Eric Bibb: The joyful bluesman who pushes through the secular/sacred divide

Wednesday 25th May 2016

Lins Honeyman spoke to the leading light in acoustic blues, ERIC BIBB

Eric Bibb
Eric Bibb

As Mike Rimmer's 2008 Cross Rhythms interview with revered US-born and Helsinki-based bluesman Eric Bibb showed, the man is arguably the leading light in acoustic blues music. He has quite a pedigree. The son of singer and actor Leon Bibb, the young Eric was not unaccustomed to various folk and blues luminaries passing through his parents' New York City home in the late '50s and early '60s and even counted legendary spirituals singer, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson as his godfather. Since then, Bibb has forged a niche for himself as a world travelling purveyor of upbeat gospel-tinged blues. He has been the collaborator of choice for artists such as the Blind Boys Of Alabama, Jean Jacques Milteau, Ruthie Foster and Taj Mahal whilst racking up a substantial back catalogue of albums that always hit the mark in terms of portraying the man's positive outlook on life as well as communicating a passion for social justice and a determination to honour his musical forefathers.

Many UK fans came to discover Bibb through his now seminal 1994 album 'Spirit And The Blues' which saw the singer/guitarist ply his trade with a completely acoustic band crowded around one multi-directional microphone to give the kind of authentic sound that he continues to deliver to this very day. Landmark albums such as 'Jericho Road', 'A Family Affair' and 'Brothers In Bamako' (the latter two with his father Leon and African musician Habib Koite respectively) nestle beside more recent releases like the exemplary 'Blues People' and the tribute album 'Leadbelly's Gold' whilst this year saw the release of Bibb's 36th album 'The Happiest Man In The World' with a title that seems to sum up the man's position in life. One reason for such joy is the fact that Bibb has been joined on his current European tour by none other than his daughter Yana who herself is following in her father's footsteps with a couple of accomplished releases under her belt. As Eric introduces her at the start of every show, there is no disguising the heartfelt pride he feels at having Yana open the evening before he himself delivers a set of songs that makes each audience member go out feeling on top of the world long after the last note rings out and the lights go up.

I catch up with Eric shortly before the soundcheck for his show in Edinburgh's cosy Queens Hall venue, looking inexplicably young for a man in his mid-60s and resplendent in his trademark wide-brimmed hat and baggy suit. He welcomes me with genuine warmth and grace - all delivered in a soft-spoken, considered and articulate speaking voice that echoes his velvety singing tones. I begin by asking how the current tour has been going and what it's like having his daughter as part of the entourage. "The tour's been wonderful so far," he enthuses. "I had great expectations because we've got a new line up and it's been working out a treat. Yana's been doing wonderful things and the audiences love her. She sets the evening up and we finish it off. This is the second tour we've done together and it's just wonderful to see the way she's developed as an artist. It's lovely."

I suggest there's a neat connectivity having Yana perform with her old man given that he himself performed with his father before he passed away last year at the ripe old age of 93. "It's a family affair and it's a heritage that Yana's inherited," he agrees. "It really feels great having Yana on board - keeping the Bibb thing going."

"I think, frankly, it's pretty equal," Eric responds when posed with the question of who is learning more from whom. "If I had to tip it one way though, it would be me learning from her. I'm amazed every night when I see her focus and her intent. I've been at this game a little longer than Yana but it's just nice to see someone with such eagerness and the right kind of ambition - not the ego kind of ambition - where you're trying to do something the best you can do and I see that from her every night. A father's joy is difficult to describe in words but to see your child bloom in this way especially with the kind of music that has been my focus for so long and to see that she's got that same drive is just wonderful."

Over the length of his career, Eric has frequently doffed his panama hat to his musical heroes with a number of expertly and reverently-delivered blues standards, lesser known numbers and African-American spirituals all getting the Bibb treatment and it seems that paying respect to those who have gone before him is of prime importance. "It's essential," he confirms. "For me, the foundation of what I'm doing and however adventurous I become, I feel really in need of staying connected to that foundation. The generation that came up in the early teens of the last century really put Afro-Americana music on the map. These guys were really laying the cornerstone for the musical building we now inhabit in this new century. All the people who are interested in blues music as such owe a huge debt to those pioneers. Think about the ones that we're not even aware of - the unknown bards. Some people never got recorded and, for some reason, never made it onto those shellac records. I think we're fortunate that people were recorded and documented as much as they were. Frankly, we owe a huge debt of thanks to people on this side of the pond who have done a great job in archiving and preserving this kind of music so that we still have that link that inspires us so much."

I mention that certain archivists on his side of the pond also played a substantial part in making sure the work of juke joint troubadours, field singers and church groups became permanent records of that particular time in the history of blues music. "Yes, absolutely," he agrees. "I've had many discussions with people about (musicologists and field recording archivists) John and Alan Lomax and there are people who disparage them. There are obviously things to be critical of in anybody's work if you look at it closely but, whatever their attitudes were, the Lomax family gave us a huge treasure trove of music that, without them, would most likely have been lost. I always take the time to give thanks to the Lomaxes and people like them who lugged heavy tape recorders around in the heat of the Southern sun to leave us with such an amazing legacy."

Back in the day, the tension between sacred church music and the more carnal blues of the juke joints was razor sharp and I wonder if this affected Eric growing up when it came to choosing his own musical path. "I grew up not in a Southern community of sharecroppers like many of my heroes," he begins. "Rather, I grew up in New York City as the son of educated parents who were in the middle of a cultural renaissance and I benefitted from them and their friends and exposure to the people they introduced me to. I never grew up with that huge demarcation between blues and gospel music. There were people from before my parent's generation who, for understandable reasons, were scared of the kind of music that was coming out of the juke joints because it might lead to a life of drinking and wild stuff and going down that road. They were the church people who were basically the backbone of the Afro-American community who were trying to keep the community intact. There were many reasons why people wanted to escape the hard life they were living through booze or whatever but they were the church people who held firm and kept the faith.

"There was this great dichotomy between spiritual music and the so-called devil's music even though many of my heroes who were blues players also had careers as players of spiritual music," he continues. "However, those artists were recorded playing almost exclusively the secular side of their repertoire even though they probably had quite a lot of spiritual music to play as well. The people who were making the race records of the time wanted those gutbucket blues sounds because it was more marketable. What I'm really saying is that I never had to choose - I loved what I was hearing whether it was Blind Willie Johnson or Tommy Johnson. I loved the music that was really one kind of music. If you look at the lyrics, some people are praising God and some people are praising the fast life of the juke joints but, for me, the music was all related - it was all in the one pot - and I never had to choose between secular and spiritual music. I was able to freely - without constraints of a community that had hard views of either side - mix it up and that's one of the reasons that the blues that I write is flavoured with the upbeat, positive attitude that was my inheritance from my upbringing. That's my honest expression - it would be dishonest of me to submerge that positivity just because the genre's called the blues. I think blues music has to be truthful and I'm attempting to be as truthful as I can about who I am and what I want to say.

"Whether it was Blind Willie Johnson or Tommy Johnson - they sung from the heart and that's what really hooked me. That was before there was a huge caricature built around the whole concept of blues music. Now I feel that the commercialisation of this kind of music has turned it into a cartoon at its worst and I think that we need to remember that these people were expressing their views and their own experiences through a wonderful new kind of music that was just emerging at the time. Blues as we know it now came about from the 1920s onwards and their music was a contemporary expression - it was right in the moment. Their music is still going strong so that tells you something and, not only is it still going, it's going all around the world. There's blues everywhere - whether you're in the Philippines or Finland - and that's a testimony to the power and the realness of the music and the people behind it."

I bring Eric back to one of the artists he mentioned earlier - a mutual musical hero in Blind Willie Johnson who, in the late '20s and early '30s before his untimely death in abject poverty, recorded 30 sides for Columbia Records to produce a stunning canon of gospel blues numbers that have been covered by countless acts including Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and Tom Jones not to mention the recent tribute album 'God Don't Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson' featuring the likes of Tom Waits and Sinead O'Connor. "Blind Willie Johnson was almost supernatural in his expression," he suggests. "This was a blind man who played mostly on the streets and the power of his conviction and the mission he was on - I mean, the fact that his music is orbiting space as we speak is a wonderful poetic justice. When you listen to his music and you realise that what you're listening to is a recording of what the technology could give us at the time, the power of the man singing and playing - and the tenderness as well - is just boggles the mind. He was a genius."

The standout track for many from Bibb's breakthrough album 'Spirit And The Blues' is an old traditional song called "Needed Time" which, with breathtaking simplicity and passion, longs for the return of Jesus amidst trouble times. Since that initial recording back in 1994, Bibb has reinterpreted the song on several subsequent occasions whilst extended versions are the undoubted highlight of his live shows. Having seen him perform "Needed Time" previously, I suggest that something very special happens when he plays it. "There's something about that song," agrees Eric. "For me, it's always been something of a mantra and it's a place I go to that seems to lift me up and, in turn, can lift up an audience in a very unique way. I've recorded it numerous times - most recently with Taj Mahal doing the intro verse, playing banjo and singing, and then I'm joined by the Blind Boys Of Alabama. By the way, those guys make me cry. I tell you, man, you want to talk about soul and bringing the Holy Ghost into the room - those guys do it. 'Needed Time' seems to be for me a vehicle for easily calling down the Spirit. It's a real healer, that tune. It's so powerful and so relevant for today. I mean, if now is not the needed time then I don't know when is."

His new album, 'The Happiest Man In The World' - billed as Eric Bibb and North Country Far with Danny Thompson, the legendary double bass player from British folk band Pentangle - has been well-received and is another in a long line of Bibb classics that sees him continue to be at the top of his game despite several decades in the business. I ask him how the collaboration with the in-demand Thompson came about. "One of my friends from Finland - Olli Haavisto who plays some wonderful dobro on the record - suggested I contact Danny Thompson," he explains. "He's a big fan of Danny's - as we all are - and he said 'Eric, can't you work it out and make an album with Danny?' Danny's a busy guy but I said I'd call him and see what he said. It was meant to be and I'm so happy that we got him on this record. The response so far here and across the pond has been more than enthusiastic - more than we could have ever expected. It's a project so close to my heart because it features dear friends in Danny and the other players but it's also the kind of music that I'm getting closer and closer to leaning towards."

"For all my ambitious musical projects and ideas," he adds in closing, "recording with an acoustic band live on the floor is really how I started out with 'Spirit And The Blues' and that seems to be really where my soul loves to live." CR

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.
About Lins Honeyman
Lins HoneymanLins Honeyman is a Perthshire-based singer/songwriter and currently presents The Gospel Blues Train on Cross Rhythms Radio on Saturday nights from 11pm and on Listen Again.


Reader Comments

Posted by PAUL BECHER in KINROSS @ 10:23 on May 26 2016

A really informative, insightful and well written article on Eric whose recent concert in Edinburgh I am really sorry I missed!

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