"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
Throughout his recording and performing career, Blind Lemon Pledge, aka Bay Area bluesman James Byfield, has gained critical recognition for the broad scope of his stylistic skills and for his ability to capture the essence of American Roots Music in his compositions. From blues to rock to folk with stops at Cajun and country along the way, Pledge’s music has received rave reviews for his ability to smoothly mix genres to create a unique and personal form of American Music. In 2019, he surprised and delighted critics with his first foray into an all jazz record, the nostalgic “After Hours.” Composing his first songs at age eight, James Byfield has had a lifelong fascination with a wide range of musical genres. In his early teen years, he explored various strains of American Roots Music: country blues, jug band, zydeco, folk, country and western, etc. Simultaneously he learned to play rock and electric blues. While playing in a variety of rock bands down the years, Byfield also explored more exotic forms of music including jazz, Chinese classical music and an abiding interest in electronic music and computer recording techniques. All of these strains of music came together to create his eclectic and evocative compositional style, and to inform his studio production skills.
In 2008, following a long and honored career as a graphic designer and media producer, Byfield reconnected with his blues and Americana roots and created the musical persona Blind Lemon Pledge, releasing the album “Living My Life With the Blues” under that name, a “lift” from an old Martin Mull routine. Over the course of eight albums, Blind Lemon Pledge has earned a reputation for beautifully produced, recorded, and conceptualized albums featuring Byfield’s award-winning words and music. While fronting an eponymously named acoustic blues quintet, Byfield continues to maintain a two-front musical career with public performance and solo records, often highlighting guest musicians. In 2019, he released an album of all jazz compositions, taking a performance back seat to a skilled quartet, while Byfield helmed the composition, producing and arranging duties. On his new album, “Goin’ Home” (2020), Blind Lemon Pledge once again defies expectations by releasing a sparse solo album of cover tunes ranging from deep blues to folk and traditional to contemporary tunesmiths like J.J. Cale. The album showcases Pledge’s performing skills in a blemishes-and-all stripped-down collection of the songs and styles that have inspired Pledge’s own songwriting.” 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”.
“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.
I have always loved this song and have been doing it for many years. It is one of the first songs Muddy Waters ever recorded, when Alan Lomax found him working as a sharecropper in Mississippi. Muddy said when he first heard himself on the recording, he knew his destiny lay in being a musician. So it was a hugely transitional moment for one of my favorite bluesmen.
He rerecorded the tune several times over his career. All of the recordings I have heard have retained the distinctive opening solo. And every time I hear those first 12 notes, it grabs me to my soul. Although I do not vocally sound like Muddy at all, I believe that his slide playing has been a big influence on my style. I like to play slow and heavy like Muddy did with lots of microtone nuances.
I repeated his solo on the intro and outro of my recording for my new album. There are a handful of Bluesmen that touch me the most. And Muddy is definitely one of them.
I first added this song to my repertoire shortly after starting my career as Blind Lemon Pledge. Although I like the jazzy Peggy Lee version, I really like the spare version of Little Willie John, which is my main influence here in terms of recording.
I think it is a wonderfully written song. In keeping with my spare approach I only kept the three “most important” verses which move the story forward. It is about as “sexy” as I get on record…for a geezer bluesman!
"Come Back Baby"
I have performed this song since I was a teenager. I first learned it off the Dave Van Ronk Folksinger album. I think it is one of the most beautiful blues ballads there is and it always touches me to my heart. I can really feel the lyrics, and I believe I am able to move my listeners with this feeling.
At a certain point, I added some chord substitutions to create my own twist to the sound and arrangement. It takes it to some unexpected places.
At his best, JJ Cale is a master of simplicity and directness. His songs have the spare, lean quality that I like so much.
I substituted a slide guitar for JJ’s wah-wah guitar to approximate the feel but change the sound. Just before I mixed and mastered the album, I had the inspiration to re-record the vocals in a new and whispery way to pay homage to JJ’s gruff, whispery style. The harmonies are based on my study of some of the things the Staples Singers do.
Love this song.
I learned this straight off of Boz Scaggs’ old recording made when he was still a bluesman. I always liked the song. At a certain point I felt that my abilities as a singer had reached the point where I could do the song justice.
I did not know of Fenton Robinson’s version until I went to secure recording rights for the song and found out he wrote it.
The songs that connect with me most on the emotional level are ones where I can identify with the character who is “narrating” the lyrics. This one really feels like something I would think and feel. Great lyrics…”my old time used-to-be.” Brilliant.
"Big Road Blues"
I am a big fan of Tommy Johnson and this is one of my favorites of his. I like the catchiness of the lyrics and the 1, 2, 1, 2 structure of the verses. I use this form a lot in my own blues writing.
I changed this significantly from Tommy Johnson’s version to make it “my own.” I turned it into a slide song and raised the tempo significantly. I kept the distinctive walking up guitar bass line and the signature riff.
A great blues song that expresses a certain feel that I like.
"It’s Too Late to Cry (set to the Stormy Monday chord progression)"
I discovered Lonnie Johnson with this song and loved it from the beginning. Another great combination of lyrics and tune. At some point, I got the inspiration to wed the lyrics and melody to T-Bone Walker’s famous Stormy Monday chord progression with its distinctive 1-2-3-flatted 3 middle section. When you hear that part of the progression you instantly relate it to Walker’s song.
Both Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker have a lot of jazz influence in their songs and playing and I felt the combination emphasized that while exposing people to the less well know Johnson song.
With this song, and all the songs I choose, the emotions of the lyrics and the way they work with the lyrics are important to me, and must speak to me internally or I do not take them on. I am very conscious of choosing songs that I can personalize. I don’t really sound like anybody else, and have never consciously tried to copy any individual bluesmen. So if I can find the core of the song as it relates to me, then I know it will work.
and last one, "Love In Vain"...
Hard to top Love In Vain as one of the greatest blues songs of all time. The lyrics are perfect, sketching a whole love affair in a few lines. The image of the train lights receding in the distance, carrying the lover away, is haunting.
My version is a combination of Robert Johnson’s uptempo version and The Rolling Stones very slow version. I turned it into a slide song, because I felt I could use the slide to emphasize the weeping quality of the story. Playing slide and simultaneously singing the song always get my heart and soul to the right spot for what this song needs.
Make an account of the case of the blues in San Francisco. Which is the most interesting period in the local blues scene?
Since the 1950’s there has always been an active Roots Music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area. The ‘60s folk music revival brought with it an interest in the blues. Many of the famous hippie era bands (Big Brother and the Holding Company, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Steve Miller Band) were very blues oriented, as traditional blues, Chicago Blues and Texas Blues were all stirred into the melting pot that created Rock Music.
I have been fortunate to have a small part in that since the ‘60s. Although I always loved blues, I went through a long Rock period before coming back around to the traditional blues that I love so much.
I would say the most interesting period was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when exposure to the primarily white Rock groups, opened up interest in the Blues Masters (BB King, Buddy Guy, etc.) who began appearing in the Rock Venues. We had some interesting pairings of Rock Groups and great Bluesmen.
Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?
In a certain way I don’t believe that any American born genre of music is “specific” as either a genre or artistic movement. Because we are a melting pot, all of the forms of music that has reached our shores influence each other in both overt and subtle ways. The blues itself combines African rhythms and minor scales with British Isles folk music to create a distinctly American amalgam. The wonderful popular music called the Great American Songbook, essentially a jazz style, is heavily influenced by blues phrasings and scales. And many Americans, regardless of their background, find themselves drawn to the blues because it has permeated so much of our music.
The Blues itself is a state of mind to a degree. It has influenced musicians in many different countries around the world. The famous English blues musicians, who have advanced the music so much, understood the “attitude” that it takes to sing the blues. The “Blues Attitude” is a state of mind that balances both the beauty and the “toughness” of the music. Many white blues singers consciously try to imitate American Black Blues styles, especially in their singing and pronunciation. I do not. Nobody would mistake me for black. But I think I have incorporated the emotional sense that is necessary to convincingly sing the blues. And that’s the Blues Attitude. Getting in touch with your emotions and then being able to convey them to an audience.
What is the story behind your nickname "Blind Lemon Pledge"?
In 2008, I retired from my career as a designer, graphic artist and media producer to devote myself full time to my music. Personal computer digital recording programs (DAWs) had been around for a few years and had gotten quite versatile and high quality.
Shortly after retiring I started work on what became the first Blind Lemon Pledge album, “Livin’ My Life With the Blues”, a combination of covers and original tunes. Originally I had planned for the album just to be sent to friends and family. As part of the “package”, I invented the persona of an old bluesman, patterned after the greats like Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, and of course Blind Lemon Jefferson. I thought the character was somebody I could “inhabit” to create a setting for doing the old style blues I love so much.
When I was thinking what to name this character I remembered a routine by the comedian Martin Mull who invented the character Blind Lemon Pledge (a pun on Blind Lemon Jefferson) who was specifically a white bluesman. It was both and homage and a satire on bluesmen, which fit my music perfectly. So for the project, which I originally conceived as a “one-off”, I adopted the name and invented a whole back story with I included on the album and on the website I created.
To my surprise, my music started being played by some of the Internet Radio stations around the world. I even got a request from France to send them discs.
Suddenly, and surprisingly, the name and the persona had a life of their own. For the next record, I put together a performing band. After a lot of tossing band names around, I decided to stick with Blind Lemon Pledge, for both my stage name and the name of the band. It has both a catchy ring to it and a sense of humor. There is a lot of humor in my music and approach. Some people remembered the Martin Mull routine. For others it was a new joke. Some folks don’t get it at all. I have stuck with the stage name and performing band name ever since.
It wasn’t until the second album was out that I thought to look on the Internet to see if somebody else was using the name. As it happens, many other artists had used it, so my use was not original. In retrospect, had I known I might have invented something else. But, my second album got even more play than the first and now I was sort of stuck with it as an identity.
So in 2015, I trademarked the name to protect it from other commercial use. And now it’s mine. And I have gained enough credibility in the blues scene to be able to wear the name with pride. I truly feel I am now Blind Lemon Pledge – Bluesman.
How do you describe previous album "Evangeline" songbook and sound? Are there any memories from studio which you’d like to share?
As a songwriter, I have gained a reputation as an eclectic craftsman who is adept at many different styles of American influenced music. And on “Evangeline” I wanted to explore that craft with an album that is a journey through a kaleidoscope of American music styles and themes, all with an overlay of Blues sensibility.
Originally the album started out as a song cycle which was going to trace a young musician’s journey from the farm to stardom and back down again. Unfortunately, although I have tried a couple of times to write and record a complete song cycle, I always seem to get distracted by new songs and musical directions, and I just never finish. The first four songs on “Evangeline” show how this cycle was started and where it might have gone.
Instead, as usually happens, I let my musical dreams guide me on the album’s path by taking me to many different musical places.
The album starts out with ‘Buley’s Farm’. Set to a bottleneck cigar-box guitar accompaniment, this is a crude and simple tune done in the vein of an old prison work gang chant. From there, it moves through folk, New Orleans, roadhouse blues, jazz, swing and Latin, before coming full circle to the title song, a Deep Blues done in the style of Son House. For each song, I tried to fashion a sound that would match the style rhythmically, instrumentally and, most importantly, stylistically.
This is the third album where I have created most or all of the instrumentation myself. Depending on the instrument and the sound I am trying to achieve, I alternate between my home studio and recording in a commercial venue. Although I enjoy doing my own recording, it’s nice to have someone else punching the buttons so I can concentrate on the music alone, especially with vocals and guitar.
Probably the best memories came with the songs ‘Buley’s Farm’, ‘Ham and Eggs’, and ‘Go Jump the Willie’. These songs all had complex, dense harmonies, up to twelve parts on ‘Buley’. I had never done this level of layering of my own harmonies before; and when the harmonies all came together it was very satisfying. On ‘Ham and Eggs’ I consciously tried to recreate the jazzy Andrews sisters sound and I was really happy with the results. And it was so much fun to record!
Where does your creative drive come from? Which is the magic synergy between melody and lyrics?
I have always been driven creatively in a number of different paths. Before devoting most of my time to music, I had a long and successful career as a commercial designer, artist, and media producer/director. So I would say a creative drive has been a central part of my being beginning in childhood. Since launching my second career in music, I have been very fortunate that I am able to mix my design and artistic skills with my musical skills to create album graphics and videos to support my music.
In thinking about melody/lyric synergy, I think good songs have a true partnership between the two that can’t really be separated. Historians believe that poetry started out as song, and I think this beautiful symbiosis should inspire the soul of every song.
So many songwriters I know concentrate on just the lyrics, or, more rarely, just the melody. I believe that both are absolutely crucial to the song. When you think of the best, most classic songs, they usually work on every level.
I don’t have a set method of writing songs. Sometimes the melody comes first…other times the lyrics. Sometimes an idea or a situation will inspire both simultaneously. I am also often inspired by the style or genre itself. It is not unusual for me to decide to write a song in a certain style; and having made that decision, and having researched the style, I find the topic, lyrics and music often “write themselves”.
On this album, I would say “Evangeline”, the title track, is a strong example of when my lyrics and melody come together synergistically. I had wanted to write a song that was a tribute to Son House, a huge influence on me. I listened to several of his cuts again to get me in the mood. And then I sat down and the song flowed out in about half an hour, although I honed the lyrics over several weeks.
As I listened to Son House, I marveled again at the interesting ways he would stretch the boundaries of “acceptable” blues form. A lot of the pre-WWII acoustic bluesmen often experimented with the form. The freedom of playing without a band allowed them to explore variations on structure, chords and rhythm. The guitar playing of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson are beyond awesome for the intricate detail and variation.
As a tribute to this experimentation, ‘Evangeline’ stretches the limitations of the I-IV-V format with an unexpected pause on the introduction of the IV chord; and some substitution chords in the third line. I thought the unusual progression, built into the framework of the classic blues progression, would be a bit “unsettling” for the listeners and jolt them a bit. The subject matter was supposed to be unsettling.
What would you say characterizes your work in comparison to other songwriters?
Off the top, I think the most obvious difference is my skillful eclecticism.
There have always been songwriters who tried styles that were out of their comfort zone…with varying degrees of success. Based on the critical reaction I have gotten to my discography, what seems to distinguish my work is the “trueness” of my musical vision. I have always had very broad musical tastes and all those influences come into my music. My particular gift seems to be that I can listen to the distinguishing characteristics of a given genre and comfortably weave them into my music so that the song is not just pastiche.
When I write a Blues, it’s a “real” blues; not a song that sounds like somebody trying to write a blues. My last album, ‘Backwoods Glance’ was a folk and country album which one critic called “an organic/folk set that could easily set new standards.” I was delighted with the quote, of course, but even happier to achieve that feedback composing in one of my secondary styles.
On “Evangeline”, each of the 10 songs inhabits its own world. The lyrics, melody and rhythm are all true to the particular genre; and there are literally ten genres. Each musical accompaniment is carefully orchestrated to capture the feeling of the type of music I am celebrating (while still staying with instruments I can credibly arrange for and play).
According to the reactions I have gotten, both critically and on the airwaves, it looks like I have been largely successful. Although my album is circulating mostly among Blues stations, the spins have been across all the cuts, including the very folky ballad ‘Jennie Bell’.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your music experiences?
My musical career started late in my life after I had retired, albeit early, from a life in media. Although I played various instruments, sang and composed music throughout my life (starting at age eight), music was always secondary to my commercial media career. When I was able to retire from media, I decided to devote myself to my music and see where it would go. And I have been immensely fortunate that it has gone further than I would have ever dreamed ten years ago.
The changes in world media and communications, made possible by Internet and related technologies, have allowed indie artists, like me, unprecedented access to a worldwide audience. This is coupled with advancements in home computer technology and software which allow an artist to create professional level recordings in their basement…from concept to mastering. And all of this coincided with my decision to devote myself to music. My timing couldn’t have been better.
When I started my musical career, I had a lifetime of ideas, experience, and musical knowledge stored up that suddenly burst through as if it was a dam, long in need of repair. I am writing, singing, and playing far better than at any point in my life. And my production skills, which took the longest to hone, have reached a level where I can be more confident of recreating the sounds I hear in my head.
My success is “modest” by rock star standards, but my name has gotten around the world, I have won awards; gotten on the preliminary Grammy Ballot a few times; been named on the Roots Music Report Best Contemporary Blues Albums for 2017; and, most importantly, had my quirky music reach around the globe. It has been a great journey so far and I think it has several more stops on the way.
So I would say the most important lessons are you can teach an old dog new tricks; and never say “done”.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks so much for the interview. All my albums are available on Amazon, iTunes and other major outlets. I hope your readers will check it out and enjoy the music.
Comments are closed for this blog post