An Interview with Bluesman/poet Reverend Freakchild: Soul-Manifesting from the man who feels the Blues

"A blues musician can play the notes but the bluesman feels them.  Like Robert Johnson sings in Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)..."

Reverend Freakchild: Blues Buddha

Reverend Freakchild (a.k.a. Fordham, Cleophus James, Fleetwood, Sal Paradise, Floyd Graves) in the tradition of such modern musical irreverent Reverends as Rev. Horton Heat, Rev. Billy C. Wirtz or Rev. Billy of the Life after Shopping Choir - such is Reverend Freakchild. He has played in many bands including an early incarnation of Soul Coughing with M. Doughty. The Rev then formed the roots rock jam band Bananafish in Boston and then did some work with The Neptune Ensemble, The Soul Miners (w/ guitar virtuoso Matt Rae), The Lucky Devils and The Cosmic All-Stars touring internationally.

The Rev. spent 3 years off-off-off Broadway singing blues and spirituals on Sundays at Tobacco Road, the now defunct NYC hippie hangout replete with drug addicts, hookers and music freaks. The Rev. has also served as a member and featured soloist of the Metro Mass Gospel Choir performing at such venues as Carnegie Hall, Avery Fischer Hall and the Town Hall Theater. The Rev's music has been featured in many TV programs and commercials, and also national radio advertising campaigns. He grew up in Hawaii, holds a degree in philosophy and religion from Northeastern University in Boston and now currently resides in Manhattan, New York. He continues to perform and preach saying, "Music is my religion. Through song I seek transcendence!"

Reverend Freakchild is a multiple throwback. He evokes the great "blue-eyed soul" vocalists of past decades, like Leon Russell or a laid-back Tim Buckley. But he's also, like John Hammond Jr., a student of traditional acoustic blues guitar. He also brings jazzy, but not flashy, touches to his playing, like a humbler version of Jorma Kaukkonen or Leo Kottke.

The term psychedelic is derived from the Greek words ψυχή (psyche, "soul") and δηλοῦν (deloun, "to manifest"), translating to "soul-manifesting"

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the Psychedelic Country Blues mean to you?

Lots of people ask me, "How'd ya get that name, Reverend Freakchild?" And usually my first honest answer is, "Well it was a hell of a trip on Magic Mushrooms!" And the other answer is a bit like the story Mississippi Fred McDowell tells about how everyone calls him 'Mississippi' Fred McDowell but he's really from Tennessee.  I'm not really a Reverend, although I did get a Rev. license from the back of the National Inquirer years ago.  I'm not a freak, although some ex-girlfriends might have something different to say about that and I'm no longer a child.  But when I was much younger and playing in bars before I was legally allowed to drink I'd play these old spirituals and blues tunes and people would say, "You're like some kind of Reverend Freakchild." Hey maybe I'm just a reincarnation of an old soul that use to like to play the Blues.

 

What first attracted you to the Blues & how has the blues and jazz music changed your life?

Well my mom was a concert classical pianist so that's where I got my music from - And my grandmother use to play piano accompaniment for silent movies. But when I was growing up my Dad played me all kinds of blues music he loved.  I remember those classical stations that my mom uses to listen to never really came in too good driving around Hawaii where I grew up.  But when it was just my Dad and I out cruising around I didn't have to wear my seat belt and he would pop in the 8 tracks and blast Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed and maybe a little Neil Diamond - hey it was the 70's after all.  So blues and rock music just made sense to me at a very young developmental age.

The Blues for me now really just captures a mood, a feeling and a life that I live, it just sounds right.  I've been listening to a lot of Hound Dog Taylor, Elmore James or RL Burnside recently and it just makes sense for some reason to my ear and mood - like a puzzle piece that fits into my mind and captures what I can't quite articulate.  And if I got a feeling and I can't find a tune that describes it I'll write a tune to capture what's going on with me but they always seem to come out bluesy with a little chaos on the side - maybe that's the influence of all that classical music my Mom still plays and made me try to play when I was a kid.

Weird story: I went to a concert a few years back with a girlfriend and there was a piano and orchestra piece that I knew note for note but looking at the program I could not recall ever listening to or buying the recording.  I asked my mom about the piece and she said that it was one that she was working on when she was pregnant with me.  So I must have heard it for at least 3 or 4 hours a day for 9 months.  And I thought that was strange until my sister told me that Elvis's Mom went to Pentacostal Church all day long singing songs when she was pregnant with Elvis and his twin brother, who incidentally was born dead.

 

How do you describe Reverend Freakchild sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Other than Buddhism, Music is my religion.  I seek transcendence through song.

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Now is always the most interesting - as an Artist I am always becoming something and that's exciting.  With this latest CD I had a bunch of old raw blues covers I wanted to put out.  So it actually became an exercise in contemplating death.  At first I thought I might actually die before these recording could be released.  The process brought up a lot of fear and some realizations that I was reminded of by Robert Thurman at a Menla retreat this past summer, are echoed in the Tibetan book of the dead.  First that everybody's gonna die, second no one knows the day or hour of their death, and 3rd you can't take anything with you. 

So I decided to leave this CD behind as a memento to my life.  As we did the artwork for the CD I got a great writer Jon Sobel to actually write an obituary for Reverend Freakchild, like the ones you see on all those reissue blues albums.  We included an edited version as the liner   notes in this latest CD Chaos and Country Blues and I think it came out great.  The look is fabulous and the stripped down blues sounds of love and death songs are beautiful and haunting. So even now as we share this project with the world my mind wanders on the next project... Maybe it'll be titled, "I ain't dead yet!" Blues poetry (lyrics) and music, can these two arts confront the “prison” of the spirit and mind?

I sing a lot of songs about death.  So when I do something like Blind Lemon Jefferson's 'See that my Grave is kept Clean' it gets me in touch with some deep truth - on a musical, intellectual, and spiritual level.  I'm comforted by the fact that others have come before and are hip to this feeling in the song - and also as I sing I hope others dig on the vibe I'm trying to get to - that hey life is short and if ya meditate on death you'll see the impermanence of life and maybe enjoy life more.

 

What was the relation between the blues music, poetry and philosophy?

For me they are all interdependent.  They all have a dependent origination in my view.  Although I studied Philosophy at University I left with only a love of Buddhism and the Blues.  And Buddha talks about the nature of reality and the truth of suffering.  That's what the blues does all the time - it sings to this strange world we find ourselves in - whether we're happy, sad, confused or crazy.  Sometimes the poets do it beautifully - and a real bluesman is a poet.  

A tuff salt of the earth performer that knows the truths of reality through living life, singing songs and sharing it with those that will listen.

 

What would be your first decisions as a “Blues minister of education and culture”?

Wow that sounds like a lot of responsibility - maybe give everyone a harmonica (Haha).  Anyway there are many great organizations that help to promote and continue to preserve the wisdom of the blues.  Robert Johnson Blues Foundation is a good one

 

In your opinion what was the events that made New York to be the center of the avant-garde and underground art?

I'd look to Marcel Duchamp (although I think he spent a lot of time in Philly too) and the abstract expressionists like de Kooning, or painters that came after that like Rauschenberg who was friends with John Cage.  That 4:33 silent piece is a trip if ya get past the laughing at it as absurd and check it out like a Zen window into reality.  There's also Lou Reed and that whole Andy Warhol factory thing

In terms of New York - the blues used to be bigger here.  I remember when I was younger there was Manny's Car wash, Chicago Blues, Mondo Cane and now all that's left of blues places is Terra Blues and BB Kings with the occasional blues show.

 

 

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the Bohemian New York at 50s - 60s with the Beats and hippies?

Well I didn't live in NYC then so everything might be a little romanticized for me. But it seems nowadays everything is so fast and instantaneous. Everybody's got a cell phone camera and can broadcast everything or a PR agent that can do it for you. And most people send you a text or an email and expect you to get back to them right away because the technology allows it.  There's no time to let things have some mystery and ferment if you will.

Some of the greatness in reading the beats is putting the pieces together for yourself - it's a reality crafted after the fact - after some life has been lived and reflected upon - a distilled poem that exalts the ecstasy of life. Hell I don't know if even Jesus would have wanted to do any miracles on reality TV.  The universe is 13 billion light years old - So no worries, no rush right? Enjoy the human thing.

 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

Because it's now an art form.  It resonates with creativity, with it's own mythology and community - and although it's a lament it inspires and moves the human spirit at an ineffable level.

Also I think it has something to do with the basic overtone series in western music.  Pythagoras broke it down right, way back when.  The strings inherent sounding after the original tonic are the dominant 5th and sub-dominant 4th - these overtones are so prevalent in the blues and make beautifully simple sense to the ear whether you're a layman or a virtuoso musician.

 

Why did you think that the blues continued to generate such a devoted following around the world (outside US)?

The Blues will always be with us now.  Whether we view it through a cultural lenz - race, color, creed. Or an artistic reflection of the evolution of society - industrial revolution, technology advancement, or environmental conditions. The Music feels good.  It's history has been preserved on record, and although that's not the whole story due to what record companies decided to record or what not to record, the Blues none the less entertains and if ya listen close, educates.

I would venture to say that soon the Blues will have a following in the whole universe!  As voyager spacecraft makes it's way into interstellar space (out of our solar system) it contains a disc that has many sounds and songs from our human brothers and sisters.  One of the tunes is Blind Willie Johnson's, 'Dark was the night, Cold was the ground'.  A chilling instrumental blues/gospel number that I'm sure with convert any alien into a blues fan!

 

What experiences in life make a good Bluesman?

Like ya hear it in that classic Dallas Blues tune, "the Blues ain't nothing but a good man feeling bad'I guess getting your heart broken helps to shape a Bluesman - like Son House preaches something about a man and woman trying to get together ain't nothing but the blues - I think he was married 5 times. And of course a love of the music and a cool that helps.

 

What are the difference between a Blues musician…and bluesman?

A blues musician can play the notes but the bluesman feels them.  Like Robert Johnson sings in Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped the Devil), "Blues ain't nothing but a low down shake and chill, if you ain't never had them I hope you never will.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

I tell you a highlight of my musical adventures has got to be singing with the Metro Mass Choir at places like Avery Fischer Hall, the Apollo and Carnegie Hall for several seasons.  First of all to be signing inside all that sound - it's one thing to be in the audience but it's another thing to be inside that music!  And also to have been able to step out in front of that sound of over 100 people singing and lead them to a fever pitch with a great gospel band - wow!

The worst moments always make good stories if ya can laugh at them.  Thankfully. I haven't had too much hard travelin' but hey I'm relatively young - might have a story or 2 for ya yet.

 

Do you know why the blues is connected to the Afro American culture & what characterize the philosophy of blues?

I love music and I'm a student of blues music but by no means am I an ethnomusicologist.  There is no doubt that the blues and the history of the blues is intertwined with the history of African American culture.  And there are cases to be made that many melodies and rhythms are African in origin.  There are many good books on the subject.  One I'm reading now is Elijah Wald's 'Escaping the Delta'. It really puts a grander perspective on the invention of the Blues.

Also I'll add on this subject that I saw/heard Alvin Youngblood Hart, Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris at Jazz at Lincoln Center the other night and Corey thanked the audience for supporting live music and reminded everyone that there are people who can still play instruments.  He also added - with no disrespect to the DJ.

 

What characterize the sound of resonator guitar? What are the secrets of resonator guitar?

Well I can't tell you the secrets of my resonator sound - that's like asking a magician to reveal the magic behind the trick. (Haha) But I will say the resonator sound is a distinct sound that I love. They apparently were first made before guitars went electric to get a bigger sound.  I've been traveling with a National Resolectric for a few years now and it's a bit of the old and the new.  It's got a resonator in and it's also set up like an electric guitar so you can plug it in and crank it up!

 

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between the original Blues era & modern Blues?

Well speaking of amplification - that's a major change in the blues from the original Blues to the modern era.  In terms of the blues you think more of the migration from the south to the big cities - from the Delta to Chicago.  Muddy Waters is an amazing example of a Bluesman who echoes the changing times from the country blues recording he did with Lomax to the Chess masterpieces, even 60's experiments like electric Mud and then onto passing the torch with albums like 'Hard Again' with Johnny Winter or his appearance in the Last Waltz and being godfather to all those British Blues dudes.

 

Are there any memories from the road with the blues, which you’d like to share with us?

From time to time I get to open up for my local blues Guru, Hugh Pool.  (He also plays Harmonica on 'Rollin and Tumblin' on the new CD) He does a great duo thing called Mulebone with this amazing multi-instrumentalist John Ragusa.  It's always a good hang and one night after the gig I caught a bit of it on camera.  - link to facebook

 

What is your music DREAM…and what is your nightmare? Happiness is……

Well a dream would be to have a Gold Record and be able to continue to tour the world with my music.

And a nightmare would be to lose my health.  As long as I can keep my hands and voice so I'm able to play I think I'll be relatively happy in this life.

"I'll never get out of these Blues alive."

      - John Lee Hooker

 

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

Well I would have loved to have met Reverend Gary Davis and taken a lesson from him.  Later in his life he lived in Harlem and gave lessons to people that I'm still learning from today. But hey as the song goes "I got firey fingers I goes firey hands / when I die and go to heaven I'm gonna join that firey band".  Maybe I'll get a chance to play with him then.  Lightin' Hopkins I think would have been a blast to hang with!  Jimi Hendrix would have been a trip too.

Every once in a while I wish I would have been born when my grandfathers were born knowing what I know now about music.  I'd head over to the delta, travel around with Son House and Charlie Patton, chat up Robert Johnson, then head to Chicago with Muddy Waters and the Kings (BB, Alert and Freddie), hit Detroit with John Lee Hooker and then make my way out to San Fran to witness the early days of the Grateful Dead and party with Pig Pen and Janis Joplin.

 

How you would spend a day with Devil in crossroad at “Paraskevi kai 13” (Friday and 13th)?

Well now that I'm sober I'm probably more suiting to taking some tea with Eric Clapton down at his treatment center called 'Crossroads' in Antiguia.I do have a good tune about my first visit to the actual crossroads in Clarkdale, Mississippi called 'Sweet Sweet you'.  It's featured as a bonus track on the new CD with an introduction where I explain the tune in a rare radio interview.  There is also a studio version of the tune with a full band and beautiful backing vocals on the Reverend Freakchild CD - God Shaped Hole.

 

What would you say to Son House?

First I would say, "What the hell are you doing here, I thought you were dead" and then I'd ask him how the afterlife was treating him.  There's a great book about Son House by Daniel Beaumont that I read and really enjoyed recently.

 

What would you like to ask Tim Buckley?

Well Tim I don't know what I'd say to him but to Jeff, his Son I'd say don't go swimming in the Mississippi river with your boots on you motherfucker.  What a loss - that dude was such a talent!

 

Do you believe the cause of the Blues has seen justice?

I'll just say that we're lucky to be living in a space and time where we can listen to the Blues.

 

Reverend Freakchild - Home

 

 

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