Boston-based guitarist Peter Ward talks about his experiences and journeys in the Blues and Western Swing paths

"At a blues symposium in the ‘90s, someone described blues as a river that flows forever. But in my view, if blues is a river it finally released into the ocean."

Peter Ward: Blues on My Shoulders

Raised in Maine, Peter Ward moved to Greater Boston where he played guitar with blues artists such as Jimmy Rogers, Otis Rush, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Lowell Fulson. Peter and his brother Michael (“Mudcat”) listened intently to blues records and went to see Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Taj Mahal and Hubert Sumlin whenever they performed in the area. Peter played blues with Mudcat and did gigs also with his younger brother Jeff, who died in 1991. In the 1980s he toured with the Legendary Blues Band which starred Pinetop Perkins, Jerry Portnoy and Willie Big Eyes Smith. He married the late blues radio host Mai Cramer. In 2010 Peter produced a western swing CD "Goodbye Liza Jane: Hello Western Swing!" featuring Herb Remington, who played nonpedal steel guitar for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Peter announces an October 20 release date for his new album, Blues on My Shoulders, on Gandy Dancer Records. Besides Ward on guitar and vocals, special guests include Ronnie Earl, Sax Gordon Beadle and the members of Sugar Ray & the Bluetones. “It pleases me to present Blues on My Shoulders, my first solo project,” Peter Ward says, “I wrote the words and music to 12 of the 13 songs. I grew up wearing out the vinyl records trying to understand how Robert Jr. Lockwood, Tiny Grimes, Louis Meyers and Jimmy Rogers made songs sound so good. It's what I wanted to do. I was lucky to sit in often with my friend (and former roommate) Ronnie Earl and play alongside many of my musical heroes. A highlight was touring with the Legendary Blues Band: ‘Pinetop’ Perkins, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, Calvin ‘Fuzz’ Jones and Jerry Portnoy, who had brilliantly backed Muddy Waters for years. The way they played blues was everything I believed in, then and now. Willie Smith was an inventive drummer - and a wily character. I pay tribute to him in the song, ‘Drummin' Willie.’ The track ‘Which Hazel’ is my homage to Chuck Berry. Sugar Ray Norcia honored me by singing the heck out of ‘Collaborate,’ a tribute to Lockwood and Lonnie Johnson. I appreciate that Ronnie Earl and Sax Gordon Beadle accepted my invitation to perform on two songs: ‘A Little More’ and ‘It's On Me.’ ‘Southpaw’ is my ode to lesser-known left-handed swing guitarist Dickie Thompson, who worked with organist and front man Wild Bill Davis. My instrumental, ‘Shiprock,’ reminds me of a hallowed part of Navajo country I visited with my wife Mai Cramer, who died of breast cancer in 2002 and previously hosted a popular blues program for 24 years on WGBH-FM. She was an avid supporter of the blues and its purveyors. I think she would have liked Blues on My Shoulders. I hope you do.”

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the American Root music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Blues has always shaped my worldview. I've always deplored racism and bigotry and not just because I've worked, traveled and enjoyed blues artists who were African-American. It's how I grew up. In the early 1980s I was on the road with Legendary Blues Band in a van heading to a gig. Pinetop Perkins, Calvin Jones, and Willie Smith were black and Jerry Portnoy and I were white. Two white New Jersey state police pulled us over. We would never have allowed Willie, our driver, to weave across a lane as the trooper alleged. They made us empty the truck and trailer of all our equipment and then sit on the shoulder a long time. They sought to humiliate us. Immediately afterward you could hear a pin drop in the van whereas we usually joked about everything. I think the incident reminded the guys of the bad times they faced down South. Years later, court cases exposed racial profiling. Blues teaches you to feel for the underdog, roll with the punches and stay humble. 

How do you describe Peter Ward sound and songbook? What do you learn about yourself from the blues people?

My songbook reflects a wide swath of blues and swing within a traditional framework. I like to capture the spirit of Chuck Berry, Tiny Grimes, Muddy Waters, BB King and Albert King. I also love the wild guitar performed by less known or unidentified guitarists on obscure records from the 1950s and 60s. From blues players I learned the importance of the adage, "the show must go on."

"Blues has always shaped my worldview. I've always deplored racism and bigotry and not just because I've worked, traveled and enjoyed blues artists who were African-American."

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

In Rochester, N.Y. around 1978, jazz guitarist Sonny Dunbar told me a good guitar solo should be like a conversation with a woman who interests you. That is: Don't hurry. Don't do all the talking. Make it happy. The kind of blues played by The Legendary Blues Band — they helped create the Muddy Waters sound, which was unhurried, concise and direct— was everything I believe in. From BB King, Albert Collins, Jimmie Vaughan, Ronnie Earl and others I learned that you must throw yourself into a song, really go for it each time.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions that you’d like to share with us?

Too many to tell. In New York City one time, Otis Rush told me I played like an "old man" — a nice compliment. Another time I had a gig at a tough bar. A man identified himself as the manager and told us to perform a 90-minute set. A few minutes later another guy with big hands said the first guy didn't know what he was talking about, that we should play two 40-minute sets. And a third guy told us he was the boss and something different altogether. I forgot what we did — ha ha — but at least I'm alive to talk about it. When I was with Legendary, we played a 4H-type fair in Hastings, Nebraska, where the audience was mostly white farmers whom I'm guessing hadn't heard much blues. To my surprise, they rushed the stage and gathered around Pinetop Perkins at the piano, drawn by Pinetop's charisma. He seemed to put those kids under a spell.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

At a blues symposium in the ‘90s, someone described blues as a river that flows forever. But in my view, if blues is a river it finally released into the ocean. The best blues in history has already been played and recorded. This isn't to say there aren't great blues players today. There certainly are. But the best blues was performed by young black people in the 1940s and 1950s who were interested in romance. Blues will never reach the quality from that period. Luckily we have the records from that time. They prove that the great bands took their time, told a story. Guitarists sought original tone and didn't simply submit to distorted rock tone. Subtlety was valued. I'm a grumpy old man, huh?

"My songbook reflects a wide swath of blues and swing within a traditional framework. I like to capture the spirit of Chuck Berry, Tiny Grimes, Muddy Waters, BB King and Albert King." (Photo: The late great bluesman Lowell Fulson and Peter Ward, at the old Nightstage, Cambridge)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of American music from Blues and Swing to Country, and beyond?

A good storyline is probably essential. But musically, I think a certain element of swing connects them. Western swing guys like Bob Wills and jazzmen like Tiny Grimes are directly swinging. But there's also swing in Buck Owens, George Jones and Charley Pride. Country songs (and blues) may have a traditional chord structures, but the challenge of finding new ways to make chord changes is what keeps me playing, keeps me listening. 

What has made you laugh from Jimmy Rogers and Lowell Fulson? What touched (emotionally) you from Legendary Blues Band? 

I'd laugh inside — and smile outright — when a song by Jimmy Rogers or Legendary Blues Band hit its stride. When I toured with Left Hand Frank Craig, Ted Harvey the drummer would often blow a referee's whistle when we hit a good groove. Of course by doing that he completely wrecked the song. But we'd all laugh and build it back up. When a cheap promoter gave Pinetop a 66-key keyboard instead of a real piano, Pinetop would sometimes pretend to strike some of the 22 non-existing keys; I laughed because of the injustice but also because Pinetop had such a big heart and could see humor in the situation. 

What is the impact of Blues and Western Swing on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

That's a tough one. First, let me say I dislike the climate today in which so many political leaders embrace divisiveness and bigotry. Many years ago, Legendary Blues Band shared a double bill with Rockin' Dopsie in Lafayette, Louisiana, and it was great. The audience was young and old, white and black, all dancing. You don't see that too often. Our history is packed with injustice, but it's interesting. Benny Goodman supposedly had to be persuaded into accepting Charlie Christian, but at least we eventually had records like Seven Come Eleven. Talented western swing bands like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys borrowed heavily from blues and black culture, and white audiences rewarded them. But Wills suffered for it. I can visualize a hard-working Depression-era Texas farmer coming in from plowing under a hot sun and listening to blues played by Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan on a scratchy live local lunchtime radio broadcast. Now there's a connection. Guys like Big Walter Horton, Robert Nighthawk and Robert Lockwood Jr. gave so much and got back too little. I don't know if they would have been as pioneering had they not suffered like they did, not sure. I'd have preferred they didn't suffer. Of course, some of them simply wanted to do what I want to do today: make music that makes people happy enough to feel like dancing.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

It'd be wonderful if more people went out to hear blues, to dance. I'd like more venues where bands can perform without worrying about drawing customers (but they'd have to be good).

"Blues teaches you to feel for the underdog, roll with the punches and stay humble." (Photo by Tom Hazeltine)

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

Let me have two trips through time please. First: Around 1952 in Chicago after Little Walter Jacobs had a hit song with "Juke." I'd want to see him gig with Muddy, Jimmy Rogers or Louis Meyers and Fred Below. The other: Around 1940 or after the war when Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys returned from a road trip to perform at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa Oklahoma. I can hear Bob and fiddles, Tommy Duncan sing, Eldon Shamblin and Junior Barnard on guitar and Noel Boggs or Herb Remington on steel, Tiny Moore on electric mandolin. All those harmony arrangements on early Fender amplifiers over the famous Bob Wills beat. Wow!

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