Historian & musician Scott Ainslie speaks about the Blues the way he plays them: with authority & passion

"American Roots music is a strong hybrid made of elements from the variety of cultures that are represented in the people of America."

Scott Ainslie: Talking With The Blues

Scott Ainslie was born in Rochester, NY in 1952. He spent a couple years living with his family in north Jersey in the late 1950s and grew up outside of Washington, DC in Alexandria, VA. Ainslie is a ΦΒΚ, Magna Cum Laude graduate of Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA. He worked in NYC with Spaulding Grey, Richard Schechner and the Performance Group; Robert Wilson & Phillip Glass; spent 7 months on Broadway with "Cotton Patch Gospel," under the direction of Russell Treyz and Tom Chapin; and with Chapin, Bassist John Miller and the legendary Pete Seeger, Ainslie played an historical concert commemorating the 100th birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1983. 

Ainslie worked as a community-based artist in the prestigious North Carolina Visiting Artist Program from 1986-90, and worked extensively in a sister program in Virginia throughout the 1990s while free-lancing as an artist in education, concert performer, and guitar camp instructor. Scott Ainslie heard the late Bluesman and grave digger, John Jackson play a couple of songs in the middle of a Mike Seeger concert just outside of Washington, DC, at Groveton High School back in 1967. Things haven’t been the same since. Scott started playing guitar a month later and has now spent nearly forty years studying and playing traditional music, visiting and documenting senior musicians in America’s old-time banjo and fiddle music, Blues and gospel traditions.                       (Photo by Nathan Ekis, 2011)

With six solo CDs, a teaching DVD on the guitar techniques of Delta Blues legend Robert Johnson, and a book on Johnson’s music “Robert Johnson/At The Crossroads” (Hal Leonard, 1992) to his credit, as a performer and a teacher, Ainslie continues to present programs that are vital and entertaining. He currently makes his home in of Brattleboro, Vermont.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

This is a great question. I have always found music at its best (like other arts) to be transformative: for the performer, first, and then the listener. In the Blues, we have an artform that can be considered sad or tragic. But, one has to remember that the people singing it were rising above racial, economic, legal, and very personally violent oppression. If you can get up in the morning and – no matter what it is they’ve done to you and yours – you can sing, then you win. Hands down. You win.

On a personal level, learning to sing this African-devolved and African-American music has been a revelation to me. It has altered me, bringing me from who I was to who I am. White and Black singing styles are very different, and up until around the mid-1950s when White singers began to hear and be influenced by Black singers, they really served different masters, different goals.

In African-based spirituality and attendant uses of the voice, one finds a remarkable value placed on not just portraying an emotion, but evoking it. And all the tools we use in speech to communicate emotion – screaming, shouting, compressed-explosive consonants, breath and mouth noises, whispering, crying, moaning – these are all found very comfortably in the mouths of Black singers.

This was not true in the White world I grew up in. White suburban churches were quiet, emotionally neutral, and formal affairs. It was a revelation to go into a Black church with an elderly population in Southeast Washington, DC in 1968 and experience the spirit and emotional commitment in those pews. I have apprenticed myself to that way of being in order to learn to sing and to use the tools of our trade, as singers and speakers, with an eye to moving someone – everyone –who is listening. Learning to do this, from Black elders and even commercial Black singers, has changed me for the better, personally and musically.

"In roots music, we find the simplicity of music that, over many years, has been polished by a thousand tongues, and the complexity and immediacy brought to the music by the force, imagination and experience of each successive generation of players as they make it their own." (Photo by Herve Pelletier)

How do you describe Scott Ainslie sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Long a loner, I have always been interested in what can be done alone: with two hands and a voice. While I enjoy working with other musicians and admire what they bring to the table, almost all my gigs are solo gigs. If I can’t do it, it doesn’t get done. This has created more and more complicated guitar parts, more and more emotional singing, and increasingly complicated interplay between the instrument and voice. But, all the technique has to serve something. Technique is just a personal exercise until it does. 

Rather than having someone walk out of a performance saying, ‘Damn, that guy’s amazing,’ I’d far prefer them to be moved, emotionally or intellectually affected by the work. As a performer, that’s where I aim my arrows. The music and history is far more lasting and important than any one musician. We will die. All of us. But, through our work, the tradition and the music will outlive us.

Why did you think that the American Roots music continues to generate such a devoted following?

American Roots music is a strong hybrid made of elements from the variety of cultures that are represented in the people of America.  The two broadest of these are European (UK, German, French, Spanish) and African (largely from Sub-Saharan central West Africa, where the vast majority of trans-Atlantic slaves formerly lived).

Musical information has always passed unimpeded across the color line, even, if not especially in the American South, where Blacks and Whites have lived intimately, if uneasily, for 400 years. In roots music, we find the simplicity of music that, over many years, has been polished by a thousand tongues, and the complexity and immediacy brought to the music by the force, imagination and experience of each successive generation of players as they make it their own.

I think it is this combination of rough and smooth; of simple and complex; of primitive and refined – and of African and European – that continues to beguile new listeners and new players. And I find that fact very beautiful.

"The old guys I knew always showed up. They weren’t waiting to learn a new chord form, a new scale, or get a new amp, or anything like that before they made their marks. They were fully present in the lives they were living and that included the music they made. Sadly, this seems to be a pre-modern frame of mind."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

There are two moments that I can share publicly that are touchstones for me.

I) In the early 1970s, I was present when Lee Hammons, an ancient Old-Time musician from Morganton, West Virginia, was celebrating his 88th birthday. Lee was a remarkable 5-string, claw-hammer banjo player with a style like no one else’s. Hearing and being with him was a revelation, generally, but on this day, someone handed him a fiddle.

I’d never seen Lee hold a fiddle.

He took the instrument, put it under his chin and after testing a few notes on it, proceeded to play. And, objectively, there was nothing right about the sound. His tone was abyssmal, the pitch of the notes of this unfamiliar instrument was all over the map, the rhythm of the tune he was obviously searching out was stumbling about...

And yet, for those 45 or 60 seconds, the force that was Lee Hammons was there in the air between us. Lee was not ‘trying to play the fiddle.’ He was simply using whatever technique he had to say what it was he had to say on that fiddle at that time. No apologies. No struggle. No ego. His commitment to that moment was breathtaking. It was, far and away, the most tangible music I had ever heard. And it caused me to rethink my relationship to technique and to music. I will never forget it.

II) In 1967, I went to a Mike Seeger concert at a local high school. I was 15 years old. In the middle of a remarkable tour-de-force featuring something like 17 different instruments, Mike suddenly stopped the concert and introduced someone we should hear: a local Blues musician named John Jackson.

John took the stage and settled into a chair and proceeded to play a music so athletic, so complex, and so compelling that my mouth fell open. (I had the same reaction to his playing everytime I heard him for the next 35 years....). I started playing guitar a month later.

I walked into that concert curious about folk music, and I walked out a Blues guitar player (who’d never touched the instrument before).

This is why I perform for younger audiences in school settings, in addition to my other work. In my experience, when a tradition moves from one set of hands to another, it is always personal. You see and hear someone doing something quite remarkable right infront of you and something inside you says, ‘I want to do that,’ or possibly just ‘I could do that.’ And off you go!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio which you’d like to share with us?                                                  (Photo by Zatowski)

I remember working on my first solo CD, Jealous of the Moon, in 1995. I came into the control room to listen to a playback of a track (I believe it was Joe Henry’s ‘Date For Church’), and as the song filled the room, I started to cry. My co-producer and mentor on that first CD was my longtime friend Tom Chapin. Noticing my tears, he made excuses to the engineer: ‘It’s just the stress.’ I objected, ‘No, it’s not. I just realized that, after nearly 30 years of wondering about it, that I’m not just getting away with murder.’

Up until that point, I’d thought of myself as a guitar player who sang. Suddenly, the tables were turned on me. I’d finally had the chance to witness a performance when I wasn’t involved in actually making the noise. My experience that day stays with me. It changed my focus and buttressed my confidence in my ability to move someone with music. After all, we are our own toughest audiences.

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

The old guys I knew always showed up. They weren’t waiting to learn a new chord form, a new scale, or get a new amp, or anything like that before they made their marks. They were fully present in the lives they were living and that included the music they made. Sadly, this seems to be a pre-modern frame of mind.

With younger or less experienced players, I tend to teach technique, not repertoire. I figure a person’s repertoire is their own business, not mine.

But, I also urge my students to use the technique they have now, right now, to move somebody. We all know people who have huge vocabularies and not a single thing to say. And conversely, we know people with simple educations who can bring us to our knees.

The students always nod.

‘Be that guy,’ I tell them.

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

We’ve had the great misfortune to live into a time when people who love music think it should be universally available to them and it should be free. If there were one thing I would change, it would be to make Spotify, Pandora and the other music streaming services that are making fortunes actually pay musicians for their music. The shift in the music business is stealing the livelihoods of the people who do the work: the musicians.

I always ask people to listen responsibly: don’t just burn a CD for a friend, buy one. Don’t stream music for free – pay the artist. Record companies ripped off musicians for a hundred years. The digital streaming services are doing it. And, now, the fans are doing it. The fans have become the people who may have a marked effect in destroying a musician’s ability to have the time to develop the expertise, skill, and experience required to make great music and make a difference in someone’s life.

Where will those years of practice and focused attention be found, if musicians aren’t paid for their work?

Our technology has evolved far faster than our ethics. This has always been true, of course, but it is true now.

"I have always found music at its best (like other arts) to be transformative: for the performer, first, and then the listener. In the Blues, we have an artform that can be considered sad or tragic. But, one has to remember that the people singing it were rising above racial, economic, legal, and very personally violent oppression." (Photo by Barb Ackemann)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Gospel and Americana music?

This has been so well-documented, by others more scholarly than me, that I hesitate to comment. I present teaching concerts on the African roots of American music in education settings (from elementary schools through colleges and graduate schools). Most listeners know the sound of the music and can find these influences with their ears. With just a little information about the musical retentions from African tradition, one finds these elements in every Southern American music, the cradle of American popular music. There are many fine resources available. Gerhard Kubick’s book ‘Africa & the Blues’ is a very good place to start.

How you would spend a day with Mississippi John Hurt? What would you say to John Jackson? What would you like to ask Robert Johnson?

I never met John Hurt, nor heard his music while he was alive. I got my first introduction to Hurt’s music in the fall of 1970 and I fell out over it. I spent untold hours trying to sort out and then play the way Hurt played. My latest CD, The Last Shot Got Him has six John Hurt tunes on it! I visited his house in Avalon a couple years ago and played some of his music on his porch. It was transformative.

If I could meet John, I suppose I would spend my day listening (and watching) him play some of his pieces. And I’d ask him to tell me how it was back then. How he got by in Avalon all those years after the market crash of 1929 ruined his chances of having a music career. I’d like to know what he thought and felt was important. He was a kind man in an unkind world. I find that really interesting. I’d like to know more about that.

John Jackson was a friend, as well as a mentor. We spoke a lot and cared for each other a lot. When John played, I’d sit out front and listen and watch his hands. He’d sit out front when I played. He was another amazingly present and kind man. To attribute the kindness of these men to expedience (knowing that a Black man copping an attitude in the South could very quickly get him killed) would be a disservice to the work they did to make themselves into kind and forgiving men. Somehow, they did that. I witnessed it with Mr. Jackson over and over again. If I could spend another day with him, that’s where my attention would be.

As for little Robert Johnson, I’ve probably crawled deeper into the grooves of his recordings than anyone else’s. I’d like to know what he is actually singing in that mystery verse of choked lyrics in his ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down.’ And, if we could meet, I’d be sure to tell him how he accidentally got to be one of the guys who changed rock and roll history. I think he’d be pleased.

Scott Ainslie - Official website

Photo by Herve Pelletier

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