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

"Before the music industry exploded in the mid 1930’s music was made by average people for their own entertainment." 

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 coming out this year including a new album entitled, ‘Take a Look at That Baby” 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”.

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.

"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."

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.

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.

"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)

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…" (Eden and John’s East River String Band, 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.

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!

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