Eric Bibb - Singin' the natural blues
Eric Bibb looks at the way he’s portrayed in the media as the sunny, optimistic and youthful bluesman and reflects that two out of three adjectives isn’t a bad result.
At fifty-six, Bibb finds the youthful tag amusing but he has quite a lot to be sunny and optimistic about. Over the past dozen or so years he’s finally achieved what he set out to do as a youngster in New York, which was to follow the example of heroes including Robert Johnson, Son House and Taj Mahal in becoming a full-time blues troubadour. His latest album, Get Onboard, is picking up almost uniformly enthusiastic reviews and after years of living in Europe, where he made his big breakthrough at London Blues Festival in 1996, he no longer feels like a prophet without honour in his homeland.
“It’s funny,” he says “because as well as being described as youthful, which is flattering for a guy my age, I’m often regarded as a late starter when, in fact, I’ve always been doing this. I just wasn’t able to make it work financially, so I took on other jobs, like teaching music. But all the time I was working on being a singer and guitarist and doing gigs – there just wasn’t enough of them.”
With Bibb’s background, it was perhaps inevitable that he should be drawn into playing music. His father, Leon, was a prominent figure on the American folk scene of the 1950s and 1960s and regular visitors to the family home in Greenwich Village included folk icons Odetta and Pete Seeger. Actor and singer Paul Robeson was Eric’s godfather. John Lewis, the pianist and composer with the Modern Jazz Quartet, was his uncle and among the earliest pieces of advice the budding young guitarist received came from another Bibb house guest, Bob Dylan, who, noting Eric’s musical intentions, told him to keep it real.
“We didn’t get to sit and jam or anything but he knew I was playing the guitar and I think what he was trying to impress on me was that the world he was a star in had turned the music of rural workers – coal miners, share croppers – into a marketable commodity,” says Bibb. “He was obviously concerned that this music should keep its authenticity and that I should learn from the old guys who were still around, like Son House, who I was fortunate enough to see playing at fairly close hand back then.”
Dylan’s observation made a big impression on Bibb but a bigger influence with regard to music in general was his uncle, John Lewis. The Modern Jazz Quartet were in their pomp at the time and every new album they made was on the family stereo as soon as it was released.
“I’d go round to his house as often as possible and I was always struck by his incredible dedication,” says Bibb. “He was an amazing writer, player, scholar, composer, teacher, orchestrator, conductor and completely absorbed in everything he was doing, and even if I wasn’t playing his style of music, I couldn’t help but be affected by all this. I got to meet people like Dizzy Gillespie through him and I think my appreciation of music in the wider sense – classical music, jazz, gospel – came from him and my determination to play music came from watching him and the people around him.”
Bibb’s attempts in his late teens to follow in Taj Mahal’s footsteps as a modern folk-blues singer met initially with some localised success but he couldn’t sustain or develop this. The blues – and specifically the country style he was playing – fell out of favour in America partly, he feels, because the marketing people overplayed its “moaning” aspect.
“What you ended up with was a cartoon version of the blues,” he says. “The emphasis was all on how bad things were, that ‘my baby done left me,’ low down dirty kind of thing, when if you look at the key figures of the music, they were using the blues as a life language and singing about ups as well as downs. Sure, they had a lot to complain about – there’s a lot to complain about still, which is why I sometimes shy away from watching the news on TV – but they made singing about it therapeutic and they sang optimistic blues, gospel songs, socially aware songs, and jaunty, tongue in cheek songs, too.”
Unable to make a living solely as a musician, Bibb eventually moved to Stockholm, where he taught by day and wrote songs and played gigs by night. He resisted opportunities that might have found him a lucrative but uncomfortable niche and stuck to his principles, convinced that he could continue in the country blues lineage and find an appreciative audience by being his own person. Waiting until he was in his forties for the appreciation to grow sufficiently has left him far from bitter.
“I think age makes you better prepared for success when it arrives,” he says. “I got knocked a bit in traditional blues circles for not being the reincarnation of Robert Johnson and having this sunny disposition but he was a cutting edge guy who was the product of the world around him. We can only speculate but if he were around today, I don’t believe he’d still be doing exclusively the stuff he recorded on those two amazing albums that are all we have of him. He would have moved on just as Son House, who was his contemporary, moved on and lived in the present while honouring the legacy.”
If the legacy involves the optimistic blues, gospel songs, socially aware and jaunty, tongue in cheek songs that Bibb describes his forerunners singing, then Get Onboard certainly honours it. The gospel element is particularly strong, something, he says, that’s always been there but he feels he had to grow into to do more justice. His songwriting sounds completely unforced, thanks in part not to country blues but country music influences such as Willie Nelson and George Jones whose lived-in voices he sometimes imagines singing his words as he’s writing them.
“That well-worn, almost world weary quality they have is a great attribute for storytelling because listeners believe that kind of voice,” he says. “You can fake it a little bit but it’s best if it’s natural and I find as I get older that my voice is going south, my best keys are getting lower, and that’s a good thing. I look at some of the songs I recorded earlier in my career and I’m still pleased with the writing, it’d just be nice to try them again with a voice that’s travelled some miles since then.”
From The Herald, June 11, 2008.