Troubadour: Eric Bibb Points Us Towards the Promised Land

Baby, lift your window high do you hear
That sound
It’s the troubadours with their
Freedom song
-Van Morrison, 1979

The interview, and the show, was very nearly cancelled. I was sitting by the laptop waiting for the venue to decide, as an ice storm played havoc with the roads in the Washington, DC area. I had first heard Eric Bibb in 2008, during a time of personal tribulation. When I heard Eric, on Youtube, cover the Rev. Gary Davis’ “I Heard the Angels Singing,” it was a lightning rod to my soul and a lifeline to my heart. I hadn’t yet made the connection between Eric and the singer I heard on a television program in 1971, another troubadour who riveted me with his rendition of “500 Miles.” 

The plan was to see Eric, and Guy Davis, another blues hero of mine, at The Blackrock Center for the Arts, in Germantown, MD. Eric agreed to an interview after the show, backstage. I figured on a late night, the show would end around 10:30; and I hoped Eric would not be too road weary to spend a little time talking. As it turned out, the initial disappointment with the weather turned into a blessing in disguise. While I had hoped to do the interview in person, the storm had stranded Eric in Wilmington, Delaware. With nothing but time on his hands, we were able to speak more in- depth over the phone. 

Finally, after several hours, the venue announced the revised agenda; the show wasn’t cancelled, just postponed one week. My hope of seeing Eric Bibb perform was still alive. 

What follows is a conversation with a genuine artist, one who not only entertains, but, in the time-honored folk tradition, stirs our hearts and minds to want a better world for ourselves and our children. He was very open, humble, and warm. We talked about the Village folk scene, Selma, and seminal artists such as Pete Seeger, Odetta, Richie Havens, and Taj Mahal. And of course, Leon.

Eric is one of three children, the oldest, by twenty minutes, of twins born in Queens in 1951. He has two sisters. His father was an activist, folk singer, and actor, back in the days when many black artists identified themselves as folk singers. Even John Lee Hooker, on early recordings, referred to himself as a folkie. These were the days when having a song or two on a "Hootenanny" collection was something to be proud of. Eric's father appeared on the Ed Sullivan show eight times, and had roles in three films with Sidney Poitier.

How old were you when you realized your father’s job was different from that of the fathers of the other kids in the neighborhood?

Really young, about six or something. I saw him on TV. We were woken up really early in the morning to see him on the Dave Garroway show. And none of my friends dads were on TV. A little later we would see him on the Ed Sullivan show; everybody watched Ed Sullivan.

Joe McSpadden: I read that your dad asked you to be in a band on a television show that he had…

Eric Bibb: Yeah, the show on NBC was called Someone New. It was his idea, he pitched it and got it through, and it was this talent show, presenting new talent. He also sang a bit on that show …and he had a house orchestra, with a lot of great musicians in it. For some reason he took a chance and decided to throw me into the deep end of the pool. As a sixteen-year-old I had this job. I had to join 802, the local musicians union. I had to struggle through learning to read these charts…to try to keep up with these pros around me.

That must have been quite challenging…

It was. It was really exciting because I felt really out of my depth. I think my father must have felt that, if I was really serious about it, then it was best if I had some exposure to the real deal early on…and actually having the opportunity to not only play with...but just hang with…and observe the way professional musicians comported themselves. In hindsight it was very useful for me.

How old were you when you first performed for somebody else?

It probably started in school with Glee club situations…and I realized that I really enjoyed singing. I was not the kid who was chosen to do solos. In my mind I didn’t stand out as some sort of super accomplished prodigy. I just loved music, and spent hours playing a lot of my parent’s records at home. I had my own Victrola by my bed. I even put on music in the dark when I was supposed to be asleep, ear close to the speaker. I started playing guitar around seven or eight-years-old.  By eleven I would have started performing in summer camp, something like that.

You grew up hearing your father sing, and spent time around other great musicians. Your music seems to be carrying, perhaps, tradition. That may not be quite the right word, but, your music seems to carry on in the spirit of The Staple Singers, and of course your father’s legacy of trying to bring about social change. What strikes me about your own writing is that isn’t afraid to look a broken world in the face, and yet, still find hope in it.   That reminds me of a song, “Hope in a Hopeless World,” that Pops (Staples) recorded, and I recorded later on. For me, having music is just a way of dealing with a very divisive and broken world. When you look at the news, all you seem to see is conflict dominating the airwaves. What I try to do is balance my awareness of that outer world with an inner conviction, that stems from my upbringing, that says it is possible to unite people in a common cause and to move forward in a way that is beneficial to everybody. No matter how dire things look. And they were looking pretty dire in the sixties, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement is what I am referring to. There were some events that were so dramatic and traumatic for everybody that feeling hopeless was just around the corner. Fortunately there were people who had been exposed to unionizing early on, and experienced setbacks, whether they were civil rights veterans…people who were turned down or beaten down, and incarcerated for years but somehow found the strength to carry on. That whole... carry on…that Pete Seeger energy… was such a big part of my upbringing. It came on so early that I just took it as a fact of life. I wasn’t consciously aware of this; I was just in the flow of it. It wasn’t until later that I realized what an impact it had. 

There was no better opportunity to see the link between the power of music and the power for social change than the Village folk scene.

That’s true. My direct link, on my own, apart from my dad, occurred when I was eleven. It was then that I was allowed to go, with my guitar in its cardboard case, on my own, on the subway from Queens to the Village. This was on Sundays, and I went to Washington Square Park. It was just a delicious carnival of music that was incredibly exciting for an eleven-year-old. So I was aware of things that were going on, and I had a chance to discover things, on my own, from a fairly early age. I got a chance to hang out at museums and folklore centers, look through books, and observe other folkies that were quite a bit older than me. I sort of reconnected with this, some years ago, when I moved to Stockholm. There were a lot of things that connected to my earlier life, and it became clear that this was my path. 

When did you first discover the adrenaline rush of applause?   Hmm…that’s a good one. My first real concrete memory is at the summer camp I attended called Shaker Village, in the Berkshires. I was about fourteen and I remember performing often. And there was a song that really seemed to be my parade song. It was a song written by Len Chandler called “To Be a Man.” I remember it was in A minor and it was a rousing song... it got me going and it got the audience going, and it would elicit a big response. My father would talk to me about his set lists; differentiate between ballads and what he would call drivers. That song was definitely a driver.   Picture   I have found video and songs online, of your father performing. Sadly, very little of that old vinyl has been reissued in other formats. I am pleased to see groups like the Ebony Hillbillies digging into the roots of folk music. I think that most young people today do not associate folk music with black artists.

Right, and that’s just ignorance. There is a lack of awareness of musical history and American popular music. But if you are serious about it, sooner or later you discover that much of American, and even international music, is rooted in the African- American experience. The working class experience of America has produced so much timeless folk music. Leadbelly comes to mind right away, of course. I am encouraged that there are young people, especially African-American people, who are investigating black string band music and making that a career. It’s an existential statement for a whole new tribe of folks who are socially aware.

I first heard your father when I saw him on television in 1971. I do not remember the name of the show; it may have been on PBS. I was fourteen and recorded it on my little Panasonic cassette recorder, placing the mic close to the TV speaker. The first artist on the program was Mike Seeger, and the last was Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. In the middle was your father. He sang 500 Miles. I had heard that song before; Peter, Paul and Mary come to mind. But there was something in Leon Bibb’s delivery that day. He delivered the song in a way that I think a lot of younger artists miss. He wasn’t there to show how many notes or octaves he could hit; he delivered the heart of the song.

It’s interesting that you say that, because that song was a standout of his repertoire. One of the reasons it was a standout was his love of the song. It really touched him deeply. My father is from Louisville, Kentucky, and that song most likely reminded him of other songs that were part of his background. What my dad was capable of doing... if a song really touched him... he was capable of living it. His technique as a singer was so solid, he was always a confident singer… and very proud of his voice. But he didn’t come from that world of competitive chops, and cutting…people. He relied on his beautiful tone and control…and his connection to a song. Another thing I want to say about 500 Miles…I was around when the arrangement for that song came into being. It was the collaborative work of an excellent guitarist named Stuart Sharp, and bass player Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s dad. They came up with a really beguiling arrangement that was based on an arpeggio on the guitar part. It was a beautiful, rolling arrangement that, to me, trumped every other popular arrangement of the song that was out there at the time. It was recorded on an album titled Encore on Liberty records. So yeah, I’m not surprised that song stood out for you.

It has an emotional integrity to it…and there is a dignity in the reserve… in the way that someone carries their pain... that I found intriguing. I don’t know that if you had asked me, at fourteen, that I would have been able to articulate that. It has an honesty that surpasses a group getting together and knocking off another folk song.

Yeah, I think that’s true…

He just turned ninety-three…

Yeah, I spoke to my sister recently. I haven’t spoken to him in a little bit. But he still tells me about things he wants to do, musically.

I saw a picture of your father that was taken at Selma. He is at the microphone with Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, and Oscar Brand.

That’s right. I just saw the movie Selma, which is an excellent film. It turns out that my cousin, Brad Young, is the director of photography. I have heard that there is archival footage, stock documentary footage, of the event interspersed in the movie. Someone said my dad is in there, so I am going to have to go back and see it again, and see if I can freeze frame it, and find him. He was there, at that march, and what I remember him saying to me…that picture showed up in Life Magazine...he said what he remembered was the guitar was so out of tune, and they were struggling to deal with things like that. It was a very heady moment, and that memory, ironically, stuck out to him.   Funny what sticks out in the memory…  
He was very moved about the whole situation, and being there with Joan and Harry, who were friends. I’m sure they were aware of the danger they were in. But artists are funny, their artistic vanity survives even those moments, and they worry, “Did we sing in tune,” and all of that…(laughter)…

We were talking earlier, about people rediscovering their folk roots. Things get lost over the years, and history is often not communicated to the subsequent generations. I wonder, sometimes, if the younger kids today realize that what undergirded the civil rights movement was the faith community.

You’re absolutely right. It’s often overlooked because, if it is a world that you are not a part of, it is basically a world you are not aware of. As pervasive and prevalent as it is in many people’s lives, had it not been for the organized African-American clerical community, there would never have been a civil rights movement. And that goes way, way back, beyond the sixties, you know? All of the momentum for social equality stems from the organized church within that community. And, as you say, I am sure there are some really well-researched tomes on that subject, but it’s not the sort of thing you are going to see in the airport book shop.

You must have been proud of your father. To have that role model…fathers have such a big impact on us… that must have been a blessing.

Yes, I was proud of him. Fathers do have an impact… but it was something I wasn’t really appreciative of until later. At the time, as a teenager, as proud as I was of my dad, the thrust for my own identity, and the need to rebel, was also part of the mix. I needed the perspective of time to really see, not only how much confidence he gave me, but what a dramatic time it was to be connected to that … that history making part of it…it gave me a lot of personal mojo…

As young boy, trying to learn the guitar, I had certain artists I looked up to. At fifteen I wanted to be John Sebastian. I loved the way he held an audience in the palm of his hand.

Oh, he was a good role model for that. He was the consummate artist, which had something to do with the fact that he came from a family of musicians too. That was something that made him stand out. He was so at ease with his own prodigious talent, and generous because of that. He didn’t show insecurity, though he might have felt some inwardly, but it didn’t show. He was a natural powerhouse talent, and a humble guy. 

So when you were starting out, who did you want to emulate?

I always point to four major influences. The first was my dad. I had a Guild 12-string loaned to me by one of my dad’s guitar players. And I would be in the basement rehearsing my repertoire, which included a lot of my dad’s songs. And I remember my mom coming down and telling me that I sounded good, but that I was going to have to develop my own repertoire. It kind of took me by surprise, how serious she was.  The fact that I remember that says a lot about how much it impacted me. I adored Odetta, musically. I painted a huge portrait of her, with Tempura paints, at the foot of my bed. I made a grid, about sixteen squares with some see-through paper, I took her album cover, and transferred it to a grid on my wall.  Every contour of the outlines of her face, and the details. The album was Odetta at the Gate of Horn. Unfortunately I painted it directly on the wall, so I couldn’t take it with me when we moved. But that was the image I woke up to every morning. It was a beautiful profile of her. She really knocked me out, her repertoire, her guitar playing. I went to see her live when I could. From there I went to Richie Havens.

He was one of the artists I wanted to ask you about…

I was completely obsessed with Richie, I followed him around, I went to every New York gig I could. I loved to see him down in the Village. He performed solo and sometimes with a side musician, another guitarist or a bongo player. But I really enjoyed him most, playing solo. I was mesmerized by his guitar playing, and his voice. Richie got so far into his own music, you know, onstage, that he was just consumed by it. And it was so powerful. And the next artist, from age sixteen on, was Taj. He was my next great role model. I had heard a lot of great players, Rev. Gary Davis, Tim Hardin, Joni Mitchell, in the early days.

I saw Jerry Jeff Walker, Son House, loads of people. I was influenced by them all, but Taj was much more than an influence. He was bigger than life.  Like Richie, he was someone I wanted to be like. Not really copy them…there was something about their whole attitude and their way of taking space in the world that was intriguing to me. Their whole way of being men in this world, a world that often wasn’t supportive of their stance and their confidence. The fact that they were powerful on their own turf and their own terms; and were not overly bitter, as African-American men. I was drawn to that power. The fact that they were not defeatist or victim oriented. Huge influences.

Richie Havens moment in the Woodstock film was as powerful as any other artist that appeared in that film.

Totally. Fortunately for him, that took his career into the next couple of decades in a very regal fashion. It served him very well. It made him an iconic figure. It is interesting that someone who was not a rock star had such prominence in the aftermath of that film.

Stay tuned for part 2, in which we finish the interview and talk about Pete Seeger, being a folk troubadour, and breaking down genres, and review the concert with Guy Davis, Mark Murphy, and Michael Jerome Browne.

Beautifully done...can't wait for Part 2...thanks so much!

Yes, I eagerly await part 2. 

Very nice interview, with an artist I've really liked for years now.  Just wish I'd discovered him earlier.

There is a duet album with his Dad, Leon -- Praising Peace, a tribute to Paul Robeson, the great American actor, musician and activist. Well worth looking out for anyone interested in either father or son, or Robeson, or the musical history of activism and struggle.