- Booker's Guitar Interview - Riveting Riffs
It would seem to follow that on an album with the title Booker’s Guitar, that there would be a song with the same name, however, what is surprising about blues singer / songwriter /guitarist Eric Bibb’s new record being released today (January 26th) is that for this particular song, the master storyteller played a guitar that once belonged to the Mississippi Delta blues iconic singer / songwriter Booker T. Washington White, who also just happened to be a cousin of B.B. King.
“A fan came up at the end of a concert and he said, ‘Thank you for your music, I’ve always appreciated what you do, and I am so glad that you are carrying on a great tradition that I have loved for years. By the way, I happen to own the guitar that used to belong to “Booker” White and if you would be interested in seeing it, and playing it, or even being photographed with it, I could meet you.’ That is the way a friendship with this person developed. The song “Booker’s Guitar,” is actually played with Booker’s guitar,” says Eric Bibb.
Eric Bibb has a penchant for paying homage to the numerous blues artists, many of them who were performing and writing early in the twentieth century, who paved the way for today’s singer / songwriters, so one cannot help but wonder what was going through his mind as he played “Booker” White’s guitar.
Demonstrating a sense of humor, Bibb says, “I didn’t levitate, I pick up a lot of guitars, colleagues’ guitars, and I go to music shops around the world and I pick up instruments, old instruments, new instruments and I almost always have daily experiences playing instruments that I do not own. This guitar (however), from the moment that I picked it up, had a sound that was just so rich, and I play a lot of vintage instruments, but this one had something special. “Booker” played this guitar a lot and it was worn, but it was in great shape. It was probably chromed again, but the headstock had all of his personal touches on it and just like the song says, taped to the side was an old set list that had probably been there for decades and decades. To see his handwriting on that set list was something. Vibrations are subtle and powerful feelings. When there are a lot of good feelings around music, people feel good. I think there were things about that instrument that had emotional residue. That’s the best way that I can describe it. I think “Booker” White would be happy about this project and certainly his friend was very happy about the way that it unfolded. Without any coercion or any stress, I was able to record it in a very slim window of time and it all worked out. The way that the project unfolded, told me that it was meant to be. I felt like I was chosen for this project, and that in itself is something that is a huge personal blessing, without getting too wired about it. It is just something that I felt I was ready for. What I have noticed in life, is that things work together and we are not as separate as we think and events are not really unconnected at all. I think that when there is such good feeling around the music that we make, we get help from another dimension to script things and to have things come together. There are a lot of examples of that kind of synchronicity at work, when you think about other people’s stories. I am so glad that Bruce Springsteen did the Seeger Sessions for example. It is another way of passing something on, something so good, that it just cannot be marginalized. Sooner or later, it has got to come to the fore, and sooner or later you have Pete Seeger singing in Washington at Obama’s inauguration and that was unthinkable a half century ago.
While Bibb acknowledges that there are many people to whom we owe a great debt in terms of preserving the heritage of so many quality blues and folk songs, he says that without Pete Seeger, we would be that much poorer in terms of the legacy that is ours to enjoy today.
Bibb says about Seeger, “He had such an incredible drive to his career and his mission was so clear to him from very early on. He has given us more than we could possibly calculate.”
Now living in Denmark, Eric Bibb is far removed from the New York City home that he once grew up in and in America, where his father Leon Bibb was revered as a folk artist. “When it comes to “Booker” White specifically, it is very possible that I first heard him in the context of growing up in a folk music home, where that music may have been around on records, but I may not have been aware of who he was. I was probably in my mid teens, when I first became aware of “Booker” White and heard some of his early recordings (such as) “Fixin’ To Die.” I heard the Dylan’s cover of that (song) and then, not very long afterwards, these guys were rediscovered; Mississippi John Hurt, Booker White and Skip James to name a few. They were on the folk circuit and I would have played the records with my friends. I remember that the record Sky Songs was a big record for “Booker” White. I saw “Son” House Jr. (blues singer / songwriter) at Newport when I was fourteen.”
Another side of Eric Bibb emerges during our conversation, and one that is central to who he is, that being his voracious appetite for reading books. His song “Turing Pages,” is already being adopted as an anthem by teachers and others, who are trying to encourage young people to read.
“I have always been a big reader and I think the touring life has increased my passion for reading, because I have a lot of down time when I am kind of stationary, and I have a lot of down time, whether I am traveling by train, plane, boat, car or whatever. When I am sitting somewhere and I have the need to occupy myself in a way that’s suitable to where I am, reading always works. Also, I am tempted by so many good books which are available at the airports. These days if you look at the international book market, I would be very curious to know what percentage of books, by any given author, actually sold at airports, because it is a fantastic place, as people wander around, while they are waiting for flights, they are browsing and they want an alternative to most of the crap movies that are on flights. I am starting to see, not only detective paperbacks, but some serious book sellers who are hawking their wares at airports around the world. There is no shortage of books in English and that are really good literature, anywhere (you go) in the world. That is the place that (airports) get you for impulsive book buying,” observes Bibb.
He continues, “More than that, reading is an extension of my traveling lifestyle. I am always traveling so it seems, and when I am not literally rushing from one plane to another, then I am traveling in my head, one way or another. It is a comfortable space for me to be exposed to a lot of different places, cultures and cuisines and all of that seems to really go together with my reading. It is also a great inspiration for any writer to read another writer, whether you are writing songs or novels. It is always interesting to clock the style of another writer, and (whether consciously or not) I think that in some sort of subtle way, that reading has affected my song writing.”
As for the type of books that Eric Bibb likes to read, “It runs the gamut. At the moment I just finished an Elmore Leonard book. I am pretty crazy about Elmore Leonard. He is a wild writer. He writes in several kinds of modes, but he is known for his quick fix crime novels, such as Get Shorty, which they made a movie out of. At the moment, I am reading The Night Manager by John le Carré, the spy master who has been around forever. I read biographies a lot, and I bought a big impressive looking biography of Albert Einstein. I like autobiographies by musicians who write their own life stories. Chuck Berry wrote a great book called Chuck Berry: The Autobiography and it really is his own story, and he of course is a wonderful songwriter, so I found his book to be fascinating. It can really be anything. I also have Tony Morrison’s book called A Mercy; a new novel, by a new writer.
A few years ago, an encounter with a shoeshine man in an airport led Eric Bibb to pen the ballad “Dr. Shine,” which brought this man to life for listeners. Bibb concedes that his love for reading has probably imbued him with his immense skills as a storyteller.
“I grew up listening to a lot of story songs and all kinds of music, but being immersed in that whole sixties folk era, a lot of the songs were older songs that told stories. I grew up on The Weavers. There were stories about shipwrecks and there were stories about legendary people like John Henry, so the story song, which has a narrative about a person, is really central to my whole musical education. Then in my own listening habits I tend to gravitate towards storytelling writers and a person who comes to mind right off the bat is Guy Clark, who in my opinion is a great writer, and he can create a character in a song that becomes a very real figure. You can get drawn into that character’s whole life through a couple of verses or a chorus. I think that my love for storytelling has definitely come into my writing,” he says.
“Turning Pages,” has been singled out in a few interviews, which I have had recently and I am happy about it. It is a bluesy, bouncy tune about reading, and it is a style of music that is more associated with itinerant or semi-literate minstrels, so it is funny to update an earlier song form in that way,” notes Bibb.
“Nothing would make me happier than to have “Turing Pages,” used to inspire young readers to really get into the world of books. That would really be a wonderful bonus for me if it was actually used in that way by teachers. I like working with young people and during my career I have taught music on and off. I have written songs with young people and I have had great experiences doing that,” Eric Bibb says.
“What is great about writing about your own experiences and then have them become the wares that you are selling, is you do not have to act, you only have to be yourself and to be present. As you find that is useful and inspiring to other people, it is as good as it gets, as far as I am concerned. I need to do something about that. It is a good jumping off point and I think that I have been given a cue here,” he says.
You can listen to the music of Eric Bibb on his myspace site www.myspace.com/ericbibb
Photo by Keith Perry, protected by copyright ©
Interview by Joe Montague for Riveting Riffs (www.rivetingriffs.com) ©
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