When it comes to his chosen instrument, the harmonica, DARRELL MANSFIELD is acknowledged as an all time great. Jan Willem Vink spoke to the Californian gospel bluesman.
For secular aficionados, Darrell Mansfield is the red hot, choice-of-the-stars muso who has clocked up sessions with Jon Bon Jovi, Loverboy, Eddie Van Halen and Billy Idol. But for enthralled festival crowds at Greenbelt or Flevo, Darrell is the man to help the church re-discover the blues. An historical aside (well, make it brief. Ed.) It was revered blues singer Johnny Shines who once remarked, "church music and the blues is all one and the same" and blues giant T-Bone Walker who commented "of course the blues come a lot from the church...the first time I ever heard a boogie-woogie piano was the first time I went to church."
The blues then were, in part at least, developed in the Church. But history tells us the Church subsequently messed up. Appalled when members of the flock took blues styles, (and jazz for that matter) out of the sanctuary and into the world, by the turn of the century church leaders were throwing their blues-playing musos out of the church. In a classic case of baby leaving with the bathwater, the church began to denounce the blues beat it had been pivotal in evolving! History lesson over, (about time. Ed.)
Darrell Mansfield is, in the 90's helping more and more Christians to look beyond 'the Devil's music' propaganda of biased music histories, to discover for themselves both the rich heritage of gospel-blues traditions and how down-in-the-alley blues can be an appropriate vehicle for the gospel message. He may be a white boy, but Darrell is leading a return to gospel blues roots sadly all but ignored in today's black churches. Darrell's recent albums, Trimmed And Burnin"(with Glenn Kaiser),'Flevo Live' and 'Blues With A Feelin' (with Eric Turner) have all shown a consummate blues harpist, who can make his harmonica soar, cry and take you deep, deep, into the human soul.
Darrell was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1950. While at college he began singing and playing with a local rock and roll band on the nightclub scene. He had grown up in the church, yet Darrell's parents had both become alcoholics and divorced while the teenager was in high school. Drugs, booze and bouts of depression eventually led the 21-year-old musician to decide to kill himself. Darrell planned the deed carefully. Deciding on the church he had grown up in as a suitable setting, he stepped up to the altar, knelt down, muttered, "here I am Lord, take me," and then with a butchers knife slit both wrists. But Darrell didn't die. He was found when a clergyman came into the church and summoned the police and an ambulance. After recuperating Darrell became a member of another rock band, Free Flight. Darrell began playing harmonica - after slitting his wrists the musician no longer had the dexterity to play guitar - and made startling progress on his new instrument.
Darrell became close friends with the band's Dennis Caruthers. A visit to Caruthers' home put Darrell in touch with praying Christians whose witness and prayers led to his conversion. Darrell quit the nightclub scene and studied at Melodyland School Of Theology for two years. He had thoughts of pastoring a Church. But God had other plans. Darrell was invited to sing in a Christian musical, and later to join Shiloh, a Californian Christian rock band. Shiloh band changed their name to Gentle Faith, toured the US, Canada and England and in 1976 released their album 'Gentle Faith' on Maranatha! Music. A year later the singer/harmonica player formed the Darrell Mansfield Band as a Christian evangelistic outreach playing high schools, prisons and concerts. Their brash, bluesy hard rocking sound quickly found an appreciative audience. In 1979 the band released their first album 'Higher Power' and in 1980 a second album 'Get Ready' was released on Polydor Records. The album received rave reviews in Billboard, Cashbox and Record World.
In the ensuing years, Darrell and the band have toured many nations, while producing a stream of fine albums. Darrell's reputation as a harmonica player par excellence led to a regular stream of session bookings. His remarkable musical chops even led to Hohner and Huang Harmonicas developing a 'Darrell Mansfield' model of harp. Style, tone and speed make Darrell Mansfield one of the most sought after harmonica players on the rock scene today. But it's when playing the blues and specifically gospel-blues where connoisseurs will hear Darrell's best work. His latest album is 'Blues With A Feelin' with guitarist Eric Turner for Ocean Records, a recorded-in-one-take tour de force. I met Darrell in Holland on his way between countries. He'd had a hard time crossing the Canadian border, being targeted as a potential drug smuggler because of his long hair.
It seems you have been concentrating your efforts in Europe lately, why?
"Well, I made a commitment a year ago to be here and when I make a commitment I need to follow through on that. There's no doubt in my mind that God has called me to evangelise and to help raise up evangelists and new pastors and have these pastors disciple people in Europe. My bottom line vision is not to come here and entertain, or just to come and do concerts, but just to work with churches and pastors helping them to reach out. We're not interested in bringing people to the 'Top 40 Christian celebrity of the mainstream American jive'. We want to see souls won to the Kingdom of God; we want to see the world reached for Jesus. Europe right now is wide open."
You talk about discipling. That goes a lot further than the usual altar call?
"God's not into having any real kind of revival, or souls being won, unless he finds a Church that's ready to receive these babies and raise them in the Lord. To me, that's the ultimate goal, to find pastors all over Europe that want to teach the Word of God and disciple. Those are the people I want to work with. In the meantime, I come over and do festivals. Now I find those who are interested in the same goals I'm interested in, and that's who I'll work with."
Do you feel a distance between you and a lot of other Christian artists?
"I don't feel distance is the right word. What I could say without coming on like I'm any better is that I don't understand why anyone wants to sing for Jesus and not tell everyone who Jesus really is. To me, just to do the music and then leave, you might as well just listen to the record: all they're going to do is mimic their songs and all the audience is doing is listening to a bunch of noise for three days. If we're not bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ, if we're not exhorting one another to take up our cross daily and follow Christ, what are we doing this for? We don't need celebrities, we don't need artists, we need ministers of the gospel who go out and proclaim who Jesus is, to the world, to the dying, hungry, thirsty world. Unfortunately, we've created in America a subculture. We have our own labels; we have our own Dove Awards at the end of the year we give to our own top pop Christian person. To me that's all wrong."
Why don't you crossover to the secular market?
"I've done that. I've had an album on Polydor. If God wants me to do another secular album I'll do it. But I'm not striving for that. I don't care if it happens or not. No matter what, if I crossover, I'm going to bring the Cross over. If that offends people, then that's too bad."
What are your thoughts about Crossover? Some people might argue 'Heart In Motion' is not really a gospel album.
"No, it has a double line ministry. Amy has got a lot of criticism through the years, I was called to be a minister of the gospel, I am an evangelist. Singing is my pulpit. But with Amy it never was. She was never a minister or an evangelist. She was a singer. She's a Christian and she loves the Lord. God bless her. She is getting a lot of flak for her videos and stuff. I'm not in her shoes. I'm going to pray for her and love her as a sister in the Lord. I couldn't do what she does cause God called me to be bold. I'll never water down the Gospel. That's the whole reason why I'm here, why I got redeemed and saved. But I believe you can present the gospel without blowing people away. I was just in Italy my last trip in San Marino at a blues festival. Rufus Thomas was singing 'Walking The Dog', Jack Bruce, Millie Jackson and all these black music artists. I was the only gospel artist on the bill. We finished our set with 'Stand By Me'. Rufus Thomas and all the guys in the band said: 'we had church tonight. That was a highlight, your song 'Stand By Me', you really connected'. It was the Holy Spirit who connected through Darrell Mansfield. We got the audiences eyes off Darrell Mansfield, and got them onto Jesus. I began to minister the word of God. This song 'Stand By Me' was originally a gospel tune I told them. I sang the original lyrics. I said 'sing it to him. If you have a need tonight, lift it to him'. It was a secular audience. Just before I came on they'd been singing 'Walking The Dog'. Doing a festival like that is a way of bringing the gospel to people without blowing them away."
Blues is usually associated with pain. How do you view that?
I've got more into the blues in the last couple of years, with the couple of albums we have done. Blues traditionally is singing about life, about pain. Jesus said 'In the world you'll have tribulation. But I've overcome the world.' Paul longed to be with Jesus because we're in this body of corruption of sin. We see it around us; we see it in the world. We as Christians know two natures. There's the old man to be reckoned with, daily buried and crucified, that we may walk an innocent life. But there's a struggle in the flesh, the natural against the spiritual man that God wants us to win. God wants us to abide in him. Being a Christian is not easy. Anyone who says it is doesn't understand it. What are we doing it for? There's suffering involved but it works towards our patience. Being a Christian is being a child of God. Blues fits right in there. Cause we can sing about what it is to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him, and to be persecuted or to have a burden from the Lord to weep for those. Like 'Blues With A Feeling': "I'm going to sing for you both night and day because I want the whole world to know about you. It makes me cry. I cry for the unbelief of the world. Blues is a great style of music to use that cry.
Can you say something about the things you are working on right now?
I struck a deal with a company that's gonna put out a series for me. I did a movie called the Gospel of John, a home movie video series where I play the blind man. I sing some songs in this movie. It won four Angel Awards. Michael Landon before he died presented the Awards in Los Angeles. I wasn't able to make the presentation, I was in Florida at the time."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.