Mike Rimmer spoke at length with roots music veteran ERIC BIBB about his life and beliefs
Like many people, I have only really managed to get into Eric Bibb's music in the last five or six years but I was immediately a fan from hearing the first song. On a trip to Nashville in April 2008, I was in a small club watching Newton Faulkner perform when Bibb joined our table and we were introduced. Born in 1951, he looks at least 10 years younger and has his own unique style, broad smile and distinctive hat. We soon arrange to meet up for a chat and the following morning he is relaxing in an armchair in my hotel room, the sunshine streaming through the window.
The new album is called 'Get Onboard' and even the title has caused a little controversy amongst grammatical purists! He says, "I actually had somebody point out to me that I spelt it with two words, not three words, and apparently grammatically it's incorrect to spell it like that; having to do with adverbs and all kinds of grammatical things. But for me it was more, I wanted to express not my knowledge of English grammar but when I said 'get onboard' it was like.being onboard is a state of mind and I want people to get there. It's like, 'Get lifted', you know? So it just felt better. You have to go with what really sings well and feels better when it comes to songs and singing. It's way beyond school grammar."
Raised in New York, Bibb's father Leon Bibb was a part of the early '60s folk music revival in Greenwich Village. He explains, "He made a name for himself as a solo artist. He was on Ed Sullivan Show a lot and did all kinds of club dates and university concerts in that era when folk music was hitting the mainstream. My uncle, John Lewis, is the great pianist/composer who founded the Modern Jazz Quartet."
Bibb is wonderfully matter of fact about it all even though it wasn't unusual for the extremely famous musicians of the day to pop round his parents' house. Pete Seeger, Odetta, Josh White and Judy Collins were all house guests. "I even met Woody Guthrie before he passed on. So it seems like I just chose the right family to plop down into if I wanted to be a troubadour, which is really what happened." He laughs a warm rich laugh.
He was given his first acoustic guitar when he was seven. Growing up surrounded by talent, he recalls a childhood conversation with Bob Dylan, who, on the subject of guitar playing, advised the 11-year-old Eric to "keep it simple, forget all that fancy stuff." Bibb remembers, "Dylan showed up very late. I've repeated this story so many times I feel like I need to meet him and thank him for all the mileage I've gotten out of this story! But I was exposed to musicians and music up close from very early on. It was just magical."
It seems as though Bibb waited a long time before people started to recognise his talents, at least as far as the UK or USA are concerned. He was in his 40s before he began to break out. Prior to that he had spent a great deal of time living in Stockholm. As a child and young adult he gathered together a great many musical influences. He explains, "I was exposed to so many kinds of music and I was adventurous as well as ambitious musically and experimented with quite a few different directions. I moved to Europe when I was a young adult and was exposed to all kinds of world musical influences living in Sweden. So there were periods when I was focused on things like Brazilian music or West African music. I even tried to make a go of writing and performing more pop/mainstream things. Some time in the '80s I was more of a rootsy Lionel Richie type of songwriter. I wanted to really break into that area but I was frustrated there and not getting very far."
He continues, "I decided to really return to my roots with what I would call the broadest take on Americana music which includes blues, gospel, country influences, all of that kind of bluegrass stuff that's interrelated. I wanted to make it into my own type of gumbo and get exposure on acoustic/blues stages. That's eventually what happened after I returned to those roots and realised that basically I was better prepared for presenting that kind of music than anything else. And really it was closest to my heart and I think for any musician who's wanting to get out there and make a name in a very competitive arena, it's best to go with what you know best and what means the most to you. And after all is said and done, I would say as a singer and as a songwriter, that whole Americana palette of musical styles that are interrelated - blues and spirituals and such, they really became my foundation."
Eric Bibb was a teenager at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States; inevitably that must have made an impact on him. "My parents were involved with the Civil Rights Movement in a very intense way," he explains. "My father was at the March on Washington and met Dr King and that connection between culture and music and social change was prominent in my upbringing. Interestingly enough I find myself returning to that era more and more for inspiration because I find that involvement that people had - musicians, people who cared who were interested in the art - understood the connection between the arts and the society that they lived in. They knew that there was a natural role for artists and musicians to be in the vanguard of those kinds of changes because they're sensitive and they meet people from around the world. Culturally they're at the cutting edge without getting egotistical about it. The exposure to other cultures as an artist really puts you in a place where you can communicate across boundaries of culture, race and language. And we have to really take on that role, and to not take it is to be, I think, somewhat ungrateful for the gift of musical talent and being able to share that and communicate with people. So I always consider them connected even though I don't see myself as a protest singer. I always thought that there was a huge connection between the songs and social change."
There are several songs on 'Get Onboard' that address those kinds of issues in the modern era. I ask Eric to share his thoughts on them. "The one that first comes to mind," he says, "is a song called 'God's Kingdom' and the lyric says, 'God's kingdom is in us all.' I wanted to address what I consider to be rampant intolerance in religious communities everywhere. I really just want to remind myself first of all, but other listeners too, to face the truism that God is in us all! Whatever our ritual is in expressing our faith, that's really completely subservient to the oneness that I feel we are all a part of. Celebrating that oneness and acknowledging it I think is the step that needs to be taken if we're going to see an end to all of this strife globally that often is based on ideology and belief. That seems to be the flashpoint for so much confrontation and conflict."
He continues, "There's another song, 'Step By Step', which is really my way of acknowledging the wonderful contribution that Dr King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, made to world ethical culture. It just says, 'Step by step we're walking in freedom,' and I feel like that whole process that really bloomed in a beautiful way in the '60s during the Civil Rights Movement needs to continue globally. I think that that Civil Rights Movement centred in the United States spearheaded by people like Dr King and many others now has more than ever, global meaning."
Faith seeps through on his albums but it is seldom something overt or preachy. I ask him whether faith was part of his upbringing. He recalls, "My parents grew up in the church. My father's from Louisville, Kentucky and mom is from Albuquerque, New Mexico. They grew up as children going to church at their parents' request. They came to New York and settled into a community where organised religion was not a big thing. There was exposure to different congregations as a child. I remember attending all kinds of churches sporadically, from Catholic to Unitarian. But my parents really gave their children free reign in discovering their own spirituality and it was a great blessing because I never had to go through that process of rejecting something that was basically forced upon me. I was left to discover where and how I wanted to worship and it led to a very personal search that has given me what I consider a wonderful way of living and singing about my belief and my awareness of God. I've found an easy way to express that with traditional Christian language in song. The great canon of Negro spirituals expressed the faith of survivors that I can really take on board for myself."
He continues, "The early African American experience with Christianity, we're talking about a people who were transplanted from another continent and who made choices and took on as their spiritual leader a great teacher, in Jesus. The fact that it was real for this group of people who were so traumatised tells you everything. And when you listen to the music, the degree of devotion to these teachings is so powerful. I mean if you listen to Mahalia Jackson sing, you can be transformed just by the song. To me, that drew me in and I found my own way to recreate, reinterpret and write new songs using this language. As a singer I'm very happy to have a language that has been tried and sung for basically centuries. I don't have to create something new. I can add my personal take on a wonderful tradition which easily expresses my beliefs."
Eric Bibb is clearly very grateful for his roots both musically and spiritually because they have shaped the way he expresses himself creatively. "Yeah I'm so grateful. I know the dilemma, having met many singers and colleagues and friends who don't have an easy way of expressing their own belief systems. They don't have an easy way of worshipping in song because having not grown up in a tradition they can't just adopt it and feel sincere about it. There may be things that they are uncomfortable with in traditional faith singing and I understand that. They need to feel at one with it. If you really want to put your heart into it you have to figure out where you stand in relationship to it. The dilemma of trying to develop a new language that carries the conviction, the weight, of tradition is not easy so like I say, I feel like I have a great gift in being connected to the songs."
He continues, "The tradition of the spiritual in my life through my parents - my dad particularly - from a very early age drew me in and I felt at one with it. I don't need to reinvent it. I might need to tweak certain things for my own purposes to really make it true to what I feel. But the evolution of spirituality is a given. This is something that I think is worth thinking about not only as a singer but also as a person interested in these things. We're not the same people as our ancestors were. Our experiences are different, so the world we live in and the means that we have for communication are drastically changed from what they used to be and this has got to change our thinking. It's wonderful to be able to be in the modern world but still feel that link to another era."
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