With songs by Gladys Bently, Eric Bibb, Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Blind Boys of Alabama and Kirk Franklin
A couple of years ago President #45 claimed he had “made Juneteenth very famous…nobody had ever heard of it.” Utter nonsense, of course. Happily his successor signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, enshrining June 19 as the national day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. Nevertheless, more than 30 states have not as yet authorized the funding to allow state employees to take the day off and it’s been said that not enough people know about the holiday to make the effort worthwhile. This, in spite of the fact that In June 2022, the percentage of Americans who said they knew about the holiday, was around 60%, rather than the 37% of the previous year. Still…60% isn’t terribly good, is it? – I mean, this Irishman knows about it!
Anyway, the day is also sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.”
Juneteenth celebrates the 19th June, 1865, when Union soldiers read the announcement in Galveston, Texas, that all enslaved African-Americans were free, two months after the South has surrendered in the Civil War, and more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is African-Americans’ Independence Day and has traditionally been celebrated with barbeques, parades and parties.
It’s an important day, it seems to me, not only for African Americans but for the whole country. Historian Kate Masur says that “Juneteenth…should serve not only to remind us of the joy and relief that accompanied the end of slavery, but also of the unfinished work of confronting slavery’s legacy.”
Down at the Crossroads celebrates Juneteenth with four songs. The first is Juneteenth Jamboree, recorded by Gladys Bentley, a Harlem singer, well known in the 1920s and 30s, who hits a note of celebration and joy.
There’s no shirking, no-one’s working Everybody’s stopped Gums are chompin’, corks are poppin’ Doing the Texas hop
Eric Bibb’s album Dear America, he says, is “a love letter, because America, for all of its associations with pain and its bloody history, has always been a place of incredible hope and optimism.” [check out our terrific interview with Eric here] In the title track, he addresses the open wound of America’s racial divisions in a way that is both personal and hard hitting. His simple appeal is, that although the “temperature’s rising”
“Don’t let hatred’s fire burn you and me”
Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd recently joined forces with Robert Randolph on steel guitar and veteran blues drummer Tony Coleman to record Hit ‘Em Back, a song which addresses divisiveness and anger within the greater blues community. Copeland said, “I don’t want my music to come from a place of anger because when it does, no one hears you. Let’s educate; let’s open people’s eyes; why can’t we be united?”
The song appeals to our common humanity and the power of love as an answer to division:
Don’t care where you’re born Don’t care where you been The shade of your eyes The color of your skin We all join together
Hit ‘em back Hit ‘em back with love
Our next Juneteenth celebration song, is the Blind Boys of Alabama singing Luther Dickinson’s Prayer for Peace. The song celebrates progress made, but bemoans continued racial division. The song wishes we all could be “color blind.” In the voices and harmonies of the Blind Boys of Alabama, it’s another appeal to our common humanity. [check out our interview with Jimmy Carter here]
The innocence and love seen in our children’s face Makes me pray ignorance and hate disintegrate into space Shall we pray Pray for peace.
And finally here’s the “Black national anthem” in the United States, a hymn written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson. This is a truly inspirational song, and Kirk Franklin and this fabulous choir, really hit the heights.
God of our weary years God of our silent tears Thou who has brought us thus far on the way Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light Keep us forever in the path, we pray Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee
What a great year it’s been for blues albums. Whether it’s acoustic blues, blues rock, traditional, modern, gospel or funk, there’s been something for everyone. Some artists – like Eric Bibb, Guy Davis and Corey Harris – have included important social commentary in their music; we’ve had great music from a bunch of…well, let’s say mature musicians, like Dion, Alabama Slim, Elizabeth King and Hans Theessink; and some terrific output from young musicians, like Christone Ingram and Selwyn Birchwood, who are making it clear that the blues are alive and well.
We’ve chosen our top 25 albums – arranged in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them. Enjoy!
Here’s our top 12.
Dear America, Eric Bibb Dear America is a collection of thirteen Eric Bibb originals, all testament to his outstanding song-writing skill, ear for a good tune and top-notch guitar chops, but what makes Dear America such a great album – and an important album – is not just the music but the nuanced social commentary and challenge he presents. But like every Eric Bibb album you listen to, there’s a thread of hope and joy that comes through strongly. Here’s our interview with Eric.
Joanna Connor, 4801 South Indiana Avenue An absolutely top-notch set of blues rock that clearly has a Chicago blues heritage, yet sounds completely fresh and modern. Connor’s killer slide guitar and vocals are augmented by some characteristically fine guitar work by Joe Bonamassa and a tight-knit top-class band. Superbly produced, and packed with raw, high-energy musicianship. Check out our interview with Joanna.
Paul Cowley, Long Time Comin’ Paul Cowley is an outstanding musician, a fine guitarist, with a deep appreciation for the acoustic blues tradition. Long Time Comin‘, has 12 acoustic blues songs, 5 traditional songs from the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell and 7 originals. It’s outstanding, and hugely enjoyable. We talked to Paul about the album here.
Dion and Friends, Stomping Ground Another great blues album from the erstwhile wanderer, Dion. As with his last album, he’s collaborated with a bunch of his friends – probably a list of your favourite artists. They’re mine, anyway – Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Keb’ Mo’, Mark Knopfler, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton…It’s the blues, but it’s positive and upbeat, and it’s an album you’ll return to again and again.
Corey Harris, Insurrection Blues Corey Harris’s 20th album is what acoustic blues is all about. Fourteen traditional blues songs performed with passion, rawness and fine guitar picking. The spirit of the blues breathes in every song. This is a rich feast of acoustic blues, all the more satisfying for presenting the tradition with freshness and originality, and for showing its relevance to current times. Check out our full review here.
Christone Ingram, 662 There’s never a dull moment in the album, with a nice blend of styles and approaches to the songs – to his guitar and singing skill, add song-writing too. Ingram’s singing throughout is outstanding and his guitar solos glorious. At the end you’re left wanting more. If he can keep up the quality shown in this release, Christone Ingram has a stellar career ahead. Highly recommended. Here’s our full review
Catfish Keith, Land of the Sky Catfish Keith’s full range of acoustic guitar pyrotechnics are on display in his 20th album, Land of the Sky – picking, plucking, pinching, bending, sliding, harmonics-ing, on his wide collection of guitars, which include parlours, full-size 6 strings,12-strings, Nationals and a ukulele. It’s a feast of hugely enjoyable guitar fare for any guitar, blues, roots or just music fan. Our full review is here.
Gary Moore, How Blue Can You Get If you buy one blues album this year, this is it. A set of eight songs, some previously unheard and unreleased, from the Moore family archives, will move you, excite you, get you on your feet, and make you regret all the more that Gary Moore is no longer with us. Released on the tenth anniversary of Moore’s passing How Blue Can You Get proves, if there was ever any doubt, that Gary Moore was a master of the blues. Check out our full review here.
Alabama Slim, The Parlor Approaching his 82nd birthday, close to seven feet tall, and typically dressed in an impeccable tailored suit, Alabama Slim has given us a perfect, classic blues album which recalls the boogie of John Lee Hooker. It’s delicious, pared-back, but tasty fare from a man whose soulful and oh-so-cool vocals are served up in a wrap of sweet guitar groove from Little Freddie King, Slim’s cousin. Here’s the link to our full review.
Joanne Shaw Taylor, The Blues Album Taylor’s incredible guitar chops are well in evidence, but it is perhaps her singing that stands out on this album. At turns intensive, gritty, raw and husky, she makes these songs her own, grabbing your attention, and wresting every ounce of emotion out of the music. Joanne Shaw Taylor has made a huge statement with The Blues Album, and take it from me, it’s an album you will want to play repeatedly. Here’s our full review.
Hans Theessink and Big Daddy Wilson, Payday It feels like payday for all of us who get the opportunity to hear this fine album from two blues artists at the top of their game. Hans Theessink and Big Daddy Wilson join voices and blues spirit for sixteen songs of exceptional acoustic blues. It’s joyous stuff, the songs driven by Hans’s sure and characteristic rhythmic finger-picking and the lovely harmonies and melding of baritone and tenor voices. Check out the full review here.
Christina Vane, Nowhere Sounds Lovely Sit up and take notice of Cristina Vane, whose Nowhere Sounds Lovely is a terrific amalgam of blues, bluegrass and country – a thoroughgoing bluesy Americana, you might say. Whatever way you want to describe it, she’s a wonderful talent – a skilful guitar picker and slide player, a fine songwriter and a beautiful singer. And here’s the full review.
And the next baker’s dozen
Joe Bonamassa, Time Clocks It’s heady stuff, with complex arrangements, full orchestrations, bending of genres and a breathless energy from the first song to the last. All the ingredients of his previous work are here – the blues basis, the guitar solos, his soulful vocals, the attention to detail in the production – but this is a bold step forward, a cinematic palette of modern rock guaranteed to both surprise and delight. Our full review is here.
Selwyn Birchwood, Living in a Burning House Fresh modern blues, featuring Birchwood’s bluesy voice, and top-notch guitar and lap steel playing. Thirteen original energetic songs with a blues rock sound, with a jazzy feel at times. Birchwood is quite a talent and this is his best album yet.
Tommy Castro, A Bluesman Came to Town A blues “concept” album from the veteran bluesman, who’s “never made the same album twice.” Tracking the progress of a blues artist with all the ups and downs of the itinerant musician’s life, it is classic stuff, solid, no-nonsense blues from a man whose gritty vocals and searing guitar solos reach right down inside you.
Guy Davis, Be Ready When I Call You Great songs, featuring Guy’s distinctive, growly vocals and rhythmic guitar work, good humour and engaging stories. More than just blues musically and most of the songs have a hard-hitting strong social commentary going on. An outstanding release from Davis and M.C. Records. Read our great interview with Guy here.
Chris Gill, Between Midnight and Louise A stripped-down recording, just two microphones, a small amp, no overdubs and a lot of love for the blues. Relax on the back porch as Gill takes his acoustic, resonator and cigar box and performs nine originals and Virgil Brawley songs. It’s finger picking good, good old-fashioned acoustic blues played with considerable depth and passion. Here’s the full review.
Government Mule, Heavy Load Blues Warren Hayes’ vocals and guitar work, some nicely placed organ and horns, and thirteen fine solid blues songs combine in what is a hugely satisfying album. There are covers of songs by Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Junior Wells, Tom Waits and the Animals, as well as originals from Hayes. 78 minutes of great blues, and you get an extra 50 minutes worth if you go for the 2 CD deluxe offering.
Mark Harrison’s sixth album, The Road to Liberty, showcases his adept story-telling and clever lyrics, his knack for composing a catchy tune, and his never-less-than-engaging performance as a singer and guitarist. He’s hard to pigeon-hole, not quite blues, but the blues are never far away. This is a collection of songs that transport you to another place, make you contemplate the world around and, as well as that – most importantly – entertain you. Read our great interview with Mark here.
Colin James, Open Road Over the years, Colin James has racked up 20 studio albums and a sack-full of awards, and yet is relatively unknown. Put that right straight away by listening to this terrific album of blues covers and originals from a very fine singer and guitarist. Consistently good and hugely enjoyable.
Kelly’s Lot, Where and When Kelly Zirbes’s band, which hails from the Los Angeles area has been plying its trade for the last 25 years, mostly as a blues rock outfit. Where and When sees them stripping things back, performing 11 acoustic blues songs with resonator-slide guitar and Zirbes’s gritty voice to the fore. It’s fabulous stuff, six originals written by Kelly and rhythm guitarist Perry Robertson that evoke the blues of a bygone age and five reworked traditional blues songs, including a terrific version of Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passageway.
Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days Wonderful set of bluesy gospel songs from gospel singer King 50 years after she stopped performing and recording professionally. It’s a funky, bluesy, soul-filled pot of rich gospel fare, an album full of great songs, music that touches you, and Ms. King’s powerful vocal performance. It’s a gift for us all. Check out our interview with this amazing woman.
New Moon Jell Roll Freedom Rockers, Vol 2 Classic old-school recording from a kind of blues super-group, the musicians sitting together in a circle in the studio and playing amongst the microphones. It’s a joyous exploration of the blues, with great heart and soul. A fine tribute to Jim Dickinson and a huge treat of an album for all of us. Full review here.
Elder Jack Ward, Already Made Jack Ward was a successful Stax recording artist, but, remarkably, has never made an album – until now. At a lively 83 years old, he has released a fabulous album of bluesy, soulful gospel songs. The ten song program features the warmly-recorded winning ingredients that are becoming a trademark of Bible and Tire’s patented Sacred Soul sound, from Ward’s spirited vocals to the crack studio band laying down the grooves behind him. We talked to Jack about the album here.
Carolyn Wonderland, Tempting Fate Glorious ten song tribute to her scorching guitar skills and rockin’ vocals. As well as blues, there’s some country, some Tex-Mex, and a whole lot of heart. The guitar work on the album is outstanding – all you’d expect from a Carolyn Wonderland record, but hot though it is, the her vocal performance in this album – the range, the dynamics, the emotion on this album – seems better than ever. And here’s our interview with Carolyn.
This episode features a chat with blues troubadour, Eric Bibb, about his new album Letter to America. He says he “was very aware going into this project that we were dealing with very uncomfortable issues.” Nevertheless, the album is full of great songs, wonderful musicianship from Eric and his musical guests, and features Eric Bibb’s characteristic hopefulness in the midst of difficult times.
“…like me, he loves the old style blues and he always does a great and faithful job of presenting it.” – Charlie Musselwhite
Born in the United States, but now resident in Sweden (like his old friend, Eric Bibb), Bert Deivert has been performing blues and folk music for over fifty years. A talented multi-instrumentalist with acoustic guitar, lap steel, resonator, slide guitar, mandolin, charango, and bass, he has performed in more than twenty countries and collaborated with hundreds of fine musicians around the globe, including Peter Case, T-Model Ford, Tom Paley, Charlie Musselwhite, Eric Bibb, and Wanda Jackson.
His 14th album, I Ain’tLeavin’, comes hot on the heels of his excellent collaborative album from 2020 with Libby Rae Watson, She Shimmy. Ten songs, nine Deivert originals, feature performances by Deivert playing a variety of instruments, along with his wife Eva Deivert on fiddle and daughter Emmy Deivert adding backing vocals on a couple of songs. Son Seamus did all the mastering, making it quite the family affair.
It’s a great collection of blues-tinged songs, several of which tell intriguing stories. I got chatting to Bert from his home in Sweden. I first asked him about his background as a musician, and about his perhaps unusual migration as an American to Europe.
“Well,” he told me, “I grew up in New Hampshire, but we moved around a lot when I was a child. I began playing drums because of the Beatles in 1964 and then guitar, and then started some bands. I went to San Francisco because I had a scholarship for film school there, and while I was playing in the streets I met Peter Case.
“Peter and I played together as street musicians and later on, after I went to Sweden, he had a band called the Nerves and another one called the Plimsouls which had a couple of big hits on Geffen records in LA. And he’s still going strong. I was over recording with him recently for his album Midnight Broadcast, which was released, I think, in March or April. He does a bunch of blues on it and I play mandolin and drums and sing a bit on it. So that was kind of cool.
“Anyway, I met a Swedish girl and came to Sweden with her and I just stayed there. So I’d say I’m a real mix of influences and you hear that on this new album as well. I play a lot of folk music – I was really into folk music and blues in the sixties. I heard Son House on TV in 1966 when I was sixteen on public television. And he played Levy Camp Moan and Death Letter Blues and I was blown away. So I actually went out and broke a wine bottle that my parents had laying around, and then scraped the bottleneck on the brick steps outside our house, so I wouldn’t cut my finger off. And I tried to learn how to play bottle neck. It didn’t go very well then, but I learned later!”
Deivert is well known for being a mandolin player, but you quickly realize in listening to I Ain’tLeavin’ that’s he’s a pretty nifty guitar picker as well. That’s largely what we hear on this new album. Interestingly, mandolin was something Deivert only picked up on within the last 20 years, but he’s played guitar his whole career, playing mostly folk and blues as a singer-songwriter.
Having played so much blues throughout his career, I wondered what is it about the music that really draws him to it?
“As far as blues music is concerned, it’s like any folk music, I think – and I play Irish folk music, Swedish folk music, Thai folk music, South American folk music and American folk music. And all those things sometimes have elements of all these other kinds of music. It’s a conglomerate, but there’s something about the soul of it, the emotion is what drives me. Like when I was very moved by Son House’s Death Letter Blues, where it talks about a woman who dies and he goes to see her. I get chills every time I listen to it.”
Deivert has played with a lot of well-known blues artists along the way, including Eric Bibb, with whom he made three albums in the early ‘80s and who sang on his album last year with Libby Rae Watson.
“I also played with T Model Ford and when I was in Mississippi, I met Jimmy Duck Holmes and jammed with him. I’ve played with Cadillac John Nolden and Sam Carr, the Delta drummer, who was in the Jelly Roll Kings. He’s on one of my albums. And I’ve jammed with some of the guys like Terry Harmonic Bean.”
There are some great story songs on the album – like, for example, the remarkable Badge 623, about the murder of his grandfather, a policeman in Boston.
“That’s the one about my grandfather’s murder. I started doing genealogy seriously about a year ago, because I wanted to find out more about my people in Ireland. And I happened to run across some newspaper clippings about my grandfather’s killing which I had only known about as a kid. It was a big trauma for my mother and her siblings, but I didn’t know any details. And my mom, who was two years old when her father was killed, didn’t talk about it. So I compiled all the information I could find and decided I was going to write a song.
“And I think unconsciously, it had some sort of Irish elements in it. It’s hard to pinpoint something, but my wife plays Irish fiddle too as well as Swedish fiddle. And then, I play with Christy O’Leary, an Irish musician living in Sweden too. So, you know, all this stuff is in my head. So, I took all the information and I wrote this song for my grandfather. I still get moved by it. I mean, I can’t imagine how my grandmother managed after that. She collapsed at the funeral and her brother and my grandfather’s brother, Thomas, who was also a policeman, had to hold her up – she was eight months pregnant her next child.”
Another notable song is I Heard the Dark Roads Call, which is about the Vietnam war.
“All these songs, except for one, are stories from my life. What happened in December, 1969, was there was going to be a lottery for the draft. They had two barrels, one with dates and one with numbers. And they picked one from each. They took away all student deferments. Now, I was going to college at the time and I was going to turn nineteen in the Fall and eligible for the draft.
“So what I did in the summer was to hitchhike to Montreal and take a look around. I met draft dodgers and deserters that were hanging around, living on the streets, having a hard time, trying to get asylum in Canada. And I met a couple of French separatists who were really nice to me and let me stay with them. So I began to think well, I think I’m probably gonna move to Canada if I get drafted. Because I was not going to fight in the Vietnam war. So that’s what this song is all about. Luckily, I got a good number – I got 196 and they took it up to 195. I missed it by one.
“I didn’t tell my parents about all this, but I was all prepared. I was against the government and I was against the war. I didn’t feel it was right. And so, I did what I thought was right.”
Another intriguing song is Yank and Sleepy John, which is Bert’s tribute to Yank Rachell, a country blues musician from Tennessee, who recorded blues songs prolifically with the mandolin, and Sleepy John Estes, another Tennessee bluesman. The two frequently performed together.
“When Peter Case and I were playing in San Francisco, neither of us had a place to live at the time. I was sleeping out of a car and staying with whoever I could. But Peter had a little travel record player, and he had this album called Broke and Hungry with Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell. He’d put it on and we’d listen to it. I was just amazed. This was 1973 and I’d never heard mandolin with blues. And it was like, wow, this is amazing. So we started playing Broke and Hungry among other things on the streets.
“And I never forgot that album afterwards. So when I finally decided that I was going to learn to play mandolin in 2004, I just sat down and woodshedded with Yank Rachell records for two years and drove my violin-playing wife absolutely mad. She said, it sounds terrible, I gotta go in the other room! But finally, I got pretty good at it. And next thing I was on a Yank Rachell tribute album in the States. Then all of a sudden, I started getting gigs internationally. And after that, it just took off, and my blues mandolin and the albums did well. I just love what Yank and Sleepy John do. And that’s what the song is about. It’s a tribute homage to them both.”
The last song on the album, I Can’t Feel at Home, is an interesting one to me because it’s an old Christian song and I remember it hearing it being sung by Jim Reeves. We had Jim Reeves records in my home when I was growing up, and I really hated it. And all of that sort of music, although I must admit that I’ve mellowed somewhat and wouldn’t mind listening to those old Jim records now – sadly long gone. But Bert’s version really transformed it for me – it really lifts the song into a different dimension.
“It’s kind of interesting – well, have you heard the Woody Guthrie parody of it – I Don’t Have a Home in this World Anymore. Oh, you gotta listen to that. The first recording that I actually heard of the song was the Carter family. Because it’s an old Southern gospel song that’s been around for a long time. A lot of country artists have done it and then copyrighted it by changing the words slightly for themselves. I heard Geoff Muldaur’s version and was super inspired. He’s a great guitar player and a very soulful singer. And then I decided I was going to do it with DADGAD tuning, which is the tuning that I use for Irish music. The song sounds very different using that kind of tuning. And then I slowed it down and I did some little bluesy kind of things with it.”
Bert Deivert has been making music professionally for close to 50 years. I asked him if, looking back, he have known when he started out what he knows now, would he still have pursued his musical career?
“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it hasn’t been easy and there’s been some real tough times. My wife, thinks I’m obsessed by music, which I am. I mean, she’s a musician, a trad Fiddler that grew up with it, so it’s in our blood. But she thinks I get into this sort of tunnel vision thing with my music. But she understands that, she appreciates that at the same time.”
When you listen to I Ain’t Leavin’, you appreciate what a talented musician Bert Deivert is, and the richness of his musical experience. It’s a fine album of well-crafted songs, good tunes, a traditional, bluesy vibe and masterful story-telling. Definitely one to get in your collection.
Eric Bibb – blues troubadour, global griot, as a recent album has it, whose music always seems to arrive at the Needed Time – considers his Dear America album to be his finest work yet.
Bibb, originally from New York, but now resident in Sweden, has been delighting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember, with his finely honed guitar picking, his honeyed vocals, his good humour and all-round positive vibe. No matter what sort of day you’ve had, when you go to an Eric Bibb gig, the weight of the world disappears and you’ll find yourself with a smile on your face that doesn’t go away for a week.
He’s a Grammy nominated, Blues Music Award winning song-writer and performing artist who is very much at the top of his game, as is evidenced by Dear America, which he says is “a love letter, because America, for all of its associations with pain and its bloody history, has always been a place of incredible hope and optimism.” On this record, he says, “I’m saying all the things I would want to say to somebody dear to me.”
Thanks to the wonders of Zoom, I got chatting to Eric at his home on a farm south of Stockholm where he has spent the last 18 months, like the rest of us, keeping safe. He has, however, been able to work online, performing and giving guitar lessons – “I haven’t suffered like many of my colleagues, so I feel quite, quite blessed.”
I asked him, first of all, about the making of the album and his musical collaborators and guests. He told me that, although he’s proud of the body of work he’s created in the past, both he and his producer, Glen Scott, who has worked with him on many previous projects, agree that “this is our best work.”
The album, on the Provogue label, features a number of well-known guest artists, the result of Scott’s vision, who had said to Eric a while back, “Eric, one day, we’re just going to go to New York and you’re going to have like the best rhythm section in the world, and we’re going to cut some tracks.”
So, the album features top notch players like Steve Jordan on drums, who has worked extensively with Keith Richards and John Mayer, Tommy Sims on bass, “a great musician all around, but amazing bass player and singer and guitar player, who’s worked with everybody from Bonnie Raitt to Bruce Springsteen,” Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers who plays lap steel guitar on Different Picture, Billy Branch on harmonica, and Ron Carter, again on bass.
Of the legendary Ron Carter – the most recorded jazz bassist in history – Eric talked about the first time he’d played with him more than fifty years ago, as a young man of sixteen.
“He was the bass player who had the bass chair on my dad’s television show in the late sixties. My dad [Leon Bibb, the renown folk singer, actor and civil rights activist] had a TV show called Someone New that featured young talent – nine-year-old Yo Yo Ma was on that show. I was sixteen years old and my dad put me in the guitar player’s chair. It was the first time I was in a completely over my head situation. I had to get a union card and there I was with Ron Carter playing bass and I’m trying to read the chart! So it was an amazing reconnection with him.”
Other guests include Lisa Mills, who duets on the album’s last song, the exquisitely beautiful Oneness of Love, and Shaneeka Simon, a gospel singer from the UK – “just a gem of a musician, a great singer, a fine person” – who makes a telling contribution on Born of a Woman.
The songs on the album are quite bluesy both musically and lyrically. None more so than Whole World’s Got the Blues, which bemoans the state of the world – “everywhere you turn you’re looking at sad, sad news.” The song is taken to a new dimension by the appearance of Eric Gales’s guitar, which weaves in and out of Bibb’s lyrics and then breaks into its own protesting, moaning solo, echoing eloquently the sombre message of the song.
“Eric Gales – his palette is so huge, and when it comes to blues, he’s the epitome of the best of old school and modern sensibilities. He’s in a class all by himself and also a fine person to work with, to vibe off. Because he’s spontaneous, straightforward, honest, you know, a heart open-on-his-sleeve kind of guy. I met him on a Joe Bonamassa blues cruise and Ulrika [Bibb’s wife] caught him on film, kind of dancing to a song during my set. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good sign.’ And then I heard him and I was completely blown away, so I went up to him said, ‘listen, would you guest on my album if I could make the thing happen?’ And he said, ‘it’s going to happen’!
Dear America is a collection of thirteen Eric Bibb originals, all testament to his outstanding song-writing skill, ear for a good tune and top-notch guitar chops, but what makes Dear America such a great album – and an important album – is not just the music but the nuanced social commentary and challenge he presents.
Dear America addresses the troubled racial history of the United States and what is still, sadly, going on. A number of the songs are quite explicit and quite hard hitting. In White and Black, he highlights the “crooked thinking, white is good, black is bad”; in Dear America, “on the one hand to be called your citizen, on the other to be excluded because of the colour of my skin”; and in Different Picture, the repetitive nature of America’s racial problems are firmly in view.
I wondered how important it was for Eric to make this record, to say the sort of things that he’s saying here and to ask the sort of questions he poses.
“I think the whole world has been preoccupied with current events in America for some time – the whole Trump era unleashed a lot of monsters that we’ve been trying, as a collective people, to sweep under the carpet. I think that, with that, and with events like the George Floyd murder and so on, things just seem to be coming to a head.
“And it was like everything was conspiring to make the world pay attention to these issues in a new way. This was borne out by the fact that so many young people ended up becoming involved, and not only African-Americans, but others with the whole Black Lives Matter movement. And, you know, this is ongoing. It’s not new, but it’s certainly more in our face than ever before.
“I was very aware going into this project that we were dealing with very uncomfortable issues. But to pretend that it doesn’t exist or minimize its impact on our lives is to end up being much more uncomfortable. And I think the more we understand that, the better off we’ll be. So, I knew I wanted to say something about all of this and say it from a perspective of an American living outside of America.”
One of the very sobering songs on the album is Emmett’s Ghost. The gentle, almost cheery finger-picked guitar introduction belies the dreadful historical event the song refers to. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, who was falsely accused of offending a white woman and then brutally lynched, before his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Outrageously, his murderers were acquitted, but Emmet Till became an iconic figure in the Civil Rights movement.
Bibb sings about his own experience of coming to know about Emmet Till as a boy himself, of coming to realize “from that day on, some hated my kind.” Sadly, this is not just an event from the past – Emmet Till’s ghost still haunts America, “we can’t move on because hate’s still going strong all over this country.”
Events like this still clearly reverberate; another recent blues album, Guy Davis’s Be Ready When I Call You, shines a light on the appalling Tulsa Massacre of 1921 [see our interview with Guy here]. I asked Eric if America has really come to terms with its past, with the brutality and inhumanity of events like these?
“Well, the hatred mentioned in the song refrain is still going on, and one of the reasons for that is because it’s never been properly acknowledged, it’s never been properly taught about in schools. It’s that part of American history that has often been whitewashed. There are people who told me – and I’m talking about educated people, man – they had never heard of this story.
“But African-Americans have been aware of it because it was pivotal in the history of the whole Civil Rights movement. But the number of people who were unaware of this story was quite shocking to me. Emmet was 1955, half a century ago or longer. The George Floyd murder, for example, to me was a very palpable reverberation of the same energy, the same attitudes.
“The fact that the guys who perpetrated the Emmett Till murder got off, the fact that the policemen who murdered George Floyd didn’t get off, tells me something about the evolution of consciousness and that we’re growing. And I also found out the Emmett Till case has been reopened and in absentia could possibly get a guilty verdict. [This Guardian article reviews the re-opening of the case.]
“So, as uncomfortable with this history is, as long as it’s taken to even get to this point and, let’s face it, these are what seem like minimal steps forward, I have a feeling that the process is accelerating.
“And I think being in a position to add my voice to this ongoing conversation is really good for me because this is what I do. I’m a troubadour who is aware of my surroundings and the world that I live in. And if there’s any way this troubadour can influence a conversation and perhaps promote change, that’s good.”
Although Dear America addresses some serious issues, Eric wanted to make clear that “this is not a protest album.” Growing up in the ‘60s in New York, with a father like Leon Bibb, Eric was well acquainted with folk protest songwriters like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. And so, although he never considered himself an artist in that vein, “it was impossible for me to not take on board in my songwriting all of these things. It was just impossible.”
“I consider myself some kind of storyteller. Who’s got something to say, with a history that gives me a platform for speaking out and being a voice for promoting certain kinds of conversations that will hopefully lead to change. That’s part of my chameleon background. But I also wanted it just to be a groovy album, you know, that people would get into. I didn’t want to just be on a soap box. So that was in itself challenging, but I think I had help from above in pulling it off, you know?”
That’s a delicate balance to achieve, but I think he has, indeed, pulled it off. Because, like every Eric Bibb album you listen to, there’s a thread of hope and joy that comes through very strongly. And the music is great.
I did want to ask him about one other song on the album, which I think is a hugely important one. Born of a Woman, which features Shaneeka Simon, addresses the tsunami of violence against women all over the world.
“Yes, I’m very glad that song came to me because I want to weigh in on this and basically draw attention to something that is really, as you say, global and alarming, to say the least.
“Again, to me it is indicative of the fact that we’re in a time right now, where it seems that all of the issues or whatever trauma that is holding the human community back from becoming this loving family – the misogyny, racism, all of that – seems to just being pushed to the front of our awareness in dramatic ways, and people are taking sides.
“And young people, fortunately, are kind of getting it and stepping up in more numbers than ever before. But the pushback is also quite intense right now, there are people who are really resistant to looking at all of this and coming to terms with it.”
While Eric, rightly, points to the hope lying in the younger generation, a thread of hope is never far away in an Eric Bibb album. Take the first song, Whole Lotta Lovin’, where we find Eric giving thanks for the simple things in life. “A whole lot of thank you, Lord, for all you provide.” It’s a wonderful way to start the album and we get threads of this thankful attitude right the way through. I wondered how important gratitude is to him and how important gratitude is in the midst of all the difficulties we’ve be talking about?
“It’s essential to me personally, and I think it’s an essential attitude and emotion for the healing of all of us. I’ve written a couple of songs, even one with the title Gratitude [On Roadworks, 1999]. It’s central to my way of going forth in the world. And it’s really helped me, I think. Without that the possibility of tipping over into the lane of cynicism and bitterness is quite huge. So that’s the antidote to that.
“And it’s funny, you mentioned the first song. This album is called Dear America and I call it a love letter. If I can think of one or two things about the American experience – speaking personally, but I think it’s also a universal feeling – it would be the food and the music, you know, because there’s something poetically and cosmically fitting about a music that spans so many different kinds of expressions – jazz, calypso, blues, gospel, whatever, music born of a history and a people who have been really hard done by. And this fascinates me.
“It’s like, it tells me something about the creator. Giving the gift of a certain kind of irresistible music that not only makes the whole world joyful, but makes whole world connected in its love of it, makes the whole world want to play it, sing it, understand it, know about it.
The fact of where it’s come from is a beautiful, beautiful comment on life in general. And I want to make it clear that this gift from the African-American tribe to the world, that has basically brought so many people together in so many ways, is the way I want to think about America when I think about what’s great about it, you know, what it’s given us. And I wanted to start there because I knew I had to go other places, but I really wanted to start there. And I’m glad you mention that.”
In similar vein, Love’s Kingdom, strikes that same note of hope and thankfulness – “Everything can change, if we believe,” and “Let’s start with being grateful for being alive.” There’s a defiant hope here against all the darkness, hope which almost goes against the grain.
“That song, really, I guess you could say, summarizes my philosophy. I really think at the end of the day this is the way. And I think it’s not a simple path, getting there is not simple, but it is a simple solution. Making that decision to step into Love’s Kingdom, to basically really follow the great teachings of all the great teachers, whoever you want to follow, that was the message. And we have that possibility and I just felt like saying it as simply as that – if we can step into Love’s Kingdom, you know, turn it over and really trust in some kind of loving higher power, however you want to frame it or put it into words.”
It’s a fabulous song, though not a typical Eric Bibb arrangement. A collaboration between Eric, Glen Scott and Tommy Sims, it’s got a kind of retro soul feel to it, which lifts you up and carries you along. Right into the closing song, Oneness of Love, a beautiful, gentle song, with a simple accompaniment, graced by the sweet voice of Lisa Mills added to Bibb’s own. It’s a fitting way to complete the album, where a letter that is painfully honest, but never hopeless or cynical, is sandwiched between notes of thankfulness, hope and love at the beginning and end.
Eric Bibb’s is a voice we need to hear. In a world where there’s so much aggression and hatred, a voice for peace, for unity, for humanity is one that needs to be heard. And Dear America is especially timely – shining a light on much of what is pulling people apart and giving rise to bitterness and division, but never giving up on the possibilities that love can bring.
[See our extended comment on Born of a Woman here]
“Rapidly becoming a British national treasure.” Blues Blast Magazine
Mark Harrison’s sixth album, The Road to Liberty, showcases his adept story-telling and clever lyrics, his knack for composing a catchy tune, and his never-less-than-engaging performance as a singer and guitarist. He’s hard to pigeon-hole, not quite blues, but blues never far away, somewhere in the folk-blues-country continuum.
That’s not a bad thing, given the unique talent that he is, able to write songs that transport you to another place, to make you contemplate the world around and, as well as that – most importantly – to entertain you.
Harrison is an English singer songwriter, who plays a nifty acoustic guitar, who has been delighting audiences over the last ten years with his carefully crafted songs and witty banter. He was a late starter as a professional musician, not picking up a guitar and singing until his fifth decade, but he’s made up for lost time, touring the country and supporting such artists as The Holmes Brothers and Doug MacLeod, along with major festival and radio appearances. He’s also released now six albums, all of which have been eagerly received and critically acclaimed. If you haven’t come across him as yet – put that right straight away and grab yourself a CD or download.
You could start with The Road to Liberty, a double album of 21 songs, featuring Harrison and his two bandmates, Charles Benfield on double bass and Ben Welburn on drums and percussion.
I got chatting to Mark about the new album and his musical journey. His previous albums, he told me, had been the “standard studio procedure of layer upon layer,” but that the band had felt that this album ought to reflect much more Mark’s live performances – “this business of singing your songs, standing up in a booth with headphones on, when do you ever do that in real life?”
A double album is a little unusual these days, and I wondered how that had come about. Mark said that he’d a lot of songs in the bank, so to speak, and, although he thought they’d only choose the standard 12 or 13 songs, the band like the lot of them, “so we thought, well, let’s just record them all. So, I’ve actually cleaned out everything I’ve got now!”
I remarked on the quality of the album’s cover and artwork – so often you get flimsy, pared back packaging these days and you wonder why you didn’t just buy the download. The Road to Liberty, however, feels quite luxurious.
“Well, it’s Andy Hall, who’s done everything for me from the very beginning. He and Rick, his business partner, ran a website called Blues in London when I got started, which was a sort of central thing for the blues scene in London. That’s how I met them, doing jams down at the Green Note in Camden. So when it came to do my first album, they said they’d like to do the cover. And so, it’s gone on from there and Andy does really wonderful things that make everything look great.”
The album has more of a band feel about it than some of Harrison’s previous albums. Charles Benfield and Ben Welburn, Mark’s two band members, are very talented musicians, whom he met on the blues jam scene at the very beginning of his career. They’ve been playing as a settled trio since around 2017, and sound a very solid and tight little outfit.
Mark does some solo gigs as well, depending on the venue and the promoter’s budget, but increasingly, it’s the trio. “I’d say it’s more fun when it’s the three of us.”
The album’s title, The Road to Liberty, is intriguing and one reviewer rather poetically suggested that it describes a “set of observations set to the heartbeat of humanity which exemplify the struggle of narrative freedom being taken seriously.” The phrase occurs in the song Restless Mind, a clever, jaunty number, with the band in full flight, which takes an ironic look at what happens when you let your mind become too restless.
“Well, I always take a phrase from a song, not a song title. So all the albums have a phrase or a word that is in one of the songs as the title of the album. I felt that I wanted a title that reflected some upbeat message because, in my opinion, the music generally speaking has an upbeat message in the words, even if it might not appear that at first glance.”
For sure, the tunes in the album are very upbeat, very optimistic sounding. At times they almost seem to belie the lyrics, a deliberate ploy by Harrison: “I’ve always felt that the music itself is uplifting or is meant to be, so you have perhaps a contrast between what is often a jolly tune, with what might be called slightly acerbic lyrics. And I think that’s probably where I’m at.”
As you listen to the songs, you’ll find yourself in turns amused, intrigued and puzzled. I asked Mark about one song in particular, which is great fun and had piqued my curiosity, Don’t Let the Crazy Out of the Bag (Too Soon).
“A woman friend told me a little while ago that if she was in a successful relationship that was going well, she would often find that the worst possible thing she could say would pop into her mind. And yet knowing that, she would find herself saying it! And then there came a point where she got engaged. But later I noticed on social media that she was no longer engaged. So I asked her about it. And she wrote, ‘I think I let the crazy out of the bag too soon.’
“And that one does have a happy ending by the way! It’s like a lot of things, you come across a phrase and you think it has a much more general application perhaps than the context in which you’ve heard it. And so, as well as that being a bit of fun, I thought that was a suitable subject for a song.”
Mark Harrison’s songs typically address a wide variety of situations and snapshots of life – on this album, you’ll find a song about the life of Skip James, Skip’s Song, a song about working in a factory in an economic downturn, Toolmaker’s Blues, and one about a poor guy on trial before the judge, All Rise. As you listen to this set of all-original songs, you can’t help but pick up echoes of blues music. Harrison plays a National resonator and has a cool kind of bluesy, picking style. You might expect him to throw in a few old blues songs, but that tends not to be what he does.
Mark told me that when he first got started, he tried to work out a few old blues tunes on the guitar, but found he couldn’t do it. The second song on the album, Everybody Knows, is a nice guitar-driven song in a Mississippi John Hurt style, but Mark said it was actually the first song he wrote using the 12-string and he had thought at the time he was working out Blind Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues. “So the short answer is, I don’t do covers of them because I’m not capable!” (Unlikely, Mark is an accomplished guitarist.)
Mark’s back story as a musician is a remarkable one. He’d played guitar seriously in his youth, but only returned to it much later in life, about eleven years ago.
“I got this guitar shortly before I started in 2010. And that transformed everything. I had absolutely no intentions at all of launching it into anything. I didn’t expect to make an album or do a gig, and so for a little while, I just went and played a little bit at jams and it was a social thing. But the London blues jam scene is pretty good – a bunch of really good people and very high standards. So then, I’d written some songs and I thought I’d commit them to posterity and that was the first album [the acclaimed Watching the Parade]. I had no inkling of what would happen. It sounded okay to me. I put it out there a little bit cautiously and I got a few gigs and it built from there. So it’s a rare case of something in life that’s just taken on its own momentum. And it hasn’t been a big struggle!
“One of the advantages of the changes in society in my lifetime is that it doesn’t matter what age you are with music. In fact, the acts most likely to sell tickets and do main stage at festivals probably have an average age that’s pushing 70! Most theatre listings of music and festivals are all about nostalgia. So, the idea that you couldn’t be doing this at a relatively older age, that doesn’t exist. Which is pretty good.
“And people with my musical background would tend to be what you call old school, which is that you’re not going to go out there and inflict yourself on people then unless you’ve worked out something that’s of a really high level professionally. So I carry that sort of attitude with me.”
We chatted a bit about the economics of being a musician and how embarking on a career or going out as a professional musician is a pretty uncertain enterprise.
“It’s pretty obvious to anyone involved that the demise of recorded music as a commercial enterprise has had an enormous effect. In the past you could shift a lot of albums, but by the time I got started, that ship had sailed. So you need to form your plans realistically with that in mind. I do really pretty well for someone that wasn’t established many years ago. But in terms of making money, nobody is.
“I used to listen to radio when there were a limited number of radio shows and I would buy albums straight off hearing people on, say, the Paul Jones show and others. Now I’ve been on those shows subsequently, and I think in the past, if you got played there, let alone did a session, like we have, that would have led to very significant sales of your albums. But these days it doesn’t. So there’s no point complaining about that. That had already kicked him by the time I got going. So it’s a question of understanding the environment you’re operating in and being realistic. There’s no point being in music if you’re going to complain about not being famous.
“For me, it’s going out and playing, the audiences, the people that come up and talk to you, the places that you go, the experiences that you have.”
Part of Mark’s story is acquiring a guitar previously owned by Eric Bibb, whom he admires a great deal.
“I started to listen to music again about 2000 after a long time of not listening to anything. I saw in the gig listing of one of the papers, “Eric Bibb, Sublime Bluesman.” I thought, I didn’t know there were any sublime bluesmen still alive. So, I went to see him several times and I thought what he was doing was great. And it showed you that you could get a really great big sound with a band that had an acoustic guitar leading it, not an electric guitar and someone pulling faces.
“Years later, I went to a shop in London – it doesn’t exist anymore – The London Resonator Centre and I thought I’d buy one of these guitars. They got me trying out some of the new Nationals, which are great. And then the guy running the shop said, ‘Ah, the way you play, you might like this that’s just come in.’ And he said that Eric Bibb had just brought it in. So I ended up getting that and subsequently I’ve met Eric numerous times, and he always hails me whenever I go to one of his gigs – “Mark!” from across the room.”
If you like acoustic blues music, you’re almost bound to appreciate Mark Harrison, even though his music can’t be pinned down to simply that genre.
“I think that I’m in the tradition of those guys that called themselves songsters. Back in the twenties and thirties, they would do a whole variety of stuff. I mean, if you listen to the full output of Robert Johnson, very little of it, actually, is what would now be called blues. Variety and entertainment were the key factors. So I’m in that tradition.
Entertainment is certainly what you get with a Mark Harrison performance and with a Mark Harrison album. But it’s not just entertainment. He’s a thoughtful artist who appraises life’s peaks and valleys and converts this into stories with wry and incisive lyrics, but never short of compassion. He’s a unique talent and one you ought to be familiar with.
One of the songs on Eric Bibb’s Dear America album, to be released in September, on the Provogue / Mascot label is Born of a Woman. “On this record,” says Bibb, “I’m saying all the things I would want to say to somebody dear to me…All of America’s woes, and the woes of the world, can only come into some kind of healing and balance with that energy we call love. That’s my conviction.”
Born of a Woman decries all forms of violence against women and makes the simple appeal to men: “Every woman, every girl in the whole wide world deserves your respect.” Bibb is joined in the song by Shaneeka Chin Simon, a creative singer-songwriter, with a degree in Theology and an experienced gospel-singer and choir leader.
Between them, they highlight domestic violence, religious-motivated violence, and enslavement of women. “Lord,” sings Bibb, “How can a man treat a woman that way?”
Sadly in 2021, women all around the world are still experiencing a tsunami of violence. Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture, and starts alarmingly young, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization. Across their lifetime, 1 in 3 women are subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner – a number that has remained largely unchanged over the past decade.
Add to that practices like female genital mutilation (FGM), the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons, which can cause severe bleeding and a range of other serious medical problems. FGM has been perpetrated on more than 200 million girls and women in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15.
Tragically, one could go on and on, talking about sex-trafficking, which affects nearly 4m women, and women trapped in prostitution and the pornography industry, and the picture emerges of the shocking way women are so often treated by men. And that’s before we get to the abortions carried out on baby girls simply because of their sex, in a range of countries in East Asia and South Asia, and even in the United States.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, says that violence against women can only be fought “with deep-rooted and sustained efforts – by governments, communities and individuals – to change harmful attitudes, improve access to opportunities and services for women and girls, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships.”
As Eric Bibb and Shaneeka Simon say, “Every woman, every girl, deserves your respect.” Aside from any action governments or corporations need to take, that comes down to us, every man of us – refusing to be involved in anything that exploits women and affording the women in our families, workplaces, churches and clubs, dignity, respect and equal opportunity.
The blues emerged in the context of the oppression and suffering of Black communities in the southern US, and singing the blues was a means of responding to that oppression – of giving voice to great sorrow, lamenting the current state of affairs, but also of expressing dignity in the face of injustice. The blues also were a means of protest against this injustice.
That’s worth noting at this time when the United States is facing a reckoning for the racism that has dogged it for such a long time. The push-back against white supremacy, police brutality and a myriad of social barriers faced by Blacks and other people of colour can’t be simply ignored or written off.
There have been plenty of today’s artists protesting the current lamentable state of affairs and all that has led to it – Leyla McCalla’s recently released Vari-Colored Songs, an album’s whose centerpiece, Song for a Dark Girl, is a stark account of a lynching “way down south in Dixie,” a powerful reminder of the relatively recent history of terrorism against Black communities.
Gary Clark Jr.’s This Land is a howl of protest which rails against the suspicion he gets as a Black man in Trump’s America; Shemekia Copeland’s Would You Take My Blood on her America’s Child album gets to the heart of racism; Otis Taylor’s trance blues in Fantasizing About Being Black, a history of African-American life, from slavery onwards, has Jump Out of Line, an edgy piece about civil rights marchers’ fear of being attacked; and Eric Bibb’s last album had What’s He Gonna Say Today, protesting the “bully in the playground,” aimed directly at Trump.
But the history of the blues is littered with songs protesting inequality, discrimination and White violence against Blacks. Given the huge inequality that existed, and the whole structuring of society that existed under Jim Crow, it would have been impossible for blues artists to sing protest songs in the way that they were sung in the 1960s when the Civil Rights’ movement had gathered momentum. Often the protest was coded, although sometimes it broke through the surface quite clearly. Although the majority of blues songs are about the troubles of love, there is a steady stream of social protest from the early days right through to the present.
In 1930, Huddie Ledbetter – Lead Belly – recorded a song entitled simply Jim Crow, in which he bemoans the state of affairs facing him every day of his life, everywhere he goes:
I been traveling, I been traveling from shore to shore
Everywhere I have been I find some old Jim Crow.
He can’t get away from the racial discrimination he faces – it’s there even when he goes to the cinema to be entertained:
I want to tell you people something that you don’t know
It’s a lotta Jim Crow in a moving picture show.
And finally he pleads with his hearers, “Please get together, break up this old Jim Crow.”
In the early 1930s, nine Black teenagers from Scottsboro in Alabama were accused of raping two white women aboard a train. The case highlighted the racism of the Jim Crow system and the injustice of the entire Southern legal system. In a series of trials and re-trials, which were rushed, and adjudicated on by all-white juries and racially biased judges, the nine boys suffered incarceration in the brutally harsh Kilby Prison in Alabama, and attempted lynching and mob violence.
After three trials, during which one of the young white women who were alleged to be victims had confessed to fabricating her rape story, five of the nine were convicted and received sentences ranging from 75 years imprisonment to death. The one who received the death sentence subsequently escaped, went into hiding and was eventually pardoned by George Wallace in 1976. The case was a landmark one and led eventually to the end of all-white juries in the South.
Lead Belly recorded Scottsboro Boys in 1938, where he warns Black people not to go to Alabama lest they suffer the same fate as the Scottsboro nine:
I’m gonna tell all the colored people
Even the old n* here
Don’t ya ever go to Alabama
And try to live
Lead Belly was clearly not afraid to voice his protest against what he experienced. He also wrote Bourgeois Blues, perhaps the most famous example of 1930s blues protest songs. Leadbelly here sings about his experience of discrimination in the nation’s capital city:
Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a n* just to see him bow
Lord, it’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around
Lead Belly talks about looking for accommodation and being turned away by the white landlord:
Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say “I don’t want no n*s up there.
America, according to Lead Belly may have been hailed as “The home of the Brave, the land of the Free,” but it was just somewhere where he was “mistreated” by the “bourgeoisie.”
The Great Depression hit black communities in the South particularly hard. Skip James’s 1931 Hard Time Killing FloorBlues captures the grim reality of the time for many people, with James’s high eerie voice and his D-minor tuned guitar. “The people are drifting from door to door” and they “can’t find no heaven.”
Hard time’s is here
An ev’rywhere you go
Times are harder
Than th’ever been befo’.
One of the blues artists who was most articulate about civil rights during this period was Josh White, who was born in 1914 and recorded under the names “Pinewood Tom” and “Tippy Barton” in the 1930s. He became a well-known race records artist during the 1920s and 30s, moving to New York in 1931, and expanding his repertoire to include not only blues but jazz and folk songs. In addition, he became a successful actor on radio, the stage and film. White was outspoken about segregation and human rights and was suspected of being a communist in the McCarthyite era of the early 1950s.
In 1941 he released one of his most influential albums, Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues. The title track pulls no punches:
Well, I work all the week in the blazin’ sun,
Can’t buy my shoes, Lord, when my payday comes
I ain’t treated no better than a mountain goat,
Boss takes my crop and the poll takes my vote.
The album of mostly 12 bar blues songs, included Jim Crow Train, Bad Housing Blues, and Defense Factory Blues. White attacked wartime factory segregation in the latter with, “I’ll tell you one thing, that bossman ain’t my friend, If he was, he’d give me some democracy to defend.”
In Jim Crow Train, he addresses the segregation on the railways:
Stop Jim Crow so I can ride this train.
Black and White folks ridin side by side.
Damn that Jim Crow.
On White’s 1940 Trouble, he leaves no doubt about the cause of black people’s problems: “Well, I always been in trouble, ‘cause I’m a black-skinned man.” The rest of the song deals with the failed justice system of the time and the inhuman conditions which black inmates suffered when incarcerated:
Wearin’ cold iron shackles from my head down to my knee
And that mean old keeper, he’s all time kickin’ me.
As a black man under Jim Crow, all White could expect from life was “Trouble, trouble, makes me weep and moan, Trouble, trouble, ever since I was born.”
Big Bill Broonzy was one of the most popular and important of the pre-World War II blues singers, who recorded over 250 songs from 1925 to 1952, including Key to the Highway, Black, Brown, and White, Glory of Love and When Will I Get to Be Called a Man. He was a very talented musician, song writer and singer, who Eric Clapton said was a role model for him in playing the acoustic guitar.
Broonzy claims in his autobiography that he joined the army sometime after 1917, and fought in World War I in France, and on returning to the South, he found conditions there quite intolerable. A more recent biography of Broonzy doubts his story of joining up, but there can be no doubting the injustice which Broonzy encountered as a black man in the South. He refers to the way in which black men were referred to disparagingly as “boy” by whites in his 1951 song, I Wonder When I’ll Be Called a Man.
When I was born into this world, this is what happened to me I was never called a man, and now I’m fifty-three I wonder when…I wonder when will I get to be called a man
Do I have to wait till I get ninety-three?
Black, Brown and White, recorded in 1951, rails against the discrimination that Broonzy found everywhere, be it getting a drink at a bar, being paid less money for doing the same job, or even just getting a job:
They says if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, stick around
But as you’s black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back.
Muddy Waters also highlighted the patriarchal attitudes of whites to blacks in his 1955 release Manish Boy, which on the surface is a rather sensual blues song declaring, “I’m a natural born lover’s man,” and “I’m a hoochie coochie man.” (The hoochie coochie was a sexually provocative dance that became wildly popular in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. The dance was performed by women, so a “hoochie coochie man” either watched them or ran the show). In the context of a black man never being recognized as anything other than a “boy,” however, the song asserts black manhood in the face of white suppression. “I’m a man, I’m a full grown man,” sings Muddy, “I spell M-A, child, N”
Another major and influential blues artist from Mississippi was John Lee Hooker, son of a sharecropper, who came to prominence in the late 1940s and 50s. His House Rent Boogie from 1956 protests the all too familiar tale for black American of losing a job and not being able to make the rent payment; “I said fellows, never go behind your rent, ‘cause if you did it, it will hard so it’s cold in the street.”
The wail of protest in the blues continued on into that decade most associated with protest songs, the 1960s. From 1961 we have the guitar – harmonica duo of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee singing Keep on Walkin’ which takes up again the theme of Blacks being worked hard for little pay:
The bossman was so mean, you know, I worked just like a slave
Sixteen long hours drive you in your grave
That’s why I’m walkin’, walkin’ my blues away.
And then we have Vietnam Blues by J.B. Lenoir, from 1966. Drawing an elegant parallel between the US’s presence in Southeast Asia and the Jim Crow South, Lenoir demanded of President Lyndon Johnson, “How can you tell the world we need peace, and you still mistreat and killin’ poor me?”
Lenoir came to Chicago via New Orleans and became an important part of the blues scene there in the 1950s, performing with Memphis Minnie and Muddy Waters. He was a fine singer and a great showman, sporting zebra striped costumes and nifty electric guitar licks.
But Lenoir composed a number of political blues songs bringing sharp social commentary to bear on events going on around him. Songs like Born Dead, which decries the fact that “Every black child born in Mississippi, you know the poor child is born dead,” referring to the lack of opportunity in his home state; or Eisenhower Blues, which complains that the government had “Taken all my money, to pay the tax.” Lenoir also composed the haunting “Down in Mississippi,” which he performed on his 1966 Alabama Blues. “Down in Mississippi where I was born, Down in Mississippi where I come from,” sings Lenoir,
They had a huntin’ season on a rabbit
If you shoot him you went to jail.
The season was always open on me:
Nobody needed no bail.
He concludes about the place of his birth, “I count myself a lucky man, Just to get away with my life.” The definitive version of the song, however, was to come some 40 years later, when Mavis Staples recorded it on her album We’ll Never Turn Back, Staples adding a little to the song about segregated water fountains and washeterias and how “Dr King saw that every one of those signs got taken down, down in Mississippi.”
Mavis Staples had already made her protest against three hundred years of injustice in 1970 with the no-punches-pulled When Will We Be Paid? The song demanded an answer to the exploitation of Black Americans in the construction of America’s roads and railroads, in the domestic chores their women have done and the wars in which their men have fought. Despite this contribution to the making of America over 300 years, all the remuneration Staples’s people got was being “beat up, called names, shot down and stoned.” “We have given our sweat and all our tears,” she sings, so, “When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?”
In a similar vein, complaining about the discrimination they faced, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee & Earl Hooker in Tell Me Why in 1969 sang,
Every war that’s been won, we helped to fight
Why in the world can’t we have some human rights?
Tell me why?
They give the cruel answer themselves – “It’s got to be my skin, that people don’t like.”
And one of the most hard hitting of songs in the blues genre is Mississippi Goddamn, written and sung by Nina Simone in 1964.
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last.
The song was Simone’s response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black children. She performed the song in front of 10,000 people at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches.
The blues chart the history of the indignities face by African Americans over the decades. The blues allowed Black Americans to assert their humanity and dignity in the context of an oppressive system that declared they were less than human. Whether the songs expressed explicit protest at this or not (and most blues songs didn’t), the blues, nevertheless, was Black music and, whether they were complaining about unfaithful lovers or problems with the landlord, whether they were performed as dance music in the juke joint or sung on the street corner, they reflected the abuse and indignities suffered by blacks under Jim Crow and beyond. No wonder Black theologian and writer, James Cone, said, the blues are “the essential ingredients that define the essence of black experience.”
Willie Dixon gets it spot on when he says “The blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding.” In telling the truth about the misery of black experience, but as well as that, a hope for change, the blues were a part of the endurance and resistance of the Black community.
For many white listeners to the blues, the blues are at heart a genre of music, a certain musical form, twelve bars, flattened notes, blue notes. But if we listen carefully, we can hear the history of people who have been sorely mistreated; we can, perhaps, get some understanding of what it means to be Black. But it does require careful listening. And that listening is as urgent as ever just now.
Finally, to help us stop and listen, here is the ultimate protest song written by Abel Meeropol and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. Strange Fruit.
The railroad has a special place in the blues. Lovers leave on the train, singers go searching for them by the train, the gospel train is on its way, and the ramblin’ bluesman needs to board that train and ride.
Railroads were one of the major infrastructural and economic achievements of the nineteenth century and loomed large in the lives of people as the blues began to develop. You recall that the story of the very beginnings of the blues was at a railway station – in 1903, whilst waiting for a train in Tutweiler, Mississippi, bandleader W.C. Handy heard a man running a knife over the guitar strings and singing. He said,
“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. ‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’ The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.”
Handy later published an adaptation of this song as “Yellow Dog Blues,” and became known as the “Father of the Blues.”
Freed slaves had built the railroad with their blood, sweat and tears, and in the early years of the twentieth century, it was the primary means of transport for people for longer distances. For itinerant blues musicians like Robert Johnson, trains allowed them to move from place to place and ply their trade. Johnson’s sister, Annye Anderson, in her book, Brother Robert, remembers Robert “hoboing” around on the train, going back and forth from Memphis to the Delta for his music. His famous train song, of course, is Love in Vain.
The train was the means of escape, too, for black people wanting to leave behind the injustice of the Jim Crow South and seek a better life in the North and West. From 1916 onwards, around 6m people moved away from the racist ideology, the lynching and the lack of economic opportunity to cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and New York. Famously, McKinley Morganfield – Muddy Waters – boarded a train for Chicago in 1943 to become the “father of Chicago blues” and pioneer electric blues.
Trains in the South were, of course, segregated. In the “colored” section, there were no luggage racks, requiring travellers to cram their suitcases around their feet; and the bathroom there was smaller and lacked the amenities of the “whites” bathroom. All these were subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that you were not as good as the people in the other section.
So James Carr’s Freedom Train of 1969 was significant. Attorney General Tom C. Clark had organized a Freedom Train as “a campaign to sell America to Americans” to try and bolster the sense of shared ideology within the country. The train was integrated, but several Southern cities refused to allow blacks and whites to see the exhibits at the same time, and the Freedom Train skipped the planned visits. Carr’s song celebrates a new Freedom Train, free from segregation and discrimination. where “every man is gonna walk right proud with his head up high.”
So, here’s to trains, and may the Freedom Train keep on rollin’ down the track!
Here are 20 blues train songs for you to enjoy.
Trouble in Mind (1924)
In this old blues standard, things are so bad, the singer wants to end it all – he’s going to lay down his head on that old railroad iron, and let that 2.19 special pacify his mind. It never really gets to that point, happily, because, “sun’s gonna shine in my back yard some day.” First recorded in 1924, it’s been done by Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Snooks Eglin, Lightnin’ Hopkins and many more. I like this jaunty version by Brooks Williams from his Brooks Blues album of 2017.
Railroad Blues , Trixie Smith with Louis Armstrong (1925)
Trixie Smith, not related to Bessie Smith, paid her dues in vaudeville and minstrel shows, as well as performing as a dancer, a comedian, an actress, and a singer. Here she is backed by Louis Armstrong’s muted horn, as she is “Alabama bound” on the railroad.
The Mail Train Blues, Sippie Wallace (1926)
The Texas Nightingale recorded 40 songs for Okeh during the 1920s before going on to be a a church organist, singer, and choir director, and then eventually reviving her performing career in the 1960s. In Wallace’s 1926 Mail Train Blues she bemoans her sweet man leaving her and wants to go looking for him aboard the mail train.
Spike Driver Blues. Mississippi John Hurt (1928)
This and other songs recorded by Hurt in 1928 were not commercially success and he reverted to the farming life until being found in 1963 by Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins, and persuaded to perform and record again. John Hurt had a wonderful guitar picking style which is credited by many guitarists as their inspiration. Spike Driver Blues is a John Henry song where the “steel-driving man” dies as a result of his hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel.
Long Train Blues, Robert Wilkins, (1930)
Wilkins was a versatile blues performer from Mississipi who gave up playing the blues to become a gospel minister in 1936. An excellent guitarist, he came to light again in the 1960s and recorded some of his gospel blues. Long Train Blues, which he recorded in 1930 tells the tale of a lover who has run off on the train.
Too Too Train Blues, Big Bill Broonzy (1932)
There’s some nifty acoustic guitar work here by the hugely talented Bill Broonzy, with another “my baby done left me aboard the train” blues. Broonzy sustained his career successfully from the 1920s to the 1950s, performing both traditional numbers and his own compositions, recording more than 300 songs.
The Midnight Special, Leadbelly (1934)
Recorded in 1934 by Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter at Angola Prison for John and Alan Lomax, the song has been covered by a host of artists, notably John Fogerty’s Creedance Clearwater Revival. The Midnight Special is said to be the name of a train that left Houston at midnight, heading west, running past Sugarland prison farm, the train’s light becoming a symbol for freedom for the inmates. The song also references the injustice of black men being incarcerated for minor infractions.
Love in Vain, Robert Johnson (1937)
Famously covered by the Rolling Stones for their 1969 Let It Bleed album which featured some tasty electric slide guitar, Love in Vain is a Robert Johnson song recorded in his last studio session in 1937. Johnson’s guitar work is outstanding, as is his singing. The sense of loss is palpable, and you hear Johnson crying out his lover Willie Mae’s name near the end of the song.
This Train, Rosetta Tharpe (1939)
This old gospel song has been around since the 1920s and has been extensively recorded. Bruce Springsteen’s Land of Hope and Dreams takes This Train as its starting point but reworks the ideas of the original so that everybody can get aboard. Tharpe’s more original version has “everybody riding in Jesus’ name”; it’s a “clean train, which won’t take “jokers, tobacco chewers and no cigar smokers.” The song was a hit for Tharpe in the late ‘30s and again in the ‘50s. This live performance gives some sense of what an expressive and incredible performer Tharpe was, not to mention her impressive guitar chops. The 1939 version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame
Lonesome Train, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee (1952)
Just a great train song, with Sonny Terry’s harp driving the train down the track in this instrumental track. There are a few “whoooos” hollered along the way by the duo, who had a 35-year partnership. A masterclass in harp playing. The song was recorded by Sonny Terry in 1952 along with the Night Owls.
Mystery Train, Junior Parker (1953)
Mississippi bluesman Parker’s 1953 hit inspired a number of later versions, notably Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s take in 1965. In Parker’s version the drums mimic the rattle of the train on the track and the tenor sax the wail of the whistle. Butterfield adds a nice bit of harmonica.
Southbound Train, Muddy Waters (1957)
This is another Big Bill Broonzy song from 1957, which Muddy Waters recorded on his tribute to Broonzy in 1960, Muddy Waters Sings “Big Bill.” Broonzy had mentored Waters when he came to Chicago. Waters version isn’t too far removed from Broonzy’s, both piano driven blues, but Water’s version features some nice harp from James Cotton. The song has the singer heading South to the lowlands to escape his faithless lover.
Freight Train, Elizabeth Cotton (1957)
The song actually is about dying and being laid to rest at the end of Chesnut Street, so “I can hear “old number 9 as she comes rolling by.” Remarkable really, when Cotton said she composed the song as a teenager (sometime 1906-1912). She recorded it in 1957 and it’s been covered by many artists, including Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and Odetta. Cotton was a great guitar picker and this song has been a favourite for aspiring acoustic guitar players to learn. (Guitarist – check out Tommy Emmanuel’s lesson here (easy!!)
Freight Train Blues, Bob Dylan, 1962
Bob Dylan here echoes Elizabeth Cotton’s song in this 1962 recording from his debut album. Dylan tells a tongue-in-cheek but atmospheric story of poverty, rambling and the freight train. It’s typical early Dylan, all strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica.
Freedom Train, James Carr (1969)
A 1969 R&D hit for James Carr, Freedom Train reflects the Civil Rights movement of the sixties: “It’s time for all the people to take this freedom ride, Got to together and work for freedom side by side.” Born in Mississippi, Carr grew up singing in the church, but his R&D success led to his being called “the world’s greatest R&D singer.”
Hear My Train A-Coming, Jimi Hendrix (1971)
Hendix’s train song is typical Hendrix – overdriven, psychedelic guitar pulsing. It’s on his 1971 Rainbow Bridge album, but Hendrix performed the song in a BBC performance in 1967. He has also been recorded doing an acoustic version of the song on a 12-string guitar, giving it a Delta blues sound, Hendrix clearly familiar with the style of the acoustic blues masters of the past. Here’s some rare footage of Jimi Hendrix playing acoustic guitar.
Get Onboard, Eric Bibb (2008)
The title track of blues troubadour Eric Bibb’s 2008 album. Bibb, in his customary positive fashion, wants us to get on board the “love train.” There’s “room for everybody,” he sings as the band, including some nice harmonica, rattles us down the track.
Slow Train, Hans Theessink, 2012
Good times, bad times, tired and weary – Dutch guitarist and songwriter Hans Theessink has been singing the blues for a very long time and knows how to craft a blues song. This one is from his excellent 2012 Slow Train album, and features Theessink’s superb acoustic finger-picking and his rich bass-baritone voice.
When My Train Pulls In, Gary Clark Jr. (2013)
“Everywhere I go I keep seeing the same old thing & I, I can’t take it no more,” sings Clark, surely against the backdrop of racism in America. Hailing from Texas, the Grammy winning Clark is an outstanding guitarist and prolific live performer. This performance of the song which appears on his 2013 Blak and Blu album, showcases Clark’s guitar chops and his classy vocals.
Train to Nowhere, J J Cale (2014)
Eric Clapton recorded this previously unreleased J J Cale song on his tribute to Cale, The Breeze in 2014. The song features Mark Knopfler singing and playing guitar and is both unmistakably a J J Cale song and a train song. The lyrics look to be about that last train ride we all have to take and are a little bleak.
This Train, Joe Bonamassa (2016)
It’s full steam ahead for Joe’s train, in this case his baby who “comes down like a hammer” and “hurts him bad.” It’s all good stuff, with the usual Bonamassa guitar pyrotechnics. But Bonamassa has become a fine singer as well, which This Train amply demonstrates. The song is on his 2016 Blues of Desperation album, but there are some great live versions available too.
I’ve been listening to the latest album by Larkin Poe, Self-Made Man, and there’s a great track on it called Holy Ghost Fire. You tend to get a few references to the Bible in a Larkin Poe album, not doubt reflecting the sisters background in the Southern Bible Belt.
“Who’s gonna help me carry my load
Burn, burn baby burn with that Holy Ghost Fire
From your fingers to the frets…gonna testify.”
It’s raw, apocalyptic sounding stuff, conjuring up images of wild Pentecostal exuberance. Exuberant joy, is of course, the mark of the Spirit moving – it seeps through the Bible’s pages, even though you wouldn’t think it when you attend most churches today. Kenny Meeks’s song, When Jesus Takes You Dancing, catches the exhilaration of all this on his 2016 bluesy Americana album, New Jerusalem. “When Jesus takes you dancing…the Holy Ghost takes over you and sets you all on fire…”
You get the same holy dancing in Beth Hart’s Spirit of God from her 2012 album, Bang Bang Boom Boom which takes us on a rockin’ journey from Beth’s house to the house of God where she goes “hip shakin’ down the aisle”, then “breaking bread with my own special style”. Spirit of God worship is clearly not the sombre sit-in-your-pew, be quiet and sleep through the sermon version which is served up in too many churches. In Beth’s church, it’s a “soul celebration,” where the preacher’s “goin’ crazy…knocking devils down on the floor,” the choir is “giving it up to the Lord,” and Beth knows she’s sure “feeling something!”
The Holmes’ Brothers Speaking in Tongues from their eponymous 2001 album, gives us more Pentecostal action:
“You got me speaking in tongues, speaking your name,
Lord let me understand you
You got shaking my head, lifting my hands…”
Think it’s strange? Sister Rosetta Tharpe was singing in 1944 about the strange things that happened every day when God’s on the move. People might get healed:
“There are strange things happening everyday
He gave the blind man sight
When he praised Him with all his might
There are strange things happening everyday.”
Songs about the Holy Spirit in the blues go back to Blind Willie Johnson, with his Latter Rain. The lyrics of this are often misunderstood. You need to appreciate that for Willie Johnson’s Pentecostal church, the latter rain was the rain of the Spirit that the Old Testament prophet Joel had prophesied. Joel was quoted by Peter on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit fell on the first group of Jesus followers – “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” But Joel also talked about the early rain and the latter rain. The early Pentecostal believers like Willie Johnson believed that what they were experiencing was a fresh shower of the Spirit’s blessing – the latter rain, as opposed to the early rain that had fallen on the first believers. “It’s for you, it’s for you, it’s for you and your children too,” go the lyrics, reflecting the prophet Joel’s word.
Spin forward another 25 years and you have the Rev. Gary Davis singing I Heard the Angel Singing, where the “Holy Ghost on fire” fell on him, and he “got in the Spirit and began to shout.” The devil tries to stop him praying, but the singing of the angels spur him on. Eric Bibb has a great version of this song. [check out, too Eric’s Spirit and the Blues album]
Larry Norman, father of Jesus rock in 1972 wondered “why should the devil have all the good music?” He’d been filled with the Spirit, he sang, “I feel OK, because Jesus is the rock and he rolled my blues away.”
And bang up to date, we have the Mason Creek Project’s Holy Spirit Blues. “Everytime I feel the Spirit, I feel like dancin’ in my shoes.”
Giving a slightly different different angle is this great Kelly Joe Phelps song, The Holy Ghost Flood. There are no fireworks in Kelly Joe’s beautiful song, featuring his characteristic and wonderful guitar picking, just a recognition of his own need: “Oh Lord a sinner I am, Asking you to forgive me.” He needs a “flood” of the Holy Spirit, of God’s presence which means:
“Blessing us in kind,
Leaving not a soul behind.”
According to Pew Research, Pentecostalism and related “charismatic movements” represent one of the fastest-growing segments of global Christianity, with around a quarter of the world’s 2 billion Christians. They celebrate the gift of the Spirit in exuberant worship and a keen sense of God’s Spirit at work in their everyday lives.
Actually, this pretty much reflects the early Christian movement that we read about in the New Testament. These early communities were communities of the Spirit where the speaking in tongues, healing and prophesying we’ve seen in the songs above, were a regular feature of their worship. As were other Spirit inspired ways of life like love, patience and kindness.
Maybe it’s time to let the Spirit move and go with Beth Hart “hip shakin’ down the aisle.” Something to try next Sunday morning you’re at church!