In the interest of full disclosure, I have been on the Bibb train since I first heard his cover of “I Heard the Angels Singing” on the album An Evening with Eric Bibb. I was searching online for new music, a regular habit for me, when I decided to check Bibb out. I had heard his name around, but hadn’t actually had the chance to listen to him. I found Eric Bibb, and the song, on YouTube. When I clicked play, it was as if I had jacked straight into the grid, bypassing all the lesser relay stations on the way, and the surge that hit me was enough to lift me out of a funk and overcome the resistance I was facing personally at the time. I had heard the call and I got on board.
One of the most natural, valuable things that Bibb brings to the table is belief. His mix of blues guitar with gospel and social justice messages make a potent medicinal potion, which, if taken regularly, will keep your spirit from being dragged down by the fear-mongering and partisan politics dominating the airwaves these days. Bibb’s gift is that he still sees clearly the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated so perfectly, a dream Bibb encourages us to strive to fulfill and protect today.
Cynicism -- a refuge for the lazy and the dishonest -- is something that Bibb has no time for. Instead, he can look humanity in the eyes, and in spite of the darkness he sees, digs deeper, and call us up to do better. Best of all, he believes we can do better. His faith in his fellow man is not some sunshine Pollyanna naiveté. It is not the trite sloganeering of needy, spoiled, suburban cause-joiners. Rather, Eric Bibb’s conviction is grounded in the faith that undergirded the civil rights movement -- a movement his father Leon, a folk singer, actor, and activist, was deeply involved in.
On Blues People Bibb brings his considerable talents, a stellar cast of friends, and his father’s mantle of social activism to redirect us back to the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King. And it couldn’t come at a more needed time. During a moment in history when the shining city on a hill has had it lamp tarnished, Bibb lights the road to the mountain top, renouncing discouragement, not by closing his eyes to the troubles, but by head on staring them down, all the while believing people cast in the divine image can rise to find the blessing of the Old Testament psalmist, who wrote, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.”
Like Elisha of the Old Testament -- who sought a double portion of the prophet Elijah's anointing -- so Eric Bibb carries in his soul the spirit of his father, and of Paul Robeson, his godfather, and ultimately, the spirit of a movement and its charismatic leader, Dr. King.
“Silver Spoon” starts things off, part travelogue, part personal timeline, and all autobiographical journey of the soul. Popa Chubby provides accents to the story of a young musician set out into the world, the electric guitar emphasizing, in Bibb’s words, “People, you know I paid some dues.”
Although Eric Bibb’s father was an actor, folk singer, talk show host, and agent of social change - appearing in three films with Sidney Poitier, singing at the first Newport Folk Festival, on the Ed Sullivan Show eight times, and recorded on folk records alongside Pete Seeger and Sonny Terry- the younger Bibb set out to make his name just outside the large shadow his father cast. The thumping mid-tempo beat acts as a cadence for the tale of a man finding his way, and standing on his own, in the world.
“Turner Station” features a solid chugging rhythm guitar and a smooth, focused vocal from Eric Bibb. Guy Davis injects his sly humor; sharing vocal duties with Bibb on the Davis penned “Chocolate Man.” The double entendre lyric is given added weight by the contrasting vocal styles of Davis and Bibb. The gravel-voiced Davis brings to mind that uncle at the family reunion with the inappropriate sense of humor, Bibb is the cousin who quietly smiles, getting the joke.
I’m the chocolate man
I’m the chocolate man
I’ve got chocolate kisses
Get ‘em from me while you can
I put chocolate kisses in your mouth
You chew ‘em up north
And let ‘em slide down south
The dose of playful humor sets the stage for a sobering look at the history of American race relations. In this case, the duet with Davis provides both a little comic relief, and also a wink and a nod towards the fear of black masculinity that simmered just below the surface in white southern consciousness.
The centerpiece of the album is the chilling song, “Rosewood.” Based on a page of American history that was scrubbed from the collective conscience of the nation until recently, “Rosewood” is the tale of a black community in Florida that was burned to the ground as the result of a white woman’s lie. Fanny Taylor, white and married, was beaten and bruised by her white lover. To cover her bruises and her affair, Taylor claimed to have been attacked by a black man. In a south that worshipped white womanhood as the pinnacle of man’s genetic and cultural evolution, it was all that was needed to start the bloodletting.
The predominately black community of Rosewood was attacked over the course of a week in January 1923; many residents, including scores of children, hid for days in the swamps. In the end, the residents fled, never to return, and not one attacker ever faced any legal repercussions as a result of the brutal assault on this sleepy Southern town. Told from the viewpoint of a child witness, the story is delineated in a hushed, reverent tone, in the way that people respectfully refer to personal tragedies.
Next up, is “I Heard the Angels Singing,” written by the Rev. Gary Davis. This is a staple of Bibb’s repertoire, and here features vocal collaboration with The Blind Boys of Alabama. This outing is bright, and serves to resurrect our spirits after journeying to the heart of darkness in “Rosewood.” The reassuring words that "Your sins are forgiven, and your soul is free," liberate us from the failures of the past and give us authority to create a new future for ourselves and our brothers and sisters.
When Bibb sings that he saw an old devil walking down his way, and that the devil said, "Heaven's doors is closed, go home, don't pray," Bibb's response is to fight back. "Get back Satan, get out of my way, I don't want to hear another word you say." And in that response Bibb rebukes those who would cling to the old order, the voice that would say the battle is over, things are as good as they can get. Bibb would say acquiescence equals surrender.
One small note, while I love the Blind Boys, for me, personally, nothing will match the rave-up version of "Angels" that Bibb performed on An Evening with Eric Bibb. But that is my personal history talking. Still, there is much to enjoy here.
“Dream Catchers” contains a sweet flowing melody and the first of two guest appearances from Ruthie Foster. The tune about passing the dream to the next generation is as eloquent an example of Bibb’s worldview as a listener could ask for. The importance of passing the torch, of laboring to teach your children, is critical, not only to instill a sense of personal history, but also to point to the path towards destiny as well.
Next up is “Chain Reaction,” an anthem that portrays Bibb’s unapologetically hopeful spirit.
When I see you
I see me
Different branches of the same ol’ tree
If we all decide, we can start a chain reaction
Open up your mind – let’s embrace the imperfection
True hearts don’t lie – inside we’re all connected
‘S not too late – to change!
It is at this point that the album sequencing begins to reveal its genius. Going from the gentle humor of the Davis/Bibb duet to the somber reflection on man's inhumanity that is "Rosewood", to the resurgence of hope found in "Dream Catchers" and "Chain Reaction," Bibb dons the robes of a charismatic preacher, who shows us our fallen nature, and then, when we have seen our baser selves, points out the path to salvation.
Appealing to the better part of human nature, as Dr. King did, Bibb lifts the human family out of despair and into the realm of belief where change is possible. As a gospel bluesman surely knows, the good book states that what may seem impossible with man is possible with God. And so, “Needed Time,” the traditional plea for divine intervention, provides the foundation for the miracle of salvation to occur in real time, for those searching for better things. He, who has ears to hear, let him hear. Taj Mahal, Ruthie Foster, and The Blind Boys lock arms to march us from Selma to Montgomery, and then on to Mount Zion.
One of the things that Bibb does so well is resist the urge to lecture us. Instead he lets us walk beside him, taking in the trip as we go, letting us see through his eyes. He shows us humanity and humor, tension and tragedy, all while we are riding, hobo style, on his six string guitar, being reassured by his warm, compassionate voice. The man has a vision, one we need in order to heal the human family.
A good companion piece to this new release is the 2007 Mavis Staples’ album “We’ll Never Turn Back,” a collection of civil rights songs voiced by the grand dame of soul and gospel. Bibb seems to reference this with the arrangement on “Remember the Ones.” You can almost hear Pops Staples, his sweet, high vocal hovering above that greasy, bluesy guitar of his. An expression of gratitude for the generation that led the freedom marches and paid the price for their journey, the song reminds us to respect ourselves, and each other. A good and timely word to a world in need of hope.