Following in the footsteps of Taj Mahal making the blues a relevant contemporary art form.
Contemporary bluesman Eric Bibb may be 72 this year but this is not reflected in his recent work rate, releasing an album ‘Ridin’’ that is a career-high just eighteen months after the critically acclaimed ‘Dear America’. He is supporting ‘Ridin’’ with one of the most intensive tours of his career, taking in Australia, France, the UK and Ireland. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Eric Bibb in Australia over Zoom to discuss ‘Ridin’’ and Eric shared his views on the appropriateness of Black History Month. It is clear that Eric Bibb is still fired up about the historical and current-day black experience but is also ultimately hopeful about American society becoming unified. He shares how you get artists of the calibre of Taj Mahal, Rolling Stone drummer Steve Jordon, and jazz guitarist Russell Malone to guest on your records. He explains in detail the significance of Taj Mahal as an artist, and how he has had a profound influence on his own music. While he may be working as hard now as he ever has, he shares the fact that his current tour will be his last though he still expects to play select and appropriate gigs in the future. Finally, he also explains how he manages to remain so youthful looking, he simply wears a hat and shaves very regularly.
How are you, and how is Australia?
It has been brilliant, just brilliant, it has been a dream tour. We had our first gig on 1st February starting in Tasmania, so we have been here a while.
What have the audiences been like?
They have been dream audiences. They have been incredibly enthusiastic, and I don’t think I’ve met an audience like this before, and I say audience because they all have been equally exuberant.
Is ‘Ridin’’ a natural follow-up and continuation of ‘Dear America’?
I think you could say that, but it wasn’t a conscious sequel per se, but as it came out you can say it does really follow on, a continuation if you will.
How important was Eastman Johnson’s painting ‘A Ride For Liberty’ to you in your formative years, because it is part of the inspiration behind ‘Ridin’’?
It is but I didn’t become aware of that painting until fairly recently, so it wasn’t something I was familiar with from an earlier time. I don’t know how I came upon it, I can’t remember the sequence of events, but I found that painting so evocative, it put into real focus for me the idea of being a family, being a parent, being a husband, someone who was courageous enough in the middle of the American civil war to get on horseback with whatever you can carry and make your way, a ride for liberty, you know. Fraught with danger and all that, so for me, a very inspiring painting.
And you’ve linked it to the freedom riders of the ‘60s.
Absolutely. Again it is down to that moral courage, that faith if you will, that makes people, under those circumstances decide to risk their lives for something they believe in which is justice for all, equality, fairness and all that. So, when I realised there was a continuation of that kind of empathy where young students from Northern cities would find their way to the deeply segregated American South and risk their lives trying to help people become fully fledged American citizens. That takes a lot of courage.
What is the memory of the freedom riders in America like, is it beginning to fade?
That’s a good question, I don’t know first-hand because I don’t live in the States anymore, but from the books coming out and the movies coming out, I think there is an increased interest in that whole era because it is very relevant to recent events in the post-George Floyd era. I think people are beginning to discover that there is a huge motivation for reviewing the past in a more honest way, as a way of finding the path forward, you know.
How did Black History Month go down in America, because I believe you were involved with that?
To a degree, I live in Sweden so I wasn’t aware of a lot of the activity around Black History Month. For me, it is a bit of a double-edged thing, on the one hand, I am glad there is some focus on important stuff that people tend to marginalise and ignore, but on the other hand, I think it is pretty absurd to have a Black History Month when the history involves everybody. So, are you going to delete from the historical record of true stories of supposed black people, and then give them a month to dredge up an itinerary of achievements of black people, or are you finally going to understand that black history is American history, meaning all those people involved in that drama called slavery have their history, a collective history, it is not black history. So I’m encouraged there is interest, and maybe increase interest, in the history that involves the things we are talking about, I see that and I see the interest, but I think Black History Month needs to be abolished ultimately, it is an oxymoron, it doesn’t really make sense.
What has been the response to the track ‘The Ballad Of John Howard Griffin’?
It has been very positive, I think it was an unusual song to be released as a single, as it were. It is the kind of song that would have been more common in the ‘60s when you had songs like ‘The Eve Of Destruction’ with Barry McGuire, when you had topical songs that made it to the charts. So, I’m really happy the song ‘The Ballad Of John Howard Griffin’ has received a heap of kudos.
You worked again with Glen Scott on ‘Ridin’’, what are the dynamics of a relationship that keeps repeating itself?
It doesn’t repeat itself it just continues. I’ve known Glen for over twenty years and worked with him for all those years in an increasingly miraculous way, meaning the whole is more than the sum of the parts with the way we work. We seem to be on the same treatment seat not only with the musical choices but with the whole social psychology and spirituality of music and songwriting seems to be a place where we meet continually. So, it is virtually telepathic the way he will frame a song with my approval, he will suggest something I may never have thought of, but it will be just so right it will enhance the things I’m trying to say. It is a musical marriage made in heaven.
You seem to have an eclectic mix of musicians on the new record, you have a Rolling Stone and Taj Mahal on there, how did all that come about?
Well this isn’t really premeditated, a song gets almost ready and we then decide it needs another element to get it to fulfilment, as it was with that track with Taj, and then we decided we would add Jontavious Willis, this wonderful young bluesman from Georgia, who is the next generation on from me, it is like Taj, me, and then Jontavious, and it is kind of a blues lineage in action. On ‘The Ballad Of John Howard Griffin’ we knew we wanted a certain style of guitar playing, and Glenn who has no fear of heights, asked in a perfect world who would I call regardless of where ever they are or whatever they cost. And I would say, Russell Malone or George Benson, and we had a contact through to Russell Malone through Ron Carter, who I know, and it happened a lot easier than I thought it would. It just unfolded like it had to happen, and I’m so happy with that collaboration because he is a musician I never dreamt I would play with.
How much of an influence has Taj been on your career and how many barriers do you think Taj helped knock down?
I could write a book on Taj’s influence on my musical path, and more. From the beginning when I discovered him at fifteen or sixteen, he was like a beacon, a mentor, a big brother musically, and not just musically, his whole stance as a man in the American context he grew up in and became famous in. He was a pathfinder for me, and for others, Keb Mo, Guy Davis, Corey Harris, all of us were deeply influenced by Taj. He did something very bold and unusual in his time, he recelebrated country blues in a way that was respectful but was not paternalistic, it wasn’t a museum piece, it was still living. He had found a way into that culture he is linked to, and carrying it on without adulterating it and at the same time adding his contemporary spin. It was quite a feat.
He had an eclectic career over the years and he went back to the country blues with Ry Cooder on ‘Get On Board’, what did you think of that?
Yeah, it is full circle from the Rising Sons, and I’ve been waiting for that reunion for some time because I thought it was overdue, and I’m really glad they got to it. Their reunion is a statement in itself for all kinds of interesting reasons, I’m very happy they got all the Kudos they did for that record, it is really important.
I got a bit of a shock when I realised you are coming up 72, what keeps you going?
I’m 72 in August, and I shave and keep my hat on. I will say that prior to this most intensive tour of my career, we were off the road for more than two years, basically at home on the farm, resting, taking stock, writing, and creating new connections in the business, and it really served us well. I’ll probably not go back to touring in this manner, it is a bit of a one-off, I’ll do live gigs when I really feel for it when the context is right and everything, but basically the touring life for me as it was is over because I’m enjoying good health and I have an eternal passion for making music, but I don’t really feel like hauling guitars and suitcases around the world too much longer.
You are coming to the UK in May.
I certainly am. You know, we made this record ‘Ridin’’, and it is the biggest record of my career in many ways and I’m not going to sit at home and watch it being ignored, I’m going to get out there and tell people about something I’m really proud of that Glen and I have been able to produce without any pressure. We really had time to make this record the record we wanted it to be, and I really think I should give it its due in terms of promotion. But after that, as I said, I will be doing selective live gigs and I will be doing other things that I hadn’t been able to get to, like theatre projects, teaching, and more writing.
What can people expect when they come to see you in the UK?
They can expect a return of all they really appreciate about my music and what I’ve been doing all these years, some new songs, some very new songs, some old songs, some really old songs. I’m not just there to sell a record I’m there to reconnect with some old friends and play some old favourites, and essentially do whatever it takes to reaffirm that wonderful connection I have through audiences throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland.
In 60 years time, how do think today’s America will be viewed?
That’s a really good question and I haven’t had it before. My sense is that before things get really better on a mainstream widespread level, not just pockets of enlightenment, but before things get structurally and systematically better I think we will see an intensification of the conflicts we are experiencing daily. That man who was once the President didn’t do us any favours, the divisiveness that was incited deliberately is criminal, and we have to get past accepting despots as true leaders, we have to get beyond politicising everything, we have to, I feel, be prepared to honestly look at our history and reconcile with each other because a split society, whether it is split along racial or red and blue lines, is a society that is essentially dysfunctional. I believe we will see some more dysfunction before we see a better world, but I do believe in that better world. I’m born hopeful, I think it is my DNA, I think it is in human DNA, and I think that black people have more of that out of necessity, the survival tool hope. African Americans are not the only people to experience huge collective trauma, but I’ve seen how African Americans and other peoples have survived huge collective abuse but have still contributed to a better world. It is something I’ve witnessed all my life, so I understand it.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
There is a wonderful jazz pianist and she is called Britta Virves, she lives in Sweden but comes originally from Estonia, I believe. And she is a brilliant musician and composer, and I’ve been listening to a record of hers called ‘Juniper’. I’ve been using it as pre-show music at my shows, and everybody loves it, it is quite innovative in the sense she is not somebody who plays a lot of clichés, and there are a lot of clichés in any genre, but she is a fresh composer with great, great musicality. I love her. There is so much stuff, and we listen a lot to Spotify these days, and we don’t necessarily listen to whole albums, we skip around, but for me one of the most influential albums on my path as a musician has been, and still is the most enjoyable, Taj Mahal’s ‘Natch’l Blues’. It was an album that came out in 1968 I believe, after he left the Rising Sons and went out on his own, and it was the second album on his own with Jesse Edwin Davis, and it is just a brilliant modern blues album. The other person I will mention just in terms of music is an album I listen to in the car, by the guitarist John Williams. He made an album with other guitarists guesting, it is like a world music guitar festival, Frances Bebey the great classical guitarist from Cameroon guests with a lot of other fine guitar players and it is a great John Williams album with collaborations with guitarists from some interesting non-European cultures called ‘The Magic Box’. It was a really nice surprise, my tour manager introduced me to that.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I think I’ve said it thanks to your thought-provoking questions, and I’m really looking forward to coming to a place I really got my start internationally and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with some of my most faithful fans. I’m on tour in Australia with my wife and the best crew in the world and the best audiences of my life, and I’m just looking forward to continuing that journey in the UK.
Eric Bibb’s ‘Ridin’’ is out now on Repute Records.
UK & Irish Tour Dates 2023:
03 May Basingstoke The Anvil
04 May Pontardawe Arts Centre
05 May Birmingham Town Hall
06 May Wimborne Tivoli Theatre
08 May Bury St. Edmunds The Apex
09 May Bexhill on Sea De la Warr Pavilion
11 May London Kings Place SOLD OUT
12 May London Kings Place
13 May Frome Cheese & Grain
14 May Exeter Phoenix
16 May Edinburgh Queen’s Hall
17 May Glasgow Saint Lukes
19 May Manchester Stoller Hall
20 May Leeds City Varieties Music Hall
22 May Whitley Bay Playhouse
23 May Milton Keynes The Stables
25 May Belfast Mandela Hall
26 May Dublin Liberty Hall Theatre
28 May Limerick Dolan’s
29 May Cork Cyprus Avenue
04 June Huntingdon Hall
05 June Wickham Wickham Festival
06 June Sheffield City Hall