Presenter of the Gospel Blues Train radio programme Lins Honeyman has a heart to heart chat with Chicago's GLENN KAISER
To describe Chicago-based bluesman Glenn Kaiser as solely a singer or guitarist would be an injustice. Whilst the blues rock veteran has released a stack of albums over the decades either as part of the pioneering hard rockers The Resurrection Band, his own blues three piece The Glenn Kaiser Band or simply as a solo or duo performer, there is no doubt that making music is only part of what makes the man tick. In fact, Kaiser's role as a pastor, author, blogger and even cigar box and found object guitar maker (more of that later) plus an overriding commitment to helping the poor - which includes his interaction with the Cornerstone Community Outreach shelter in inner city Chicago that the folks at Jesus People USA run - all help to cement the fact that the Glenn Kaiser is much more than just a musician.
Fans of his early '90s collaborations with harmonica player Darrell Mansfield will also consider Kaiser to be something of a curator of the music of original gospel bluesmen like Blind Willie Johnson and Reverend Gary Davis - songs by whom both artists covered authentically on their now classic albums 'Trimmed And Burnin'' and 'Slow Burn' - leading many blues fans to discover the works of two artists whose legacy had arguably been side-lined by much of the music world. One such blues fan, the writer of this feature, aged 18 and having recently left home to start college, found himself doing just that.
Back in 1991 and in student accommodation in Edinburgh, the college's Christian Union team chose to invite new students to an evening of music that they were putting on during fresher's week. Having yet to find God and of the partly misguided opinion that all Christian music was cheesy and artistically worthless, I decided not to attend only to be later handed a copy of a copy of the 'Trimmed And Burnin'' album - the inlay card of which only contained the name Kaiser/Mansfield scrawled in biro on the side. Within seconds of pressing the play button and hearing a cover of Gary Davis' "Great Change Since I've Been Born", performed in thunderous fashion solely on acoustic guitar by a man I later found out was Glenn Kaiser, I was immediately hooked on a style of blues and, more importantly, Christian music that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. In addition, lyrics such as "If I don't read and my soul be lost, it's nobody's fault but mine" or "Just as well to get ready, you got to die" hit me right between the eyes and presented the gospel message to me without compromise in a way that I had never heard before.
Being handed that copied cassette served a number of purposes. Amongst them, it changed my opinion about Christian-themed music and introduced me to mysterious and long-dead characters such as Johnson and Davis which in turn led to a hunger to delve further and further back into the mists of time to find out where Clapton's "Motherless Children", the Stones' "You Got To Move" and Led Zeppelin's "Nobody's Fault But Mine" actually came from. Most importantly of all, that album by Glenn Kaiser and Darrell Mansfield was a significant factor in my coming to know Jesus as my Saviour and Lord.
In a long distance phone call to Glenn a quarter of a century later, I relayed my story to him. "Sometimes I look at my life and there are moments when, like anybody, you wonder what it's worth," he confesses. "My goodness, you wonder sometimes how could God use a piece of dirt like me but there comes a point when you think - if I have even been one grain of sand on the beach for an individual then I would be happy. When somebody says something like you've just said - I mean, what more could you want than to be a part of someone's journey to faith and salvation? It's amazing to think that God can use you to influence others to follow him. That's the greatest possible thing to hear so thank you so much."
I tell Glenn that the very first impression I got when I first heard "Great Change Since I've Been Born" and the songs that followed on the first Kaiser/Mansfield album was one of unwavering passion and complete believability. I asked him how important it was and is to communicate these qualities to the listener. "It's got to have that deep heart and gut sense of passion in terms of the lyric and also the vocalist," suggests Glenn. "Mick Jagger once said 'it's the singer, not the song' and probably the majority of that sentiment is true. There's a sense of reality about blues music and then there's the actual lyrics. For the most part, the blues tell a story that is real and relates to not only the down side but also the ironic part of life that we all experience. There's a truthfulness and genuineness about the blues that everybody can relate to because we all go through struggles in this broken, fallen world."
Glenn adds, "It's massively important to walk the walk. Many have said 'if you ain't paid your dues, you can't sing the blues' and there's some truth to that. Everyone's paid some sort of dues and life sometimes bites you hard - that's the reality. I grew up in poverty in south central Wisconsin amongst German immigrant families. It was tough - my father quit well-paying jobs one after the other because he felt he was away from his family too much and then he had a successful business with a partner and, a little after a year, the partner takes off with all the money. Right after that, my father gets sick and has a series of operations on his spine and then my mother commits adultery, divorce happens and the whole family caves in. We're living on welfare for about four years up in a very cold area of Wisconsin which, granted, was very different from being black and in the South like those old bluesmen and certainly light years away from slavery but I understood part of what it was like to be looked down upon."
It seems that the gospel message, conveyed through Glenn's own brand of blues and rock music, is not limited to just one country. "About six months before Mandela was elected, we did a tour of just about every major city in South Africa and I'd written a couple of songs about apartheid for the first and second Resurrection Band albums," Glenn advises. "We decided to go into the black township of Soweto and meet a church leader who was doing amazing work with addicts. He actually came along to a concert we did at a white church five minutes away where he heard us play those two songs. The pastor came to us afterwards with tears in his eyes and asked how could we write these songs and communicate what, as black Africans, they'd been going through in the apartheid regime. I told him it was through the grace of God and partly my own background - all the things I'd experienced of seeing racism, prejudice and injustice growing up in the States and we just stood there hugging each other and weeping. To a degree, you have to live it and not just sing about it. There's something about the integrity of having gone through some of those things - a sense of being the other."
Experiencing hardship early on in life undoubtedly helped Glenn feel a certain commonality with the blues artists of yesteryear but I wonder how he ended up getting into the blues in the first place. "Lins, like many of your own countrymen from James Dewar up in Scotland who was in the Robin Trower Band to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Back and Rory Gallagher, sooner or later you start digging through music and you begin to wonder where this stuff came from," he advises. "In the days of what we now call the British invasion of rock music in the '60s, the Brits brought blues music back to us here in the US. All of the guys I've just mentioned were listening to Armed Forces radio or Radio Luxembourg and were trying to find out where a certain song came from or who wrote it. Even people like Cliff Richard or Lonnie Donegan - people in different styles of music - were paying attention to the blues and were trying to find the true source of the songs they were hearing. I did much the same and I kept going further and further back. When you do that, you eventually find people like Blind Willie Johnson and Reverend Gary Davis and many, many more. Sooner or later, all roads lead back to those early Christian blues artists."
Glenn continues, "Some of those artists were borrowing songs or portions of songs that they heard as kids growing up in African American churches in the South and the Delta. There's that connection to hurt, struggle and poverty and there's a throwback to the cotton fields and slavery - even after emancipation - where people worked long hard hours and would sing to each other. A lot of what I listen to now is public domain Smithsonian blues from Alan Lomax recordings of prison gangs, field hollers and such like - that stuff always touches me."
It's clear from our conversation that the messages contained in such songs are more than just entertainment to Glenn but instead help fan a flame of passion about helping to solve the massive problem of poverty that dogs his country. "When I think about the homeless situation in the US, it makes me upset and angry and it bothers me that so many people just give lip service about caring for their neighbour," states Glenn. "It's easy to make the judgment about how the poor got there - they're reaping what they've sown and getting what they deserve et cetera - but we haven't got a clue how they got there. This is the world we're living in and, meanwhile, people just drive by in their cars or shut the blinds because these are supposedly just crazy, horrible people and somebody ought to do something but not me. I just can't live that - my conscience won't allow it. You can either do something as an individual to help or find people in your locality that you can volunteer with. What can we do to help? Let's not just pray but let's actually get off our couches and do something to help. Turn off the Glenn Kaiser music and get out on the street and help people! Love your neighbour as yourself - it's as simple as that."
Glenn's social conscience extends beyond his involvement with the Cornerstone Community Outreach shelter to his live performances and, most notably, his 2011 'Cardboard Box' release which drew on the theme of homelessness and poverty. "I can't just sing the songs," he advises. "Part of what I do is visit prisons and do concerts there. I'm sure that I get more out of it than the prisoners do but this is the real world. It's not pure entertainment - it's not just making a living. The cool part is when you meet somebody years later who had been in prison and came to know Jesus as Saviour and they're not who they were. If you can have a small part in that, then it's huge."
With a live performance schedule that would put younger performers to shame, Glenn's passion for playing in front of an audience remains undiminished. "Playing live is more fun than ever," he enthuses. "To sing the sort of lyrics I'm singing and to play blues music is an honour. I'm able to do songs which deal with lots of issues in life and, whether at biker rallies, prisons, churches, universities, festivals or coffee houses, the beauty is that people relate to what I'm doing. I really enjoy getting out and playing music and then having conversations with people afterwards. We sit after a show for usually about an hour and have long conversations with whoever wants to talk or ask questions. So many people seem to be influenced in a positive way towards Jesus which is huge for me."
Back in 2012, Glenn and harmonica maestro Joe Filisko played a set at Chicago's Cornerstone Festival which subsequently saw the light of day as a CD and DVD package. Referring to the release, I point out to Glenn that I had never heard the old Robert Johnson classic "Sweet Home Chicago" played on a cigar box guitar before. With a comment that will mystify every blues guitarist who has ever attempted to mimic Glenn's incredible acoustic blues guitar performance on the title track of the Kaiser/Mansfield album 'Slow Burn', Glenn advises: "I don't consider myself to be some sort of virtuoso on the guitar but playing cigar box guitars forces me to stretch myself. The six-string is great but I almost feel as though I'm cheating so I decided to try three strings, then two and one!"
Glenn goes on to explain the premise behind building a cigar box guitar: "I'm actually about three feet away from the first one I ever built. It's a metal cookie tin and I had a piece of wood that I stuck through the tin for the neck. I happened to have four old tuning machine heads that didn't even match and put some strings on it to make a four string guitar. After a couple of days, I thought to myself that having four strings was cheating and pulled one of the tuners off and it became basically a three string homemade dobro. Then I started to build some two stringers and a lot of one string diddley bows. I did it to challenge myself but also explore the American and African roots of the blues."
He addes, "Back in the day in the Deep South, folks would take a big nail and hammer it about three or four inches off the ground into the corner post of a barn. They would reach up as high as they could and put another nail up there. They would then take a piece of bailing wire - pretty thin but very strong - and attach it to both nails. Once that wire was stretched, you could beat on it, pluck it or run a smooth stone or a bottle up and down it and it would resonate off of the corner post and that, before cigar box guitars, was the origin of the diddley bow. It was the poorest of the poor man's slide guitar. The more I studied the history of those early instruments, the more I realised I had to start building them along these lines and writing songs on them in order to challenge myself."
In fact, a cigar box album is on the horizon as Glenn confirms: "I'm hoping it will be released sometime this summer. I've written a couple of diddley bow songs and one will definitely be on the album. I'm also covering a couple of tunes as well - one of them might be a surprise to some people! It's been a pleasure to play with Joe Filisko over the years and he's going to be playing on four songs on the album. He's a genius harmonica player but a very humble man."
In addition to the cigar box project, this month sees the release of
an album initiated by a Chicago war veterans charity called Homes For
Heroes who have kindly facilitated Glenn's reworking and recording of
a selection of hymns with all proceeds going to the Cornerstone
shelter run by Glenn and his colleagues at Jesus People USA. Called
simply 'Homes For Heroes', the release will shortly be available as a
download at www.noisetrade.com/homesforheroes
I finish by returning to my discovery of Blind Willie Johnson and Reverend Gary Davis through the first Kaiser/Mansfield album and I ask Glenn if he thinks that, sometime in the future, his own music will be rediscovered in the same way. "It would not surprise me", he suggests. "The likes of Blind Willie Johnson maybe only recorded a handful of times - the same with Robert Johnson too - and only occasionally did you get someone like Reverend Gary Davis who recorded more extensively. There are all kinds of blues singers who are still being discovered or rediscovered today. We now have digital memory and various ways to store or transmit music and it wouldn't surprise me if, in 70 or 300 years, people will still be listening to our kind of music."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.