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, 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.

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. 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. His latest project “Hillbilly Zen-Punk Blues” (2015) recorded at Excello studios in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and enlisted the talents of New York master blues artist Hugh Pool, who not only co-produced with award winning Sal Paradise, but also plays some amazing harmonica and lap steel. The drummer for the session was the world famous Chris Parker, who has graced the stage and studio with many great musicians, such as Paul Butterfield, John Hammond Jr., Bob Dylan, and Joe Cocker. Also John Ragusa plays flute, who can often be heard with Beth Nelson Chapman and on many Deepak Chopra recordings. The personnel on the album is finally fleshed out with Hugh Pool and John Ragusa (Blues/Roots duo Mulebone) singing some beautiful backup vocals.

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 and 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.

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.

What first attracted you to the Blues and 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.

What do you learn about yourself from the Dharma and Zen?

That there really is no-self! That all is interdependent (pratityasamutpada in sanskirt). The very fact that conditioned phenomena can happen is dependent origination and impermanence - things don't exist how we think they exist. Meditation can prove to yourself that we are more than just our minds. The non-conceptual experience is some heavy shit man!

"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."

What were the reasons that you start the social, spiritual and cultural researches and experiments?

When folks ask me if I'm a real Reverend I often say that the Reverend Freakchild character is really a philosophical investigation of the American experience through the music of the blues and spirituals. I'm drawn to the music that tells a true story and growing up with an intellectual mother, who was a Jungian and also a classical pianist, and also a father that was an amazing military man who loved rock and roll and the blues, I learn very young that this existence can be filled with both some beautiful and horrible stuff.  The spiritual music seems to make sense of it all.

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 Chaos and Country Blues 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 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 do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

The simple production - honest stories and sounds. Well it's like I sing in the tune "All I Got is Now" the first track on Chaos and Country Blues album, "Future tripping all night long / tryin' to figure out what might go wrong / waking up and my mind's a mess / because I keep forgetting life's preciousness." The dualistic thinking of hope and fear is perhaps the problem not the conceptual anxiety of the moment itself. Like my Lama says, "The present moment is beyond location and time." With that being said - I'm looking forward to the good people of this planet enjoying this album and then getting back in the studio and doing some remixes of "All I Got is Now!"

"The very fact that conditioned phenomena can happen is dependent origination and impermanence - things don't exist how we think they exist. Meditation can prove to yourself that we are more than just our minds. The non-conceptual experience is some heavy shit man!"

What are the lines that connect the Hillbilly Zen with the Punk Blues?

Well when we were recording the new album with my blues guru Hugh Pool at his studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Excello - I asked him about the serious jazz sessions he'd done there and he joked that they only did hillbilly music and then his studio engineer Charlie kept saying after the energetic first takes that we were going with and not recording a safety, "That's so punk rock!" Chris (the drummer) and I had actually never played together - I just sent him a demo of the tunes and we banged out all the basics in one day - Over dubs in 2 days and mixed it in one - the flow was great and Hugh's production was right on - the album just came together effortlessly.

Are there any memories from Hillbilly Zen-Punk Blues studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Well there was this night after one of the sessions that we were all bullshitting and telling stories about the people in common we'd worked with and other road and studio stories. Hugh and Chris starting going back and forth about some pretty fucked up partying stories - but I think Chris won with the two throw up stories. The first was that Joe Cocker had gotten so fucked up on stage that he came back to the drum riser and threw up on Chris's kit - but he did say that Joe came to his hotel after at like 3 in the morning in his skivvies and apologized piss drunk - and explained that he had no other place to hurl. He also said John Hammond Jr. did the same thing back in the day but never apologized - I think Chris still had a resentment but I said he probably didn't even remember it. We were all laughing pretty hard - great music and a good hang!

"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." 

What do 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: 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 and worst moment of your career?

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. (Photo: Rev. Freakchild with the Rev. John Wilkins, Juke Joint Festival, Clarksdale 2012)

 

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

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 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

(Photo: Rev. Freakchild with Hugh Pool and John Ragusa)

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

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 no too long ago 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.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Well I'd really like to experience the Now! Haha...But as I mentioned before I'd love to go back to the 50's and 60's.  Hear/see Muddy Waters play in Chicago in the early days - then ramble with Kerouac and take him to India, maybe invite Dylan along as well - and then hang with Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead in San Francisco. I'm a neo-hippie so I'd love to have experienced the acid drenched love and loss of that innocence moment to the experience of the modern age. Wait on second thought maybe I'd like to spend some time with the Buddha under the bodhi tree after his enlightenment...

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 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 album God Shaped Hole.

What touched (emotionally) you from Dharma Bums?

Well I think the emotional thing for me was not even necessarily in the book - but that Kerouac was trying to get sober and was living up at that fire tower or wherever and was studying Zen Buddhism with Gary Snyder - and then Kerouac really does some studying  on the Dharma and tries to publish this book called, Wake Up - that didn't get published until like a few years ago actually - anyway the story goes that he went to like Suzuki Roshi or Manzumi Roshi - one of those Zen masters that had come to the west coast - and Kerouac asks to be his student and Roshi says no - because I guess he could see through to Kerouac's not really wanting to embody the Dharma but just wanting to write about it? Or maybe it was a challenge to see if Kerouac would come back and ask again and do and not just talk? - and then of course after that Kerouac later moves back into his mother's basement and drinks himself to death - if I had a time machine I'd go back there and take Kerouac to India or Japan - and drink the Dharma with him.

What is your music dream and 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

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.

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

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.

What has made you laugh from Sal Paradise’s adventures On The Road?

Well I'm not sure if you're asking about my alias Sal Paradise (that's my Facebook name) or the Kerouac character - lol - but I'll tell you this - a day without laughter is a wasted day!

Reverend Freakchild - Official website

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