to leave politics out of their music. But to me, that’s a political statement in and of itself.”
One song on Vari-Colored Songs in particularly arresting. Song for a Dark Girl is very stark, and utterly compelling. It’s about a lynching “way down in Dixie,” and you can’t help but hear echoes of Strange Fruit. The whole feel of the song with its insistent finger-picked riff and the way that McCalla captures the tragedy of the scene with her voice is at times almost harrowing. It’s a song that needs to be widely heard. I asked her what it feels like to perform the song.
“I mean, it’s always intense, because the song is extremely intense, but it feels important because not only is lynching still happening, but we need to continue to talk about this history. We’re doing ourselves a disservice, we’re doing our children a disservice, if we don’t talk about it, and try to pretend that that is the past. But feels very present.” McCalla went on to talk about the “police brutality in our country” which, “even if it’s not explicit lynching… is essentially the same thing. It’s still present.”
Song for a Dark Girl doesn’t just highlight the brutality of being lynched, but, with the young woman in the song seeing her lover hanging from the tree, it also puts the spotlight on the pain it causes to others. “One of the main things I see is that our society is attuned to thinking about black pain, but not black love. So I feel like this song speaks to that as well. Black people are not generally seen as capable of feeling the same gut emotion as white people.”
Finally, I asked Leyla what projects she might have in mind for this coming year, even though it’s very hard to look forward with the pandemic raging.
“Well, I feel very lucky. I’ve recorded my fourth album and I’m waiting for the right label partner to come along. The album is inspired by the history of Radio Haiti. Its history culminates in the assassination of the radio station director – there’s a film called TheAgronomist made by Jonathan Demme about it. [The Agronomist is a 2003 American documentary about Jean Dominique. It follows the life of Dominique, who ran Haiti’s first independent radio station, Radio Haiti-Inter, during multiple repressive regimes.] I’ve been commissioned to make a multimedia performance piece about this. And the album is all the songs that came from that commitment and a few other songs. It’s very exciting. I’m hoping it will be out later this year, but we’ll see.”
That sounds like something to look forward to. In the meantime, get yourself a copy of Vari-Colored Songs and enjoy the immense talent that is the remarkable Leyla McCalla.
Beth Hart Live at the Ulster Hall: Six Things We Learned
Grammy and Blues Music Award nominee Beth Hart has had a roller-coaster of a life. After a chaotic childhood in LA, she began playing clubs in Hollywood aged 15 and recorded her first album six years later. She’s gone through the loss of a beloved sister and suffered from bipolar disorder and drug addiction. But she’s battled through and her career has flourished, with last year’s War In My Mind her ninth solo studio album. Hart has said that discovering her faith was instrumental in her recovery.
She has played and recorded, to great acclaim, with guitarist Joe Bonamassa, releasing one live and three studio albums so far. She has collaborated with Slash, Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy, and performed for President Obama and his wife. Channelling rock, blues, gospel and soul, she is a dynamic performer, an incredible singer and a great song-writer.
Her album, War in My Mind (one of our Best Blues Albums 2019) sees Hart open up herself to her audience in new ways. “More than any record I’ve ever made, I’m more open to being myself on these songs,” she explains. “I’ve come a long way with healing, and I’m comfortable with my darknesses, weirdnesses and things that I’m ashamed of – as well as all the things that make me feel good.”
Beth played the Ulster Hall in Belfast, an iconic venue with excellent acoustics, and which dates back to 1862 and along the way has hosted Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher, Dire Straits, Jackson Browne and a host of top classical orchestras. With a top-class band of three – Jon Nichols on guitar, Tom Lilly, on bass and Bill Ransom on drums, Beth Hart came on stage to a rapturous reception from 2,000 fans. Here’s what we learned:
1. Beth Hart is an incredible singer. She’s not only powerful, but she’s got great range, dynamics and versatility. She gave an awesome blues performance of Lloyd C. Glenn and Lowell Fulson’s Sinner’s Prayer (made famous, of course by Ray Charles), had us rocking in the aisles with Spirit of God, and then did full justice to a number of ballads and jazzy numbers.
2. Her energy and stage presence is full-on. There’s nothing half-hearted about a Beth Hart performance. The woman gives it all she’s got and then some. When she arrived on stage, she immediately stamped her personality all over it in a swirling, foot stomping, gyrating, sinuous maelstrom of movement. Much to the delight of the audience.
3. Beth Hart doesn’t just give you an incredible music performance – she puts herself out there, with a display of vulnerability I’ve never encountered in an artist before. As she gave the background and the stories to the songs from War In My Mind, you came face to face with the battles she’s fought, of a broken home, addiction, lack of self-esteem and mental illness. Her performance of Tell Her You Belong To Me (from Better Than Home), with its background of her father leaving the family home, was stunning but heart-breaking. This wasn’t just entertainment, it was an artist really opening herself up to her audience – that, I’m sure, must take its toll on the artist; it wasn’t always easy on the audience either.
4. Beth Hart’s story is one of redemption. That comes through loud and clear, in her confidence, in her delight in the music and in the gratitude she exudes. It came through the joyous Spirit of God, inspired, she said from an experience of a Baptist Revival Church which exposed her to a different kind of Christian worship from the rather formal sort she’d been brought up with. And through her faith which she referred to briefly on several occasions. Previously she’s said “When I’m really doubtful of myself, I gravitate to God. Because if my faith can’t be in me, then it can be in him.” And her redemption has come in large part through her husband Scott Guetzkow who has helped her through the dark times and is always there for her. As she emotionally sang I Need A Hero, she dedicated it to Scott, and it was a touching moment when he crept on stage to give her a hug at the song’s conclusion.
5. Turning your rockin’ electric band into a tight acoustic group for a set of jazz- and latin-tinged numbers is a neat trick, and demonstrated the versatility of Hart’s three collaborators. Baby Shot Me Down worked exceptionally well here.
6. If you’re going to sling your guitar as low as Jon Nichols, you better have long arms. I’ve seen guitarist sporting as many guitars as Jon did in a gig, but never one who played it somewhere around his knees. Quite something.
Simply put, this was a performance from Beth Hart and her band that will live long in the memory.
“A national treasure in your own back yard.” Jorma Kaukonen
Mary Flower is an amazing acoustic guitarist who specializes in Piedmont-style finger picking with dashes of Delta, ragtime and jazz. A finalist in the National Finger Picking Guitar Championship, she is also a three-time nominee for a Blues Music Award and many times a Cascade Blues Association Muddy Award winner. Living Blues magazine said that she “Marries acoustic blues with touches of ragtime, folk, and jazz…the interplay is always interesting, often provocative, and sometimes breath-taking.”
She has eleven recordings and performs regularly in the United States and abroad, including appearances at the King Biscuit Blues festival, the Vancouver Folk Festival and Prairie Home Companion.
As well as her recording and song-writing, Mary Flower is a renowned guitar instructor, teaching at festivals and guitar camps, and hosts her own guitar camp, Blues in the Gorge, each year near Portland, Oregon. In addition, she has developed five instructional DVDs and been part of the Blues in Schools program.
With a great deal of care and creativity, she brings to life older blues and roots music, and composes songs that sound like they firmly belong in America’s great roots music tradition. She recently released her eleventh album, Livin’ With the Blues Again, a 12-song set that comprises instrumentals which showcase Mary’s guitar chops, blues and gospel songs and some Mary Flower originals. Down at the Crossroads got to chat to Mary about the album and her music.
Gary: I’ve been listening to your new album quite a lot over the last the last week or so. And I’ve really enjoyed it. I mean, it’s the blues, but it’s kind of uplifting as well. So I wondered if maybe you could tell us a little bit about it, how you decided what songs would go on it and maybe a bit about the recording process.
Mary Flower: Well, I have to tell you that this was a fairly quickly recorded CD and also I didn’t have a lot of time to plan. I know people who have spent a year to record an album and I found out maybe a month and a half, I’d say, before recording times that I was going to do it.
I was approached by the Little Village Foundation, which is…I call them angels. They find people that they want to record for them. And then they record the whole thing and do the artwork and pay for everything, and then give you CDs. I was extremely lucky to be chosen for this project. They recorded five albums about the same time and the release date for all five was the same. So we did a five act concert down at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, California.
Jim Pugh is a Hammond B3 player, who has played with a lot of groups, including with Robert Cray. And he decided to do something that would get him off the road and do something good for people. So he started the Little Village Foundation which is based somewhere in California. Anyway. So I had very little time compared to what a lot of people have when they do a project. I just kind of chose songs that I thought that I knew well enough to be able to pull off in the studio fairly well without having to think too hard – songs that I’ve been playing that I knew fairly well. I wrote a couple of extras before I went in and I did a couple of repeats from older albums.
For the recording process we had an engineer who’s a great guitar player. And mostly the other people on the recording are Little Village artists, except for Susie Thompson, who’s a friend of mine. And so it was people I’d never met or played with before. And they just kind of brought ’em in and the Sons of the Soul Revivers were phenomenal to work with. Three guys. And they didn’t have to even think about the parts. They knew exactly what to do and they sounded really, really good. They’re incredible. Anyway, it kind of all worked out.
Gary: I wanted to ask you about your singing, because I thought your singing on the album was very good. Clearly you’re known for your finger picking prowess – and the album is bookended by two lovely instrumentals. But do you have a preference between just playing guitar or playing and singing?
Mary Flower: Yes, I do. I would prefer…well, let’s put it in terms of songwriting. Would I rather write an instrumental or lyrics? l’d certainly rather be more guitar centric than being called the singer songwriter. Writing songs is a really difficult process for me lyrically. And, you know, I can sing or not sing, but I’m happy to not be singing if that’s an option. And I love writing instrumentals. I’m passionate about that. Particularly writing instrumentals that sound like an old song. Piedmont style blues or something.
Gary: But take Living with the Blues Again, which is a Mary Flower original. When you talk about, you know, struggling maybe with writing lyrics, I just thought the lyrics on that were very strong. And some were quite amusing. And then you have “this old country’s in a terrible mass, there’s lying and cheating, hitting and tweeting…No more kindness, my friend.” Which sounded to me awfully like a comment on your tweeter-in-chief.
Mary Flower: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, what else could it be? It was definitely a political connotation. I’m not really a political performer or someone that talks a lot about politics. But I did find that that fit in well to that song. But my audience is not going to be insulted by that – they’re pretty much in agreement, I think. But yeah. That was exactly what that was all about. And I thought it was a very gentle way to say something. You know, as opposed to some people who are just…have more guts than I have!
Gary: I thought that was nicely done in the song and so, you know, I think your lyric writing on that one came through pretty well. It kind of reminded me of a Chris Smither, song in some ways, because he’s quite clever with his lyrics as well.
Mary Flower: Yeah. Well, he’s a real lyricist. But I just find it difficult to get inspiration. If I go to a retreat where I have nothing to do but write, I can write a song! But daily life – there’s so much to do. I get distracted. and I always have to be dragged away from my house, far away from civilization to write! But I can do it when forced to!
Gary: And there are some very cheerful spots on the album. There’s A Bright Side Somewhere, which is an old gospel song, which has been done by all sorts of people. I discovered recently another nice version of that by Ry Cooder.
Mary Flower: Oh I didn’t know he did it.
Gary: Yeah, but yours is a great version. And then River of Joy. Both seem to me to be quite hopeful or inspirational songs at a time when there’s a lot of pessimism around, you know, you say “the world’s all rough and tumble, There’s a great unrest” and so on. How important are those sort of songs, those kind of upbeat songs, in times like these?
Mary Flower: I think they’re critical. I have some hope because it’s gotta turn. It’s worse than it’s ever been, but it’s gonna turn around. And I think people like being hopeful. River of Joy is one of the two songs that I had previously recorded. I had written that after 9/11 – it was my response to that. So it kind of felt like it was time to do it one more time. I’m not a religious person, but gospel music is quite moving to me. I just feel like it lifts me up.
Gary: It’s such a big part of American roots music isn’t it?
Mary Flower: Yes, it’s huge. I’m a big fan of good gospel music. And that song Bright Side I thought was a Reverend Gary Davis song until I realized it’s an old Methodist hymn. And the guys that I sang with knew it quite differently. And they kind of had to relearn the structure of the song. Everybody’s got their version of it.
Gary: So, let me ask you a little bit about your guitar playing. Obviously, you’re very skilled. You’ve been a finalist in prestigious competitions and so on. And so how did you get so good, Mary? Were you self-taught? Did you have teachers? How did you get to the skill level you have?
Mary Flower: I am completely self-taught. I grew up in a small town where nobody played guitar. And, you know, it was during what we call the folk scene of the 60s, late 60s, and all I heard were the commercial renderings from people. I didn’t really understand the roots of the music until I went to school at Indiana University, which has probably the greatest ever ethno-musicology school in the country.
And a lot of musicians came there and, as I began to dig a little bit deeper, I realized that some of the Peter, Paul and Mary songs, were written by Reverend Gary Davis. I started hearing the roots. And as I got older, I began to delve into the people who played the early country blues and early Piedmont style blues. Then I met John Cephas, who is one of my heroes. And John Jackson, two Piedmont style players. I spent time with both of them, not really learning from them, but playing with them, you know? And as I went around to these guitar camps, which were really fun, I learned. I mean, I watched other people. I watched how they taught. I watched how they play. And that really helped me in the beginning. And then I kind of found my own way.
But I try to not copy. I mean, unless I decide I’m going to do a note for note version of somebody’s song. I try to kind of use their style in a way with my own playing, with my own writing. And I turn it around a little bit. I try to never steal. I mean, you won’t hear me sound too much like Robert Johnson, although I could if I wanted to. Plenty of people that do that. I try to make it my own, I guess.
Gary: So how do you do you do that? When you’ve identified a song that you think that might work for Mary Flower, how do you go about the rearranging, reinterpreting?
Mary Flower: I try to be true to the form and perhaps play it in a different key, make my own arrangement. But keep it recognizable. I don’t want to take it too far away from where a song was written. But probably the hardest thing for me is if I’m learning a song that was recorded by a man. Many times I can’t sing those lyrics or I can’t sing it in the key that they recorded. So, I’ve got to make some changes. All of that can be a bit of a struggle. It’s really hard to take a song and make it mine if it’s written by a guy. And so many times it is.
Gary: Do you ever change lyrics then so you can sing it?
Mary Flower: Yes, I have been known to do that! If I were doing a Robert Johnson song, I can’t sing, “I’ll beat my woman until I’m satisfied.” So yes. I’ve been known to change a bit here and there.
The other problem is understanding lyrics from the recording. That can be super hard and I get really frustrated. You’d think this song must have lyrics on the internet. Wrong! Because they couldn’t understand the lyrics either! So, yes, it can be really hard to find the correct interpretation of the song.
Gary: A good example of that is Blind Willie Johnson’s Latter Rain. Because if you go and look for the lyrics of that, you’ll find all sorts of strange things because Johnson was a Pentecostal and there’s a bit of Pentecostal theology that read a text in the Old Testament about the “latter rain” falling on the crops which they took to refer to the Spirit falling in the last days. So that’s what the song’s about, because Johnson’s Pentecostal movement felt that they were in the days of the latter rain of the Spirit coming down. But unless you understand that you would misinterpret what Johnson is singing, which sometimes can be difficult. So that’s a prime example of a prime example of what you’re saying.
Mary Flower: Yeah. And there are so many dialects as well. In the Southern States, it’s really hard to understand those guys so much of the time. Another positive point for writing my own!
Gary: So if someone was starting out on a journey wanting to play acoustic blues guitar, people who come to your to your workshops and so on – who would you advise them to listen to?
Mary Flower: Well, I would say Blind Blake, because he is the top of the heap as far as I’m concerned. I know maybe seven people who can imitate him well, who can play just where he’s playing. But if I want a gentler approach, I would start with Mississippi John Hurt, whom everybody loved because he was a sweetheart. Although his songs sound easy, they’re not really, but they’re a good place to learn. And I’d also say Elizabeth Cotton, who also had a gentler approach. And, you know, she wrote Freight Train, which is very cool.
These guys teach you pattern picking, and how to incorporate a melody. But when people try to learn syncopation, that’s what throws everybody. It’s so complex. And really the guys who play that are really imitating a piano, and it’s easier to play syncopation on a piano than it is to play it on a guitar. So that’s what tends to throw people.
That’s kind of what I spend a lot of time teaching in these workshops because a simple melody isn’t very interesting. People have to learn to vary it from measure to measure. But John Hurt, he is a great place to start.
Gary: Very good. Who then are the guitarists that you like to listen to these days?
Mary Flower: Well, I don’t do a lot of listening, and I’ll tell you why. I hear music all the time. I mean, I had a four-hour rehearsal yesterday with my little string band! But of course, Ry Cooder. And then some of my friends who are not maybe nationally known or internationally known. Pat Donahue is one of my favourite players of all time.
I still hear people say to me, “You know what, you’re so good. Why have we never heard of you?” That’s why I get on tour. And Pat’s another one of those. Even though he was on Prairie Home companion for years and had millions of people listening to him every week. And then there’s Paul Geremiah whom I knew. Sadly, he’s had a stroke and I don’t think he can play anymore right now. But he was the best of the best when he was touring. These are some of the top, top guys. Oh, and John Cephas and John Jackson I guess I should put it in that category, as far as heroes of mine go.
Gary: So let me ask you a little bit about the blues. You’ve been nominated for Blues Music Awards, and a lot of your music revolves around the blues. What is it that attracts you to this music, Mary?
Mary Flower: Well, there’s so many different kinds of blues. The Chicago style was mostly electric, and I’m not really interested in that. I’m interested in the Piedmont style because it is complex and challenging. And oddly enough, it was played mostly by blind men. Go figure on that one! They were phenomenal. But I don’t know – it speaks to me, it’s got an edge to it. And I can write songs that work in that genre. I mean, I can write folk songs if I need to. But I really like the challenge of trying to make it sound like it’s an older song.
Gary: This is music that’s been around for a long time, that does seem to have an enduring appeal. Generation after generation discovers something fresh in it and it seems to have that continual attraction and pull.
Mary Flower: And I also think that the people who are really good at it have been working all their lives toward getting it right. That to me is worth a lot right there. Let’s put it this way – there are not a lot of jerks playing this kind of music! If they are, they don’t last. They are people who are putting their best foot forward and being true to the to the genre.
Take John Jackson, the Piedmont style player from Virginia, who is no longer around, and was probably the closest thing to John Hurt. He lived a fabulous life. And I think everybody was so touched by him. He just had a halo around his head! He played this music and spoke with an accent that nobody could quite understand. But he was such a great guy. And that really appeals to me and speaks for something.
Gary: Yes, that’s very interesting that you say that, because over the last two, three years I’ve talked to quite a lot of blues musicians…like Eric Bibb, Chris Smither, Rory Block,Hans Theessink, Luther Dickinson and quite a few others. And they’ve been generous with their time in talking to me and never critical of other people. So, yes, I think you’re right to say that. [when you’re finished here, check out the interviews by clicking the link]
Mary Flower: Oh, by the way, I’ve invited Eric to teach at my camp next year, and we’ve had Michael Jerome Brown in the past. He’s a wonderful player.
Gary: Yes, he’s a fantastic player. I saw him touring with Eric Bibb in the last year. And he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the blues and blues history.
Mary Flower: Yes, he taught at my camp and made a big impression a couple of years ago. So hopefully we’ll get Eric Bibb next year. And it look like we might have Jim Kweskin for the jug band-y stuff. Anyway, that would be quite a year if I can get who I want.
Gary: So tell us about your teaching, Mary, because I know that’s a big part of what you do.
Mary Flower: Well, I have my own guitar camp that happens here in early October. And it’s been hugely successful. We’re going on our seventh year, I think. And I bring in three nationally known people, and then get 50 students. So teaching is something I love to do. And it also balances me out. I don’t have to be on the road all the time. And I teach at other people’s guitar camps as well.
My camp is called Blues in the Gorge and it’s in the Columbia River Gorge at a place called Menucha. There’s something on my home page of my website about the dates for next year, which is early October. [check it out here] It’s 5 days – three intense days. And it’s a lot of fun. Everybody who comes is gracious. A lot of these camps turn into party camps, but that’s not what this is. People take it seriously and a lot of really great, great people show up for it.
Gary: That sounds fabulous and a lot of fun. Mary, it’s been lovely talking to you. Thanks so much for your time.
Rev Gary Davis is “one of the greatest figures of…twentieth century music.”
I’ve been trying to learn a couple of Rev Gary Davis songs on my guitar of late (helped by the wonderful Ernie Hawkins tutorials) and can report that they are fiendishly tricky to get under your fingers – especially for a modest player like myself. I’ll not be posting YouTube videos of myself anytime soon (to your great relief!).
He is surely one of the most under-rated guitarists of all, inexplicably not featuring in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time list. And how often do you hear his name mentioned when you and your friends are discussing great guitar players? I suppose acoustic guitar players don’t tend to be mentioned as often as the great electric players, but even given that, overlooking Gary Davis’s skills is very remiss.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been some notable accolades from significant sources:
Bob Dylan said Davis was “one of the wizards of modern music.”
Bob Weir (Grateful Dead) said he had “a Bachian sense of music which transcended any common notion of a bluesman.”
Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane) suggests Davis is “one of the greatest figures of…twentieth century music.”
Alan Lomax called him, “one of the really great geniuses of American instrumental music, a man who belongs in the company of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet.”
Although he shared with Robert Johnson incredible guitar chops and musical nous, in important ways, Davis was the exact inverse of Johnson. Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil in return for his guitar skill – although of course this has been debunked as a myth arising from a old African folk tale about the crossroads magic, told to try explain Johnson’s rapid improvement in his mastery of the instrument (the truth is much more prosaic – see our review of Conforth & Wardlow’s recent Johnson biography).
Nevertheless, Johnson did have a very negative attitude to religion, blaspheming vehemently when drunk and had a penchant for hoodoo. Davis, on the other hand, spent his life as a Baptist minister, seeking to save souls, and refusing to sing the blues in public for most of his life, even though that decision likely cost him professionally and economically.
Gary Davis’s guitar playing and all-round musical skill is all the more remarkable given he was blind and born into deep poverty. His near complete blindness seems to have been caused during early childhood, by the lack of proper medical care. “I could tell the look of a person, but to tell who it is, I’m not able to do that,” he said in later life. Davis was born in 1896 to poor sharecroppers in South Carolina. He was the eldest son of his mother’s eight children, all the rest of whom died young, most in infancy, again the result of non-existent medical care for black communities.
His father was often in trouble and ended up shot dead after reportedly slitting a lover’s throat. His mother, it seems, was also a philanderer and had no time for her children, and abandoned young Gary to his grandmother’s care, causing considerable him considerable emotional turmoil, which we can surmise persisted throughout his life: Ian Zack says, “It’s surely no coincidence that the themes of death, abandonment, the lost child in the wilderness and a reunion with his mother ran through Davis’s gospel message and music.”
Of his mother’s abandonment, Davis later said,
“I felt horrible about it ‘cause I felt like I was throwed away…Because of the way she talkin’ to me, she’d wish that I were dead. She tell me that a heap of times.”
Of his blindness and the absence of parental love, in There Was A Time That I Was Blind, on his 1961 American Street Songs album, Davis sings,
“It’s so hard I have to be blind
I’m away in the dark and got to feel my way
And nobody cares for me”
Davis’s grandmother was a Christian woman and taught young Gary the various spirituals he would reprise throughout his career. She took him to church, the Center Rabun Baptist Church, where he sang in the choir. Services were lively, with shouting, hand waving and foot stomping, fiery preaching and enthusiastic singing. Davis became a keen musician as a child, first of all mastering the blues harp, then the banjo and then guitar. Before long he and the guitar were inseparable. Davis said his first memory of hearing a guitar was that it sounded like “a brass band coming through.” If you’re at all familiar with Davis’s music you’ll understand that this is exactly what he ended up doing with his guitar playing, where he plays lead, rhythm and bass parts all at once, mimicking an entire band.
Davis’s first marriage as a young man to Mary broke up, Mary leaving him for another man – another abandonment to add to that of his mother’s, which led to a downward spiral for David into heavy drinking and rambling, playing the blues on the streets, in barrelhouses, country jukes, dancehalls and private parties.
His life was to turn around however in 1934 when he had a kind of vision of both a fowl and a young child vying for his attention. For Davis this was the devil versus an angel which was beckoning him to God. Right then, Davis said he surrendered and gave up to God – “give up entirely.” He was ordained at the Free Will Baptist Connection Church within 3 years, and was soon known as the Reverend Gary, from this point on harnessing his considerable guitar prowess in the service of encouraging the faithful and saving souls.
His song Great Change Since I Been Born highlights the practical difference faith brings – “since I been born,” of course referring to the idea of coming to faith as a “new birth,” as per John’s gospel chapter 3. That “road I used to walk, I don’t walk no more,” he sang, and, like the author of Psalm 40, he had a “new song.”
Davis’s commitment to his faith and refusal to sing the blues cost him dearly and ensured his talents largely remained hidden until the ‘60s when he was “discovered” in New York City. A college student who heard Davis play at that time said of him, “He was really an uplifter, [trying to get everyone] to focus their attentions on things other than their immediate frustrations.”
And there, I think, we’re at the heart of Davis’s faith. He had his faults and acted in quite un-preacherly ways at time – cussing, heavy drinking, eventually singing some bawdy blues songs and toting a gun. But his own life, lived in poverty and the restrictions of his blindness, and the experience of early abandonment led him to embrace a faith that helped him transcend the racism, the poverty and all the rest of the difficulties he experienced. And part of that was the hope that there was something beyond this life – songs like I’m Going to Sit on the Banks of the River, Twelve Gates to the City, Soon My Work Will All Be Done, I’m Gonna Meet You at the Station are all about the Christian believer’s heavenly hope.
That’s been on my mind a bit of late – someone I’m close to is likely close to the end and it sure is sobering to hear the doctors talk frankly and in some detail about his dying. His faith, however, is luminous, the product of a life well lived with a deep trust in God’s grace.
Gary Davis’s Death Don’t Have No Mercy is a stark reminder of the reality of what lies ahead for all of us. The New Testament writer Paul saw death as an enemy, and it surely is. But the resurrection of Jesus, he said, means that the sting of this last enemy has been drawn, its victory nullified, with the result that “mortal bodies [will] put on immortality.” So – Paul again – “if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” But, he goes on to say, there is indeed reason to hope for more, because of the resurrected Jesus.
Christians believe there is hope in the here and now. But, ultimately, it becomes important that there can be hope beyond the here and now. The question for all of us, as Bob Dylan puts it, is “Are You Ready?”
Roger Stolle runs the Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art store in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which he opened in 2002, after moving from St. Louis with a mission to “organize and promote the blues from within.” Since then he’s started a record label, written a book on the history of the blues in Mississippi, produced several documentaries about the blues and been behind several blues festivals now flourishing in the town.
The Cat Head store is a treasure trove of blues related stuff – CDs, DVDs, posters, books, memorabilia – and Roger says, “I basically tried to build the store I wanted to walk into but could never find!” Of Mississippi he says that when he moved there he found some of the nicest, most open people he’d ever met.
Roger’s is a remarkable story of one man’s love for the blues, for the Mississippi Delta and the people of Clarksdale, which, in many ways is the home of the blues. Roger told Down at the Crossroads his story –
DATC: Roger, how does a guy from Ohio, a successful corporate marketing executive end up in the Mississippi Delta, with his life revolved around the blues?
Roger: It’s crazy! But let me back up a little and tell you how I got into blues. It’s August 17, 1977, I’m ten years old, I’m in Trotwood, Ohio and Elvis Presley just died. “The King is dead at 42,” said the newspapers, and I’m, like, “what is that?!” My parents didn’t listen to music, and to me, this looks interesting. And then you turn on the TV, the radio, you go to the mall and hear the PA, everything is Elvis. It was crazy, he was on the front page of our papers in Ohio every single day for the whole week. It was huge.
So, I’m exposed to this music and, to be honest, not all of it hit me in the same way – I didn’t know what I was hearing, but what I now know is that I was into his blues and R&B stuff. I was into the Tupelo-Memphis Elvis, not the Hollywood-Las Vegas Elvis.
So that’s the music I kept trying to seek out. I’d buy these little 45s at Sears – and the reason I know what I liked is I still have that stuff – they’re all blues and R&B covers. Anyway, I’m getting into it without knowing it. You move forward a little, I’m getting older – I won’t say that I was necessarily an Eric Clapton fan at the time, but I knew that he was a big blues fan and in interviews he loved to mention Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson, Freddie King and so on. And I would just jot those names down, and I’d go to all the little malls and record stores in our area, looking – ‘cos there’s no Internet, there’s no Google, you can’t look this stuff up, even to know what ones to buy. And a lot of the time, I would just buy the cheapest used LP or new cassette tape – and sometimes you got a good one and sometimes you got, like, the one bad Lightnin’ Hopkins album! So I tried to self -educate.
Keep moving forward in time and after college I stumbled into advertising. I worked my way up pretty quickly into management and moved into a great job in St Louis in February 1995.
So I move there, but I’m a blues fan at that point. I’ve been educating myself, I’ve seen whatever blues artists have come through the crossroads of I70 and I75 in Dayton Ohio. Oddly enough, the first time I ever saw R L Burnside was in 1998 at a jazz club in Dayton – and the next time I saw him was in a juke joint in 1996 in Mississippi.
So anyway, I come down here around 1996 and do what I call for my customers the Dead Man’s Blues Tour. I really thought it was all gone, but I thought I’d come down and see where my heroes came from. And there weren’t that many headstones at that time – most of them are modern, paid for by fans – and there’s no Mississippi Blues Trail or history markers. The State was not recognizing blues as being important yet. There were no guide books, and you just showed up and tried to talk to people. And it was really cool, because you got to meet blues folk who I always found to be fabulous – they’d invite you to their homes and stuff. If you were here on a weekend, there might be some live blues somewhere in the Delta, but it wasn’t a guaranteed thing, certainly not in Clarksdale.
There were three main blues festivals in the region, two in Mississippi, one in Arkansas, that I’d come down for. The Sunflower Blues festival in Clarksdale, the Delta Blues and Heritage festival in Greenville and then the King Biscuit festival in Helena, Arkansas, which was particularly good during those years. But that was really it. Now of course we have a whole bunch of festivals.
So I just kept visiting and I’d go hang out with T-Model Ford – he became a buddy so I’d come down and hang out with him and his family. And he’d get the guitar out, and I had a great job, so I’d always pay him like it was a little house party.
After six and a half years of visiting, I just felt like it was all slipping away. And these little towns like Clarksdale that I had fallen in love with were dying. The downtown was dying, people were moving out of the neighbourhood…
And so I moved here with a mission to organize and promote the blues from within. That was my mission statement on my business plan – it wasn’t just about opening a store, it was about the mission. I moved here, trying to work with musicians, juke joint owners, club owners or potential club owners.
DATC: That was quite a vision, Roger.
Roger: Well, it’s funny to look back. I forget sometimes how crazy it actually looks! Now it seems like it’s brilliant! But it was pretty crazy, I have to admit. I mean the job I had was the sort of job people dream of getting. It was awesome, I was going to Hong Kong and Taipei and Europe and New York all the time, I had 14 people working for me, the pay and benefits were crazy, but I kept on coming down here and I realized, this is where I was supposed to be.
DATC: How did your family feel about this crazy move?
Roger: Well, I went and saw my Dad and stepmother in Florida and his comment was, “Well, we know you wouldn’t do anything stupid son.” And I was like, I wouldn’t give me that much credit! But my mother was so upset – she’d been bragging to her friends about what I’d been doing in my career – but she just stood up off her sofa, didn’t say a word, and walked out the front door! She wouldn’t talk to me that night, she was so upset. But now she’s come around because I’ve sent her my book and magazine writings and documentaries and CDs and so on. She understands now why I’ve done it, even if it’s not her dream.
DATC: Leaving the corporate world to start up a small business, always seems like a big risk to people who don’t do it.
Roger: When I resigned my boss, who was new in position and suddenly had me who is responsible for this whole department of people, resigning – first he tried to bribe me and then to guilt me out of it. They tried to not let me quit. It was the craziest thing.
Anyway, I land here in Clarksdale, and of course I knew a lot of people I’d met over the years. But it’s one thing to be visiting and another to say, hey I’ve moved here! I needed a two-wheel dolly and there’s a local company here in Clarksdale that makes them. So, I thought, cool, I’ll buy local, and I go out there and there’s this older white lady at the front counter who says, OK, follow me, I’ll show you what we got. We start walking back towards the warehouse, and I said, I just moved here from St. Louis and I’m opening a store, and before I could even get the statement out, she stops and turns around and says, “Boy, why’d you move to hell?”
DATC: Wow! And that’s your first day?
Roger: Yeah, in her mind the town was done, and she was just stuck here.
DATC; Did that unsettle you Roger?
Roger: Not at all! The glass is always half full for me. I remember going on one of those first weeks to the Mayor and board of commissioner meetings at City Hall to get in tune with what is going on in town. And I remember this old man – there use to be this public comments section which they did away with – this old white guy standing up and he just ranted about blues ain’t gonna save our town and I’m tired of hearing about people spending time and money on this. And of course my argument was – yes you’re exactly right, blues will not save the town – alone. But – I don’t see anything else to work with, so that’s the first piece on the table, work with that, start building on to it and you get somewhere. One thing alone isn’t going to do it unless Nissan moves a car plant here or something.
So that’s what we’ve been doing for 16 years, slowly building this community of people working on this.
DATC: Did you find, Roger, people at the beginning were resistant to this guy coming in from the outside with his vision for their town. Did you get any naysayers, apart from the woman who thought you’d moved to hell?
Roger: Well, I’m no brain surgeon or rocket scientist and I can prove it any day of the week! One of the things I bring to a situation though is that I’ve always been able to work with almost anybody. So coming here my whole thing was, I’m not going to be telling people what they should be doing or how they should be doing it, and I sure wasn’t going telling people why they should think blues is important. I’m going to show them, let them discover things in their own way for themselves.
So for example, one of the major ways we were able to do that, is I partnered with Bubba O’Keefe, a local Clarksdale guy – super energetic, very intelligent, a local businessman who loves this town. And we started a juke joint festival. It’s now our town’s biggest event, coming up to its fifteenth anniversary. The secret of that is that it’s not just another blues festival – it’s half blues festival, half small town fair, and all about the Delta. So this year we have 110 blues acts, but also monkeys riding dogs herding sheep! Also we have racing pigs, and a petting zoo and things for kids. Those kind of things everybody wants to see – we may not think it’s right, but we wanna see it!
And you know, Southern hospitality is a real thing. People are going to ask you where you’re from and be hospitable if you can put them in the same room as these tourists from around the world.
We polled people in 2016 and we found people from at least 28 countries. I think that’s insane! So those people are all here. And locals are, like, hey, where are y’all from? And the overseas folks start talking about how much they love the town. Not just the music, but the town. And those are the type of situations, umbrellas if you like, that we’ve been trying to open around here
DATC: So what do you particularly like about living in Clarksdale?
James “T-Model” Ford
Roger: When I first moved here, people would say to me, hey, you must really love the blues to have moved here. Well, I do, but that alone wouldn’t have done it. It’s the music that brought me, but the people that made me want to stay. You know, being friends with someone like Red Paden who owns Red’s Juke Joint – awesome. And having been friends with and taking guys overseas who aren’t with us any more like Robert Belfour and T-Model Ford – having those experiences – priceless. Those are the kind of things that made it all worthwhile, honestly.
And it’s a cool little town. It’s become kinda artsy, very musical. We’ve had people who have moved here in the past 13 years from at least 4 or 5 foreign countries, a couple of couples from Australia for example, others from over a dozen US states. So you have that interesting mix of people, but everybody brings some kind of quirky thing from where they came from and people who come here know it’s not a place you come to “do it your way.” You come here and you get in where you fit in.
DATC: What are your hopes for the town in the future?
Roger: More of the same. Continuing to develop downtown, sell more buildings, get more tourists here. But it would be nice to see a more consistent traffic all year round, because it is a real challenge to do business here. In the bigger picture, what Clarksdale really needs is to attract a decent sized manufacturing plant, somebody who can add a few hundred jobs. And like many small communities, our schools continue to need work. Those are the kinds of things that blues and cultural tourism literally can’t fix – but it can attract people who are able to fix those things.
DATC: Roger, you own and manage the Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store; but you do other things as well…?
Roger: So the films that I’ve worked on – Hard Times, M for Mississippi, We Juke Up in Here, and then Moonshine & Mojo Handsis our newest project, which is a web series that going to go to DVD shortly. And my partner on those film projects and some of the recording stuff too is Jeff Konkel, who still lives in St Louis. He came down to my store and saw I’d started a record label, and he said, “If that idiot can do it, I’m sure I could do it,” so he started his own. Frankly, he’s probably done better with his than I did with mine!
Then we started working on bigger projects together. I also wrote a book called the Hidden History of Mississippi Blues. I’m hoping to write a new one, due out next year on juke joints. I did three albums on Big George Brock, and then there’s the festivals.
DATC: What is it about the blues that appeals to you, speaks to you? What is it that still draws people to the blues, to artists whose music has been around for a long time?
Roger: It’s a great question, and I think language fails us trying to describe it. When you hear it for the first time, it’s the feeling of it, the truth of it, the humanness of it. But when you sort of analyse it, in the long term, especially nowadays – there’s a word, authenticity, that gets overused and misused. And when we’re talking about music that came from here, it’s just that authentic musical experience, it’s the voice of a culture. To me, you feel that, it’s real. It’s not this process-created, marketed kind of thing.
Now of course blues as a genre has become huge, in terms of the breadth of it. But for me, when you come to the guys who came from the culture, that is why they sound the way they do. That’s the kind of stuff that gets to the heart of things, for me. It’s hard not to be touched by it.
DATC: And you’ve spoken to a lot of local blues artists, some now passed on, like David Honeyboy Edwards, and recorded that in your columns in Blues Revue and in your book; What are some of the broad impressions about the blues and the history of the blues you’ve gathered as you look back on those interviews?
Roger: The biggest eye-opener for me, once I was here for a while, when I would do an interview with someone like Bilbo Walker or L.C. Ulmer or Big George Brock, people of that generation – you know these guys grew up the exact same way, almost without exception, as Charlie Patton, or Son House, or Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. The plantation system here, sharecropping, segregation, these things were all in place during that huge swathe of time. Like those forefathers of the music, none of the guys I mentioned got to go to school, they were all illiterate. All these factors – it’s like having a bee trapped in amber – which suddenly you’re able to let out. When you asked them questions, you got answers like you would have got from these bluesmen of antiquity. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a right thing, it’s just how it was.
DATC: It really shows you how the context of the blues is really what gave rise to it. The situation of African Americans in the early decades of the 20th century and what they went through is what gave rise to the music.
Roger: Absolutely. Big George Brock, for example, told stories of this mule he worked – owned by the plantation of course – named Ida. He would sing to that mule to make her work – but he was ploughing with a mule before they had a tractor. And I’m talking to a guy about this, who is 85 years old and who experienced that. It’s fascinating, and that’s why the music – it may have been updated in terms of electricity, for example – but it still feels the same way.
Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ have teamed up for an album and tour under the name TajMo. We caught their gig at the lovely old theatre, the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, which was packed with appreciative fans.
What a fabulous idea to bring two blues masters together in this way. Two performers with great stage presence, two very different but complementary singing styles and two people clearly with a love of life and music. Add to that mix an outstanding band with drums, bass, saxophone, brass, keyboards and two wonderful singers – and you have a recipe for a hugely entertaining night. Oh, and stir in Keb’ Mo’s guitar virtuosity (and his dazzling range of guitars – that PRS Semi!)
At 75, Taj Mahal’s still got his groove. He jiggled and shook his way onto the stage, shaking a pair of maracas, beaming broadly, as the band played him in, clearly delighted at the raucous reception from the London crowd. And, oh my, that voice – still strong, with a throaty rasp. The man can sing the blues – and play the guitar, harmonica, banjo and ukulele.
Keb’ Mo’ is a hugely talented songwriter, singer, guitarist and performer, but even he seemed to be delighted to be on the same stage as Taj Mahal. Mahal, of course, is a legendary artist who has been performing since the late 60s. As we waited to get into the venue I chatted to Randolph from New York City, who’d first seen and heard Taj Mahal at Woodstock in 1969. Mahal has released more than two dozen studio albums, as well as live albums, and contributions to other people’s records. He’s been nominated for nine Grammy awards, and won two Grammy’s for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Nobody was in any doubt that we were in the presence of a blues legend.
At ten years his junior, Keb’ Mo’ must have been delighted when, after another tasteful guitar solo, the older master called for a reprise with, “One more time, son.”
The collaboration of these two artists dispels the notion that the blues are downbeat or depressing. Friday evening was two solid hours of unmitigated joy. As Taj Mahal says, “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is. It’s therapeutic, so you can get up off that down.” The blues faces life head on, calls it like it is, but it’s a way to work through trouble and hard times. This performance was fun, even uplifting, and more than a thousand people went away after the performance with huge smiles on their faces and optimism in their souls.
Backing singers needn’t take a back seat. Taj Mahal’s two daughters, Zoe Moon and Deva Mahal smiled, grooved, danced, and of course – sang – their way into the audience’s affections throughout the course of the evening. Their joy in the music was infectious.
Keb’ Mo’ had obviously read our review of his concert last year in Union Chapel, where I bemoaned the fact that he hadn’t played a personal favourite of mine, Life is Beautiful. He, Taj and the band duly rectified that with a sweet version of the song. The setlist overall covered most of the songs on the TajMo album – which I’d highly recommend, by the way – a few Keb’ Mo’ songs and a couple more songs done by Taj Mahal in the past. At the beginning of the concert we had the up tempo Don’t Leave Me Here, a longing for the blues heartland of Mississippi, which drew the audience from the get-go. The band disappeared for a few songs along the way to allow Mahal on acoustic guitar and Mo’ on a Resonator to give us some nice country blues, including the Sleepy John Estes number Diving Duck Blues, which was particularly enjoyable. As the concert drew to a close, the Empire crowd sang and clapped along to Soul, with its African rhythms and world music feel. And let’s not forget All Around the World, with its indomitable optimism:
“What’s all the fuss about, why can’t people just get along?
Maybe we ought to talk about all the good we got goin’ on
Everybody knows there’s a better way
And we’re all hopin’ and prayin’ that one day
There’ll be love all Around the world
There will be peace and understanding All around the world
There will be joy All around the world
There will be happy children singing All around the world.”
There’s a lot of heartache, pain and suffering going on around the world. But New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoffpointed out recently that, “Despite the gloom, the world truly is becoming a better place.” Indeed, 2017 is likely to be the best year in the history of humanity.” He pointed to the large gains we’ve seen in combating disease and poverty, even in the developing world. Scourges like leprosy, malaria, worm infestation are receding and that’s before we starting thinking about the decline in extreme poverty. Yes, there are still huge challenges and many millions living in desperate conditions – so we must never be complacent or stop the fight for justice. But, there is hope – especially when we strive for peace and understanding. Thanks for the reminder, Keb’.
God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson has earned plaudits from all quarters and Grammy Award nominations for Best Roots Gospel Album and Best American Roots Performance for the Blind Boys of Alabama recording of Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time. The album was produced by Jeffrey Gaskill of Burning Rose Productions. The album features a star studded cast which includes Tom Waits, Lucinda William, Derek and Susan Trucks, Luther Dickinson and the Cowboy Junkies. Down at the Crossroads chatted with Jeffrey Gaskill to find out more about how the album came about:
DATC: First of all Jeffrey – congratulations on God Don’t Never Change. It’s a wonderful record; it’s been very widely acclaimed; it’s had two Grammy nominations. That’s no doubt been very pleasing for you – but have you been surprised at just how well it’s gone down?
Jeffrey Gaskill with Lucinda Williams
Jeffrey: I guess I’m not so surprised. I’m grateful for the Grammy nominations – I was hopeful they would come. But I like the fact that it’s gotten great reviews. These are uncertain times – everything’s uncertain, the music business is uncertain, you can’t take anything for granted. But, yes, I’m pleased with the nominations.
DATC: One writer said that your guidance resulted in “Eleven stirring renditions which replicate the soul of the songs, not just the sounds.” Presumably that was what you were striving for?
Jeffrey: Yeah, that was exactly it. Exactly. You know, just going for the heart of the song, and what Willie Johnson was saying at that time. Just bringing it up to contemporary times. And bringing artists together who can convey the song, convey the thought. Really, you know, it’s the thought in the song behind the music that matters the most.
DATC: So why did you want to do an album of Willie Johnson songs?
Jeffrey: Well I wanted to do it way back in 2003, after my Dylan project, Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan came out. But you know, I had to give some things a rest after that and it was hard to find a label that was willing to go to bat for the project on paper before it was recorded. This was at the time the record industry was collapsing.
DATC: So what is it about Willie Johnson’s music that really appealed to you, that made you want to do this album?
Jeffrey: I think it’s the sense of permanence – and I think it’s the same thing with Dylan’s music – these are themes that everyone needs to think about in their lifetime, no matter when in the spectrum of time they’re living their life – it’s really timeless, enduring music. It’s not something to be sung today and forgotten about tomorrow.
DATC: And that’s the thing about his music – it really has endured over the years. It’s been covered by so many artists, in so many ways over the years. There’s something about it that seems to appeal to people in different eras, perhaps coming from different genres of music.
Jeffrey: Yeah, his music can be interpreted in any number of styles, so seminal is it. He himself, we might say, is hidden in plain sight, to the extent that most everybody is familiar with at least one or two of his songs, if not all of them. Although maybe not familiar with him as an artist.
DATC: The interesting thing, Jeffrey, is that Johnson’s music is quite unashamedly Christian; it springs right out of his vibrant faith. How come people still have an appetite for it, and how come artists who may have no particular interest in faith want to cover his songs and find his songs compelling?
Jeffrey: Well, of course some people only see Blind Willie Johnson as a blues artist, with those universal themes. It takes perhaps a little bit more understanding and appreciation of the lyrics and what he’s getting at to really fully realize him as a gospel artist, which he truly is. But he can be taken either way I guess.
DATC: Can you tell us a bit about the process of making this album, Jeffrey? From what you’ve said I gather it was a long time in the making?
Jeffrey: Labels loved the concept of the album and the artists who were interested in recording, but the budget and the financial end just wasn’t feasible while the industry was collapsing. So inevitably I wound up raising the funds through a kick starter campaign. I was grateful for kick starter, but it’s not really in my nature to want to go out and do things like that. But, you know, when your back’s against the wall, and you want to get something done like that, you’ll do what needs to be done. And then the thought came to me about his dilapidated home in Marlin in Texas that I had visited, and what could be done about the wood from it, and through some extraordinary generosity, a woman down there whom I had befriended was able to secure some wood from the house before it was demolished. And that became the Blind Pilgrim Collection – the cigar box guitars.
[Wood that had fallen free from the dilapidated house where Johnson lived with his wife and singing partner Willie B. Harris in Marlin was delivered to the capable hands of George Brin at String Tinkers in Putnam, CT. He carefully cleaned up this old Southern Yellow Pine and painstakingly hand-made ten magnificent finger-jointed boxes book-matched front and back to create these cigar box guitars.]
DATC: And there were some guitar picks as well weren’t there? I’m kinda kicking myself – I wish I’d tried to get one of those picks!
Jeffery: Well, they were made from the same wood that the guitars were made from. I said, “do you have any scraps left?” and in fact there were three very small pieces of wood left, and so I sent them out to a fabulous pick maker out in California, and he was able to get a hundred picks out of that wood. [Chris Brossard Picks (www.brossardpicks.com)]
DATC: Wonderful. So how did you go about recruiting the artists – I mean it’s a fantastic cast on the album, and all the performances are very, very strong. So how did you go about recruiting them, Jeffrey?
Jeffrey: Well, just sending letters to management, saying, hey, I’m Jeff and I made a record called Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, and I’m working on this Blind Willie Johnson project, and here’s a song, and I wonder if you’d consider singing it?
One artist we tried, an Irish one other than Sinead O’Connor, was Van Morrison, but we never heard back from him. That would’ve been nice.
DATC: So you suggested songs for particular artists, rather than artists choosing?
Jeffrey: In most cases yes. With some exceptions – like for Sinead O’Connor, I think I gave her different suggestions up front and then she came back and said she wanted to do a different couple of songs. But then I gave her Trouble Will Soon be Over. So that took a little bit of back and forth. But I think we landed on the right one.
DATC: You sure did! It’s probably the surprise of the album, but it’s really fabulous. I wouldn’t have thought of Sinead O’Connor doing a song on an album like this. But she really nails that one, doesn’t she?
Jeffrey: Yeah, she totally nails it. And when I heard that, it really surpassed any expectations I had for the record. That and the Cowboy Junkies. I’m proud of all the tracks – they’re all great – but I really feel like, Sinead O’Connor and the Cowboy Junkies take it to another level, to a real contemporary sound, and show the relevancy of the words and of Blind Willie Johnson’s music. And these are the sort of songs that can be played on the radio, you know, anywhere, anytime.
DATC: What do you think the songs of Willie Johnson have to say to the modern world? We’re going back a long time to a particular social context, to an individual in very difficult circumstances, singing songs about faith – what can these songs say to the modern world?
Jeffrey: Well I like to think that the world is an improved place since his time. But I would think Willie Johnson would think that the lessons from his songs are still relevant. I would hope there is less desperation now than there was back then, and that there would be more empathy and understanding.
DATC: Have you another project in mind, Jeffrey, or do you just want the let the dust settle a bit on this on at the moment?
Jeffrey: Yeah, maybe let the dust settle for now. I do have another project in mind, it’s more of a audio museum exhibit of shaker music. I’m from New England and this music comes from the area in which I live. It’s got real historic importance.
DATC: Sounds like a great project. Thank you Jeffrey. Again – congratulations on the album our best wishes for the Grammys.
It’s that time of year again – trees, lights, carols, mince pies, wide-eyed children, and – Santa! Yes, the big man’s coming to town. Check out this terrific, fun-filled version of the song from Austrian guitar maestro, Gottfried Gferer.
Gottfried’s version is based on that of Bahamian guitarist and singer Joseph Spence. You can find Joseph’s Santa Claus is Coming to Townhere.
So, what is it with Santa? Who the heck is this big guy in the red suit? Santa Claus is generally depicted as an overweight, white-bearded man wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, red trousers, and black leather belt and boots – and of course the bag full of goodies for children. This seems to have originated in the 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast, and it quickly became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century. This sort of image of Santa Claus was further popularized through Coca-Cola’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s.
But behind the fat guy in red stands the historical figure of St. Nicholas. Born in AD 270, he became the Bishop of Myra in Lycia (modern day Turkey). He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus.
Nicholas was the only son of wealthy Christian parents who died in an epidemic while he was still young and he was raised by his uncle, the bishop of Patara. He followed in his uncle’s footsteps, becoming a priest and then a bishop.
In 325, he was one of many bishops to appear at the emperor Constantine’s Council of Nicaea, where, as a staunch defender of the Orthodox Christian position, he signed the Nicene Creed. During the council, the presbyter Arius was called upon to defend his position on the inferiority of Christ. Nick, feeling Arius’s position was just so much nonsense, listened for a while but eventually could take it no more, so he stood up and laid in to Arius with his fist!
As a result of this outburst of temper and violence, our good St. Nick was stripped of his office as a bishop and held in a prison cell. Fortunately for him, Jesus appeared to him in his cell, appeared puzzled as to why he was being imprisoned, and presented him with a copy of the Gospels. As a result of this miraculous intervention, the emperor promptly restored Nicholas to his bishop-ship.
While this fist-fight story has become quite well known, what perhaps is not so well known are stories where Nicholas acted to protect children from being taken into slavery, save young women from being sold into prostitution, save his people from famine, and spare the lives of those innocently accused. While we can’t be sure of the veracity of all of these stories, the picture emerges of a man who acted on his faith with compassion, and seeking justice.
Which brings us to the true heart of Christmas – behind the stout guy in the red suit who represents all the worst excesses of Western consumerism, we have the One whom Nick sought to follow, whose birth brought about a new “kingdom, to be established and sustained with justice” (Isa 9.7), and who would “scatter those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations, pull the powerful down from their thrones, lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty-handed. (Luke 1.51ff). The evil that Nicholas encountered in his day – slavery, sex-trafficking, injustice – still mar the world’s landscape. Christmas reminds us of God’s agenda for change in the world and of our need to get involved in God’s justice project.