The Wide World of Blues
Eric Bibb mines a rich tradition that embraces a vast spectrum of styles and sounds.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Like the wandering troubadours who spread the blues from the Mississippi Delta through the South and Southwest in the first decades of the past century, singer/songwriter Eric Bibb is a lone man with a guitar and a treasure trove of tunes.
For his performance on Sunday at the 21st Annual Monterey Bay Blues Festival, he’ll be playing solo, much like the blues greats who mesmerized him as a young man in the late ‘60s, legends such as Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and Lightnin’ Hopkins. A child of the second wave folk revival that brought long overdue attention to these early bluesman, Bibb absorbed the music straight from the source, though he had his ears open to a myriad of sounds.
“Fortunately I cut my teeth as a musician in the sixties, when traditional musicians who had some success in the pre-war era, troubadors, came to the fore,” says Bibb, 55, from London, where he’s lived for the past four years.
He’s quick to point out that on the ground, artists like Leadbelly, Hurt and Hopkins played a wide variety of material, including rags and spirituals, pop songs, folk tunes and ballads. His own music, documented on a series of compelling albums for Telarc, is infused with the same humanistic spirit.
In explaining his wide ranging influences, Bibb mentions Elijah Wald’s recent book Escaping the Delta, which offers a revisionist view of the role of the blues in black music. Rather than being the dominant style, Wald argues that the blues was just one part of an extensive body of tunes necessary for traveling musicians to master. Bibb’s sound hearkens back to an era before the record business started slotting musicians into specific niches. His own experience in the folk revival gave him his own taste of music’s free-flowing currents.
“The blues is a great language, it’s a great music, but restricting people to blues when they are multifaceted musicians was a marketing ploy that was totally artificial,” Bibb says. “Music has always been a world where people traveled freely across geographical and cultural boundaries with ease. It’s only when you meet the marketplace and the very narrow concerns of the commercial world that you start to see these stylistic separations.”
The son of folk singer and activist Leon Bibb, Eric was raised in a family suffused with music and politics. His uncle was the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet pianist/composer John Lewis, and the Bibb household regularly hosted guests such as Pete Seeger, Odetta and Paul Robeson (Eric’s godfather). Obsessed with music as a teenager, Bibb would feign illness to stay home from school so he could listen to records by folk greats like The New Lost City Ramblers, Josh White, and Joan Baez. At 16, his father recruited him to play guitar in the house band for his popular TV talent show Someone New. In the early 1970s, he headed to Paris, where he woodshedded to develop his blues chops. Later he moved to Sweden, becoming a key participant in Stockholm’s vibrant music scene, while continuing his ardent study of Delta blues and other pre-war styles.
“The mother lode, the core that’s running through much of the music that had an impact on me, was created by people who were having a hard time,” Bibb says, explaining the emotional currents upon which his music draws. “It’s the whole African-American story, where music is a spiritual tool for a traumatized group of people trying to survive (you can hear the same thing with the Irish, Armenians and Gypsies). The music was first and foremost sustenance. It was also entertainment, but it started out as a way for people to stay in touch with their divine roots and overcome incredibly difficult situations.”