American Blues Scene caught up with the Sweden-based, American expatriate blues troubadour Eric Bibb towards the end of his marathon world tour to promote his latest highly acclaimed album, Ridin’. The tour ended in the UK on May 6th at Sheffield City Hall.
Eric summarizes the experience:
The Ridin’ tour has been great; we spent two months in Australia, had some gigs in France and then traveled to Scotland, England and Ireland.’ Eric’s music reflects his thoughts on current world and historical events and his own experiences whilst remaining entertaining, uplifting and inspirational. He talks to us about his early influences, his extensive career, future plans and of course his affection for hats!
My dad Leon Bibb was the portal to this whole wonderful world of music that I inhabit. He was a very fine, trained singer with a beautiful voice but was frustrated with his attempts to get leading roles in Broadway because there was a lot of segregation going on at that time in the late 1940s and early 50s. So he decided to create his own repertoire of folk and blues and joined the whole music renaissance that was happening in New York City. He teamed up with artists like Pete Seeger, Josh White, Odetta Holmes and Judy Collins which gave me the chance to meet all those people including a young Bob Dylan. I have my dad to thank not just for introducing me to beautiful music but wonderful musicians. My mother’s brother was also a well known piano player and composer, John Lewis, the founder of the modern jazz quartet so I was surrounded by great music.
My parents had an extensive record collection but I have to admit that my first personal record purchase was The Singing Nun! After that, I bought mainly blues and folk records. I had been listening to blues from the age of seven or eight, mainly people like Leadbelly, Josh White and Big Bill Broonzy. However, the biggest influence on me was Son House and I first saw him perform when I was 14 years old at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He was an amazing performer who changed my whole world view because he was a southern man from Mississippi singing deep Delta blues and I had never heard it like that before of course. I had his records but to see him perform was mind blowing and life changing. I started focusing on blues, not just acoustic blues but the Chicago blues scene, when I was 15. And I met a friend, Dave Myer, at high school who had an amazing collection of records. I would go to his apartment and he would educate me.
Then I moved to Paris as a young man and ran into jazz and blues legend Mickey Baker who introduced me to the music of Robert Johnson which just flipped my world upside down. I started delving into country blues recorded in the 1920s and ‘30s because it is such a strong genre, a rich tradition that has influenced so many musicians across the spectrum including pop and jazz. It is coming from people who have experienced incredible duress, abuse and oppression who have somehow emerged with their sense of who they are largely intact. This music has a supernatural quality and I think that quality is something that will appeal to young people for generations to come. There is so much generated by machines and artificial intelligence these days so the ‘real deal’ is someone sitting with a guitar and a harmonica, singing and making music from their own experience. Blues is such a strong tradition it will be around for a long time. With the internet, it is easier for people to access this tradition whereas in the past you had to seek out record collectors.
I have to say that although I am proud to be associated with the blues, and my music is absolutely rooted in that legacy, I don’t consider myself to be just a blues musician. I was always exposed to all kinds of music, a lot of jazz and a lot of classical music and that has influenced me as a writer. I realized that it was important in terms of a style that you can point to, in order to get work. I’m a finger-style guitarist. I’m not a strummer like Richie Havens who was a master strummer, and I’m not a lead player like Robert Cray. I am a Piedmont style guitar player, that ragtime hokum style, and Delta blues is in there as well. I arrange in the way that supports the song. I am not an improviser, rather I accompany myself and do that comfortably.
The highlights of my musical journey include the many collaborations with my heroes such as Mavis and Pop Staples, Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Ruthie Foster and singers from Mali in West Africa. I am always excited about my latest album and thinking about my next. The favorites among my own albums include Friends and Diamond Days, but Ridin’ is one of the best I have ever been able to produce with Glen Scott and is right on time and well-received. There are forces which are trying to delete important true stories from history so I try to write songs which fill some of the gaps, such as “Tulsa Town” which is a serious song about a real and tragic event. I am privileged not just to write and play groovy music but to inform people about events they need to know actually happened. You wonder where all the negative attitudes and prejudices come from but it’s embedded in our history.
A young blues player who I rate highly is Jontavious Willis from Georgia who joined Taj and I on the track, “Blues Funky Like Dat.” He is a real treasure who knows the old school stuff and has done his research, and he is a fine singer and player. I have also enjoyed working with Eric Gales, a superb electric guitarist. I have received many awards in my career, all of which are a nice nod from your community that they hear you and appreciate you, Grammy’s in particular. Jazz FM nominated me as Blues Artist Of The Year with The Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt, which was an honour to be included with them.
When asked about how he writes such inspirational songs such as “Needed Time” and “500 Miles,” Eric replies:
I don’t have a particular approach or specific song writing technique. To tell the truth I don’t know how it happens. It is a mysterious process and very spontaneous and organic, and I don’t know when a song is going to come through. It is fascinating because some people have a method and spend so many hours every day writing. I sit at the kitchen table with my guitar and the next thing I know a song is on its way!
With regard to my future plans, I am constantly writing, always got something on the go, and creating in one way or another. I am looking forward to focusing on my solo performances. I had 20 solo shows before the band joined me on my latest tour and the audiences enjoyed them. I have done some ambitious productions with Glen but we are now looking at stripped down material. It is enjoyable getting close to an audience in smaller venues and I prefer these to larger events with bigger soundscapes with visually more to look at. I started out as a self-accompanying blues troubadour and those are my roots and that is my focus even though I enjoy collaborating with other musicians.
Guitar and voice arrangements are now my focus and I will do more performing in that mode. I also like teaching in schools, mentoring and organizing workshops, telling people what my journey has been like and to help others on their way. If I hadn’t been a musician I would be a music teacher. I also like carpentry and I am a voracious reader so writing might have been another option.
And as for those trademark hats:
When I was about 14 my mother returned home from Spain with a matador’s hat and I loved that flat brimmed look which is where my hat affection started. I found a hat maker in Santa Fe recently, and had a hat made which cost more than I want to reveal, but a good hat is something to have and to spend money on!
Editor’s note: Additional reporting by Tom Bolam