The Philosophy of Modern Song, Bob Dylan, Simon & Schuster
I’ve been a Dylan fan for over fifty years, have seen him in concert on numerous occasions, including that memorable night in London’s Earl Court in 1981. I enjoyed his Chronicles Volume 1 and hoped against hope we’d see volume 2 sometime.
So I was delighted when my daughter bought me The Philosophy of Modern Song for my birthday. The book is sumptuously presented, in large size hardback format, with a glossy dust cover and beautifully weighted pages. It’s jam-packed with lovely illustrations and photographs, all in a matt finish. So, as a physical book, it definitely makes for a nice present.
It’s not, as you might imagine, any sort of dissertation on the art of modern song-writing. Rather, it consists of Dylan’s musings on sixty-six songs, mostly from the nineteen fifties and sixties, and I consumed the book day-by-day beside my Amazon Echo, asking Alexa to play each song as I went along. I confess to not being familiar with most of the songs, so it was a delight to dip in to this cornucopia of Dylan’s musical whimsy and be transported to another musical era.
Dylan can write well – he’s won the Nobel prize for literature, so I guess that oughtn’t to be a surprise – and gives us two or three pages on each song. If you’ve ever listened to Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Show, you can practically hear Dylan read the words to you.
Often we get some background on the artist – so I now know a little bit about a Bobby Darin or a Marty Robbins – as well as Dylan’s thoughts about the song. These can be just sheer whimsy, or amusing, or almost philosophical. Sometimes it’s quite unintelligible (try his comments on religion on the song If You Don’t Know Me By Now); but there are occasional moments of deep insight – I liked this from the commentary on Harry McClintock’s Jesse James: “Criminals can wear badges, army uniforms, or even sit in the House of Representatives. They can be billionaires, corporate raiders or stockbroker analysts. Even medical doctors.”
And his take on Edwin Starr’s War, one of the longest essays in the book, is thoughtful and measured, with some forthright comment on American two Gulf wars and the responsibilities of democracy.
There’s genuine warmth here too, for artists like Johnny Cash, Dean Martin and Roy Orbison, and the sheer depth of Dylan’s knowledge of modern American music is nothing short of remarkable.
But there are also moments that are jarring. Take a comment on Elvis’s Money, Honey for example. Dylan says, “ultimately money doesn’t matter.” Well, OK for you to say, who’s just sold your back catalogue for about $200m. So rich that Dylan can be out of touch with the majority of people in the world who hardly have enough money to get by and to whom money matters a heck of a lot.
Dylan also seems, at times, to have a rather dark imagination. At times I was brought up short by his interpretation of a song, which appeared to me to be much more innocent than Dylan’s thought world.
And then there is the sexism. Now to be fair, when you’re commenting on songs from the 50s or 60s that now feel rather sexist, your comments might simply be reflective of the lyrics. Nevertheless the comments about hard women, teasing women, women with a short fuse, women waiting for her man to come home from work, “foxy” women, two-faced beauties…and so it goes on…become more than a little wearing. I really can’t imagine any woman enjoying this.
Particularly jarring is the chapter on Johnnie Taylor’s 1973 Cheaper to Keep Her. This is an obnoxious little song and even the choice of it is questionable, because Dylan certainly doesn’t use it to be critical of it in any way. Actually he doubles down on the sexism and androcentrism of the song, going off on an extended riff about marriage and divorce, which ends up giving a shout out to polygamy. This is pretty distasteful, as is his appallingly insensitive comment about childless marriages: “A couple who has no children, that’s not a marriage. They are just two friends.”
Out of sixty-six songs in the book, remarkably only four are by women. The Nina Simone song Dylan chose was Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which actually was written by a man, Horace Ott, on the occasion of feeling misunderstood by his wife after they’d had an argument (poor man). Simone changed the lyric from “Baby, don’t you know I’m human, And I’ve got thoughts like any other man” to “anyone“. Still, a pretty poor choice from all the great songs Nina Simone sang,
Still, Dylan does note insightfully, “But the song has taken on more meanings as Nina’s measured, defiant delivery has been adopted by some as an understated social equality anthem. Songs can do that…”
So, it’s a pretty mixed bag from Dylan. A great idea presenting a rather random catalogue of old songs for today’s readers to check out and enjoy. Some hugely enjoyable and at times insightful and amusing comments from Dylan. But hand-in-hand we get some truly jarring and distasteful moments. Oh, and did I mention the f-bombs here and there? Not really needed, Bob.
There’s a lot to enjoy here, but sadly much to skip over. Someone tell him, the times, they are a-changin’.
Mavis Staples & Levon Helm, Carry Me Home, ANTI-Records
Mavis Staples and the late Levon Helm recorded the songs on Carry Me Home at Helm Studios in Woodstock in the summer of 2011. It was to be one of the final recording sessions for Helm before he died the next year.
The pair are icons of Americana and roots music, Levon Helm, the drummer and one of the lead vocalists of the Band, and Mavis Staples, celebrated gospel and blues singer and civil rights activist. Both performed their music for more than 50 years, from the early sixties on through the heydays of rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues.
Carry Me Home is something of a masterpiece, it would not be too bold to suggest, a celebration of friendship, mutual admiration and faith. You can’t help but be moved by both the poignancy of the selection of songs and the pair’s performances, now knowing that Helm was to pass shortly after and that Staples is now in her 83rd year.
“It never crossed my mind that it might be the last time we’d see each other,” says Staples. “He was so full of life and so happy that week. He was the same old Levon I’d always known, just a beautiful spirit inside and out…
“…we hugged and hugged and hugged. I just held on to him. I didn’t know it’d be the last time, but in my heart and in my mind, Levon will always be with me because I take him everywhere I go.”
But even aside from that, this is simply a great set of songs, a wonderful collection of blues, gospel and Americana. The music, powered by Helm’s and Staples’s combined bands, is compelling, with everyone sounding like they are having a fine old time of it.
The album kicks of with a Curtis Mayfield’s This is My Country, a protest song from 1968, deeply embedded in the Civil Rights movement:
I’ve paid three hundred years or more Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back This is my country
Staples sings it with considerable gusto and passion, several years in to the Obama presidency with the right beginning to flex its muscles. More than ten years on, the song still sounds relevant for America – more’s the pity. Musically, as the album’s opener, you know you’re in for a treat, with horns, organ and ooh-ooh-oohs from the backing singers ushering you into things.
Trouble in (My) Mind is a rockin’ version of the old blues standard, Staples’s raw vocals and the bluesy piano driving things along. After This is My Country, this feels like another defiant assertion that no matter how bad things are and might be in America, there are surely better times ahead – “sun’s gonna shine in my back door some day.”
Staples performs Farther Along, an old gospel song, unaccompanied, apart from some gorgeous harmonizing by Amy Helm and Teresa Williams and others. It’s another poignant one, with the lyric “When death has come and taken our loved ones” coming with slow-tempoed clarity.
It’s a song of faith, however, and despite the song musing on loved ones passing while “others prosper, living so wicked year after year,” it asserts “we’ll understand it all by and by.” Staple’s faith led her to comment about Helm, “Some sweet day, we’ll be together again.”
Faith shines out of this album. Nothing frothy or glib; but faith that has been tested and tried and remains defiant. That’s been Mavis Staples’s experience – remember, she was once arrested at gunpoint by the police after a racially charged incident at a gas-station in Memphis and has lived the recent history of black America from the Civil Rights movement on.
The songs, even when packing a punch like Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free, have a positive, upbeat feel, as if the very force of Staples’s faith and positivity would make all the changes she longs for. The horns, harmonies and Mavis’s vocals, combined with the gospel chords, make for a thoroughly uplifting listening experience.
There are a couple of songs regularly performed by Levon Helm, When I Go Away and Buddy and Julie Miller’s Wide River to Cross have a thoroughly traditional feel about them and fit right in to the set. In the latter, the lyrics seem to have a dual meaning, referring to both the individual journey of life and the struggle for equality that Staples has been engaged in for so long –
I’m only halfway home, I’ve gotta journey on… I’ve come a long, long road but still I’ve got some miles to go I’ve got a wide, a wide river to cross.
There’s a great version of You’ve Got to Move. The harmonizing vocals and Larry Campbell’s guitar work is superb and once again the two-sided nature of the lyrics becomes apparent. As a traditional gospel blues song, it’s about the Christian hope of resurrection – “when the Lord get ready, you gotta move,” in, as another song has it, “that great gettin’ up morning.” But whether you’re “high or low”, there’s a hope for the present as well that the Lord might move things in the right direction.
The penultimate song is Bob Dylan’s gospel classic, Gotta Serve Somebody. It’s fitting of course, to include a Dylan song, given Staples’s history with him (she has said Dylan was “the love that I lost”). Staples adds her own faith assertion to the song – he’s (God is) my doctor, he’s my lawyer, he’s my friend.” “Whether you got faith or you got unbelief,” as Dylan might have put it, the song has always been a powerful one, and Staples does it more than justice, making it her own, as she sings convincingly, “I got a royal telephone and the line is never busy.”
Mavis Staples pretty much handles the vocals throughout, with Levon Helm adding colour here and there with harmonies. His drumming, however, is stamped all over things. Helm does weigh in on the final song – fittingly The Weight. Mavis Staples, of course, had shared the vocals with Levon Helm when the Staples Singers accompanied the Band for the song in the Last Waltz in 1968. Staples’s voice is a little deeper and raspier, but it’s still powerful and more than capable of sending shivers down your spine. There’s a quirky, but rather wonderful what sounds to me like a tuba solo in the middle of the song.
This is simply a glorious album of songs to challenge, encourage and inspire. It’s a fine tribute to Levon Helm, and another reminder of the immense talent and force that is Mavis Staples. I saw her perform in London just before the pandemic and it was an evening that left me with a smile on my face for a week afterwards. At 83 she’s on tour again, along with Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter, and if they are anywhere near you, don’t hesitate. And get yourself a copy of Carry Me Home – you won’t regret it.
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]
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.
Gráinne Duffy is “a powerhouse of soul and inspiration mixed with desire and passion.”
Photo: Rob Blackham
She’s played Glastonbury, and concerts and major festivals in Europe, Africa, North America and Australia, and performed on stages graced by Keb’ Mo’ and Van Morrison. She’s a fine songwriter, a top-notch guitar-slinger and has a rock’n’roll voice drenched with the blues and Southern soul. She’s Gráinne Duffy, now with five excellent albums in her discography, and with Voodoo Blues, is winning new fans all over the world.
Ireland has given the world some top-notch blues and rock artists to enjoy over the years – think Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and Van the Man – and in Gráinne Duffy from County Monaghan, we have another one. Her four previous releases are all worth your while checking out, but with Voodoo Blues, her talent bursts out big time in ten original songs that showcase the versatility and power of her vocals, her guitar chops, and the strength of her song-writing.
Down at the Crossroads got talking to Gráinne about Voodoo Blues. It’s had a lot of very positive reviews – Rock and Blues Muse, for example, hailed her as “an emerging blues star,” and said that the album “presents her to the world as a roots music creator with a fully-articulated vision that’s ready for the big time.” Rocking Magpie waxed lyrical about the “indelible impression” Duffy makes with this “powerful new release.”
Gráinne said that she was delighted with the positive attention the album has been getting, because she’d worked hard on this set of songs. The songs are co-written by Gráinne and her husband Paul Sherry, who is a sensational guitarist in his own right.
She said that the album was a return to her rock’n’roll roots. “I had done the blues album and the Americana album. And the third album was like a live album and the fourth album was a little bit of transition. We’d gone over to America to record it and it was a bit of a change of direction for us, so I feel like I was being pulled back all the time to my rock and roll roots. And it was very simple production this time, which suits me. We just went into the studio and played everything live, and it was just four of us – bass, drums, two guitars and vocals – just kinda the way rock’n’roll should be. You know, simple and straight up. And I think the fruit of the labour is that the tracks are not overly complicated, but they’ve got the essence of what I think really is me deep down inside.”
The album was recorded more or less live, produced by Troy Miller in his Spark Studios in London toward the end of 2019.
Said Gráinne, “We just had a really simple set-up. I’d been in touch some years ago with Troy Miller, who’s a brilliant producer, and also a really great drummer. He’d been Amy Winehouse’s drummer. And just recently, I thought I’d like to work with Troy again, so I got in touch with him to ask if he’d be interested in working on this album. He said, sure. So my husband, Paul – we write together, play together – and I, we boarded a plane and went over and went down to Troy’s small studio and we got it all done. Troy got Dale Davis the bass player who had played with him for years in Amy’s band on board.
“So we recorded for two days and then I came home and did another two days and it was all done. Yeah, it was great. We had to do some overdubs in Ireland because COVID came and we had been due to go over for a final session and with the whole madness, we weren’t able to travel for it. So the last track we recorded here in Ireland.”
I mentioned to Gráinne that I keep seeing reviewers who pick up on the Ireland connection and they refer to Celtic influences on her music. That’s something I never really hear and I said I wasn’t quite sure what they mean by that.
“Yeah, I’m in the same boat as I read that! I’d love to know what they’re hearing! I think it’s nice and it’s lovely that they’re hearing something Irish, but I’m wondering if nobody told them I was Irish, would they know it was Irish? But that has been mentioned quite a few times. Some people have even said, Oh, I get a sense of the Rory Gallagher here. But you know, that’s not intended. But it’s lovely that comes out – it must be just something in the sound, I don’t know.”
Gráinne Duffy’s music for me is very much American music – it’s grounded in the blues, and it’s got hints of soul and gospel, and that’s what you’ll hear if you check out (and you should!) any of her albums.
“Oh, definitely,” she said. “Because that is really the music I listened to growing up. Particularly the blues – I would have been listening originally to Fleetwood Mac and then from Fleetwood Mac I got into Peter Green, B.B. King, Albert King, and then on into Aretha and all of that sort of stuff. So, I mean, you keep backtracking. If you get into that style of music, you keep trying to delve further back, back until you find the roots. But I would definitely agree with you, it’s definitely coming from America, the style of music that has mostly influenced me.”
Some of the songs on Voodoo Blues, like the title track, Mercy, Tick Tock and Wreck It, are solid rock and blues rock, but there’s a nice variety to the album as well. Listen to the hints of soul, and bits of gospel in Don’t You Cry for Me and Shine It On Me.
Gráinne liked that I’d heard that. “Sometimes you when you do that, some people go, Oh, it’s too eclectic, there’s too much going on. But for me, I felt like it was still held together by the overall rock’n’roll sense of the album, even though there are other influences there. I do listen to a very wide range of music, but I think the rock’n’roll sound kind of underpinned the whole thing and that kept it together.”
Gráinne Duffy, over many years, has been a talented songwriter. But the evidence here in Voodoo Blues is that she is getting even better. These are well-structured songs, with strong lyrics, far beyond some of the simplistic song forms you get in a lot of blues rock. I asked her about her development as a song-writer.
“Well, it is a craft and I suppose craftsmen and women are supposed to get better the longer they’re at it, but sometimes it doesn’t work like that. You can start off on a high and you can just be like, the Mojo’s gone. But with this record, I was listening to a lot of old blues and I really tried to pare it back and make it really simple. And sometimes I think simple is best, but it can be hard to be simple! How often do you hear a big song and you go, that’s just three chords and it’s so simple, but it’s great. But sometimes it takes a long time to arrive there. Maybe with this record, I’ve finally been able to declutter and just try to go straight to the point. That’s what I tried to do. And, what helped the song-writing on this album was I had a good sense of where I wanted to go.”
The songs are all written by Gráinne and her husband and fellow band member, Paul. Gráinne is responsible for the lyrical content and they both collaborated on the music, as they have done for some considerable time. As usual on the album there is great guitar work from Paul, who is a very accomplished player. If you go to one of their live shows, you’ll see him really cut loose, with long solos and fast runs up and down the fretboard, but here on this album, he’s very supportive of each song. It’s restrained, tasteful, and works really well.
“Yeah. I have some friends who love guitar and, they were like, come on, give us more guitar! We want to hear more guitar! We did that in some of our previous records. But this album was maybe a little bit pared back. Maybe in some places we could’ve thrown in an extra guitar solo, but I think the guitar parts which are put down are just perfect.”
I asked if Gráinne had any particular favourites in the mix of the songs.
She mentioned Mercy. “It was one of the first ones that kind of kicked off the album and let me know where I wanted to go.” This is a great showcase for Duffy’s vocal power and control, with the lyrics articulated against an insistent guitar riff and some tasty organ work. “But,” she said, “You know, another one that I particularly like is Hard Rain,” referring to the track that finishes the album, a terrific rocker, which features some mouth-watering backing vocals supporting Duffy’s soulful singing. The song obviously gives a nod to Bob Dylan, a particular hero of Gráinne’s, who told me that Bob could do no wrong in her eyes and that she’d even named her son in honour of the man. She told me she loves Dylan’s current sound and style, which for her is a bit TexMex. “I love the sound that he’s gone for recently. I think it’s brilliant.”
I mentioned another song on the album which I really enjoyed, Roll It, and suggested that it recalled for me Sheryl Crow.
“You know what, I am a big Sheryl Crow fan. I think she’s a great.” But although Roll It might possibly recall Crow’s All I Want to Do, Gráinne suggested she probably had more Gerry Rafferty in her mind with it. Others have heard John Fogerty here. Mention of these other artists and songs simply gives you an idea of the sort of influences swirling around in the background, but Roll It stands on its own two feet. Said Gráinne, “Roll It was supposed to be kind of a fun chillout.”
I said to Gráinne how much I’d loved the organ work on the album, particularly in songs like Mercy, Shine It On Me, and Don’t You Cry For Me. It’s classic-sounding rock Hammond and works really well.
“It’s fabulous. That again, is that mega-talented man Troy Miller. He plays drums on the record, produces it and plays the organ and piano as well! I don’t know how that man fits all that talent into one body, but he’s brilliant. But I love that organ work too. It’s not over or under played, it’s just, to me, spot on. But it’s lovely to hear it being appreciated by somebody else, because sometimes that can just go a little bit unappreciated.”
The great thing about this album is how very upbeat and positive it is. It puts a smile on your face. I wondered if this reflects the sort of person that Gráinne is?
“I think so. My first album, Out of the Dark, was a lot slower and sedate and reflective, and people thought I was the most depressed person in the world! And I used to think, how do people think I’m a really sad person? And Ronnie Greer, a great guitar player from Northern Ireland, lovely man, whom I collaborate with, he would always say to me, Gráinne, this record is nothing like your personality! So, I think, yes, this record is more reflective of what I am actually like as a person. I want to get up and at it, I love playing rock’n’roll and have that positive outlook in life. But it’s funny you say that it’s upbeat because I read one review where it said, this gives us hope that the blues isn’t all sad!”
That the blues is depressing is a misconception that many people not familiar with the blues often have. But the blues singer is usually singing him or herself out of the blues. A song might bemoan the state of the world or the singer’s life, but actually singing the song is a way of getting beyond the bad state of affairs.
“Exactly,” said Gráinne. “And so often if you listen to the early singers, like Ma Rainey or Mama Thornton, any of those people, they usually have an awful lot of humour in their lyrics as well.”
I asked Gráinne about not being able to tour the album at the moment, which has got to be disappointing for her.
“Yes, it is. When the album came out, we were like, all right, what can we do to celebrate the release of the album? Normally you do press that day or that week. And you’d be going up to do a gig, a launch night, and then a few more shows. But this time it was just “Right, will we light the fire?” This is so strange. And, because we feel like we’ve arrived at a nice place with this album and it is quite up tempo, we felt it would have been exciting, fun to go out and play. So it really felt like a bit of a disappointment. But we’re hoping there has to be some sort of a silver lining to the cloud. We’re hoping that maybe people take time to actually listen to the record and get to know it, and when we go to play they’ll really appreciate us.”
I wondered if the band has any major events planned, at least tentatively, given the ongoing pandemic situation.
“Yes. Well, bookings have come in for festivals for this year, but they’re all saying with that they are still unsure. So we think it’s going to be the summer or September by the time we get back to play. We’re a wee bit nervous about booking things because we’ve had to cancel so many travel plans. So we’ll just take it one step at a time.”
One final thing I wanted to ask Gráinne about was that I noticed on the album sleeve they were supporting a charity called We C Hope. What is that about?
“I lost my sister-in-law to cancer,” she said. “So we decided to put We C Hope on there if people wanted to donate towards cancer. It’s a foundation we support.” We C Hope aims to help children who suffer from retinoblastoma, a highly curable form of eye cancer – unfortunately every 85 minutes, a child dies from curable eye cancer, mostly in economically less developed countries, where awareness and access to timely, appropriate medical care is very limited. We C Hope seeks to “create a bright future for all affected by childhood eye cancer.” Check out We C Hope at https://wechope.org/
Voodoo Blues is one of the stand-out rock and blues albums of 2020 and ought to bring Gráinne Duffy to the attention of music fans all over the world. She is a quite special talent, and you ought to hope she has the opportunity before long to demonstrate that on a stage near you.
Vika and Linda Bull are two roots artists that may not have come across your radar. You ought to remedy that straight away! They are two sisters, based in Melbourne, who have been singing, harmonizing and rocking for many years, delighting audiences in their Australian homeland. Along the way, they’ve supported the likes of Billy Joel and have performed with Iggy Pop. The sisters are members of Paul Kelly’s band – Kelly is a hugely successful Australian rock music singer-songwriter and guitarist, whom a Rolling Stone writer claimed to be “one of the finest songwriters I have ever heard.”
Vika and Linda released a new album this year, called Sunday (The Gospel According to Iso, a fabulous album of rootsy, bluesy gospel songs and we got chatting to Linda about it.
But first of all, because a lot of people in the US and Europe may not be familiar with Vika and Linda, despite their success in Australia, I asked Linda how she would characterize their music?
“Well,” she said, “we’re very hard to pigeonhole. We love harmonizing together and singing together and we cover a lot of different genres. We don’t like being pigeonholed. But I think it’s basically roots music is where our heart is – and harmony. Vika and I have got very different tastes, Vika is more rock and I’m a bit more country. And in between we can cover blues, soul, R&B and gospel. And we love to do that. We love to just sing together – regardless of the genre, we just love singing together.”
Turning to the new album, I wondered what “iso” means. Turns out it’s Australian slang for “isolation.” Linda told me:
“Because we made the album in isolation in the first phase of lock-down in Melbourne, not knowing then that we would have two. The background of the record is that we’ve been singing gospel music for probably about 35 years now.” She and Vika have made a few gospel-tinged recordings along the way, but “this one in its entirety is kind of the next step. We had restrictions with lock-down, so we made it minimally. And I think gospel music actually works really well like that. It works really well when you have very few instruments.”
The album is something of a gem, really pared back, largely featuring the wonderful harmonizing of the two sisters, and backed mostly by piano with those lovely sort of gospel chords that you get with the piano.
“We have piano all over it, in every track, and our musical director, Cameron Bruce, is a beautiful piano player. We’ve worked with him in Paul Kelly’s band, and he took charge of everything with us, helped to select the songs with a lot of zoom meetings. Cameron arranged the songs and then sent them back to us as files and we sang over the top.”
The Gospel According to Iso has 13 gospel songs (with a bit of latitude, we’ll count Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Chuck Berry’s Downbound Train as gospel!), mostly old traditional songs or spirituals like Sinnerman, Walk With Me Lord and Jesus on the Mainline. The album kicks off with a rockin’ version of Claude Ely’s Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down, and once you hear these two sisters harmonizing, and the bluesy vocals, you know this is an album you want to hear. The high quality is sustained throughout, and even though the arrangements are relatively sparse, there’s a nice variety to the way each of the songs is handled.
The album, Linda told me, all sprang from a weekly Sunday sing-song that she and Vika started to do when everything stopped in Australia early in the year. “I went out on Facebook and Instagram live every Sunday morning at 11:00am and we did one gospel song. That grew in popularity to the point where we thought we could make a record. We’d just ring a friend, they played guitar, we’d sing over the top, and we thought we could make a record like that.”
Why, I wondered, did they choose this particular selection of songs?
“We had lots of gospel songs in our back catalogue that we’ve been singing over the years, but we wanted to do something new. So I dug into the gospel collection that I had amassed over the years and we had about 70 songs from all different sources. Then we whittled it down and the focus was mainly just to do something that meant something to us and bring a bit of joy because it was pretty sort of sad over here – and everywhere.
“But we wanted also songs that people knew. So we have Bridge Over Troubled Water and Amazing Grace. But then there are other songs that we thought, we’ll just throw those into the pot because we love singing them – songs by Mahalia Jackson and so on. That’s how it came together.”
It’s a great selection of songs, but I particularly like Rosetta Tharpe’s Strange Things Happening Every Day. It’s got a very distinctive Rosetta Tharpe feel about it, with both the piano and guitar work echoing her original version. Linda said she liked Rosetta’s “rock and roll attitude. That’s kind of right up our alley.”
The other song I asked about was Elder Curry’s Memphis Flu. Curry was a singing preacher and guitar player who preached fiery sermons through his songs, backed by the barrelhouse piano of Elder Beck, and featured the stomping feet and clapped hands of his congregation. Recorded in 1930 for Okeh Records, Memphis Flu refers to the flu’ season of 1929 which was the worst since the 1919 pandemic. Death rates were very high, particularly in the Memphis region. The song is often thought of as the first rock’n’roll record and the original is a toe-tapping rocker all right. But Curry’s lyrics are pretty harsh. For Curry influenza was a manifestation of God’s wrath at sinners and there was little compassion for the large numbers of people who’d died as a result of the flu’.
Linda said that when she stumbled across the song, she thought how perfect it was for the current situation – but “the lyrics were very direct. So we tweaked them a bit in the choruses. It’s a gospel song of course, but you’re not going to die if you don’t go to church! But we thought the song was perfect for record. We weren’t sure whether people would love it or hate it!”
Actually, you can’t help but love Vika and Linda’s version, driven by a rollicking barrelhouse piano. The amended version of the song is well-chosen, actually, so timely, and with a great message talking about the epidemic getting the rich and the poor alike, and saying that it’s going to get a whole more if you don’t listen up and behave. Wear your masks people!
I asked Linda if there’d been any sort of pushback against science and wearing masks in Australia?
“There was a bit of a pushback. Yes, there were marches and demonstrations and anti-mask-wearing demonstrations, but all in all, you know, in the middle of all this, there was a black lives matter movement, and people were very observant of wearing a mask and they still went out and protested, so people in general were pretty good. No one loves wearing a mask or being told what to do – I get it, you know, but the result was good.”
Talking about black lives matter, the spectre of racism is something that we’re all increasingly aware of these days. What, I asked Linda, has been her experience in Australia, with her Tongan background?
“Well, yes, we have dark skin. So obviously we look different. So we have experienced a certain amount of racism, but nothing like our mother experienced.” The sisters’ mother came to Australia during the White Australia Policy, which from 1901 basically sought to forbid or restrict people of non-European ethnic origin, especially Asians and Pacific Islanders, from immigrating to Australia. It was only legally disbanded in the mid-1970s.
The racism encountered by Linda and her sister has been “nowhere near as much as the previous generation. So it’s getting easier in some ways, but we feel very strongly about being treated equally, and why shouldn’t we? We are respectful, but we are direct, so I always say we stand up for ourselves.”
The sisters are half Tongan – Tonga is a Polynesian neighbour of Australia, and it’s a heritage they feel proud of.
“Polynesian culture is very strong in our family. And the way they sing – when they sing in church, time pretty much time stops, it’s so beautiful. That’s how we were raised. We were raised listening to the Tongans sing in church, and that’s where we get our voices from. Because they taught us, our mother taught us.”
From listening to Linda and Vika, I’d sure love to visit one of those Tongan churches.
“Everyone we take cries when they see the Tongans fire up…as soon as you walk into the church and they start singing and they get into it, how can you help but not be moved?”
The album finishes with a beautiful, unaccompanied Amazing Grace. The slow tempo and the pure quality of the voices make it an appropriately emotional end to the album. There’s something about this song that seems to appeal to almost everybody, so I asked Linda what she thought it is about gospel music that has such a wide appeal even to people of no faith?
“I think that it’s uplifting and it’s one of those sort of genres that you can lean on when feeling a bit down, or when you could do with an uplift. It lends itself naturally to that sort of universal feeling. You know, we all want to live a little bit better sometimes. Although we grew up in a church and had a very religious upbringing, we think this music is for everybody. And I think that we love singing it because for us, it’s a release. I think it’s ultimately our aim with a gospel record to make people feel better, whether they believe or not.”
Sadly, with the restrictions still in place because of the pandemic, the Bull sisters haven’t been able to go out and play on the road. But, Linda told me, they can’t wait to sing these songs to a live audience. Hearing these two sing these songs live is going to be some experience. I just hope I get the opportunity to hear them.
Beth Hart Live at the Ulster Hall: Six Things We Learned
Grammy and Blues Music Award nominee Beth Hart has had a roller-coaster of a life. After a chaotic childhood in LA, she began playing clubs in Hollywood aged 15 and recorded her first album six years later. She’s gone through the loss of a beloved sister and suffered from bipolar disorder and drug addiction. But she’s battled through and her career has flourished, with last year’s War In My Mind her ninth solo studio album. Hart has said that discovering her faith was instrumental in her recovery.
She has played and recorded, to great acclaim, with guitarist Joe Bonamassa, releasing one live and three studio albums so far. She has collaborated with Slash, Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy, and performed for President Obama and his wife. Channelling rock, blues, gospel and soul, she is a dynamic performer, an incredible singer and a great song-writer.
Her album, War in My Mind (one of our Best Blues Albums 2019) sees Hart open up herself to her audience in new ways. “More than any record I’ve ever made, I’m more open to being myself on these songs,” she explains. “I’ve come a long way with healing, and I’m comfortable with my darknesses, weirdnesses and things that I’m ashamed of – as well as all the things that make me feel good.”
Beth played the Ulster Hall in Belfast, an iconic venue with excellent acoustics, and which dates back to 1862 and along the way has hosted Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher, Dire Straits, Jackson Browne and a host of top classical orchestras. With a top-class band of three – Jon Nichols on guitar, Tom Lilly, on bass and Bill Ransom on drums, Beth Hart came on stage to a rapturous reception from 2,000 fans. Here’s what we learned:
1. Beth Hart is an incredible singer. She’s not only powerful, but she’s got great range, dynamics and versatility. She gave an awesome blues performance of Lloyd C. Glenn and Lowell Fulson’s Sinner’s Prayer (made famous, of course by Ray Charles), had us rocking in the aisles with Spirit of God, and then did full justice to a number of ballads and jazzy numbers.
2. Her energy and stage presence is full-on. There’s nothing half-hearted about a Beth Hart performance. The woman gives it all she’s got and then some. When she arrived on stage, she immediately stamped her personality all over it in a swirling, foot stomping, gyrating, sinuous maelstrom of movement. Much to the delight of the audience.
3. Beth Hart doesn’t just give you an incredible music performance – she puts herself out there, with a display of vulnerability I’ve never encountered in an artist before. As she gave the background and the stories to the songs from War In My Mind, you came face to face with the battles she’s fought, of a broken home, addiction, lack of self-esteem and mental illness. Her performance of Tell Her You Belong To Me (from Better Than Home), with its background of her father leaving the family home, was stunning but heart-breaking. This wasn’t just entertainment, it was an artist really opening herself up to her audience – that, I’m sure, must take its toll on the artist; it wasn’t always easy on the audience either.
4. Beth Hart’s story is one of redemption. That comes through loud and clear, in her confidence, in her delight in the music and in the gratitude she exudes. It came through the joyous Spirit of God, inspired, she said from an experience of a Baptist Revival Church which exposed her to a different kind of Christian worship from the rather formal sort she’d been brought up with. And through her faith which she referred to briefly on several occasions. Previously she’s said “When I’m really doubtful of myself, I gravitate to God. Because if my faith can’t be in me, then it can be in him.” And her redemption has come in large part through her husband Scott Guetzkow who has helped her through the dark times and is always there for her. As she emotionally sang I Need A Hero, she dedicated it to Scott, and it was a touching moment when he crept on stage to give her a hug at the song’s conclusion.
5. Turning your rockin’ electric band into a tight acoustic group for a set of jazz- and latin-tinged numbers is a neat trick, and demonstrated the versatility of Hart’s three collaborators. Baby Shot Me Down worked exceptionally well here.
6. If you’re going to sling your guitar as low as Jon Nichols, you better have long arms. I’ve seen guitarist sporting as many guitars as Jon did in a gig, but never one who played it somewhere around his knees. Quite something.
Simply put, this was a performance from Beth Hart and her band that will live long in the memory.
“A national treasure in your own back yard.” Jorma Kaukonen
Mary Flower is an amazing acoustic guitarist who specializes in Piedmont-style finger picking with dashes of Delta, ragtime and jazz. A finalist in the National Finger Picking Guitar Championship, she is also a three-time nominee for a Blues Music Award and many times a Cascade Blues Association Muddy Award winner. Living Blues magazine said that she “Marries acoustic blues with touches of ragtime, folk, and jazz…the interplay is always interesting, often provocative, and sometimes breath-taking.”
She has eleven recordings and performs regularly in the United States and abroad, including appearances at the King Biscuit Blues festival, the Vancouver Folk Festival and Prairie Home Companion.
As well as her recording and song-writing, Mary Flower is a renowned guitar instructor, teaching at festivals and guitar camps, and hosts her own guitar camp, Blues in the Gorge, each year near Portland, Oregon. In addition, she has developed five instructional DVDs and been part of the Blues in Schools program.
With a great deal of care and creativity, she brings to life older blues and roots music, and composes songs that sound like they firmly belong in America’s great roots music tradition. She recently released her eleventh album, Livin’ With the Blues Again, a 12-song set that comprises instrumentals which showcase Mary’s guitar chops, blues and gospel songs and some Mary Flower originals. Down at the Crossroads got to chat to Mary about the album and her music.
Gary: I’ve been listening to your new album quite a lot over the last the last week or so. And I’ve really enjoyed it. I mean, it’s the blues, but it’s kind of uplifting as well. So I wondered if maybe you could tell us a little bit about it, how you decided what songs would go on it and maybe a bit about the recording process.
Mary Flower: Well, I have to tell you that this was a fairly quickly recorded CD and also I didn’t have a lot of time to plan. I know people who have spent a year to record an album and I found out maybe a month and a half, I’d say, before recording times that I was going to do it.
I was approached by the Little Village Foundation, which is…I call them angels. They find people that they want to record for them. And then they record the whole thing and do the artwork and pay for everything, and then give you CDs. I was extremely lucky to be chosen for this project. They recorded five albums about the same time and the release date for all five was the same. So we did a five act concert down at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, California.
Jim Pugh is a Hammond B3 player, who has played with a lot of groups, including with Robert Cray. And he decided to do something that would get him off the road and do something good for people. So he started the Little Village Foundation which is based somewhere in California. Anyway. So I had very little time compared to what a lot of people have when they do a project. I just kind of chose songs that I thought that I knew well enough to be able to pull off in the studio fairly well without having to think too hard – songs that I’ve been playing that I knew fairly well. I wrote a couple of extras before I went in and I did a couple of repeats from older albums.
For the recording process we had an engineer who’s a great guitar player. And mostly the other people on the recording are Little Village artists, except for Susie Thompson, who’s a friend of mine. And so it was people I’d never met or played with before. And they just kind of brought ’em in and the Sons of the Soul Revivers were phenomenal to work with. Three guys. And they didn’t have to even think about the parts. They knew exactly what to do and they sounded really, really good. They’re incredible. Anyway, it kind of all worked out.
Gary: I wanted to ask you about your singing, because I thought your singing on the album was very good. Clearly you’re known for your finger picking prowess – and the album is bookended by two lovely instrumentals. But do you have a preference between just playing guitar or playing and singing?
Mary Flower: Yes, I do. I would prefer…well, let’s put it in terms of songwriting. Would I rather write an instrumental or lyrics? l’d certainly rather be more guitar centric than being called the singer songwriter. Writing songs is a really difficult process for me lyrically. And, you know, I can sing or not sing, but I’m happy to not be singing if that’s an option. And I love writing instrumentals. I’m passionate about that. Particularly writing instrumentals that sound like an old song. Piedmont style blues or something.
Gary: But take Living with the Blues Again, which is a Mary Flower original. When you talk about, you know, struggling maybe with writing lyrics, I just thought the lyrics on that were very strong. And some were quite amusing. And then you have “this old country’s in a terrible mass, there’s lying and cheating, hitting and tweeting…No more kindness, my friend.” Which sounded to me awfully like a comment on your tweeter-in-chief.
Mary Flower: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, what else could it be? It was definitely a political connotation. I’m not really a political performer or someone that talks a lot about politics. But I did find that that fit in well to that song. But my audience is not going to be insulted by that – they’re pretty much in agreement, I think. But yeah. That was exactly what that was all about. And I thought it was a very gentle way to say something. You know, as opposed to some people who are just…have more guts than I have!
Gary: I thought that was nicely done in the song and so, you know, I think your lyric writing on that one came through pretty well. It kind of reminded me of a Chris Smither, song in some ways, because he’s quite clever with his lyrics as well.
Mary Flower: Yeah. Well, he’s a real lyricist. But I just find it difficult to get inspiration. If I go to a retreat where I have nothing to do but write, I can write a song! But daily life – there’s so much to do. I get distracted. and I always have to be dragged away from my house, far away from civilization to write! But I can do it when forced to!
Gary: And there are some very cheerful spots on the album. There’s A Bright Side Somewhere, which is an old gospel song, which has been done by all sorts of people. I discovered recently another nice version of that by Ry Cooder.
Mary Flower: Oh I didn’t know he did it.
Gary: Yeah, but yours is a great version. And then River of Joy. Both seem to me to be quite hopeful or inspirational songs at a time when there’s a lot of pessimism around, you know, you say “the world’s all rough and tumble, There’s a great unrest” and so on. How important are those sort of songs, those kind of upbeat songs, in times like these?
Mary Flower: I think they’re critical. I have some hope because it’s gotta turn. It’s worse than it’s ever been, but it’s gonna turn around. And I think people like being hopeful. River of Joy is one of the two songs that I had previously recorded. I had written that after 9/11 – it was my response to that. So it kind of felt like it was time to do it one more time. I’m not a religious person, but gospel music is quite moving to me. I just feel like it lifts me up.
Gary: It’s such a big part of American roots music isn’t it?
Mary Flower: Yes, it’s huge. I’m a big fan of good gospel music. And that song Bright Side I thought was a Reverend Gary Davis song until I realized it’s an old Methodist hymn. And the guys that I sang with knew it quite differently. And they kind of had to relearn the structure of the song. Everybody’s got their version of it.
Gary: So, let me ask you a little bit about your guitar playing. Obviously, you’re very skilled. You’ve been a finalist in prestigious competitions and so on. And so how did you get so good, Mary? Were you self-taught? Did you have teachers? How did you get to the skill level you have?
Mary Flower: I am completely self-taught. I grew up in a small town where nobody played guitar. And, you know, it was during what we call the folk scene of the 60s, late 60s, and all I heard were the commercial renderings from people. I didn’t really understand the roots of the music until I went to school at Indiana University, which has probably the greatest ever ethno-musicology school in the country.
And a lot of musicians came there and, as I began to dig a little bit deeper, I realized that some of the Peter, Paul and Mary songs, were written by Reverend Gary Davis. I started hearing the roots. And as I got older, I began to delve into the people who played the early country blues and early Piedmont style blues. Then I met John Cephas, who is one of my heroes. And John Jackson, two Piedmont style players. I spent time with both of them, not really learning from them, but playing with them, you know? And as I went around to these guitar camps, which were really fun, I learned. I mean, I watched other people. I watched how they taught. I watched how they play. And that really helped me in the beginning. And then I kind of found my own way.
But I try to not copy. I mean, unless I decide I’m going to do a note for note version of somebody’s song. I try to kind of use their style in a way with my own playing, with my own writing. And I turn it around a little bit. I try to never steal. I mean, you won’t hear me sound too much like Robert Johnson, although I could if I wanted to. Plenty of people that do that. I try to make it my own, I guess.
Gary: So how do you do you do that? When you’ve identified a song that you think that might work for Mary Flower, how do you go about the rearranging, reinterpreting?
Mary Flower: I try to be true to the form and perhaps play it in a different key, make my own arrangement. But keep it recognizable. I don’t want to take it too far away from where a song was written. But probably the hardest thing for me is if I’m learning a song that was recorded by a man. Many times I can’t sing those lyrics or I can’t sing it in the key that they recorded. So, I’ve got to make some changes. All of that can be a bit of a struggle. It’s really hard to take a song and make it mine if it’s written by a guy. And so many times it is.
Gary: Do you ever change lyrics then so you can sing it?
Mary Flower: Yes, I have been known to do that! If I were doing a Robert Johnson song, I can’t sing, “I’ll beat my woman until I’m satisfied.” So yes. I’ve been known to change a bit here and there.
The other problem is understanding lyrics from the recording. That can be super hard and I get really frustrated. You’d think this song must have lyrics on the internet. Wrong! Because they couldn’t understand the lyrics either! So, yes, it can be really hard to find the correct interpretation of the song.
Gary: A good example of that is Blind Willie Johnson’s Latter Rain. Because if you go and look for the lyrics of that, you’ll find all sorts of strange things because Johnson was a Pentecostal and there’s a bit of Pentecostal theology that read a text in the Old Testament about the “latter rain” falling on the crops which they took to refer to the Spirit falling in the last days. So that’s what the song’s about, because Johnson’s Pentecostal movement felt that they were in the days of the latter rain of the Spirit coming down. But unless you understand that you would misinterpret what Johnson is singing, which sometimes can be difficult. So that’s a prime example of a prime example of what you’re saying.
Mary Flower: Yeah. And there are so many dialects as well. In the Southern States, it’s really hard to understand those guys so much of the time. Another positive point for writing my own!
Gary: So if someone was starting out on a journey wanting to play acoustic blues guitar, people who come to your to your workshops and so on – who would you advise them to listen to?
Mary Flower: Well, I would say Blind Blake, because he is the top of the heap as far as I’m concerned. I know maybe seven people who can imitate him well, who can play just where he’s playing. But if I want a gentler approach, I would start with Mississippi John Hurt, whom everybody loved because he was a sweetheart. Although his songs sound easy, they’re not really, but they’re a good place to learn. And I’d also say Elizabeth Cotton, who also had a gentler approach. And, you know, she wrote Freight Train, which is very cool.
These guys teach you pattern picking, and how to incorporate a melody. But when people try to learn syncopation, that’s what throws everybody. It’s so complex. And really the guys who play that are really imitating a piano, and it’s easier to play syncopation on a piano than it is to play it on a guitar. So that’s what tends to throw people.
That’s kind of what I spend a lot of time teaching in these workshops because a simple melody isn’t very interesting. People have to learn to vary it from measure to measure. But John Hurt, he is a great place to start.
Gary: Very good. Who then are the guitarists that you like to listen to these days?
Mary Flower: Well, I don’t do a lot of listening, and I’ll tell you why. I hear music all the time. I mean, I had a four-hour rehearsal yesterday with my little string band! But of course, Ry Cooder. And then some of my friends who are not maybe nationally known or internationally known. Pat Donahue is one of my favourite players of all time.
I still hear people say to me, “You know what, you’re so good. Why have we never heard of you?” That’s why I get on tour. And Pat’s another one of those. Even though he was on Prairie Home companion for years and had millions of people listening to him every week. And then there’s Paul Geremiah whom I knew. Sadly, he’s had a stroke and I don’t think he can play anymore right now. But he was the best of the best when he was touring. These are some of the top, top guys. Oh, and John Cephas and John Jackson I guess I should put it in that category, as far as heroes of mine go.
Gary: So let me ask you a little bit about the blues. You’ve been nominated for Blues Music Awards, and a lot of your music revolves around the blues. What is it that attracts you to this music, Mary?
Mary Flower: Well, there’s so many different kinds of blues. The Chicago style was mostly electric, and I’m not really interested in that. I’m interested in the Piedmont style because it is complex and challenging. And oddly enough, it was played mostly by blind men. Go figure on that one! They were phenomenal. But I don’t know – it speaks to me, it’s got an edge to it. And I can write songs that work in that genre. I mean, I can write folk songs if I need to. But I really like the challenge of trying to make it sound like it’s an older song.
Gary: This is music that’s been around for a long time, that does seem to have an enduring appeal. Generation after generation discovers something fresh in it and it seems to have that continual attraction and pull.
Mary Flower: And I also think that the people who are really good at it have been working all their lives toward getting it right. That to me is worth a lot right there. Let’s put it this way – there are not a lot of jerks playing this kind of music! If they are, they don’t last. They are people who are putting their best foot forward and being true to the to the genre.
Take John Jackson, the Piedmont style player from Virginia, who is no longer around, and was probably the closest thing to John Hurt. He lived a fabulous life. And I think everybody was so touched by him. He just had a halo around his head! He played this music and spoke with an accent that nobody could quite understand. But he was such a great guy. And that really appeals to me and speaks for something.
Gary: Yes, that’s very interesting that you say that, because over the last two, three years I’ve talked to quite a lot of blues musicians…like Eric Bibb, Chris Smither, Rory Block,Hans Theessink, Luther Dickinson and quite a few others. And they’ve been generous with their time in talking to me and never critical of other people. So, yes, I think you’re right to say that. [when you’re finished here, check out the interviews by clicking the link]
Mary Flower: Oh, by the way, I’ve invited Eric to teach at my camp next year, and we’ve had Michael Jerome Brown in the past. He’s a wonderful player.
Gary: Yes, he’s a fantastic player. I saw him touring with Eric Bibb in the last year. And he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the blues and blues history.
Mary Flower: Yes, he taught at my camp and made a big impression a couple of years ago. So hopefully we’ll get Eric Bibb next year. And it look like we might have Jim Kweskin for the jug band-y stuff. Anyway, that would be quite a year if I can get who I want.
Gary: So tell us about your teaching, Mary, because I know that’s a big part of what you do.
Mary Flower: Well, I have my own guitar camp that happens here in early October. And it’s been hugely successful. We’re going on our seventh year, I think. And I bring in three nationally known people, and then get 50 students. So teaching is something I love to do. And it also balances me out. I don’t have to be on the road all the time. And I teach at other people’s guitar camps as well.
My camp is called Blues in the Gorge and it’s in the Columbia River Gorge at a place called Menucha. There’s something on my home page of my website about the dates for next year, which is early October. [check it out here] It’s 5 days – three intense days. And it’s a lot of fun. Everybody who comes is gracious. A lot of these camps turn into party camps, but that’s not what this is. People take it seriously and a lot of really great, great people show up for it.
Gary: That sounds fabulous and a lot of fun. Mary, it’s been lovely talking to you. Thanks so much for your time.
“I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.”
As the credits rolled at the end of Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet, I found my eyes welling up, moved by the depiction of this powerful woman, whose determination and heroic action had helped expose slavery for the pernicious evil that it is and rescue hundreds of black women, men and children from the slave-owning South.
Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Tubman is masterful, giving you a ready sense of the doughty, fearless character of the woman who not only escaped herself from the Maryland farm where she was enslaved, but then returned again and again, as a conductor on the Underground Railway, to free others. “Slavery,” Tubman said, “is the next thing to hell,” but vowed that “I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.”
In a recent interview Lemmons made no apology for highlighting Harriet Tubman’s faith and her sense of God’s guidance in the movie. She spoke of “consulting with God,” during her perilous expeditions south and trusted that God would keep her safe. Fellow abolitionist Thomas Garrett said of her, “I never met any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God.”
Black theologian James Cone noted that black slaves were not passive – they resisted the bondage they suffered in a whole range of ways. One of these was the sort of religion they developed. The Christianity embraced by many blacks in slavery was not just that of their masters. The idea of Christianity that black slaves embraced was one where freedom and liberation was vigorously affirmed and one where black humanity was affirmed, despite everything that slavery and white people said.
So black people shouted and prayed, preached and sang about a God who was not confined to the powerful and the free. A God who was for them and loved them and who was their source of strength and dignity in the midst of the trials and hardships of life. A God to whom they looked for deliverance, not just when this life was over, but right now, from the torment of slavery.
The movie also features Tubman using Spirituals to communicate with other slaves in her rescue missions. Coded songs contained words giving directions on how to escape also known as signal songs or where to meet known as map songs. She used “Wade in the Water” to tell slaves to get into the water to avoid being seen and make it through. This is an example of a map song, where directions are coded into the lyrics. “Steal away” meant to sneak into the woods for a secret slave meeting and “Swing low, Sweet Chariot” was used by slaves looking over the Ohio river – “I looked over Jordan and what did I see?” where the chariot was the means of transport northward. I’d read about this before, but as I watched the movie, I began to see how it really could work.
The movie rips along at a thrilling pace, with the tension at times almost unbearable. It’s a great story, it makes for great cinema, with a focus on courage and liberation rather than the horror of slavery (not that this this atrocity and blight on American history is glossed over). It really is a travesty that this is the first significant movie to be made about Harriet Tubman. But then, she has rarely been accorded the recognition she is due. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a nurse, laundress, and spy with Union forces along the coast of South Carolina and was one of the few American women to lead an armed assault – yet despite numerous honours, she spent her last years in poverty.
Most of all, Harriet is a tribute to a remarkable woman, a true American hero. When asked by a BBC interviewer what had happened to the Harriet Tubman $20 bill, Lemmons said simply, “Trump happened,” but went on to express confidence that Harriet would be celebrated in this way in due course. Let’s hope Harriet helps keep the pressure on the US Treasury.
You expect a new Keb’ Mo’ album to deliver the goods. For the last 25 years, he’s been releasing high quality blues and roots albums. Oklahoma, even by Mo’s standards is top notch – and surely puts him in line for another Grammy award. Produced by Mo’ and Colin Linden, who plays electric guitar alongside Mo’s resonator on several tracks, the album not only delivers the characteristic laid-back Mo’ sound, but engages with a number of current issues including environmentalism, mental health and immigration.
Mo’ is joined by some formidable musical collaborators, including his wife, Robbie Brooks Moore, Robert Randolph, Taj Mahal, Jaci Velasquez, Rosanne Cash, and Andy Leftwich. All-in-all it’s a wonderfully enjoyable album, seasoned with accomplished musicianship and thought-provoking lyrics.
In 2018, Mo’ produced and performed on Ana Popovic’s I Like It On Top, perhaps her best album, [catch our interview with Ana here] which appealed for equality for women, and now on Oklahoma, he continues to be a spokesperson for the cause with Put A Woman In Charge. It’s a catchy number, enhanced by Rosanne Cash’s vocals, where the efforts of men have left us “standing on the brink of disaster.” That being the case, Mo’ says,
“We’ve got to turn this world around
Call the mothers
Call the daughters
We need the sisters of mercy now.”
It’s time, he says, “to put a woman in charge.”
Now, in case you think this is all some sort of feminist plot, research shows that when more women work, economies grow. Women’s economic empowerment boosts productivity, increases economic diversification and income equality in addition to other positive development outcomes. Increasing the female employment rates in OECD countries to match that of Sweden, could boost their GDP by over $6 trillion.
A report last year from McKinsey and Company said that women’s economic equality is good for business. Companies greatly benefit from increasing employment and leadership opportunities for women, which is shown to increase organizational effectiveness and growth. It is estimated that companies with three or more women in senior management positions score higher in all dimensions of organizational performance.
Interestingly, a study by global consulting firm Hay Group found that women outperform men in 11 of 12 key emotional intelligence competencies and said that “If more men acted like women in employing their emotional and social competencies, they would be substantially and distinctly more effective in their work.” And then there’s some research by the Pew Research Center saying that 34% of American workers say that women have an edge over men when it comes to being honest and ethical, while just 3% believe men are better.
The positive effects of favouring women become very pronounced when we consider developing countries, where traditionally girls are not well educated, are forced to marry young and are restricted from reaching their potential. Investing in the education of girls has been shown to bring high returns in terms of breaking cycles of poverty and aiding economic growth. Importantly, it also improves children’s and women’s survival rates and health, delays child marriage and early pregnancies, empowers women both in the home and the workplace, and helps tackle climate change. Girls’ education also has a transformative effect on health, which can be passed on through generations. Every additional year of school a girl completes cuts rates of infant mortality – the death of children under one year – dramatically.
These benefits to individuals and communities by educating girls and promoting the equality of women are well documented. Yet still:
Around the world 130m girls who ought to be in school are prevented from attending
15m girls will never get to attend school
Globally, over 2.7 billion women are legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men.
Of 189 economies assessed in 2018, 104 economies still have laws preventing women from working in specific jobs,
59 economies have no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace
In 18 economies, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.
And at present, fewer than 20% of the world’s heads of state, prime ministers and government ministers are women. Despite recent improvements in women’s political representation, they still occupy fewer than 25% of national parliamentary seats worldwide.
Here’s what’s happening in a world run by men:
There are more than 40 wars going on, causing untold misery to millions. (New Humanitarian)
Some 820m people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. (about one in nine people), with millions of children not getting the nutrition they need. Most of these are in developing countries, where 12.9% of the population is undernourished.
An inadequate response to climate change has led to rising seas and coastal flooding, disasters due to extreme weather, destruction of marine ecosystems, severe drought, affecting poor people disproportionately and much more.
Excluding women from education, the workplace and government hasn’t done us any favours. So yeah, as Keb’ Mo’ says, maybe it’s time we “put the women in charge.”