Interview with Blind Lemon Pledge (aka James Byfield) - sophisticated styles of old-time country blues & folk

"Blues, Folk and Roots gives people an opportunity to connect with tradition and to experience their music in an unvarnished form."

James Byfield: American Roots Tales

James Byfield has been recording and performing under his blues stage name Blind Lemon Pledge since 2008. Over the years he has developed a unique form of Americana music which deftly combines elements of blues, folk, traditional jazz and American Songbook styles to create a synthesis of styles  which one critic called “a personal presentation of the form, which ultimately results in a completely new and modern musical expression.” Starting with 2009’s “Living My Life With The Blues” and highlighted by the critically acclaimed “Evangeline” and “Pledge Drive”, Blind Lemon Pledge has created a strong body of work that encompasses the whole of American Roots music.

Now, with a departure from his blues roots, Blind Lemon Pledge explores country, folk and Americana on his 2017 album “Backwoods Glance.” With a sterling band of great players including dobro, fiddle, harmonica, guitars, bass and percussion and featuring three and four part harmonies throughout, Pledge presents a new collection of 12 original songs that cover everything from Country Line Dancing to Appalachian Ballad to Zydeco to old Southern Gospel. Critically acclaimed and with international airplay, the album has been called the “musical version of the Great American Novel.” Now Blues GR got a chance to catch up with Pledge and get some feedback about his latest musical ventures.

What were the reasons that you started the Root, Americana and Folk researches and experiments?

As some of your readers may know, I have been recording as Blind Lemon Pledge since 2009. Since I first started playing guitar in my teens, I have been drawn to and influenced by American Blues and Roots Music, including, of course, Folk and Country. Until now, my records have been heavily Blues oriented since this has been one of the major factors in my life and music. However, as critics have noted, I have always had a very eclectic approach to my songwriting with forays in jazz, swing, country, even Latin music. My music, like American culture, is a true melting pot of styles. A couple of years ago, I watched an interesting and very moving documentary on the Appalachian Coal Country and the people who live there. I was inspired by the stories I saw to begin writing what I had hoped was going to turn into a Song Cycle about Coal Country and its important part of American culture. Well, I have tried a few of these song cycles in the past, and, to be honest, I have never yet finished a whole cycle. However, I got three good songs out of the idea (the second, third and sixth songs on my new album). I began to play with the idea of a completely different kind of album for me…much more Folk, Country and Americana styled than my other outings.

So I looked at my catalog and picked some other tunes that would fit into this new direction. I decided to re-record a couple of songs and give them a new slant. I like to do this from time to time with songs. I find when you revisit them, you get a whole new take on the sound and interpretation. I also wrote some other songs specifically for the album. Overall I wanted to try to bring my music to another set of listeners who might not have heard my strictly blues albums. That being said, the blues is always at the root of my music and you can definitely hear its influence throughout the album.

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

I have been listening to and playing blues music since I was about 14 years old, shortly after I first took up the guitar. At first I was exposed to the more “acceptable” stylings of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and of Josh White who were featured on television at the time. But, by chance, I discovered an old record of Son House in my school library and I was immediately hooked on the raw sound of pre-WWII era blues. My first blues record was a compilation with Leadbelly and Sleepy John Estes.

I have been listening since that time and have pretty much been exposed to all the various facets of the blues. Although I have my favorites, I like some aspect of almost any kind of blues from country blues to Chicago to jazz, blues rock and on. However, those early single guitar/singer cuts and the jug and string bands from the 20s, 30s and 40s are still the mainstay of my ongoing influence and remain my favorites. I would say blues taught me the importance of emotional honesty and about “cutting to the bone” in my music. I think a lot of music gets buried in production and gimmicks and a lot of songs lose their way in the lyrics, but the best blues, in whatever style, keeps it honest. And, I hope I achieve that in my performance and recordings. As far as learning about myself, I would also hope that I can achieve that same emotional honesty in my life and relationships as is in the blues. What the blues means to me is a seminal art form that aids in getting in touch with one’s inner self and finding the core of one’s strength. I have an old song I wrote several years ago called “Living My Life with the Blues”. I always introduce it in my performances as “my philosophy of life”.

How do you describe Blind Lemon Pledge sound and songbook? What characterizes your music philosophy?

“Blind Lemon Pledge” is both my stage/recording name and the name of some of the bands built around my sound. I think my particular sound is a unique blend of influences that give me a different quality from that of many other players and songwriters. One critic compared my sound to “Muddy Waters meets Hoagy Carmichael meets Randy Newman meets Bob Dylan”, and I think this is an accurate depiction in its way. I combine early blues stylings with jazz phrasing and Americana and country roots for a blend that is all my own. I have extremely eclectic music tastes and this comes through in my song choice and in my writing. In my music library you can find blues, country, folk, classical, various forms of jazz, Reggae and Soca, Rap, R&B, oldies rock, synthesizer music, new wave, punk, World music, etc., etc. For a 5 year period I dropped out of all other music to study Chinese classical music and learn to play the Er Hu, a two-string fiddle. I am sure that in some ways all of these influences make their way into my music but I will try to narrow it down as well as I can.

My writing is perhaps the most important aspect of my sound, although, in performance I do a large number of covers. As my new album “Evangeline” shows, I write in a very broad range of styles, reflecting a diverse range of the streams that form American music. On that record alone, I have a raw chain gang chant (with a cigar box guitar solo); a romantic folk ballad; a New Orleans piano driven song reminiscent of “St. James Infirmary”; a slide guitar saloon rocker; a Louis Jordan style jump-jive; a Latin tinged salsa rocker; an American Songbook Cole Porter tribute; a jazzy love blues; a Byrds-like folk rock number; and a sparse slide-guitar based Deep Blues, reminiscent of Son House.

I think what binds all of these songs together are emotionally honest, well-crafted lyrics, a deep sense of storytelling, and an often surprising approach to chords and song-structure. In performance I always try to sing from the heart as deep as I can go. I do not try to sound “black” or imitate any particular style of singing. I just try to sound like me. As far as my covers go, I try to look for songs that have not been done by too many artists, although I do have my share of chestnuts. Most importantly, I try to approach each cover in a way that makes it my own song. I have no interest in doing covers that sound “just like the record.” What’s the point of trying to sound like BB King or Stevie Ray Vaughn? They already did it their way and my attempting to copy them will probably pale in comparison. So I work hard on creating arrangements and approaches that are unique for that song and work for me on an emotional and artistic level. For instance, I turned Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” into a waltz-time country influenced ballad and restructured the chords. Although it retains the emotional honesty of the song, it has a very different sound. Several people have asked me after I perform the song if it is one that I wrote! This means that I was successful in putting my own imprint on it and in heading off comparisons to the great Etta.

Another example is the old classic “House of the Rising Sun” a song I first performed when I was 14 (as if, at that age, I had any understanding of what life in a New Orleans brothel was all about). A few years ago, my then-keyboardist brought the song in to play. We tried it a couple of times in the old ¾ arpeggio style familiar to most folk aficionados and lovers of The Animals 60s classic. But I just couldn’t get my head around it. It seemed tired and overdone. So I completely re-arranged it with a pounding, staccato 4/4 beat and suddenly it worked for me. (Unfortunately, it did not work for the keyboardist who soon quit the band!) I still do that song in my shows using my special arrangement and always get compliments and good reaction. So I would say my music philosophy is “be true to yourself and find or write songs that come from the heart and reflect your own personal style.” Kind of obvious but not always easy to achieve.

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

In a world that is increasingly modernized and marginalized, people are craving the “real thing” in their music. You can turn on the radio or TV and hear so much music that sounds like it was created for a Las Vegas extravaganza. Blues, Folk and Roots gives people an opportunity to connect with tradition and to experience their music in an unvarnished form. It is “dangerous” music – not over processed and allowing for the opportunity for unexpected things to happen.

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

The two most important meetings in my life happened very early when I was still a teenager. The first one took place right outside of my house in Palo Alto, CA. At the time I had been first studying the blues and was trying, without much luck, to learn how to play the alternating bass and finger picking patterns similar to the Piedmont style. I looked out my window, and across the street a young African-American man was leaning against a car, playing just this style. I went across the street, introduced myself, and asked if I could just watch him for awhile. When he finished playing about ½ hour later, I had learned the style. He was like an angel sent by the blues gods!

The second meeting occurred about a year later at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival which was, at the time, held every year on the Berkeley Campus. After years of playing his music in obscurity, Mississippi Fred McDowell had just recently been discovered by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records. As part of the Festival, John Fahey hosted a workshop with Mr. McDowell – a question and answer session, punctuated by examples of playing. Myself and about 10 other folks got to sit right there with him, ask questions and marvel at his skill and bask in his genuineness. Fred was a huge influence on my tastes and on my slide phrasing. The 60s and 70s were the end of the era for many of the great pre-war blues players and it was wonderful to be able to be so close to such a fine (if often under-appreciated) master. The best advice – “make the song your own.”

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

Perhaps the most memorable time from any gig was the first time I moved somebody to tears with one of my original songs. It truly affected me. Another great gig was a few months ago at a restaurant where I have a regular slot. An elderly Japanese woman, probably in her 80s, and her family had come to celebrate the old woman’s birthday. The minute I sang my first tune, the woman looked absolutely stunned. She stayed for the whole evening and even got up to dance during a couple of songs. At the end of my last set she came up with her daughter, who acted as a translator, and told me I had “moved her to her soul.” What a great experience.

Probably the most memorable studio experience was in 2010 when I recorded the album “I Would Rather Go Blind”. This was the first time I got to make a real “studio” album – that is recording each track separately rather than recording the band essentially live and overdubbing vocals. I suddenly learned what was possible in the studio and those possibilities led me to my latest album where I have, I think, really achieved the kind of sounds I always heard in my head. And I have been able to shape each arrangement to best support the song.

"What the blues means to me is a seminal art form that aids in getting in touch with one’s inner self and finding the core of one’s strength." (Photo: James Byfield formed Blind Lemon Pledge in 2008)

How do you describe "Backwoods Glance" sound and songbook? What characterize album’s philosophy?

On every album, I try to sculpt a unique sound and approach. “Evangeline” had a gentle acoustic blues quality. “Pledge Drive” was more rock influenced. And “Backwoods Glance” is specifically tailored to an American Folk/Country sound. I really wanted to capture the qualities of people sitting on a backporch and picking traditional tunes. The songs are written with specific genres in mind. “Polly Come Out”, opening track, was inspired by watching country line dancers. I wanted a nice loping dance tune. The next song “The Hills of West Virginia” is purposely written to match the sound and qualities of old hills ballads (although there is a middle bridge, not usually associated with this kind of music). Then there are a variety of other sonic and genre approaches including Cajun/Zydeco (“Ma Belle Cherie) and old Southern Gospel (“Give My Poor Heart Ease”).

In keeping with the idea of backporch picking I selected a handful of musicians from around my area that I knew would be able to capture this sound and feeling. Peter Grenell on bass and Cal Keaoola on violin/fiddle are both members of my regular performing band, also called Blind Lemon Pledge. John Pearson on drums is a long time friend and fellow musician who has amazing credentials going back to the English Invasion period of pop music. Tom Cline is a wonderful dobro player I have known for a few years. I knew I wanted a dobro to really capture the mood I was trying to create. And finally, Marisa Malvino, another friend and fellow musician, supplied the superb harmonies and her wonderful solo turn on the third track. Through other musical situations, I had discovered that Marisa and I blend wonderfully as vocalists. Her rich, deep alto is close to my somewhat high tenor, so we are almost in the same range. On several tracks, her harmony is actually lower than my melody. And on some tracks I went back and added a third high harmony above the melody. The philosophy of the album, as it were, derives a lot from getting these wonderful people together to create this music. I wanted to capture the sound of roots America and I knew from many jam sessions and performances with these folks that they would be able to latch into that idea. Topically, I tried to cover a lot of issues of employment struggles, the Appalachias and trying to make it in today’s world while retaining older community values. Many of the songs are about seeking redemption, resolution and hope.

How has the American Roots Counterculture inflluenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I grew up in a very liberal household. My father was an activist Episcopal minister who was deeply involved in the Civil Rights struggle, the fight against McCarthyism and the overall struggle for rights and dignity in this country. A WWII veteran, he loved this country fiercely and worked his whole life to help it reach the ideals enshrined in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. As part of that household liberalism, I was introduced early on to the music of the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and the other great folk singers who inextricably linked progressive social movements with Roots Music. I have always been greatly influenced by the many counter-culture movements that helped shape our country. I was part of those movements. And I have kept those values alive as I have matured.

A little later in my life, I discovered the Blues and began a lifelong love affair with that music. The Blues are unique in that they can comment upon social situations while expressing the ideas in extremely personal ways. Many of the songs on the album reflect that and are almost “protest songs”, if you will. However, being the kind of writer I am, these protest songs are interwoven with the lives of the characters in the songs. So they are kind of personal/protest songs.

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

Of course I miss the old greats whose names are such a part of the lore of the blues. I am glad that I got to see some of the old guard before they moved on: Fred McDowell, John Hurt, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Lightening Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Sonny and Brownie, etc.

I hope that the blues will continue to thrive and that future generations will rediscover the country blues as well as other styles. I guess I don’t fear much, I think the blues will take care of itself.

The only known photo of Blind Lemon Pledge (circa 1924)

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

Interesting question! And a hard one to answer. There are so many choices. Since song writing is so important to me, I would probably like to go back and be a “fly-on-the-wall” at the creation of one of the great blues songs. If I had to narrow it down I would say I would like to watch and experience Skip James composing “Devil Got My Woman” or Blind Willie Johnson creating “Dark Was the Night” or Hoagy Carmichael creating “Georgia.”

What are the lines that connect the legacy of 60s San Francisco Blues-Folks scene with the current era?

One of the most important things about the 60s scene in San Francisco is that the entrepreneurs, like Bill Graham and Chet Helms, brought so many unappreciated blues men to a wider audience. I first caught BB live at a Fillmore West show with Country Joe & The Fish and Joe Cocker (before he was a megastar). A classic performer combination from that era. I never dreamed I would see BB live in my hometown. This started a trend that continues to this day with great opportunities to experience blues and folk in a variety of settings, including, of course, the wonderful Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival which just recently celebrated its 14th Anniversary.

Locally, the scene continues to thrive with the Golden Gate Blues Society, the Bay Area Blues Society and the Central Valley Blues Society as well as Blues Festivals in San Francisco, Oakland, Hayward, etc. We have a wide variety of blues from people of all ages and ethnicities. And of course legends like Jesse Fuller, Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musslewhite and others have, at various times, made the Bay Area their home. The San Francisco Folk Music Club, which dates back to the 60s, continues to be a hub for the thriving local folk circuit. I would have to go on for hours to do justice to the history of Blues and Folk in the Bay Area. So many great names and experiences. Suffice it to say that the line continues from post WWII through today.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the chitlin’ circuits?

I recently saw Buddy Guy in concert and that is one humorous dude! And if he doesn’t have chitlin’ circuit cred who does? Most of the stuff that touches me emotionally is viewing old videos and movies of the greats. There is a wealth of great stuff on YouTube and released on DVD and I am continually watching and enjoying, both to appreciate the performances and to pick up tips. I own several old videos of Son House and Muddy Waters that deeply move me every time I see them.

From the musical point of view what are the similarities between: Blues, Folk, Jazz, Gospel and Country?

Again, I could go on for hours on this topic and I am not even a legitimate musicologist. America itself, with all its wonderful ethnic and cultural diversity and richness of experience, is the bond that unites all of these musical streams together. When you look at musicians like the Carter Family or Jimmy Rogers, you see the roots of Country music, greatly influenced by their contemporary experience with African Americans and the Blues. When you experience Leadbelly, you see how Folk informs the Blues. When you listen to Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley, you see the way Country intersected with Blues to create Rock and Roll, the single most influential music in all of history. Jazz and Gospel, or course draw on a wide range of influences as well as add their own touch. Music is not created in a vacuum and America has had a long and unique history of cross-cultural interaction. And all of the music you mention comes together in the melting pot that is America. Listen to Big Bill Broonzy or Lonnie Johnson and you can see how everything can come together in one musician.

You asked earlier what I missed most about blues from the past. I would say one of the things I miss most is the cross pollination that used to be so much a part of 60s free form radio where you would get a country song followed by a blues song followed by a folk song followed by a psychedelic rock song, etc. Mass media seems to be getting so stratified. Diverse but stratified. And I think it is a shame that people are not exposed to the different strains that used to be available from a single source.

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older? 

In the last few years I have experienced some deep personal tragedy which definitely got me more in touch with the emotions I need for good performance. I have noticed a recent marked upswing in my ability to convey all kinds of emotions to my audience. This is coupled, of course, with the natural ease that consistent performing has brought through time.

Other things just naturally come with age. When I was a boy falling in love with the great old blues men, I never dreamed I would become an “old blues man” myself! My guitar playing has gotten more fluid and streamlined over the years. There was a period when I was younger that I tried to play like a steamroller…Alvin Lee comes to mind. I practiced for hours getting as fast and as complicated as I could. But as I have matured, I have learned that 3 perfect notes are better than 2 dozen fast ones. I concentrate now on the phrasing and meaning much more than the speed. One of my guitar idols is Steve Cropper who can say more with one simple phrase than other guitarists can in an entire song. I have also found that my songwriting has continued to mature in very positive ways. I think I am writing consistently better now than ever. Although some of my older songs have definitely withstood the test of time as far as my being able to relate to their emotions and meaning. But in the last few years I have been able to explore themes and emotions that I would not have comprehended in my youth. And my use of lyrics has gotten even more succinct and creative. It has been very gratifying.

"Since I first started playing guitar in my teens, I have been drawn to and influenced by American Blues and Roots Music, including, of course, Folk and Country. Until now, my records have been heavily Blues oriented since this has been one of the major factors in my life and music."

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

If I could change one thing it would be that the music of Blind Lemon Pledge gets out to a larger and larger audience. Well…yeah!

What is your BLUES DREAM? Happiness is…

As I mentioned earlier my “Blues Dream” is to have Blind Lemon Pledge’s unique approach to the blues recognized and listened to by a wider audience. I think I have a gift to share with the world and I hope that the world wants to share it with me.

Happiness is…a beautiful woman, a bottle of fine wine, a spring morning by the ocean, and an open-tuned Guild dreadnaught guitar.

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

Although I am very aware of the ties of music to various progressive movements, I am not one that believes a song can actually change the world. Usually songs are, literally, “preaching to the choir”. What music does provide is an emotional and intellectual platform to express the thoughts and feelings resulting from issues on the racial, political and socio-cultural spectrum. Sometimes, a song will have such resonance that it becomes emblematic of a whole movement. I think of “We Shall Overcome” for instance. Sometimes the message perfectly captures and moment of societal angst and has a wide resonance for a broad demographic. “Eve of Destruction” really caught the unsettled quality of its time. John Lennon’s “Imagine” has had a life of its own because of the hope and positivity of the message. But I doubt any of these songs actually changed anybody’s thinking or personal philosophy. The apocryphal story goes that Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” caused a riot when it was first performed. I like to think that was true…that people were so moved and outraged by a piece of music that they went a little nuts. 

James Byfield - Official Website

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