Eric Bibb is a devotee of pre-war blues and folk music. On his latest release, Lead Belly’s Gold, Bibb and brother-in-arms JJ Milteau mine the rich vein of Americana that is Huddie Ledbetter. We are all the better for the effort, and wiser for the reminder that roots music owes a deep debt to African-American artists.
I usually approach cover albums with a sense of apprehension. When it's been recorded by an artist I admire, I want to hear their work over that of their mentors. All too often, tribute albums mean more to the artist than the artist’s following. Worse yet, in some cases, these albums are contract fulfillment items. That is definitely not the case here. Bibb and company turn in a spirited and honest record that is important on several levels.
Coming on the heels of Bibb’s mountaintop testament to racial healing, Blues People, an album of covers might seem to be a letdown, or an example of an artist taking a breather. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead Bibb returns with a batch of songs that seem more like an extension of his previous album than one might think. In fact, Lead Belly’s Gold could be seen as a sequel of sorts.
American roots music has been all the rage for decades, but never more so than in the wake of Joel and Ethan Coen’s quirky film O Brother, Where Art Thou? That film, and the score by T Bone Burnett exposed a hunger in audiences for something that felt organic and honest, and kicked off a fever for string band music.
Thank God for Eric Bibb and others walking the path of restoration. Artists like Bibb, Guy Davis, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the Ebony Hillbillies remind us that there is much more color in the rainbow of the great American Songbook than we often see in the headlines. Bibb and his compadres are restoring to us a more complete picture of our musical heritage, and the results are deeper and sweeter than the whitewashed hoedowns sold to suburban middle class kids. We are enriched as a result.
One of the first things an album of covers forces us to ask is the question of whether or not the artist is committed to the project. If the artist is truly committed to the project, then the next query has to do with audience. Is the artist playing to a memory in his head that no one else can see? Or is the artist able to come down from the mountain and deliver the vision?
The good news is that Bibb is fully immersed in this work, and there is no better evangelist to reach the next generation than the son of Leon Bibb. The album is full of gems that stay with the listener. In agricultural terms, this is a harvest in seed form. When one realizes that they are fed not from the ear of corn, but from the seed that produced the ear, then one can begin to grasp what Huddie Ledbetter means to contemporary music, and what prophets like Eric Bibb mean to a culture that is seeking its sense of self.
Roots music is, at its very core, diverse. The tag “Americana” is problematic at best. While at times it comes very close to hitting the motherlode of creativity, it can, in the next instant, drift perilously close to becoming its own parody. Eric Bibb is proof that Americana is about more than a hipster beard and a charge account at a vintage clothing store. His presence also reminds us that we have a shared history; that we are more alike than we are different, and that color and culture are not reasons to divide us but rather to cause us to rejoice.
Rooted firmly in the Village folk scene, and in the pre-war blues he loves so much, Bibb is able to integrate the works of Lead Belly and Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Sebastian and Dylan, Rev. Gary Davis and Woody Guthrie -- not to mention Dr. King -- all in to a patchwork quilt that defines us far better than the popular trend towards faux-retro expression.
Americana music, like films about the 1960s, risks skirting the real thing in order to celebrate a sugar-coated memory. Bibb brings a much needed dose of reality to our pink sunglasses view of the past. We need this more than we know. Lead Belly’s Gold, if given more than a cursory listen, takes the listener out of the instant fix of current trends, into a river of song as deep and wide as the Mississippi river.
Oddly enough, Bibb starts out by making us uncomfortable. “Grey Goose,” a traditional song, serves as metaphor for the struggles of Ledbetter, and for others who have faced a world designed to see them demeaned and diminished. The treatment of the Goose gets harsher verse by verse. The imagery is brutal. The Goose becomes a symbol of survival, and of victory, flying across the sea, as Ledbetter himself did. That the Goose is shot down and rises from the ashes to fly, not alone but with his goslings, is a resurrection story worth telling. That Bibb is one of Ledbetter’s goslings cannot be denied.
The second track on the album brings a message of hope and redemption. “When That Train Comes Along/Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” finds Bibb in familiar territory, seeking the light that we desperately need. Bibb is joined on the track by Big Daddy Wilson on harmony vocals, and his warm pipes provide reassurance that salvation is indeed at hand.
“On a Monday” tells the plight of a man whose troubles grow worse with each day of the week. “The House of the Rising Sun” becomes, in Bibb’s hands, a song of quiet resignation and regret. The tone of his voice, more so than the lyrics, portray a soul surrendered to his fate. With a song this well-known the trick is not to trivialize it, or send it up. Bibb’s interpretation is that of man communing with his own thoughts, unable to affect the outcome of his days.
“Midnight Special” is a real pleaser. Never one of my favorite songs, Bibb’s take on the train song won me over. The Cajun-flavored arrangement, with its accordion and harmonica duet, feels as though it could have been recorded on the gallery of a clapboard shack in James Lee Burke’s New Iberia. This track would be great on the soundtrack of a Dave Robicheaux film, if someone in Hollywood could ever find a way to do Burke’s creation justice.
There is so much to like here. The beauty of it all is the way Bibb breathes new life into songs that have been performed countless times. “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” with Big Daddy Wilson on hand, is a delight and rivals Sonny and Brownie’s version for sheer fun.
Bibb provides a couple of fine original numbers and another, “When I Get to Dallas,” co-written with JJ Milteau. The latter depicts Ledbetter making plans to send for his woman once he gets set up in Dallas. Perhaps the biggest surprise is another train song, “Rock Island Line.” Bibb and Milteau ride on the steady drumbeat of Larry Crockett. Bibb the conductor punches our ticket while Milteau blows like a steam engine on his harp, Crockett’s drum clicking like steel wheels along the rails. This is a party train and it’s clear the brakes are gone. Bibb gets us to the station but can’t quite bring it to a complete stop, pulling up in a cloud of steam and Pentecostal fervor. Milteau outdoes himself here, becoming the mighty furnace of the great engine, hauling everyone on board along with him.
“Bourgeois Blues” follows, and returns us to Earth. Ledbetter’s song exposes the hypocrisy of discrimination in Washington, D.C., the so-called capitol of representation. “Chauffeur Blues” is next and turns the tables in a “look who’s driving who now” fashion.
As usual, Bibb surrounds himself with first class talent. Milteau is nothing short of amazing. He is a harp player who knows when to step to the fore, and when to ease back. On Lead Belly’s Gold he is a primal force. Milteau has an uncanny knack for knowing when to howl, and when fade, when to lead and when to follow. His sensibilities complement Bibb’s passionate delivery and together the two men create a musical document that honors Lead Belly’s legacy, all the while moving it a little further on down the road.
The strength of Ledbetter’s work, and the prison-to-palace arc of his life, make Lead Belly’s Gold an extension of Bibb’s last effort, Blues People, if not a sequel to it. Ride this train, people, you won’t want to get off.