“Where there is light there is hope; and where there is hope, there’s a chance”
Jimmy Carter, Blind Boys of Alabama
During 2021, we had the opportunity to speak to 15 great blues and roots artists, as well Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records and Tim Duffy of the Music Maker Foundation. All of them, plying their trade, entertaining us, at times challenging us, against the significant odds posed by the pandemic. Each of them doing what they do with determination, grace and even joy. Pick any one of the interviews if you feel in need of a little inspiration – go ahead, you’ll come away feeling just a bit better about life.
So, looking back, what did we learn from talking to each of these exceptional people?
1. Age is no barrier to following your dream.
Several of the people I talked to are in their eighth or ninth decade of life. A time when many people just want to sit back on the sofa and start watching daytime TV, thinking their best days are behind them. Not so with people like Jack Ward or Elizabeth King, who at 83 and 77 respectively had just released their first solo albums and were looking forward to going on the road to promote them. Or Maria Muldaur, in her late seventies, who teamed up with a bunch of young people to record Let’s Get Happy Together, the most upbeat, cheerful album I heard all year. She told me simply, “you have a choice every day – you can be bummed out of you can be happy.” Atagirl, Maria! And I love the positivity in Bryn Haworth’s Boom Baby Boom, which he wrote about getting older: “you’ve got one life and so much left to give…there’s still time for one more dance.”
Jorma Kaukonen, now turned 80, told me he was just about to embark on a new tour with Hot Tuna. He has just released a new album and has been performing regularly online from his Fur Peace Ranch during the pandemic. He told me performing was “just as energizing as it ever was.”
And then there’s Jimmy Carter of the Blind Boys of Alabama, who’s 88 and has just released Blind Faith, a terrific album of Americana/gospel songs – his first solo album – and who told me that he hopes the album “will energize people and change lives.” Now that was impressive – Jimmy’s still wanting to be a blessing to others.
2. Music can be a great vehicle for not only entertaining us, but challenging us.
Guy Davis, Eric Bibb, and Leyla McCalla didn’t make protest albums, but they included songs that highlighted injustice and made us think about our response to that. Davis’s God’s Gonna Make Things Over about the Tulsa Massacre and Eric Bibb’s Emmett’s Ghost dealing with the murder of Emmett Till both used historical tragedies to shine a light on the present. And Leyla McCalla’s stark Song for a Dark Girl, about a lynching “way down in Dixie” is as arresting as Strange Fruit. She told me that music isn’t some sterile environment where an artist can simply be apolitical. Musicians want to entertain us; we want to be entertained – but music, the blues in particular, has always been an important way for artists to comment on what is going on around them, and to help us all to see the injustice that many of us, in our comfortable lives, might miss or ignore.
3.Faith is a vital life-force for quite a number of these artists.
Jimmy Carter told me “my faith is strong” and “when it gets rough, I pray.” He and Elizabeth King and Elder Jack Ward have had considerable challenges in their lives, but each told me how important their faith in God was for them. Jack Ward came from a life of poverty as a sharecropper and told me “when you weak, God will make you strong; when you lonely, he would never leave you alone.”
Ms. King, who also grew up picking and chopping cotton, told me the incredible story of how God had healed her after a horrific injury from a drunk driver; now she says, her job “is just to encourage people…when you’re going through something, just turn to God.” Maria Muldaur told me she’s being going to her neighbourhood African American church for the last 40 years and is inspired by joyful worship.
Bryn Haworth, slide guitarist par excellence, who’s featured on the albums of a who’s who of top rock artists, as well as having an excellent back catalogue of his own, spends a lot of his time visiting prisons and talked about the “amazing stuff” he’d seen happen through prayer. His vibrant faith shone through our conversation – a faith, which, incidentally, has him on a mission to save the trees in England, about which he has a song on his new album.
4. Blues music is alive and kicking.
It may have been around for more than a hundred years now, but artists old and young are breathing new life into the genre all the time. Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records spoke of his optimism as he looked around at the blues and roots scene and saw people “taking the blues and gospel and making it their own.”
Grainne Duffy, a young Irish guitarist and singer, who’s performed on stages with Keb’ Mo’ and Van Morrison, has recorded an outstanding album, Voodoo Blues, with a set of original songs that both tap deeply into the legacy of the blues and breathe positivity. Joanna Connor, whose terrific 4801 South Indiana Avenue was produced by Joe Bonamassa and is packed with raw, high energy musicianship, is one of today’s great electric guitarists. She told me she was “fleshing out” stories as she played the songs, and making them sound epic in the process. She talked about the joy in the blues, despite the hardship out of which they emerged and the way they speak to the human emotion, And Carolyn Wonderland, the blistering Texas guitar-slinger, just finishing a stint in John Mayall’s band, whose vocals and guitar work on Tempting Fate are positively spine-tingling, talked about the fun and joy in making her music.
5. And the blues is a worldwide phenomenon.
Yes, the blues are founded on the experience of African Americans, and are deeply rooted in the souls of people like Guy Davis and Eric Bibb. And Tim Duffy, through his Music Maker Foundation, is working hard to preserve the tradition of unsung Southern musicians and present them to the world – he talked about the “very special people” in the communities he works with and the need to “amplify their voices” and promote “cultural equity.”
But I talked to Paul Cowley, an Englishman living in rural France, playing traditional acoustic blues – which he discovered relatively late in life and was smitten with; and to Mark Harrison, another Englishman, whose story-telling blues reflect deeply on the human condition; to Leyla McCalla, whose family roots are in Haiti; to Grainne Duffy from Ireland; to Bert Deivert, an American who’s lived most of his life in Sweden, and who says “it’s the soul of it, the emotion, which drives me.” Eric Bibb, of course, has also made his home in Sweden for many years.
All these people are doing more than just keeping the blues alive – they are, of course, deeply drawing from the well of music and blues feeling from the past, but as well, lyrically, they are applying the blues to new and current situations, and musically, they are either forging new directions or keeping it fresh by their talent, dedication and musicianship.
There are links to all the interviews below for you to read and enjoy:
Jorma Kaukonen: “The good life is more than material stuff…”
Bryn Haworth: Still time for one more dance
Jimmy Carter: And his Blind Faith is a ray of hope
Carolyn Wonderland: Is Tempting Fate
Bert Deivert: His story-telling blues
Eric Bibb: “Everything can change if we believe”
Elder Jack Ward: From sharecropping to soulful singing
Elizabeth King: Living in the Last Days is a gift for us all
Mark Harrison: His Unique Talent
Maria Muldaur: Wants us to get happy with her
Guy Davis: Hits a rich vein of creativity
Paul Cowley: Long Time Comin’ – but more than worth it
Tim Duffy: “A glorious awakening of musical tradition”
Joanna Connor: “The blues is honest music”
Mark Carpentieri: Optimistic about the future of the blues
Leyla McCalla: Making Music that Matters
Grainne Duffy: Drenched with the blues and Southern soul.