Interview with Eden and John’s East River String Band - traditional American music without any labels

"I think music and art should be made mandatory in public schools for all grades. In fact, I’ll say that mandatory subjects should be English, History, Political Science, Environmental Studies, Nutrition, Music, Art, Gym, two years of Math and everything else should be elective."

Eden and John’s East River String Band: Old Time Music, Like Good Wine

Eden and John’s East River String Band have been playing, releasing CD’s and LP’s and touring America and Europe since way back in the days of old, around 2006 to be exact. The brain child of John Heneghan, Eden Brower was soon lured into the duo with promises of chocolate, a National Resonator Uke and her name being before John’s in their lengthy moniker. They play a vast spectrum of traditional American Blues, Country and Pop music ranging from the late 19th to the early 20th Century. With John on vocals, guitar and mandolin and Eden on vocals, guitar, kazoo and the aforementioned resonator Uke, their love and reverence of old music shines through in every song.

They have released four albums and often have special guests sitting in with them for their recordings and live performances, including Robert Crumb, the famed underground cartoonist who also does all the artwork for the band causing Eden to exclaim, ‘My legs are not THAT big!” to anyone who will listen. The East River String Band has several projects including the album entitled, "Take a Look at That Baby” (2013) and they plan to play gigs from now until the end of time. David Fricke of Rolling Stone Magazines said, “Eden And John cover country blues from the 78-rpm era with crisp fervor and a natural flair that suggests loving study and a respect for the original records”. Their new album "Coney Island Baby" (due out on January 18th, 2019) is the first record released since 2013's 'Take A Look At That Baby'. It feature's ex-Cheap Suit Serenader and underground comic legend Robert Crumb on mandolin, banjo and Ukulele as well as watercolor painted cover by him. Also, features Ernesto Gomez, Pat Conte, Eli Smith, Geoff Wiley, Walker Shepard & Jackson Lynch.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

John: When I was a kid I first got into the blues by listening to Jimi Hendrix’s songs like Red House & Catfish Blues. As a teenager I discovered The Chess 50’s & 60’s recordings of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and the like. I loved this music and slowly realized that it started far back long before the Chicago guys. In my late teens I discovered Robert Johnson who opened up a whole new world to me.

Eden: I have always loved music. I remember being 6 years old and being obsessed with The Beatles and other music from different eras. I never cared much for what was mainstream or on the radio. I was drawn to music that made me feel something; that stirred up emotions for me. Blues was something I got into through John and his 78's and his love for the music. As soon as I heard some of his records I knew I was hearing something completely new to me and songs that moved me like nothing else I had ever heard before.

What were the reasons that you started the 78-rpm era researches? What touched (emotionally) you?

John: When I was young there was no YouTube, in fact there was no internet at all so it was quite difficult to hear the top old-time music of the 1920’s. I was aware of early Jazz like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five when I was a teenager but I had never been exposed to other styles of music from that era. When I was about 16/17 years old, I found a record in my local record store’s used record bin put out by the label Yazoo, the music of Charley Patton. Before I even put it on my turntable I was mesmerized by this record. Most of the songs had “Blues” in the title but it was just one guy on guitar and vocal and the songs were recorded in the 1920’s! Wow! At this point I had realized that the rock music I was listening to had been predated by Chicago Blues and had every record I could get by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson etc… but this music predated that by almost 30 years. What the hell was this? I still remember when I dropped the needle on my father’s suitcase turntable in my music room in my parent’s house. I had never heard anything like this before. I couldn’t even say I liked it because it was so foreign to me. I was obsessed with though and kept listening to it over and over again until I could make sense out of it. Then I realized this was some of the heaviest music ever recorded. Next, I tried to learn how to play it on the guitar (which I’m still doing today), and then of course went seeking out more music like this. This proved to be very difficult. At first no one at my local record stores even heard of this Yazoo label and had no idea what it was or how to get more. After a year or so I found a woman who ran the local Jazz record store and she was extremely helpful to me in my quest. Soon I had all the early Yazoo records then I found County Records, Rounder, Arhoolie and others. This opened up my mind and soon after everything else I was listening to started sounding bland. Somewhere in there I found out that these records came from old 78 records and were transferred to LPs which of course meant the 78’s were out there somewhere. I fought the horrible collector urge to go after these for years because I knew it would open a flood gate that could never be sealed again. I think I was maybe 27 years old when I bought my first 78 Memphis Minnie doing “My And My Chauffeur” for $10. I thought well it it’s not that expensive and I’ll just buy this one. About six months later I sold my 3,000 plus LP record collection to help finance my new unstoppable urge. Then it was Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Uncle Dave Macon, Jellyroll Morton and on and on and on. Now I have a pretty fabulous collection of 78rpm records from all around the world! Life is good.

Eden: John really got me into this scene and he does the researching and collecting 78s then he plays me stuff he thinks I could sing well and would like.  He and Robert Crumb have very similar tastes in music…like almost identical and well, the wonderful music just touched me. I have cried listening to some of these old blues songs and Its just the raw real deal for me.

"I would love music it go back to being MUSIC! Not this Mass media-controlled music the people seem to eat up. However, there seems to be a huge swell of old-time bands some just discovering this music and they are young and enthusiastic." (Photo: John Heneghan & Eden Brower)

How do you describe East River String Band’s sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

John: East River String Band is open to all kinds of Old-Time music meaning Blues, Country, Pop and many different variants of those categories. We play different styles of music depending on our mood and who is sitting in with us. When it’s just Eden & I we tend to play more country blues whereas when Robert Crumb is sitting in we will do a lot of old-time pop and country. When our friends The Downhill Strugglers are sitting in we’ll lean more towards country and fiddle tunes. Our philosophy is just to play traditional American music without any labels or concern for might be easily marketable or accessible. In other words we play what we like to play at that moment.

Eden: I think we are the most eclectic band ever when it comes to what we play. We play what we love. It can be an “uptown” song or an old delta blues one, abrag, hokum style, or something really country with fiddle. We play with a lot of different people so we like to work around what they are best at. When we play as a duo we tend to go for straight up country blues with each of us doing what we feel we are best at. John on guitar and me on vocals.

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

John: The thing about Old-Time music from before the 1940’s by which time mass media had really crushed the spirits of the average musician, is that everyday people played music for their own entertainment. Since we started this band and have travelled around a bit playing gigs we’ve run across many bands who love music from this same era for similar reasons and it kind of restores my faith in humanity a bit. My main source of income is working as a technician in television primarily in the entertainment field. As a result, I get exposed to a lot of popular mainstream pop-culture driven music. It kind of makes you sick when you see how many people eat this nonsense up. Of course, many of them are kids who may or may not grow out of liking it but it is still quite distressing for many reasons one the biggest being that live music isn’t even “LIVE MUSIC” anymore. 99% of the time it’s Pro Tools playing track which the singer may or may not being singing along with. This is the result of the mass media sucking the soul out of music and art until there is nothing left except image and show. The “music” aspect has been reduced to pushing play on your computer’s space bar.

On the other hand, there are tons of band’s out there playing great live music with little or no regard for how they can conform to the Mass Media’s guidelines for success. This is inspiring and gives me hope for humanity in general. As far as our band goes we’re aren’t even a Blues band or a Country band or anything that fits into a marketable category. We just play music that we like and hopefully render it in an honest way out of the true love for it. That’s all I ever really wanted to do. We can play deep Country Blues, rural Hillbilly music or straight Pop and not really sound like anyone except us.

The world right now is a scary place especially here in America where we went from a semi-progressive democratic government (that had many issues), led by Obama to the Nationalist pride driven chaos we have now with the racist, sexist Donald Trump. Then again in our mid-term elections we elected the most progressives and the most female leaders in our Country’s history. Maybe music is like this too. Sure, if you turn on the average radio station all you’ll hear is soul crushing watered down garbage but maybe it’s creating some sort of bounce back effect at the grass roots level. I hear a lot of great young bands and musicians out there today playing excellent, beautiful music and that’s a GREAT thing!

Eden: Well as an ex deadhead and hippie who then went on to the punk rock scene this music took a little while for me to truly get into. I like so many genres of music…folk, doo-wop, punk, some metal...this was all brand new to me! But hearing John play these 78’s at home constantly I slowly realized this is the music I have been looking for. It moved me the way no other music ever has. I like music that makes me FEEL something and nothing like these old heartbreaking blues songs to do just that. That bleeds into more modern music too...well not modern I mean I like Elliot Smith and Aimee Mann who aren’t really new music haha. They have a Beatles feel to their stuff that I like as I am a big Beatles fan since I was 7.

Now I see more how music was co-opted and homogenized with the advent of radio and that is a shame….it is not even what I consider music anymore. Just autotune and sexy backup dancing and lip syncing.

"I kind of hate the whole idea of separating music into genres and categories. That’s simply a marketing tool but by default it waters things down and sets up guidelines that inherently make the music less interesting. To me there’s only two kinds of music, Good and Bad. I like the GOOD kind." Photo: "Coney Island Baby" artwork/cover by R. Crumb)

How do you describe "Coney Island Baby" songbook? Are there any memories from studio which you’d like to share?

John: Coney Island Baby like all of records is a mixture of Blues, Country and Pop music. Most people don’t realize this but it was the record business that created categories like “Blues” or Hillbilly”. Before the record business wanted blacks to play Blues and whites to play country most bands just played a mixture of all styles and music. What was interesting about this was the odd ways different bands would render these styles. We can take after some of our favorite band like Evans & Mclain or Tommie Bradley & James Cole who recorded Blues, Country, Pop just about anything and everything. These were rare examples of groups that didn’t allow the record companies to tell them what to play and what not to.

We recorded this record in our apart in New York, at the Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook Brooklyn and in France over a couple of years. We record live and I spent a lot of time mixing it to hopefully really get the room sound. For better worse although I’m really happy with how it turned out.

Eden: We are a bit of an oddity as we play in several genres…old pop…old country blues…a little jug band music…many songs that other bands may not do as they stick to just blues or just ragtime only. I think people like that about us. We are very eclectic and I love that. I do love the old blues best I admit!

We recorded all different places and in France too. When we record live its a bit intimidating as if one person makes a flub we have to start over. And that person is bound to be me haha! But it was fun recording and getting it all together these past two years. Lots of laughs and joking going on and fun.

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

John: Well since all I do is rant and rave about modern music I’ll say “see above” but I’ll change the question a bit. I think music and art should be made mandatory in public schools for all grades. In fact, I’ll say that mandatory subjects should be English, History, Political Science, Environmental Studies, Nutrition, Music, Art, Gym, two years of Math and everything else should be elective. There should be two mandatory music classes, single instrument lessons and a band class. I think if we did this and check back in 20 years the quality of our lives would all drastically improve. Maybe we’d even have clean water, oxygen and a livable environment on this planet as well as in our music.

Eden: I would love music it go back to being MUSIC! Not this Mass media-controlled music the people seem to eat up. However, there seems to be a huge swell of old-time bands some just discovering this music and they are young and enthusiastic. Like bands like Tuba Skinny who busk in New Orleans and are incredible. And of course, Jalopy Theatre is THE place to see old timey music in Brooklyn…they book a lot of old-time bands and are just wonderful all around. They do the Brooklyn Folk fest every year and its getting bigger and more and more popular. So many great bands play this fest. It’s a must see for old time music lovers.

"Crumb has more deeply absorbed old music from all around the world than anyone else I know. This gives him the ability to get to something others can’t get to when it comes to rendering old musicians." (Photo: John Heneghan, Eden Brower & Robert Crumb)

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

John: The best teacher I ever had was when I was at music school and I got to take lessons from Blues Pianist Junior Mance. He was a phenomenal player who didn’t say much but the experience of getting to play with him had a profound affect on me. We’ve also been lucky enough to get to play with some of the best old-time musicians playing today. Playing with musicians like Robert Crumb, Pat Conte, Dom Flemons, Eli Smith, Geoff Whiley, Ernesto Gomez and others is like going back in time and playing with any of the great musicians of the 1920’s, it’s a true honor.

Eden: Meetings...hmmm...not really sure. We meet so many great players and also many 78 enthusiasts from all over the world. It's hard to say what has been the most important. The best advice I have gotten was to play as much as I can and to play with people who are better than me. That's a great learning experience as this is the first band I have ever been in. Watch what people whom I admire do and learn from them. That has worked out pretty well for me.

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

John: We’ve been lucky enough to have had many great musical experiences with many different players.

Eden: I had a great time playing the Chicago Blues festival with Jeron Paxton and Dom Flemons. It was the first time they had an acoustic stage with people playing old blues. People came by to hear us and the crowd grew until it was pretty huge. Playing outside at a big, famous festival like that with such great musicians was a blast.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from Robert Crumb?

John: Crumb and I are good friends. It’s hard for me to think of our conversations in these terms. He’s my favorite guest on my podcast, John’s Old Time Radio Show. He’s always open to discuss anything and he’s really funny not to mention the many incredibly rare records he spins for all to enjoy!

Eden: Crumb draws the ladies pretty big as most people know. On one of our album covers I asked his daughter Sophie to stand over him and make sure my calves were not drawn like ten times the size that they actually are. Now every time Robert sends us our artwork he is scared of my reaction to it. Of course I love it all but I like giving him a hard time and pretending to freak out about what I look like. Emotionally, I think Robert is one of the most honest people I know. He says exactly what he is thinking and I adore doing the Old Time Radio Show podcast with him. We just joke around and talk about every weird subject that comes to mind. Robert is also a pretty humble person. He doesn't care for the world of celebrity much and is not afraid to say that.

"I guess I’d go to Dockery’s Plantation in the late 1920’s on a weekend night where hopefully Charley Patton was playing. That would be really something…" (Photo: John Heneghan & his Henpecked Husbands "Ever Felt The Pain" / Artwork by Robert Crumb)

Why did you think that the Robert Crumb’s artwork continues to generate such a devoted following?

John: I think Crumb has such a devoted following because he absolutely refuses to compromise. He has complete disdain for mainstream mass media and refuses to in anyway adhere to any of its constraints. Other than his enormous talent this is the single element that attracts so many people to his artwork. Obviously Crumb is also simply one of the greatest artists of our time but because he has such a deep connection to old-time music when he renders old-time musicians he captures something that others cannot. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly but there’s something to it. When he draws Wilmer Watts, Son House or Jack Teagarden he gets to something that a person who is casually listening to old-time music can’t access. Crumb has more deeply absorbed old music from all around the world than anyone else I know. This gives him the ability to get to something others can’t get to when it comes to rendering old musicians.

Eden: He has been drawing for so many decades now and besides the fact that he is an incredible artist, he is always doing something different. He illustrated the Book of Genesis and then he will do some album cover art for us or a comic strip with his wife the amazing Aline Crumb. He has drawn what could be considered pornography and he has also done Heroes of the Blues showing his great respect and admiration for those old musicians and their talents.

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

John: Before the music industry exploded in the mid 1930’s music was made by average people for their own entertainment. The music business is what tells us that people aren’t a good singer or that everyone needs to be a songwriter to be considered valid. Before this happened everyday people from all walks of life made music and because there were no formulas for how they should do this the music they made was far more interesting and to me much deeper and real. Consider that Dock Boggs and Dick Justice were coalminers, Mississippi John Hurt never played professionally until his rediscovery in the 1960’s. In fact most of the musicians that recorded in the 1920’s & 30’s were non-professional. They merely made music for themselves without any concern for how it would be perceived by the mass media. I see a lot of young people playing old time music these days and that’s a GREAT thing. I have a lot of hope as the mass media once crushed a deep rooted tradition of playing songs and rendering them in a really personal way, that mass media can also be crushed by people playing real live music that is personal and meaningful to them.

Eden: Music is all so generic now...I can't even tell who can actually sing with all the overproduction and effects poured into it all. I think a lot of people long to hear real music played stripped down with passion and heart and no commercialism involved.

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

John: All these words, Blues, Folk, Country, Jazz and whatever are really just labels created by people who want to market music which is ultimately what waters it down and makes it uninteresting to me. Blues music was created by black Americans and evolved somewhat from pop and folk music of the late 19th century. Before the American music industry fueled by radio permanently changed the making of music from a form of self and public entertainment and expression into a “business” music wasn’t clearly defined by categories like “blues” or “folk” and didn’t have to be. The result being that how people rendered music was much more interesting than it is today. To play “blues” today almost guarantees that it will be a twelve bar form in 4/4 time. There will be an intro and few verses, solos, more verses and then one a few standard endings. Try to think of a musician like Charley Patton or Skip James being confined to those rules. These guys played with no sense of time at all using many different forms often disregarding formats completely. It is often unclear and of course unimportant what the form they are using. They didn’t think in these terms because the terms had not been defined and weren’t necessary. The bottom line is that any type of art is dramatically more interesting when it isn’t regulated.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in blues?

Eden: The venue I love the most is the Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn. They specialize in old time music and they also give classes and do instrument repair. I have heard SO many great female blues artists play there. Really talented women who inspire me to be better and it seems to me to be an even playing field for women doing this type of music.

"Before the music industry exploded in the mid 1930’s music was made by average people for their own entertainment." (Photo: Eden and John’s East River String Band)

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

John: I don’t really know. Blues music has kind of always been just hair below the radar of the main stream which is a good thing. I generally don’t think of music in those terms. It’s just music.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

John: I kind of hate the whole idea of separating music into genres and categories. That’s simply a marketing tool but by default it waters things down and sets up guidelines that inherently make the music less interesting. To me there’s only two kinds of music, Good and Bad. I like the GOOD kind.

Eden: I think they added the word blues at the end of so many old songs knowing it will sell records. It is a genre for sure but I suppose anyone can get the blues here and there! Anything that moves me emotionally is the Blues to me.

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

John: I guess I’d go to Dockery’s Plantation in the late 1920’s on a weekend night where hopefully Charley Patton was playing. That would be really something…

Eden: Wait, is there where I say I want to go back and kill Hitler? Haha...wow I don't know! I would love to go back to the 20's and hear some of my favorite blues singers play live...but I also sort of want to go see Haight Asbury in the 60's or go to Woodstock. I also wouldn't mind going back in time to like a week ago and not spend $65 on that cute dress I saw on ebay!

Eden and John’s East River String Band - Home

Photos: John Heneghan & Eden Brower 

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