Eric Bibb’s rich traditions
Interviewed by Les Thomas
“Keep it simple, forget all that fancy stuff” was Bob Dylan’s advice to the 11-year-old Eric Bibb. With a father who was immersed in the 1960s New York folk scene and family friends like Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, Eric Bibb is steeped in rich traditions of song. And he carries on those traditions with extraordinary grace. Don’t miss him on his upcoming tour.
Eric Bibb: Unpaved interview by Les Thomas (Part 1 of 2)
How many times have you been to Australia so far and what sort of feel have you got for the country?
I think I must have been there at least six or seven times. I really enjoy being in Australia. I really enjoy the music lovers because they’re so enthusiastic and appreciative. And I think it’s a beautiful place to be with so many natural wonders and a really inspiring culture, for sure.
And I guess since leaving your country of birth at age 20, living in Scandinavia for that period, would you say you’ve got an international perspective when it comes to places and people?
Absolutely. I’ve spent a lot of my adult years away from the United States where I was born and raised and meeting the people that I’ve met through those years and being able to travel to many different places and countries has given me some kind of global outlook that I think has influenced just about everything about me, including my music.
Clearly one of the main things that I get from listening to your music is a sense of transcendence but also strong connections with ideas and people and you certainly had no shortage of incredible influences at a very young age.
Yeah. It was an amazing upbringing being surrounded by so much music and so many marvelous musicians and I can only say that it’s had a huge impact on the musician I’ve become.
You speak very fondly and touchingly about your strong musical relationship with your father. What do you think were the qualities he had as a musician? How would you describe him?
First of all a devotion to the culture of the voice that has been consistently passionate all his life. He’ll be ninety years old tomorrow and I’m in Vancouver where he lives and we had an opportunity to share the stage last night at my gig in Vancouver and he’s still singing beautifully. I would say that that’s one of the greatest gifts he’s given me is an amazing appreciation for the human voice and its possibilities.
Great to hear he’s still at it aged ninety. If only we couldn’t all be doing it at that age!
I tell you, if I sound anywhere near what he sounds like at his age, I’ll be overjoyed because he’s taken good care of his healthy and he’s in great spirits and his voice just sounds wonderful, wonderful. You’d never guess that he’s ninety years old hearing him.
And another early influence on your life must have been your godfather Paul Robeson. Can you tell us a bit about that relationship?
Well we were only able to actually be around him on rare occasions, but he was a presence, nonetheless, in my upbringing because he’s courage and his music were celebrated in my family all the time. I have a photograph of him holding me in one palm of his hand and my twin sister in the other palm at our christening and that photo was kind of an iconic part of my childhood.
He was also an [intellectual]. He was physically tall, strong, athletic, but he had a great intellectual capacity as a lawyer [activist]. Did that really mean a lot to you and has that influenced your own intellectual path?
Absolutely. Primarily because Paul was my father’s friend and mentor, to some degree. And his thinking and his take on the world around him really influenced the whole way my parents brought us up, so Paul was this fascinating man, a renaissance man, if you will. And later, having read quite a few books about him, I got to know more about him and just admire him immensely for who he was and what he actually gave the world.
Indeed and I guess he was a living example of dignity at a time when that must not have been all that easy.
You’re right about that.
You seem to carry yourself with an astonishing degree of grace that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a hard touring musician given the frustrations of the road. How do you maintain such a level and positive demeanor?
Thank you for the compliment. It’s something I work on, but it’s also something that’s been cultivated in my upbringing. My dad and my mum as well, were people who I feel have tremendous amounts of grace and poise and patience with the world around them. I think they’re positive people who have been supported by great friends throughout their lives and they’ve passed that on to me and my siblings. So, in a way, it’s just an extension of my upbringing.
And it seems when you’re telling stories or singing songs about people like Booker White or singing songs about the 1927 flood, there’s a complete transparency of ego it would seem. You seem to be solely there to deliver a message, which is something I would say that’s fairly unusual.
Well again, thank you for noticing that. It’s something that’s important to me, to actually be the story, not to overwhelm the audience with the ego needs of the storyteller. It’s like the tradition that I’m coming from and that I’m a part of it’s much bigger than any one person even though there were giant personalities associated with it like Leadbelly and [Woody] Guthrie and other people. But still, those people, as great as they were as performers, they always put the story and the tradition first and the culture first. So that’s something that I must have just absorbed through osmosis. Pete Seeger is another great example of somebody that really bowed to the great river of song and just became a vessel for sharing it. It’s a nice way to approach music because it’s something huge and something difficult to analyse in terms of quantity and it’s just nice to be a part of something that powerful.
Eric Bibb: Unpaved interview by Les Thomas (Part 2 of 2)
So we’re living in incredibly dramatic times so of course I’m finding all kinds of inspiration in current events, not necessarily directly, but somehow the whole way things are playing out seems to be a part of a long unfolding story that I’m used to making a part of my work. They’re very exciting times, for sure.
Having spent most of your life outside of the US but playing music that has it’s root from deep within that part of the world, how has that affected your sense of freedom or distance? How has it played out for you musically and creatively?
Well always sort of being aware of a bigger picture, not the just local picture that I was a part of, because my parents were worldly people who had friends from around the world and they were concerned with global issues already from my earliest memory. I think that’s made me comfortable with being a citizen of the world and it’s made me flexible, I think, and open generally speaking.
What have been some of the great surprises musically that you just wouldn’t have had if you weren’t where you are?
Well for one thing, I remember ten years ago I was happy to be included in a Putumayo compilation called Mali to Memphis. When that record was released I happened to be in the same place as one of the musicians featured on that album Habib Koité from Mali and we did a short promo tour and got to be friends and always said that we would like to collaborate and that collaboration finally came to pass. I spent eight days in Mali in Bamako his home town just a few weeks ago and we recorded an album that will be available later this year sometime, but that was a dream come true and that was certainly something that has a lot to do with what we sere just talking about.
When you were playing with people in Mali was there a strong sense of some of those very ancient roots of what became the blues for you?
Yeah, absolutely. To actually be able to perceive it before I traveled to West Africa, for sure, but to actually experience it in West Africa was an epiphany and the ease with which I was able to make music with Habib in his home place and also feel somewhere at home in West Africa, in Mali specifically, was a real revelation. Not a surprising one but, nonetheless, a thrilling one.
Quite a few people have tried to make that journey and connection. I’m not really sure about the technical side of it, but is it the case that the pentatonic scale is basically still used and has always been used in that part of the world?
Yes! That’s part of it I think. Let’s face it, the blues is certainly a hybrid, if you will, a meeting of several cultures, but the root and the dominant part of blues expression, at least the blues that was recorded at the beginning of the last century, that music is strongly African, more African than anything else and that was something that I could really feel while I made this recorded with Habib, that without struggling to find common ground we had a language in terms of musical orientation that just seemed to mesh without much ado at all.
Do you have any musicians that are coming to with you on this tour?
I’m going to be touring this time again with a wonderful guitarist who I came out with last time I was in Australia. He’s from Sweden. His name is Staffan Astner And he was featured on that album Troubadour Live that was my last major release and a great musician and somebody who I continue to grow with musically and find new ways of making the songs come alive, so I’m really excited about this tour because it’ll be a reunion of sorts.
When do you know you’ve really done your job in live performance?
I can tell you I had an experience last night was probably way at the top of the scale when it comes to what I want to do, which is basically commune with the audience, and have the music be a way of making us appreciate something that we’re all a part of, in the music and beyond the music. And sometimes if the show is divided into two halves, I can already tell when I’m back in the dressing room at the midpoint from the buzz that comes over the intercom, I can tell from the energy level in the lobby that we’re really making that connection and that’s a really nice feeling.
You also have a fairly . . . sophisticated level of ideas in your songwriting, in your lyrics. Do you find that you can easily put very heavy ideas together with pure emotions?
Good questions. I’m finding it more and more easy because I’ve had enough experience successfully putting all of those ingredients together, so I’m relaxing about it. I don’t strain. But what I do notice is that the real subtle, sophistication to a lot of old blues lyrics that might have escaped me when I was younger and I realise I’m drawing on a tradition that already has baked into it that ability to put complex human experience into simple colloquial phrases that still escape being banal, and that’s a tricky thing. And I don’t think you can analyse it. I think you just have to absorb enough of what’s already been written and try to somehow get on that wavelength. Dylan is really good at that, of course.
It’s clear for anybody that’s taken the time to observe that you’re very true to your own artistic instincts, which has got to be part of your reason for being inspired in an ongoing way. Can you talk about that?
That’s true. I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t had a lot of commercial pressure on me, external, to conform to something that’s not natural for me, so in that sense I feel very very privileged and fortunate to still be enjoying the degree of success that I have without having the negative aspects of success, meaning external pressure to sell products for somebody else’s agenda, so I feel very fortunate there.
One of the songs that you play that I have a very tender spot for is The Cape by Guy Clark. I just love Guy Clark’s songs. What grabbed you about that song originally?
I heard that song some time ago and then it was that wonderful presenter on ABC, Angela [last name unknown] who said “Eric, I think you should have a good look at covering Guy Clark’s The Cape and I went back and listened to the song and realised that she was right. It really fit me like a glove and I’ve been opening my shows with that song for a long time now and . . . my dad commented on it last night and he said, ‘what a great opener.’ And I’ll keep doing that.