Vicar Street, Dublin. It’s a few hours before the show and I’m shown in to a room backstage. Eric Bibb, looking very cool in his grey suit, pink shirt and grey hat looks up, as he strings a guitar which is sitting across his lap. He smiles welcomingly and invites me to sit down. There are no airs or graces, just a man who’s relaxed, at home with his art, his band and ready for another show.
I’m at ease now too, so we start chatting. I tell Eric that I first saw him play about seventeen years ago, and apart from the music and the incredible feel-good vibe of that evening, what I’d come away with were the stories he’d told about the songs and the blues artists – all of which had led me on a journey of exploration into the blues and the social history of the blues and resulted in Down at the Crossroads and my book, The Gospel According to the Blues.
He remembered the gig and appreciated the comment. We begin to talk…
I ask him first of all about his new album, The Happiest Man in the World, just released last month, already getting great reviews.
Eric Bibb: It started out as a project inspired by Ollie Haavista the Dobro player. He was keen to do this project with Danny Thompson, and he knew that I had a connection to Danny, that we’d toured together. So I contacted Danny and asked if he’d be interested in making an acoustic band album with him on bass. And Danny said, yeah, if we can make the scheduling work, so we found a window of time last July where all of us could get together. The band which I put together called North Country Far is based on my friendship with the Haavista brothers, and they introduced me – quite some years ago when I lived in Finland, I now live in Sweden – they introduced me to another wonderful musician, Petri Hakala, a great mandolin player, and they all said, “Let’s do this thing, we’ll worry about the business side of it another time.” So we got a residential studio in the countryside near Norfolk, because we had a very limited time.
And it all just came together. I had some new songs that I’d been waiting with for the right opportunity and, yeah, it just came together pretty quickly live on the floor – some post production, but mostly live on the floor.
DATC: On the album we have a couple of songs we associate with the blues. Tell Old Bill is a classic blues song where Bill dies and his wife gets the news. Then there’s Tossin & Turnin’ – a typical blues song bemoaning, perhaps, the terrible conditions of African Americans in the Deep South when the blues were growing up.
Eric Bibb: Yes, that’s right, but not only African Americans – it’s kind of a story that could apply to folks who were part of the great migration from the South to the North; it could also be Okies who suffered during the Depression. I wanted to include all of that together.
DATC: And it has a resonance today as well.
Eric Bibb: Absolutely
DATC: But then we get the Happiest Man in the World; and the whole album is very upbeat. How does this sense of loss, of trial, cohere with a more upbeat, positive vibe?
Eric Bibb: Yeah, well, that’s me in a nutshell! I’m a lover of history, I read a lot and I’m inspired by the history of the people who make the music that really moves me. The broad term Americana, which includes blues, and all kinds of old time country stuff, folk, gospel music – that’s all in the mix for me. I called the record the Happiest Man in the World, named after that song which came to me because I’m just very happy with my spouse and my life with her, and I really wanted to talk about that.
It seems, as many people point out, fairly un-bluesy to call yourself the happiest man in the world! But the point is, there were people – many of my blues heroes – who lived the kind of lives that were difficult because of where they were born, and who they were, and how they looked – and all of that history that involves racism and post-slavery trauma and all of that. However, there were people who transcended those difficult experiences and were capable of living a fulfilling life, having long term relationships with loving spouses – though that was certainly not the rule – but I know there were people, who, by the grace of God, were able to transcend very rough circumstances and celebrate life anyway.
The person that comes to mind right of the top of my head was somebody like Mississippi John Hurt, who I call the Dalai Lama of the country blues. He just seems so serene and so magnanimous in his spirit. And I know there were others like him. So, I also thought it was pretty provocative to call the album the Happiest Man in the World – that’s a pretty big statement to make! But then I wanted to counterbalance that with the story of people having a hard time just making ends meet.
DATC: You do get that dual track in the blues, though, don’t you? On the one hand, the trials and difficulties, but then – “the sun’s gonna shine in my back yard some day?”
Eric Bibb: That’s the thing. Good point. That optimism, that hopefulness, seems to be an essential part of this culture. The ability to enjoy life and celebrate the good things in life and also to be aware of your own spirituality in the midst of all this difficulty and oppression is an amazing quality which is expressed in the genre we know as the blues and certainly in the spirituals.
And it’s been something that’s spread to all points in the globe. There are so many people who enjoy and play this music – whether they’re from Finland, or the Philippines, or Sweden or France – I mean you find this music everywhere, people love it, they know it, they’ve read about it, and there’s something infectious about that very resilient culture from which this music springs. So it’s a testament not only to the people who survived all of that and left us with this great musical expression, but it’s also like a cosmic statement of salvation and balance – despite everything, this is the music that has glued the world together and it sprang from people who were perhaps some of the most downtrodden people.
Eric’s set that evening illustrated perfectly how well this tension in the music between on the one hand, acknowledging the suffering and the pain, and on the other, celebrating life and a sense of hope, can be creatively balanced. He sang the soulful, mournful Wayfaring Stranger in a way that could move you to tears, gave us Jimmy Oden’s Going Down Slow with its sorrowful “My health is failing me, and I’m goin’ down slow,” and retold the tragic story of the destruction of an African American community in Rosewood. But he kept the show upbeat and joyful throughout, with songs like New World Coming Through and Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down explicitly pointing to the hope that things can be better.
DATC: There’s a thread through your music of humanity, of a yearning for peace; for things to be better – I’m thinking of Got to Do Better; Hope in a Hopeless World; Dream Catchers; Connected; Shingle By Shingle; and so on. Can music and musicians make a difference to the way we think about the world where there is so much inequality and injustice?
Eric Bibb: Absolutely. The thing about music when it’s good, it kind of bypasses the reasoning part of the brain and goes straight to the heart. It’s something you cannot really resist if it’s got a certain energy behind it. And that’s why this music has caught on all over the world. I think musicians have a role to play in uniting people in breaking down barriers that are false barriers, based on a myopic vision of culture and nationality and all that stuff.
There’s one race – it’s the human race. And I’m happy to see this music gluing people together. I attend festivals all over the world and there are local people from that part of the world and there people in from the Czech Republic, from Chicago, from Mississippi – the music provides a gathering place, a meeting place, and it really has made a difference. It’s really brought people closer together.
And I think it’s not only this genre of music; it’s music in general has that ability to transcend all of these identifications with sub-groups and make some kind of universal family of us, as we’re meant to be.
I feel it’s a privilege to be able to do what I love, to do what I do for a living and also to play some part in making the world a better place. That’s a responsibility and a blessing, you know.
DATC: The other thing that comes strongly through your music is a strong sense of faith – that’s a distinctive element in your music. I’m thinking of songs like I Want Jesus to Walk with Me or Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down or I Heard the Angels Singing. How important is that to you? And these songs always seem to be well received by your audiences – why is that, do you think?
Eric Bibb: Good point. The fact that they resonate with people who are not necessarily emotionally attached to the faith that those songs spring from – to me shows that behind whatever faith it is that you practice, or adhere to, there is something universal about spirituality. And when it’s genuine, one senses intuitively that it’s an honest, sincere expression of faith. And that’s contagious. Because we are all, really, at heart, whether we acknowledge it or not, faithful people, I think we have that faithful gene. We do believe in some kind of higher power, some kind of universe that supports us. And when people hear songs that come from that space, they recognise it.
And I don’t preach, I don’t proselytize, I’m just saying that I come from a culture that has had great success in using this Christian language to express their innate spirituality. And I’m happy with it, because I’ve grown up with it, and it’s familiar to me and it’s universal. And it’s inclusive – that’s the point. I want people to feel that. I don’t want people to feel like I’m choosing to separate myself or exclude because I have a particular belief system. So it seems to really work. And that’s gratifying.
DATC: So, how closely connected are justice and faith? Should they be connected?
Eric Bibb: Absolutely. Because – I know God’s plan for the human tribe is a just world based on love, as opposed to fear. I know that. And one of the great proponents of love and justice was, of course, the late great Dr. Martin Luther King. He was a hero of mine. He understood the connection between basically doing the right thing and speaking truthfully in the face of fear-ridden people. Somebody’s got to show the way when we’ve all been duped into buying to that whole fear thing. He was a man who, I’m sure, had moments of dread and fear, but basically he overcame that with his faith in a just world. And knew that that was what we’re supposed to be doing – creating that sort of world. So I think there’s a divine connection between justice and faith.
DATC: Eric, I’m really looking forward to tonight’s performance. You’re a hard working touring musician – that’s tough at times, I’m sure. What is it about performing that makes you want to do it night after night?
Eric Bibb: I get so much in return. Not only a way to make my living, but a kind of affirmation that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing – every night, with so many people. To know that I’m where I’m supposed to be is a great comfort in times when there are many people who feel very lost about their role in this very changeable society. So I’m blessed with that security. I don’t have to fret and worry about what I should be doing. I know that what I’m actually doing is right on point. It’s a great source of energy, actually.
The interview and the guitar stringing is finished; time for a few photographs before the sound check. Eric has been generous with his time, there’s no rush, no fuss, everything is well organized and working towards the show. Vicar Street fills up with more than 500 people, who are treated first of all to a wonderful set of jazzy, bluesy numbers by Eric’s daughter, Yana Bibb, before Eric and the band appear. The crowd listens attentively throughout the show but with whoops, hollers and cheers of appreciation at the end of each song. The energy flows back and forth between Eric and his band and the audience. By the time we reach Don’t Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down and Needed Time after nearly two hours, 500 people are singing and clapping enthusiastically with huge smiles on their faces. The feel-good factor is palpable, the sheer joy immense. This is what an Eric Bibb gig is all about – “I’m connected to you, to everyone, and everything.”