This episode features a chat with blues troubadour, Eric Bibb, about his new album Letter to America. He says he “was very aware going into this project that we were dealing with very uncomfortable issues.” Nevertheless, the album is full of great songs, wonderful musicianship from Eric and his musical guests, and features Eric Bibb’s characteristic hopefulness in the midst of difficult times.
Eric Bibb – blues troubadour, global griot, as a recent album has it, whose music always seems to arrive at the Needed Time – considers his Dear America album to be his finest work yet.
Bibb, originally from New York, but now resident in Sweden, has been delighting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember, with his finely honed guitar picking, his honeyed vocals, his good humour and all-round positive vibe. No matter what sort of day you’ve had, when you go to an Eric Bibb gig, the weight of the world disappears and you’ll find yourself with a smile on your face that doesn’t go away for a week.
He’s a Grammy nominated, Blues Music Award winning song-writer and performing artist who is very much at the top of his game, as is evidenced by Dear America, which he says is “a love letter, because America, for all of its associations with pain and its bloody history, has always been a place of incredible hope and optimism.” On this record, he says, “I’m saying all the things I would want to say to somebody dear to me.”
Thanks to the wonders of Zoom, I got chatting to Eric at his home on a farm south of Stockholm where he has spent the last 18 months, like the rest of us, keeping safe. He has, however, been able to work online, performing and giving guitar lessons – “I haven’t suffered like many of my colleagues, so I feel quite, quite blessed.”
I asked him, first of all, about the making of the album and his musical collaborators and guests. He told me that, although he’s proud of the body of work he’s created in the past, both he and his producer, Glen Scott, who has worked with him on many previous projects, agree that “this is our best work.”
The album, on the Provogue label, features a number of well-known guest artists, the result of Scott’s vision, who had said to Eric a while back, “Eric, one day, we’re just going to go to New York and you’re going to have like the best rhythm section in the world, and we’re going to cut some tracks.”
So, the album features top notch players like Steve Jordan on drums, who has worked extensively with Keith Richards and John Mayer, Tommy Sims on bass, “a great musician all around, but amazing bass player and singer and guitar player, who’s worked with everybody from Bonnie Raitt to Bruce Springsteen,” Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers who plays lap steel guitar on Different Picture, Billy Branch on harmonica, and Ron Carter, again on bass.
Of the legendary Ron Carter – the most recorded jazz bassist in history – Eric talked about the first time he’d played with him more than fifty years ago, as a young man of sixteen.
“He was the bass player who had the bass chair on my dad’s television show in the late sixties. My dad [Leon Bibb, the renown folk singer, actor and civil rights activist] had a TV show called Someone New that featured young talent – nine-year-old Yo Yo Ma was on that show. I was sixteen years old and my dad put me in the guitar player’s chair. It was the first time I was in a completely over my head situation. I had to get a union card and there I was with Ron Carter playing bass and I’m trying to read the chart! So it was an amazing reconnection with him.”
Other guests include Lisa Mills, who duets on the album’s last song, the exquisitely beautiful Oneness of Love, and Shaneeka Simon, a gospel singer from the UK – “just a gem of a musician, a great singer, a fine person” – who makes a telling contribution on Born of a Woman.
The songs on the album are quite bluesy both musically and lyrically. None more so than Whole World’s Got the Blues, which bemoans the state of the world – “everywhere you turn you’re looking at sad, sad news.” The song is taken to a new dimension by the appearance of Eric Gales’s guitar, which weaves in and out of Bibb’s lyrics and then breaks into its own protesting, moaning solo, echoing eloquently the sombre message of the song.
“Eric Gales – his palette is so huge, and when it comes to blues, he’s the epitome of the best of old school and modern sensibilities. He’s in a class all by himself and also a fine person to work with, to vibe off. Because he’s spontaneous, straightforward, honest, you know, a heart open-on-his-sleeve kind of guy. I met him on a Joe Bonamassa blues cruise and Ulrika [Bibb’s wife] caught him on film, kind of dancing to a song during my set. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good sign.’ And then I heard him and I was completely blown away, so I went up to him said, ‘listen, would you guest on my album if I could make the thing happen?’ And he said, ‘it’s going to happen’!
Dear America is a collection of thirteen Eric Bibb originals, all testament to his outstanding song-writing skill, ear for a good tune and top-notch guitar chops, but what makes Dear America such a great album – and an important album – is not just the music but the nuanced social commentary and challenge he presents.
Dear America addresses the troubled racial history of the United States and what is still, sadly, going on. A number of the songs are quite explicit and quite hard hitting. In White and Black, he highlights the “crooked thinking, white is good, black is bad”; in Dear America, “on the one hand to be called your citizen, on the other to be excluded because of the colour of my skin”; and in Different Picture, the repetitive nature of America’s racial problems are firmly in view.
I wondered how important it was for Eric to make this record, to say the sort of things that he’s saying here and to ask the sort of questions he poses.
“I think the whole world has been preoccupied with current events in America for some time – the whole Trump era unleashed a lot of monsters that we’ve been trying, as a collective people, to sweep under the carpet. I think that, with that, and with events like the George Floyd murder and so on, things just seem to be coming to a head.
“And it was like everything was conspiring to make the world pay attention to these issues in a new way. This was borne out by the fact that so many young people ended up becoming involved, and not only African-Americans, but others with the whole Black Lives Matter movement. And, you know, this is ongoing. It’s not new, but it’s certainly more in our face than ever before.
“I was very aware going into this project that we were dealing with very uncomfortable issues. But to pretend that it doesn’t exist or minimize its impact on our lives is to end up being much more uncomfortable. And I think the more we understand that, the better off we’ll be. So, I knew I wanted to say something about all of this and say it from a perspective of an American living outside of America.”
One of the very sobering songs on the album is Emmett’s Ghost. The gentle, almost cheery finger-picked guitar introduction belies the dreadful historical event the song refers to. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, who was falsely accused of offending a white woman and then brutally lynched, before his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Outrageously, his murderers were acquitted, but Emmet Till became an iconic figure in the Civil Rights movement.
Bibb sings about his own experience of coming to know about Emmet Till as a boy himself, of coming to realize “from that day on, some hated my kind.” Sadly, this is not just an event from the past – Emmet Till’s ghost still haunts America, “we can’t move on because hate’s still going strong all over this country.”
Events like this still clearly reverberate; another recent blues album, Guy Davis’s Be Ready When I Call You, shines a light on the appalling Tulsa Massacre of 1921 [see our interview with Guy here]. I asked Eric if America has really come to terms with its past, with the brutality and inhumanity of events like these?
“Well, the hatred mentioned in the song refrain is still going on, and one of the reasons for that is because it’s never been properly acknowledged, it’s never been properly taught about in schools. It’s that part of American history that has often been whitewashed. There are people who told me – and I’m talking about educated people, man – they had never heard of this story.
“But African-Americans have been aware of it because it was pivotal in the history of the whole Civil Rights movement. But the number of people who were unaware of this story was quite shocking to me. Emmet was 1955, half a century ago or longer. The George Floyd murder, for example, to me was a very palpable reverberation of the same energy, the same attitudes.
“The fact that the guys who perpetrated the Emmett Till murder got off, the fact that the policemen who murdered George Floyd didn’t get off, tells me something about the evolution of consciousness and that we’re growing. And I also found out the Emmett Till case has been reopened and in absentia could possibly get a guilty verdict. [This Guardian article reviews the re-opening of the case.]
“So, as uncomfortable with this history is, as long as it’s taken to even get to this point and, let’s face it, these are what seem like minimal steps forward, I have a feeling that the process is accelerating.
“And I think being in a position to add my voice to this ongoing conversation is really good for me because this is what I do. I’m a troubadour who is aware of my surroundings and the world that I live in. And if there’s any way this troubadour can influence a conversation and perhaps promote change, that’s good.”
Although Dear America addresses some serious issues, Eric wanted to make clear that “this is not a protest album.” Growing up in the ‘60s in New York, with a father like Leon Bibb, Eric was well acquainted with folk protest songwriters like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. And so, although he never considered himself an artist in that vein, “it was impossible for me to not take on board in my songwriting all of these things. It was just impossible.”
“I consider myself some kind of storyteller. Who’s got something to say, with a history that gives me a platform for speaking out and being a voice for promoting certain kinds of conversations that will hopefully lead to change. That’s part of my chameleon background. But I also wanted it just to be a groovy album, you know, that people would get into. I didn’t want to just be on a soap box. So that was in itself challenging, but I think I had help from above in pulling it off, you know?”
That’s a delicate balance to achieve, but I think he has, indeed, pulled it off. Because, like every Eric Bibb album you listen to, there’s a thread of hope and joy that comes through very strongly. And the music is great.
I did want to ask him about one other song on the album, which I think is a hugely important one. Born of a Woman, which features Shaneeka Simon, addresses the tsunami of violence against women all over the world.
“Yes, I’m very glad that song came to me because I want to weigh in on this and basically draw attention to something that is really, as you say, global and alarming, to say the least.
“Again, to me it is indicative of the fact that we’re in a time right now, where it seems that all of the issues or whatever trauma that is holding the human community back from becoming this loving family – the misogyny, racism, all of that – seems to just being pushed to the front of our awareness in dramatic ways, and people are taking sides.
“And young people, fortunately, are kind of getting it and stepping up in more numbers than ever before. But the pushback is also quite intense right now, there are people who are really resistant to looking at all of this and coming to terms with it.”
While Eric, rightly, points to the hope lying in the younger generation, a thread of hope is never far away in an Eric Bibb album. Take the first song, Whole Lotta Lovin’, where we find Eric giving thanks for the simple things in life. “A whole lot of thank you, Lord, for all you provide.” It’s a wonderful way to start the album and we get threads of this thankful attitude right the way through. I wondered how important gratitude is to him and how important gratitude is in the midst of all the difficulties we’ve be talking about?
“It’s essential to me personally, and I think it’s an essential attitude and emotion for the healing of all of us. I’ve written a couple of songs, even one with the title Gratitude [On Roadworks, 1999]. It’s central to my way of going forth in the world. And it’s really helped me, I think. Without that the possibility of tipping over into the lane of cynicism and bitterness is quite huge. So that’s the antidote to that.
“And it’s funny, you mentioned the first song. This album is called Dear America and I call it a love letter. If I can think of one or two things about the American experience – speaking personally, but I think it’s also a universal feeling – it would be the food and the music, you know, because there’s something poetically and cosmically fitting about a music that spans so many different kinds of expressions – jazz, calypso, blues, gospel, whatever, music born of a history and a people who have been really hard done by. And this fascinates me.
“It’s like, it tells me something about the creator. Giving the gift of a certain kind of irresistible music that not only makes the whole world joyful, but makes whole world connected in its love of it, makes the whole world want to play it, sing it, understand it, know about it.
The fact of where it’s come from is a beautiful, beautiful comment on life in general. And I want to make it clear that this gift from the African-American tribe to the world, that has basically brought so many people together in so many ways, is the way I want to think about America when I think about what’s great about it, you know, what it’s given us. And I wanted to start there because I knew I had to go other places, but I really wanted to start there. And I’m glad you mention that.”
In similar vein, Love’s Kingdom, strikes that same note of hope and thankfulness – “Everything can change, if we believe,” and “Let’s start with being grateful for being alive.” There’s a defiant hope here against all the darkness, hope which almost goes against the grain.
“That song, really, I guess you could say, summarizes my philosophy. I really think at the end of the day this is the way. And I think it’s not a simple path, getting there is not simple, but it is a simple solution. Making that decision to step into Love’s Kingdom, to basically really follow the great teachings of all the great teachers, whoever you want to follow, that was the message. And we have that possibility and I just felt like saying it as simply as that – if we can step into Love’s Kingdom, you know, turn it over and really trust in some kind of loving higher power, however you want to frame it or put it into words.”
It’s a fabulous song, though not a typical Eric Bibb arrangement. A collaboration between Eric, Glen Scott and Tommy Sims, it’s got a kind of retro soul feel to it, which lifts you up and carries you along. Right into the closing song, Oneness of Love, a beautiful, gentle song, with a simple accompaniment, graced by the sweet voice of Lisa Mills added to Bibb’s own. It’s a fitting way to complete the album, where a letter that is painfully honest, but never hopeless or cynical, is sandwiched between notes of thankfulness, hope and love at the beginning and end.
Eric Bibb’s is a voice we need to hear. In a world where there’s so much aggression and hatred, a voice for peace, for unity, for humanity is one that needs to be heard. And Dear America is especially timely – shining a light on much of what is pulling people apart and giving rise to bitterness and division, but never giving up on the possibilities that love can bring.
[See our extended comment on Born of a Woman here]