French blues writer Eric Doidy tells the story of American blues rock in his book “Buried alive in the blues”

"I wish the music industry had given blues musicians what they deserved. Most of them died in poverty while their music made the fame and fortune of others. And I do wish that Magic Sam had not died that young."

Éric Doidy: Buried Alive In The Blues

Éric Doidy was born in 1974 in France. Since 1997, he writes in the French magazine Soul Bag, founded in 1968 and dedicated to blues, soul music, gospel and zydeco. For Soul Bag, he interviewed many of his musical heroes. Based on fifty of these interviews, his first book, “Buried Alive In The Blues - The History of American Rock Blues” (France 2018, Le Mot Et Le Rest), tells the story of American blues rock. Eric Doidy is also a sociologist working for the French National Institute of Agricultural Research. His work on social movements and the contemporary “back to the land” movement is published in several major academic journals in the French language.

French blues fan and writer Eric Doidy delves into the roots of American blues rock, which, unlike its English side, has matured in contact with African-American culture and accompanied the struggle for civil rights. In the early 1960s, a new generation of American musicians collected the legacy of the great masters of the blues. Paul Butterfield in Chicago, Johnny Winter in Texas and many others are creating music that goes far in the roots of rhythm n' blues to meet the aspirations of a youth who discovers rock. Mature in the marginality of the ghettos, this electrifying sound engulfs America: in Newport with Bob Dylan, San Francisco or Woodstock, it nourishes deeply the libertarian upheaval of the time. Following the emergence and evolution of this American blues rock, this book allows to understand the collective invention of a blues which, unlike that of the English of the same period, is not white but mixed, thus preserving today both its subversives and its relevance.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues people and culture and what does the blues mean to you?

I am in awe in front people like Muddy Waters, B.B. King or John Lee Hooker, who achieved so much in their lifetime although they were born in the wrong place, at the wrong time. As Elvin Bishop told me, blues is like recycling all the bad stuff that happens to you to produce something that makes you feel good. Blues is about life, it makes people get together and dance. I believe it is one of mankind’s greatest art form. Writing on the blues is not my job – I’m an academic doing research in Sociology on totally different issues (such as farming, the “back-to-the land” movements and US war veterans). But listening to the blues since I was a teenager, meeting its people, going to concerts or juke-joints, sure helped me a lot in my work – the blues teaches you to love genuine people and understand what they go through.

How started the thought of your book: Buried alive in the blues: L'histoire du blues rock Américain?

This book is my first one, but I started writing for the French magazine Soul Bag twenty years ago (I’m 44). The first blues artists I ever interviewed are Corky Siegel, Mighty Joe Young, Jimmy Dawkins and Junior Kimbrough, in the fall of 1997 during my first trip to Chicago and to Mississippi. Since then, I never really stopped making interviews with artists I had the opportunity to meet, from blues originators like John Lee Hooker to soul-blues artists of the new generation like JJ Thames, from gospel singer Clarence Fountain of the Blind Boys of Alabama to Irish rocker Gary Moore. But I never really bothered to really use them to make books. I always felt everything had been said better than I could ever by authors such as Peter Guralnick, Bill Ferris, David Evans or, in France, Gérard Herzhaft. By nature, I’m also interested in a lot of different things so I didn’t want to focus all my work on the blues – especially since I am not myself a musician. I would feel quite uncomfortable being a “blues scholar” and make a career thanks to the blues, while so many blues musicians could never make a penny themselves. I just consider myself a blues fan, using Soul Bag to share my enthusiasm with readers.

But over the years, I began to feel something was missing in the picture: people always talk about the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and the British blues of the 1960’s, but names like Paul Butterfield or Michael Bloomfield were slowly forgotten, as well as where their music came from, and the life experience or the feeling it carried at the first place. For example, I thought that the young fans who are currently discovering Charlie Musselwhite through his collaboration with Ben Harper needed to know who Charlie was, where he came from and what makes this collaboration so meaningful. I began to think of a book where Charlie’s story is told, as well as Bloomfield’s, Butterfield’s, Johnny Winter’s or Jimmie Vaughan’s and so on. Unlike its British counterpart, American blues rock can not be reduced to “white blues”: these musicians were more closely immersed in African-American culture, and the bands were mixed. I also felt the need to show how their legacy lives on, with contemporary artists who deserve to be acknowledged for what they are achieving, like Derek Trucks or Sue Foley. So I ended up saying to myself that I could write this book. But I would never have done it if the French publisher Le Mot et le reste, from Marseille, had not turned out to be interested in it. I consider their catalogue as the best collection of books about music in the French language, so I was overwhelmed to receive their support. I borrowed the title from the song Nick Gravenites wrote for Janis Joplin. Nick Gravenites is a great artist and songwriter and his songs, such as this one or “Born in Chicago” (the opener of the first Butterfield Blues Band album) represent his generation.

"As Elvin Bishop told me, blues is like recycling all the bad stuff that happens to you to produce something that makes you feel good. Blues is about life, it makes people get together and dance. I believe it is one of mankind’s greatest art form." (Eric Doidy & Elvin Bishop / Photo by Bob Hakins)

How has the Blues Rock and Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

They help us realize nothing in life can ever be taken for granted. It is always a struggle. Today, people have to work underpaid jobs, face an ecological crisis and a resurgence of bigotry and even fascism… The blues is still a relevant music today, because it is the music of the blues-collar, hard-working people and of the outcast.

Which interviews have been the most important experiences? Are there any memories which you’d like to share?

It is a tough question to answer: each interview was special to me and all these artists are unique characters. I feel blessed because, each time I talked with someone, it made me feel like I had learnt something new. Blues musicians are clever people, with a high sense of humor, sometimes more clever than most fellow academics I meet during international conferences. Which should not be a surprise: playing the blues with a feeling requires a deep understanding of life and of people. So, every artist I met helped me to grow and I hope this book achieves to pass that on to the reader. On a personal side, I feel extremely lucky to have met Junior Kimbrough and David Caldwell at AikeiPro’s Record Shop in Holly Springs, Mississippi – Junior’s music is incredible and I am glad his sons are carrying on. I also enjoyed talking about gardening and cooking with Elvin Bishop, who is possibly the nicest fellow on Earth and, in 2014, being able to invite him and his incredible band to perform in France for the first time ever. Another life-changing experience was to meet Barbara Dane in Berkeley. She shared some compelling memories and thoughts. She is an inspiring artist, a powerful human being and I wish there were more people like her on Earth.

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

I miss so much artists I was extremely lucky to see: Luther Allison, B.B. King, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Otis Clay, R.L. Burnside, Honeyboy Edwards or Candye Kane… So I primarily miss good people like them (so the question would be “who” do you miss, and not “what”). I’m not trying to pretend that I was close to them or knew them on a personal level. But, as everyone who attended so many of their shows throughout the years, I think of them as familiar figures and I was hurt every time one of them passed away. Blues musicians of this kind had a special relationship with their audience. And they were truly unique individuals who carved their own style: you could identify them from the first notes. So maybe that’s “what” I miss: sometimes I don’t think the blues or rock music of today have that many unique individuals anymore. But then I listen to contemporary artists like Derek Trucks, Shemekia Copeland, Corey Dennison, Selwyn Birchwood, Robert Randolph or Mr. Sipp, for example, and they are truly unique individuals who will leave their own mark on music. So my hope is that musicians of such caliber continue to flourish.

"They help us realize nothing in life can ever be taken for granted. It is always a struggle. Today, people have to work underpaid jobs, face an ecological crisis and a resurgence of bigotry and even fascism… The blues is still a relevant music today, because it is the music of the blues-collar, hard-working people and of the outcast." (Eric Doidy & Ben Harper, France 2013, Photo by Brigitte Charvolin)

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

I wish the music industry had given blues musicians what they deserved. Most of them died in poverty while their music made the fame and fortune of others. And I do wish that Magic Sam had not died that young.

Make an account of the case of the blues in France. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Oh, the blues is very much alive and well in France. In the past, several American blues musicians chose to settle in France, such as Mickey Baker, Luther Allison or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Here, they tutored French musicians, among whom the originators of what can be described as a specific “French” style of blues – I’m thinking of artists like guitarist Patrick Verbeke and harp player Benoit Blue Boy. These artists, who matured in the 1970’s and 1980’s, created their own brand of music, different from French pop because they were so deeply rooted in the blues, but at the same time different from the blues because they were singing in French with lyrics addressing issues of the life they were living (listen to the 1992 “Blues and ladies” album of Patrick Verbeke for example). Today, Steve Verbeke (Patrick’s son and musically influenced by Benoit) is carrying on and singing the blues in the French language. Although they sing in English, Nico Duportal and his Rhythm Dudes also come from there. Nico is a great guitar slinger (he’s featured on one of the Mannish Boys albums for the Delta Groove label alongside Kid Ramos) and his band rocks. Their albums “Guitar player” and “Dealing with my blues” are delightful.

There is also Tia Gouttebel, a very talented female guitar player and singer with a deep understanding of the blues, who also creates something new although she sings in English. She’s got great records under her own name (such as the “Lil’ bird” CD) and she’s also fronting a band called Hypnotic Wheels, mixing the Mississippi blues with French folk tradition, using an old instrument from the Middle Ages called the “huddy gurdy”. The huddy gurdy produces a drone sound that blends perfectly with the electric guitar riffs of the Hill country blues. Check out their latest effort “Muddy Gurdy” on the Vizztone label (2017) recorded in Mississippi and featuring guest musicians such as Cedric Burnside or Cameron Kimbrough: really powerful stuff! I also love artists like Roland Tchakounte, Abou Diarra or Pedro Kouyate who create something deep by blending blues influences and Western African musical inspiration.

What is the impact of Blues and Rock music and culture on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

I once asked B.B. King if he thought he played a role in making things change in the United States, especially for African-American citizens. He told me that he certainly hoped so but he couldn’t tell. He told me that what he was certain of, is that his music enabled him to pay the registration fees of the University for his grandchildren. One of them just received his degree in engineering, and B.B. was very proud of him. Blues musicians of his generation, and black people of his generation, seldom had the opportunity to even learn to read and write. So, his answer was at first sight very humble (as always with B.B.) but, if you really think about it, it was a very subtle and thoughtful. Bluesmen are generally not spokesmen nor activists. They do not need to, because blues itself is about life as it is. And B.B., in particular, never turned down anybody. Although he had to go through a world of violence (considering when and where he was born), he always appeared generous and extremely kind to everybody. So blues is also about making people come together. Charlie Musselwhite told me that when he met President Obama, he told him “I worked for you all my life”, which in a sense is very true and, once again, quite thoughtful.

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

Although I’m in awe when I hear pre-war blues records, I certainly would not want to go hear Charley Patton or Robert Johnson in Mississippi. It was a world full of violence, misery and racism of the worst kind, and I would not get out of this day alive. It’s a good thing it belongs to the past, although I’m not certain we’re totally out of it. So maybe I’d take a trip to the 1960’s, when people realized that they could make this world a better world. I’d go to Chicago or San Francisco. I’d love to make friends with Bloomfield, Magic Sam, Duane Allman or Alan Wilson…  Well, it’s still possible these days to visit Bob Koester at Bob’s Jazz & Blues Mart in Chicago, and that itself is like a trip with a time machine!

How you would spend a day with Hendrix? What would you say to Janis? What would you like to ask Leadbelly?

A day with Hendrix: smoking in a room with good records to listen to, a guitar not too far and maybe a few girlfriends of his. Hendrix was a musical genius, but he also seemed to be such a nice fellow… Janis Joplin? I would tell her how beautiful she is. She never knew and that is so sad. And Lead Belly… I think the real reason why he got his nickname remains a mistery. But he wouldn’t tell me. So I’d probably ask him his opinion on the musical scene of today. We would have plenty to laugh over a pint of whisky.

Buried Alive in the Blues - Home

Eric Doidy & Harvey Mandel in Petaluma, California 2009, Photo by Arlic Dromgoole

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