Interview: Eric Bibb on his love letter to America

Credit: Michael Wall

The spirit of the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement mixed with roots music with a modern worldview.

While Eric Bibb is a modern performer, he also has personal links to the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement and the ‘60s folk scene in New York. As a child, visitors to his parent’s home included Pete Seeger, his father had a TV talent show which included Mile Davis’ bassist Ron Carter in the house band as well as a nervous 16 year Eric Bibb on guitar, and if that wasn’t enough, Paul Robeson was his godfather. As a musician,  Bibb moved around Europe before settling in Sweden, though he has maintained close contact with his American friends and colleagues. His career as a recording artist was kick-started in the UK when he supported Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the height of their UK success. He has just released a new album ‘Dear America’ which, while a protest album, is also a something of a love letter to his country of birth. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Eric Bibb at his home in Sweden over Zoom to discuss his new album and the contribution British musician and producer Glen Scott made to the recording, he shared his influences and discussed how and why he does not see himself as simply a blues artist. Unsurprisingly, the recent murder of George Floyd was discussed and Eric Bibb reflects on the lack of progress made in race relations since the breakthroughs of the ‘60s.

How are you?

Living, haha. I’ve lived in a lot of places, but I have lived in Sweden for most of my adult life. I lived in England for quite a few years, I’ve lived in France, I’ve lived in Finland. Aside from growing up in the states, and five years in the ‘80s, I’ve lived abroad. It has been a journey, and it has been good for me to get some distance from the whole American experience, haha.

America has been in the news a lot this year and not for the best reasons. Do you still agree with the ultimately positive sentiments of your new record,  ‘Dear America’?

I don’t know at what point I basically made a conscious decision to stay hopeful despite all that has been going on, and is going on. It was definitely a conscious decision, it is true there is much to be despondent about, but I believe there is much to be hopeful about. I have had the chance to put some distance between myself and the negative aspects of the American experience, and I have had the chance to really become appreciative of the miracle of life itself. I am surrounded by a wonderful natural world here in Sweden, I don’t live in Stockholm anymore we live in the countryside. I just decided I was going to lean on that part of my experience and stay hopeful, because what I have experienced and what our generation has experience is challenging, to say the least, particularly in recent times. Other generations have also been through hell and have come back. I look at our forebears with great admiration for what they have endured and managed to accomplish despite all kinds of obstacles. I don’t see any point in leaning too far into the despondent pit.

Was ‘Emmitt’s Ghost’  the lead single from the new record? That is such a loaded subject, weren’t you afraid to tackle it again?

The first one was ‘Whole World Has Got The Blues’, and then came ‘Born Of A Woman’ and then it was ‘Emmitt’s Ghost’. It is true that the story is not just made up because the Emmitt part is pure history, but my experience as I describe it in that song, I discovered the story of Emmitt’s Ghost, Emmitt Till, when I was quite young, and it really shook me up, to say the least. I was reminded of it not so long ago, and that’s where that song came from. That whole event, the lynching of Emmitt Till in 1955, really sparked and energised the civil rights movement in a big way because of Emmitt’s mother’s decision to have this open casket that was shown to the world as evidence of the stark brutality used against African Americans. I think it really galvanised the civil rights movement in a very significant way.

As a child, you were a witness to that movement, weren’t you?

Yes, my parents were active, and because of that the whole issue of discrimination and segregation, and justice was all about, it was in the air and in the home. It was always around and it was never a burden, it was just a fact of life.

Music was a key part of the protest movement of the ‘60s, it would be interesting to hear what you think about the current level of protest music, given what America is going through.

If you look at what happened around the George Floyd murder, what I found was really significant and encouraging was the fact that not only was the Black Lives Matter movement in full swing, but it garnered the attention of the world and it got young people, who were not African Americans, around the world engaged in the whole issue, at least in the direct aftermath of the Floyd murder. I hope by sharing songs like ‘Emmitt’s Ghost’ and other material on ‘Dear America’, that the conversation will be kept current and active, and will be deepened and spread. I’m hoping it was not just a flash in the pan because it was such a dramatic story, I’m hoping that people finally realise, who hadn’t realised before, that this is something that we really have to go to the bottom of and finally come out with some progress, real progress. I don’t mean simply legislative advances because you can change laws but you can’t necessarily by doing that change people’s attitudes.

What was shocking around the Floyd murder and around what has followed, for example, was there is a moment, a current push-back against updating the curriculum in American schools to include the truth about its racial disfunction, and it seems to be a real push-back in some areas when it comes to letting young people know what the real history is. I don’t know if you have followed it, but I have seen some things on the news that were astounding in just how people can continue to deny, and sweep under the carpet. It is just facts that are important for people to take on board and be familiar with if we are to make some kind of real change in people’s consciousness about the whole thing of black and white, and the fallacy and myth of race. I call it the myth because the human race is made up of people having different skin tones, but we are not talking about different races. That is the fallacy that was perpetrated around the time of the beginning of slavery to justify the exploitation of a whole flock of people. I just think we are in a time when it is either going to be that tipping point where people realise, “Hey, we are not going to get past this. We are not going to be able to ignore this and have peace in our hearts.”. It is as uncomfortable as hell to look at this face on, not only for people like me, African Americans, but everybody but this uncomfortableness is preferable to how really uncomfortable it is going to get if we ignore it, haha.

I think quite a few people have been surprised by how bad race relations still are today in America. After the ‘60s the assumption was that things would just get better. In the UK, people are beginning to realise the extent of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, and how much of the money from those times is still in the UK economy. A lot of the large corporations and historically wealthy families got a boost from the slave trade.

This is the thing that is not widely understood, and it needs to be because there are reasons why there is systematic racism in the UK, in the United States, particularly in the countries that were actively involved in the slave trade. The whole premise, that whole fallacy of white supremacy, has basically become an accepted attitude, a pre-disposition, that is so embedded in the culture that it is hard to really see it for what it is, and where it comes from. The only way to do that, I think, is as you say is to understand the history, I think that is the key and we really have to look at what the facts are. We need to face the fact that so much of the well-to-do part of society, whether it is here in Sweden, or in the UK or the United States, has so much to do with an incredibly brutal history and exploitation.

I mentioned Sweden because it is not generally well known, but I discovered through research, that a lot of the hardware of slavery, the shackles, the chains, that were used during the period actually had a connection to Swedish iron and steel. There was quite a lot of importation of material from here that really aided and abetted the whole process. Wealthy families who are considered the top of societies can often trace their wealth to trading in various nefarious endeavours. We are moving fast, we have all this new technology to distract us, and it is alarming how many intelligent young people are really not that aware of what is still fairly recent history. It is easy to just fill your world up with new-fangled contraptions, smartphones, but the fact is even those smartphones are a continuation of that same exploitation. How do we get the material for these phones, exploiting young people on the African continent? By rights, there should be a mass boycott.

That isn’t going to happen though, is it?

We all use this material, and we make our peace with it one way and another, but there you have it.

When, where and how did you record ‘Dear America’ and how did you persuade all your guest stars to join you?

A lot of what I end up releasing on an album starts actually at home. I write at home, and often the beginning of a track could be recorded at home. The technology is here, I may ask my sound guy to come over with his portable rig because I’m not really a techie guy and I don’t have a home studio as such. I’ve even started songs by recording voice memos on my phone, and then sending them to my producer. It then just blossoms from there, we will go to studios and we went to New York, to a great studio in Brooklyn, to record quite a few tracks with featured guests. I make use of all of the available ways that you can record and send files overseas. We had some wonderful live sessions in New York that were the core of some of the key tunes.

I’ve been dying to ask you, what was it like working with Ron Carter?

Ron Carter is what we call the Emperor of the upright bass, and it is funny because it was a full-circle experience with Ron. My dad had his own television show in the mid to late ‘60s called ‘Someone New’ on NBC TV in New York, and it was a talent show showcasing young people. I remember my dad asked me to be, at the age of 16, the guitarist in the house band, he just threw me in at the deep end. He said you said you wanted to be a musician, get a union card and try this out. I’d been playing guitar for some time so I had rudimentary skills and I could read a chart, but I was nowhere near ready for that kind of job but I managed and part of the original house band included Ron Carter. So I actually played with Ron Carter as a youngster, and I have followed his wonderful career through the Miles Davis era and beyond. When we realised we wanted to have a number of featured guests, including a bass player of his calibre, he was on the short-list and his people responded, and the next thing we know we are in the studio with Ron Carter. I’m so blessed to have had, already at a young age, the opportunity to rub shoulders with, and sometimes play with, really amazing musicians because of my dad’s career. I met most of my biggest heroes and even collaborated with quite a few of them. Ron is coming to Stockholm in a few weeks and I’m hoping to hook up with him. It was just a wonderful experience to be able to remember him from that time.

You also have Shaneeka Simon, who is a powerful singer with echoes of Mavis Staples to my ears.

Shaneeka is one of the most gifted singers I have worked with. She is the epitome of that soulful church-raised type of singing and a lovely person. I’m hoping people discover her and her own projects really take off in the near future. It is funny you mention Mavis because she is one of the people I had a chance to record with. I recorded with her and her dad back in 1997, in Chicago, and it was my first big album and I was signed to a Warner Brothers sub-label called Code Blue, which was started by veteran English producer Mike Vernon. Mike was the one who said, “Eric, we got this deal and we are going to make this record with you, what is your dream?”, I said I would love to meet and record with Pops Staples. He was like, “Interesting you say that, I have a connection to him, it’s worth a phone call, don’t you think?”. We got in touch with Pops Staples, he decided yeah I’ll come on board I like the song. I was waiting expectantly at the top of the stairs of the studio in Chicago, Mike and I had flown in with 2” tapes, and I hear multiple voices coming up the steps, and then I see Mavis and her sister Yvonne and I said to Pops “You brought Mavis.” And he said “I want to be hip, don’t I?”, haha. The album ‘Me To You’  features Pops Staples, and also Mavis, on the track ‘Something Much Great’, and I’ve met her since. The last time I think was a gig in Stockholm that she was playing, I also saw her in Sidney, Australia. We have had some contact, yeah. She is the pinnacle of that whole type of using the whole gospel tradition in a secular way, to put out a message, she is the Queen of that.

Credit: Michael Wall
You are classified as a blues performer. Do you agree with that?

That is a good question because it has given me a lot of pause for thought, trying to figuring out how to brand myself. I realised that as enamoured as I am, and have always been, with the country blues idiom, and as much as it has been an influence in my writing, playing etc, I’m really a pretty eclectic musician with a lot of influences. I understood as a songwriter as well that it was important to somehow let people know what my roots were, I include myself in that acoustic blues tribe that people like Taj Mahal pioneered followed by people like Keb’ Mo etc. I didn’t really want to be stuck in blues prison, so as a songwriter I started describing myself as basically a bluesy troubadour. I wanted people to know I wrote other kinds of songs, not just blues.

I grew up in the ‘60s, surrounded by amazing singer-songwriters who I got to see and hear real up close, including Joni Mitchell, Jerry Jeff Walker, Richie Havens, all of those kinds of people and later people like Guy Clark, who I had a chance to hang out with in Nashville. My influences are James Taylor, The Beatles, Stax, Ray Charles, all of that is in the mix as well as an exposure to classical and Jazz. It was difficult for me to jump on the blues wagon in the sense that I knew there was a risk that I would be pigeon-holed there and I made an effort in interviews to tell people that. I have a lot of work in the blues genre with blues festivals, and I think if I hadn’t marketed myself as an acoustic blues guitarist and singer I probably would have forfeited a lot of opportunities to just gig. I would never think of myself as just a blues musician exclusively because while it is there big time, gospel, older spirituals, work songs, Woody Guthrie was a big influence, and all of that stuff from my folkie days in the ‘60s is there, Caribbean stuff as well, and in later years I really explored music from West Africa and collaborated with several musicians I just adored, kora players etc. It is all in the mix.

How do you balance your guitar playing, do you play for the song or are the songs just there for you to play guitar?

They are kind of inseparable. People normally want to know about songwriting, what comes first the lyrics or the melody, and the acoustic guitar I count as one of my dearest friends since the age of 7. Most often, 90% of the time, a song will start with either an idea I have written down and I then pursue by taking up my guitar and waiting until something comes along that intrigues me musically, and it fits the mood or the type of lyric I am going to focus on. I know pretty quickly from the title whether it is going to be a folkie gospel song or whether it is going to be a straight-ahead country blues or a ragtime hokum song, after all these years I can pretty much zoom in. I know the language I’m going to use, and then the rest unfolds fairly easily. The guitar is essential to my writing. I’m a rudimentary piano player, I’ve taken some lessons and I wish I had been more diligent with my homework. Maybe that is something I will still get to in this life. I’ve written some songs at the piano but I would say 98% of my songs are written on the guitar.

There is a big debate around streaming and music royalties. What is your view on streaming from an artist’s perspective?

That whole issue has been a confounding subject. I don’t really know how it all came about so quickly, I don’t know how we changed from being able to buy CDs to basically having a hard time finding a CD player in a store these days, because nobody is doing that anymore. Everybody is Bluetoothing and streaming, blah, blah, blah. I can only trust that there are enough musicians and musician-friendly people, who are awake enough to figure out how to get musicians paid. I was alarmed with so many of my colleagues when this whole business of music should be free gathered credence with listeners, that is the most obscene idea because bakers don’t stand on the corner giving their bread away, they need the money because of the flour costs, labour costs, electricity costs. Music doesn’t come out of the air, people spend long hours learning how to play an instrument, learning how to write songs, and finally getting to a point where they can create a product they can share.

The idea that so many younger people have grown up with the view that music should be free from their telephones is just obscene. I’m hoping we catch up, and there have been patterns of exploitation in the music industry for so long, and it has continued. I think the streaming platforms have not figured out how to get musicians paid properly, and I  think somebody is making more money than they should, as it has always been. The pie is not being divided in an equitable way yet. I’m happy I have worked with some wonderful people, the current label is run by a group of people I have faith in. My former label in France, Dixie Frog, was run by a champion of musicians and music, a real saint. I haven’t been so hard done by, but I can tell you I have many colleagues who feel there is still an incredible imbalance in the industry. People are getting smarter and more aware about this, and I think we will eventually get there. I wish I knew where the idea that musicians just live on air came from, their charm and all that, haha.

What are your plans for the rest of the year and, more importantly, 2022?

The COVID thing has put a big monkey wrench in the gear, but I did have a big tour planned for Australia, and I’ve been to Australia many times, and it is a nice place to tour and I have many loyal fans there. March was set for a return to that area, but it has since been cancelled, and I’ve kind of decided for safety reasons, I was not going to tour this year at all. That seems like the prudent decision now because whenever we seem to be ready to get back to something like normality, something new happens and new restrictions come along. I know many of my friends in the States started to tour again. I’m a little leery about how that is going to work out, I have a feeling it is kind of premature. I know I don’t necessarily look my age perhaps, but 25 years on the road takes its toll, and the risk that COVID has brought about has given me the chance to re-evaluate what my priorities are. I love making music, I love performing, I love performing in front of people, but I don’t miss hauling three guitars around the world from hotel to soundcheck. I’ve had a chance to stay at home, grow some potatoes, write more songs and even stay in touch with my fanbase through my  Patreon Page. This technology that I sometimes diss, has actually afforded me a wonderful opportunity to not only stay in touch with my fans but to keep playing and singing despite the fact I am not gigging. My fingers still work, I can still sing, I enjoy writing and sharing new songs even though I’m not touring. This opportunity to really take a look at what I’ve been doing and what I really want to prioritise going forward has been a blessing.

That is life, where even the very bad things also bring opportunities.

Exactly, a silver lining. For me, as a songwriter, I have probably been able to carry on paying bills as I get songwriting royalties on a regular basis, thankfully, that have kept me going. The streaming thing has been good for me as I have been teaching online a bit. I realised that there is another way to stay active as a musician without wearing myself out.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which 3 artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

It is funny, I don’t really spend a lot of time listening to newer music unless someone has really pulled my attention to it, because I am really spending a lot of time getting to know my own songs that I have forgotten, and this Patreon Page has been the impetus to do that. I need to post a mini-concert every week, which means that I have to go back into my catalogue, relearn songs and even remember that some even exist, but I certainly need to relearn how to play a lot of songs that have not been on recent sets. Having to find new material every week has been great, because I have a lot of songs in the back catalogue, and it has been nice to be reconnected with them. I have been listening to Eric Gales, he is a wonderful guitar player and somebody I had the chance to meet on Joe Bonamassa’s Blues Cruise, and it was the first time I had the chance to get close to his music. I was just awestruck by everything. Otherwise, I have actually spent time picking out my old favourite albums, I have just listened to an Antonio Jobim album from 1973 that I used to listen to a lot. I took a break from listening to my own material I’ve been working on, and that is what I often do, listening to my most recent compositions that I’m going to record. Spotify is OK for finding relaxing classical music, I don’t have to go searching for CDs, I just dial in somebody who I like, or a playlist that sounds good with cool cello music, haha. I’d like to be more familiar with younger artists because I know there are some wonderful new people coming along, but I just haven’t had the time to really check it out. I usually count on friends to send me a link, haha.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

I just want to say I am grateful to all of my fans in the UK who basically were the beginning of me feeling like I was a successful musician. Prior to my touring in the UK, and this is not that long ago, in 1996 I had to take on other jobs, I had a wonderful experience teaching for five years in the Stockholm region and we created a children’s choir. We toured and played for Mandela and played on the floor of Parliament, that was a great experience and it was one of those jobs that didn’t involve having to do something outside the music realm. It had been a struggle working in small clubs, and I’d been writing with some people in New York thanks to a connection to a publishing company, and that is the way I got in touch with Mike Vernon, and his partner Alan Robertson who became my first manager. The day after I appeared at the London Blues Festival I had an English manager, and soon after that, I started touring the UK. Not only that, I got on board as the opening act for Ladysmith Black Mambazo and overnight, because of that sold-out tour, I inherited half of their fanbase. I have much to be grateful for when it comes to UK music lovers. I hope one of the few places I will definitely prioritise returning to is the UK. I’m going to prefer smaller venues, I’ve discovered I really like being fairly close to my audience. It is not the most lucrative way to tour, haha, but it is the most fun.

I also just want to say thanks formally to a UK producer who I have been working with, and continued to work with on the new album, called Glen Scott. He was born and raised in London of Jamaican parents, and he is one of the most gifted multi-instrumentalists, singers, arrangers, producers, sound engineers, all in one. Quite a few musicians have had the opportunity to work with somebody over a long period, and just keep developing a beautiful relationship and this is just one example. I want people to know about Glen Scott, and that is also a UK connection. I did live in Barnes, London, for quite a while because my children went to the Swedish School in Barnes, and I couldn’t afford to live there but I did anyway, haha. I also lived in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and it was a beautiful time. I have so much to say about good times in the UK.

Eric Bibb’s ‘Dear American’ is available now on Provogue Records.

About Martin Johnson 378 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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