Multi-talented artist Jim Schwall (of Siegel-Schwall) talks about the Blues, Sam Charters, Wolf, Joplin and Joni Mitchell

"For me, music and the other arts, along with the beauty of our planet and love for other people, ARE life. Nothing else means anything. And adventure. A life without adventure is like a meal without wine."

Jim Schwall: Peace, Love & Blues

Jim Schwall started playing several different kinds of music on several different instruments while in elementary school. By the time he finished high school, he was primarily playing various kinds of traditional folk music, including bluegrass and country blues, on the guitar. Gradually, originals, usually based on traditional styles, replaced the traditional tunes and Jim has continued to play solo gigs all his life. In college, Jim met harmonica and piano player Corky Siegel, added a pickup to his Gibson guitar, and they started the Siegel-Schwall Band, performing for about ten years and releasing over a dozen record albums on the Vanguard and Wooden Nickel labels. After Siegel-Schwall disbanded in 1974, Jim continued to play in several versions of the Jim Schwall Band while going back to college, eventually completing a doctorate in music composition, becoming a professor of music, and teaching composition in universities. Jim has been teaching in high schools and doing social service work, running a program housing the mentally ill who had become homeless.         Jim Schwall /Photo by Sarah Wilson Wood

Siegel-Schwall started playing reunion concerts in 1988, releasing a live album in 1989 and a studio album in 2005, both on Alligator Records. Now retired from the social services, Jim divides his time between the two non-human loves of his life - cameras and guitars. He's a lifelong photographer and shows his pre-silver prints several times a year.  The guitar part consists of occasional Siegel-Schwall gigs, playing lead guitar for Marques Bovre’s SoDangYang, fronting the dance-friendly party band Bar Time Lovers, playing bass with the Cajun Strangers, jamming with guitarist/singer Andy Ewen in the current version of the Jim Schwall Band, and his life-long favorite activity, playing his own songs, a couple traditional tunes, and occasionally songs written by friends like Bill Morrissey and Loudon Wainwright, on acoustic 6 & 12-string guitars. In 2007 he released “Getting Old,” a solo CD recorded live in Madison area coffeehouses, on Uvulittle Records.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I don't think it's a counterculture. It's the culture, period, the one I grew up with, along with jazz, country and bluegrass, contemporary concert music. (I don't know what else to call Stravinsky, Bartok, Copland and what came after but just as important as the others to me,) All these, plus visual arts, literature, didn't influence my life, they are my life, along with everything outdoors - if there's anything as important as my creative life, it's getting myself to places where it looks just like it did 100, 1000, 100,000 years ago, and there's no one else around. 

Where does your creative drive come from? What touched (emotionally) you from the photo art and music? 

No idea. All these things interest me every bit as much as personal physical love, and that's saying something. 

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

I was in high school during the end of the US folk revival of the 1950’s. That introduced me to country blues as well as bluegrass and Appalachian music. By fifteen I was going out to see jazz and electric blues performers.

What has been the relationship between music, visual art and activism in your life and art?

Not really related but all important separately, except that I wrote two ballets and two dance-operas and a play with music, all of which had visual elements including projections, paintings created on stage as part of the performance, etc.

"I was in high school during the end of the US folk revival of the 1950’s. That introduced me to country blues as well as bluegrass and Appalachian music. By fifteen I was going out to see jazz and electric blues performers." (Photo: Siegel-Schwall Band, Chicago Il c.1960s)

How do you describe Jim Schwall’s artwork and what characterize your music philosophy? 

As far as philosophy, I really just have fun with it. The songwriting is the most fun. Visual arts these days means prints combining photos of landscapes and figures.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The most interesting is right now. Haven’t had a best or worst yet, I don’t think. Oh yeah – I sold electronics on commission in a store in a mall for a few months – that was the worst.

What were the reasons that made the 60's generation to be the center of the Blues Rock searches?

If you mean the electric blues bands, they were there before but somehow became more visible in the late ‘fifties.

What are some of the most memorable jams and gig you've had at Pepper's Lounge & Big John's on Chicago?

Probably jamming with Otis Rush or Magic Sam, gigs with Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf, especially Wolf.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Which memory makes you smile?

Hanging out with Janice Joplin was fun, and recording and doing arrangements with Joni Mitchell.

Are there any memories from Siegel–Schwall Band which you’d like to share with us?

My favorite memories from Siegel-Schwall are about the traveling, especially France, Mexico (Culiacon was great), Portugal (Fado music clubs), and a great festival in Salmon Arm British Columbia.

"As far as philosophy, I really just have fun with it. The songwriting is the most fun. Visual arts these days means prints combining photos of landscapes and figures." (Photo: Siegel - Schwall Band)

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

I don’t miss anything, and music will be fine – I’ve recently done shows with a very talented 16-year-old guitar player and a wonderful 15-year old singer/songwriter.

What are the ties that connect the Blues from 60s to nowadays? How has the Blues changed over the years?

The acoustic blues guys still sound great to me, especially Paul Geremia. Most of the electric bands that call themselves blues bands aren’t really playing much blues, but that’s OK. What they are playing was changed a lot by rock, but the songs are probably more interesting because of it.

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

Easy – get rid of all the bombs, landmines, grenades – you get the idea.

What were the reasons that your generation in Chicago started made the Folk/Roots/Blues experiments? 

They weren't experiments at all, just a continuation of something that was already there. The music would have changed anyway, with or without my generation, maybe not exactly the same way, but it always continues and always changes, grows, morphs, bangs off of other things, absorbs influences. It might interest me less if it stayed the same. No, delete the word "might."

Are there any memories from Sam Charters, Magic Sam, Muddy and Wolf which you’d like to share with us? 

Where do I start? The players in that list were doing the same thing I was doing in the same places, so I definitely knew them. Some were acquaintances, some (like Magic Sam and others) were friends. There's some stories about all in my memoir, which I'm done writing, but still looking for a publisher or agent. Sam Charters, in addition to his myriad music interests, had politics like my own and even managed to piss off the House Un-American Activities Committee, making him a bit of a hero to me.

"Politicians are not the people who should be making decisions about anything ever, they are a blight, they are mostly too stupid to be in charge of anything, but aside from lying and graveling to people with lots of money, have no real skills at all. The world would be a better place if they were gone."

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music? 

My maternal grandfather, who I lived with during WWII years, was very close to growing up, and was the only one in the room when he died, was absolutely honest and fair in every way, making Washington, Lincoln et al look like Barbary Coast pirates by comparison. He was the most important person in my life, not by saying anything in particular. I just watched and learned. 

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths? 

If you watch everybody, don't rule anything out, you'll have good experiences because there's always something to learn or appreciate. When someone would tell me, they liked music but hated polkas, it was all stupid, I'd take them to see Eddie Blazonczyk and the Versatones. They would change their minds. Reject nothing out of hand, you're only shortchanging yourself if you do. It's all important and there's things everywhere that are valuable and things that are a waste of time. 

How started the thought of program housing the mentally ill who had become homeles? What was the hardest part of? 

That's not a new problem. I just watched and tried to learn. I really just fell into it. But it was fascinating work. The clients were easy, I came to know and like them, the problems were with some of the government types doing their best to screw everything up. Politicians are not the people who should be making decisions about anything ever, they are a blight, they are mostly too stupid to be in charge of anything, but aside from lying and graveling to people with lots of money, have no real skills at all. The world would be a better place if they were gone. 

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people? 

No idea how to answer that. For me, music and the other arts, along with the beauty of our planet and love for other people, ARE life. Nothing else means anything. And adventure. A life without adventure is like a meal without wine. Why bother? I reject uniforms completely and the kind of thinking that goes with them. A suit and tie is a uniform. 

This is probably not what you were hoping for, but I'm 77 years old and a bit philosophical, in a very non-academic way. And going back to something I missed in previous question, I'm not worried about the future of music, or art in general, I've mentored young musicians whenever I could all my life, and they'll just keep coming, I'm convinced, as long as they have a world in which to operate. I'm not so confident about that last part. In grade school civics, the possible kinds of government included a Meritocracy, or a government by those most capable. Far as I know, it's never been tried. 

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

Don’t need the time machine, now is fine, but if I had the money, it would be Guadalajara, Florence or Montreal. I suppose I wouldn’t mind going back to being young enough to attract pretty women.

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