What does it mean to you to have your book back in tangible, print form?
I’m thrilled. The new print copies look so great; I think they look better than the originals. They have a lot more photos than the original.
How long was the original pressing in print?
What happened was it was published by Billboard Books, and then their parent company went into a merger with Random House right around the time the book first published. My editor and publicist were laid off and even though the book won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Outstanding Book on Music, you couldn’t find it in stores, it wasn’t in stock; it was just nuts. So I was very grateful Random House gave me the rights to the book back and I was able to pursue republication, because it never got off the ground.
How did Dr. John come to write the forward for the book?
I had interviewed him for Blues Revue and when I was about halfway through writing the book, I thought, “Man, I’m an idiot if I don’t call Dr. John.” He’s such a language nut, and if you read his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, I mean, it has a glossary of New Orleans slang. So I called his management and they were really nice about the project and the next thing I knew, he called me and we just started to talk.
There were some words that I just could not trace, and one of them was “gig”, like where does “gig” come from? It was driving me crazy and I talked to him and he said, “Oh, that’s from the lottery business, from illegal gambling.” A three-number bet was called a “gig” and musicians adopted a lot of this underworld slang. A “gig” was a bet that you didn’t know if it would pay off or not. He helped me trace a lot of stuff; he’s just so insightful. Then I asked him if he would do the forward, he said “yes” and I’m still kicking myself.
Why do you think the influence of the Vodou religion on the blues has been somewhat overlooked in the public’s perception of the genre?
I think because Vodou has been so mischaracterized. There was a book written about it I think in the late 1800s or early 1900s and Hollywood screenwriters got their hands on it and it depicted Vodou as involving cannibalism and all kinds of depravity. That became the basis for all the zombie movies Hollywood churned out in the ‘30s and ‘40s, so we never really got a clear perception of Vodou. Michael Ventura, the music writer, wrote a great essay on Vodou in rock ‘n’ roll, and most of the points he makes connect to the blues as well. (“Hear That Long Snake Moan”, Shadow Dancing in the USA, Tarcher’s/St. Martin’s Press, 1985.)
For me, it was really interesting to realize Vodou came from Vodun, a West African religion that was forcibly stamped out in the [American] colonies, but in the Catholic colonies in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Vodou practitioners and priests who were imported into those colonies as slaves quickly grasped some similarities between Catholicism and Vodou. They both have a Supreme God and they both pray to ancestors or saints for intercession, so they grafted their religion… they sort of hid it under Catholicism and that became Vodou and Santeria.
What I think is so amazing is that this is how strong these people were. They came here as slaves, stripped of everything, and they still managed to hold onto certain ethics and aesthetics. Our phrase “Hey, that’s cool” or “That person is cool” directly comes from their idea that to be cool, to have a cool heart, means you’re connected with your divinity — you’re generous, you’re calm, you’re stable, you’re cool. I didn’t know that came from African religion. In Vodou ceremonies, when they’re drumming and they’re dancing, they’re trying to raise their consciousness to hook into God and that’s what we do as musicians and as dancers. It’s powerful stuff that made this country different from Europe.
One of the things that surprised me in your book was learning that the folk music of Irish immigrants influenced the blues in the Delta. How integral was Irish music to what we now consider the blues?
I’m not as well-versed in that as I should be, but I know that the Irish were treated as… They were directly called “white niggers” when they first arrived here or were first imported here as, close to slaves, indentured servants. They mixed a lot more with black people than other whites did, and they shared their music.
What artists today do you think are carrying on the tradition or the spirit of the blues?
Oh, there’s so many. Y’know, I really think there’s been a resurgence of blues feeling in popular music. We have artists like Jack White, the Black Keys, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Jack Johnson… there are so many who seem to be reaching to that or for that sound and that feeling.
Getting into some more specifics on artists and your particular tastes, if you could see a now-deceased blues artist perform live, who would it be?
Freddie King, Freddie King. I’m a guitar player and I never got to see Freddie King, and I freaking love his guitar playing. I have a live Freddie King album and I was listening to it and I was like, “Jimmy Page ripped him off so much!” I was so surprised at how much of Freddie King’s live stuff sounds like Jimmy Page.
If you had to choose between Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, who would it be?
Oh, gosh. I think I’d lean toward Muddy Waters. I was lucky enough to see Muddy Waters when I was really young. They both have that swagger and they both have amazing voices, but I just have a little more of a thing for Muddy Waters.
There always seems to be a dispute regarding whether Leadbelly was a folk or a blues artist. Do you have an opinion on that, which of the two categories he should fall into?
I would characterize him more as a blues artist, because he has that blues feeling. The nice thing about these artists is that they crossed genres all of the time and they didn’t really care.
Based on your research, what blues song do you think has the longest history? The one that always comes to my mind is “Stagger Lee”, which seems to have been around well over 100 years through its different variations.
I think you just hit on the one that’s probably been around the longest. “Stagger Lee” really comes around from the tradition of toasting and rapping. So much of African history was passed on through song. Griots would memorize the lineage of kings back hundreds of years and be able to sing these songs. On a more prosaic level, there were songs like “Stagger Lee” that were boasts and toasts. I think you hit on the one that I would go back to too as the oldest tune.
There is also this whole idea of the monkey, the lion and the elephant, the signifying monkey, and those go back a long way, too. Those are all stories that African slaves used to couch violent impulses toward their masters. When you have these purported love songs that are about killing a woman and dragging her in chains and all this kind of stuff, it’s pretty obvious to see these were metaphors for the slavery experience. That’s why I think there’s a lot of violence in blues songs, because you’re trying to come up with ways to express how you feel about the situation without getting in trouble and that’s what signifying is all about. There’s a couple of songs that are about signifying, like “The Signifying Monkey” by Smokey Joe and “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’” by Sonny Boy Williamson.
Regarding your album, Get Free (December 2010) why did you choose to cover Dion’s “Runaway”?
I love that song, and the first version I ever heard of it was Bonnie Raitt’s version. I would never have dreamed of covering that song — or “The Needle and the Damage Done”, which we also cover — but I was playing “Runaway” one time at rehearsal and my bass player and drummer were coming in, and I was just warming up, and they just started playing it, and they played it so great. I was like, “Oh my God, we may have to do this song!” I think it turned out pretty great on the record. I tried to hearken back a little back to Del Shannon’s 1961 version also in some of the guitar parts that I did. I was petrified to sing vocals because Bonnie’s vocals were so clear in my mind, but I tried to do my own thing.
Also regarding my band, we’re starting work on a new EP we hope to have out in a couple months.
If you were to introduce a newcomer to the blues, what album or artist would you recommend as a starting point?
There’s a few that I have in mind. There’s the American Folk Blues Festival set; that’s an incredible introduction to the blues. Another one that I really like was put out by Chess Records is a two-disc set of New Orleans blues. It’s just called New Orleans. I could go on for a while. For somebody who is more of a rocker, I think I would give them a Stevie Ray Vaughn record. I think people who are even into rock can relate to his playing and he can sort of get them into the blues backwards.