Storyteller, musician and ethnomusicologist Jeremy Lyons talks about his journeys on the world of music

"The opportunity to play music for and with children has been a blessing. I've learned to slow down a little, play a bit more deliberately, to be more conscious of what I'm doing – more present."

The Wonderful World of Jeremy Lyons

Jeremy Lyons often works as a solo artist, but he has spent much of his professional life working with bands. From his days early days playing on the street, to pubs, clubs and festival stages, Jeremy has enjoyed playing in an array of organizations. He first studied guitar with British folk musician Martin Simpson in Ithaca, NYC. After moving to New Orleans in 1992, he made his living playing in the streets with the Big Mess Blues Band for five years. He immersed himself in the local scene, playing Delta blues, zydeco, Cajun, gospel, R&B, traditional New Orleans jazz, and Harlem swing. Along with drummer Paul Santopadre and Greg Schatz, he founded the Deltabilly Boys. They played in the United States and Europe. Some of their albums are Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch; Live at the Dragon’s Den; Death of a Street Singer; Live at Fribourg; and Jeremy Lyons and the Deltabilly Boys.                                             Photo by Mark Ostow

He moved to Boston in 2005, fleeing from the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. There he met Dana Colley, Jerome Deupree and Billy Conway from the then disbanded Morphine (band) and they started playing together, informally at first. In 2009, Colley and Deupree formed Members of Morphine, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the sudden death of frontman Mark Sandman. Colley invited Lyons to play the two-string bass and sing in the newly formed band. The group later changed its name to Vapors of Morphine, and they had been playing weekly in Atwood’s Tavern, a small venue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since the spring of 2009. Lyons also performs regularly for children at schools, libraries and special events. In 2014 he released a solo album called Make it Better, and beside his work with Vapors of Morphine, he still plays with the Deltabilly Boys a few times a year and with his newest project, The Busted Jug Band, which performs hokum, blues and novelty music in an acoustic format.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the children?

The opportunity to play music for and with children has been a blessing. I've learned to slow down a little, play a bit more deliberately, to be more conscious of what I'm doing – more present. The experience has reminded me that everything you do on stage is observed; whether or not they appear to, young children take in everything, perhaps because they are not yet distracted by their inner voices, and because their heads are not yet filled with the nonsense that we worry about when we get older. So when I play for kids I have to be conscious of everything I do or say. I have learned to be more straight forward on stage. And you know the advice to sufferers of stage fright – picture the audience in their underwear? Well, I don't suffer from stage fright, but I do tend to be shy. I turn inwards and can be afraid to engage an audience of adults. So I try to imagine everyone as children. Usually gets a better performance out of me. Actually, I've found that this very technique helps me deal with people in general: when I acknowledge to myself that everyone is a child inside, I have an easier time interacting with adults.

What touched (emotionally) you from the ethnomusicology?

I have always been fascinated by the history of things, starting with how comic book superheroes acquired their powers (when I was 8), on to my own family history, and to the history of the music we listen to, and the people who made it. The cultural history of American music is particularly exciting, because it involves the interaction of so many different ethnic groups, and because of that and the advent of a commercial music industry (first with sheet music, and then with recording, etc) American music evolved at a very rapid pace. When you really study the history of American music, the story becomes much more confusing than the mainstream discourse would lead us to believe. Black and white musicians (for example) have been exchanging ideas for centuries. The study in essence dispels many of the myths that divide us. All American music is multi-cultural; blacks and whites in particular have been engaged in a musical back and forth since the first slave was brought over from Africa. And that is fascinating when you consider the racial tension that exists in the States. So essentially, I see the study of ethnomusicology to be chock full information that can challenge the mainstream story of America and American Identity, and that has broad social justice implications. (For example, the banjo has come to symbolize Southern White culture, but the instrument was initially brought over from Africa and became the most popular instrument of the 19th Century when white men started painting their faces black and performing African-American slave music while propagating gross stereotypes of black people. Unpack that, and you have an entire college level course that touches on music, culture, history, economics, race relations, etc.)

I am also very interested in odd types of musical instruments, especially homemade instruments. Ever since I was little. I am rather restless as a musician and like to try out different instruments, some of which are quite unusual. In performing with unusual instruments, I hope I can help a little in chipping away peoples' rock solid ideas of what music and entertainment are. I also like to use those demonstrations of odd instruments as a chance to talk to audience members about the history of the instruments and the music culture.

How do you describe Jeremy Lyons sound and songbook?            Photo by Mark Ostow

Well, my sound seems to be in a state of transformation at the moment. I was in a rut and now I'm not, at least I hope not. For many years I specialized in a very caffeinated style of blues from the Delta and other regions, mixed up with songs, instrumentation and tempos generally associated with swing, rockabilly or even psycho-billy. I called it Deltabilly. I played slide, I was a fast finger-picker and I covered Johnny Cash, Fats Waller, Link Wray, etc – to give you an idea. But I got tired of playing fast and with all my old tricks and songs. It's not like I made a lot of money doing it and I had some huge fan base I would disappoint if I changed my sound. So now I do a variety of things: solo folk and blues when I can. (As I said, I play a variety of instruments: National guitar, six-string banjo, five-string banjo, banjo-ukulele, Minstrel banjo, rhythm bones, jaw harp, etc.)

I play in a very high-energy five-piece jug band (The Busted Jug Band) with three lead singers, group vocals and many instrument changes, including washboard, washtub bass, and lots of kazoos; and I play with Vapors of Morphine, which is a whole other deal from anything I've done before. It is a truly unusual rock band that can go in any direction. We play with electronic effects and go for some pretty far-out jams. That band has really forced me to up my game, because the players (Dana Colley and Jerome Deupree of Morphine fame) are both exceptional musicians.

As far as my songbook goes, I'm not a very prolific writer. Most of my so-called “original” tunes sit very comfortably with the more traditional material in my set. I've written a number of humorous numbers in a swing, blues or folk genre, and some serious stuff. I find that in order to write one good song, especially if I'm out of practice, I have to be willing to write a few lousy songs before I come up with a good one. I have to at least be trying to write, not sitting around waiting patiently for inspiration to hit me like a lightning bolt. But now I'm writing on the 2 string slide bass ala Mark Sandman of Morphine so that has opened up a new set of options, and is getting me out of some of the song writing patterns I'm used to. One thing I've learned from Sandman is that less is more: I'm trying to get away from the linear narrative, away from the autobiographical, and learn how to write with as few words as possible. It's better to successfully imply something (in song) than to overtly spell it out.

Lately I am into West African guitar – not sure that has leached into my writing yet. I recently acquired an antebellum style banjo, which is fretless and employs nylon (or gut) strings and is tuned lower than a modern banjo. I am writing on that instrument as well.

What characterize your music philosophy and mission?

A lot of this was covered in my answer about ethnomusicology.

I believe in making music worth listening to. I'm proud to be able to make a living playing music, but I have my limits. I won't play music I don't like, but I try not to be a snob. I really have no interest in performing covers note-for-note, although there is certainly a place for that. I believe in learning from our elders by pursuing traditional material, but I also believe a tradition without change is no longer being true to the progressive tradition that spawned what we now think of as traditional. Most “traditional” American music was developed within the last 150 years, which is not a very long time at all – a few generations. Sometimes it's best to delve a little deeper into the roots of a tradition and go off on a new tangent, rather than to see musical progress linearly, only learning from what has come directly before. For example, the Antebellum (or “Minstrel”) Banjo was essentially abandoned in the late 1800s when metal strings were invented, and frets added to most commercial manufactured banjoes. These instruments started being built again by a few people within that last 20-25 years. Most people who pick them up play music that was written for the instrument, which is admirable and understandable. But why not play something else on it? How about trying out some African musical ideas on it? Or blues? Borrow and steal from all musical styles; so much great music is made when people blend different styles.

As a musician I consider myself both an entertainer and an artist, and those two roles can sometimes contradict (as does basically everything you learn in life as you get older, so it's sort of a Zen koan). Art has always worked hand in hand with commerce, so there is no shame in selling your art. I also believe musicians should be able to make a decent living without having to market themselves 24/7, but I suppose that's a pipe dream in this day and age...

Part of my mission is to champion music that is a little unusual, or a little obscure, or very obscure! But also I have been completely devoted to making appealing sounds since I first started playing guitar, and ultimately I just love playing. As far as a mission goes, I guess beyond my personal mission of being on stage doing what I love, I want to challenge peoples' ears, and get them to open up a little. Music can bridge divides, so I generally keep any overt social or political commentary out of the songs; I prefer to use subtlety to get my point across.

How has the Blues music and counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?                                       Photo by Felix Rust

That is an interesting way to ask that question; I'm not sure what you mean by counter-culture. I associate that term with the 1960s. I guess you mean non-mainstream culture? I can tell you that the sort of culture I found on the streets of New Orleans was definitely not main stream! We were completely independent, making music for tips, with no aspirations to get signed by a record label, tour, or even gig indoors. On the street you are in direct contact with all walks of life: I've known millionaires and homeless people. In some ways, my experiences on the street made it difficult for me to relate to people who haven't had some similar type of experience – not the music thing, but the daily traumas one witnesses when spending a lot of time on the streets of a city, essentially at the social under belly of the nation. It, and other experiences in New Orleans, made it difficult to assimilate to life in New England after Katrina. But it the street also taught me how to watch my back, and also how to stand up for myself, and to walk when the money ain't right; I have no trouble saying “no”.

So, here are some lessons I've learned from that experience:

In my experience, everyone worth knowing is broken in some way. And any blues singer worth his or her salt is singing from experience. That tends to mean the best singers are totally crazy. Negotiating a musical career and one's own demons doesn't always work. Psychological problems don't get better on their own. Most people self-medicate. Alcohol is one of the worst killers I've ever encountered – I have laid up nights worrying that this friend or that won't ever get straight. Junkies will lie without compunction. Weed is better, but it can make you lethargic. I prefer the latter, but I myself am finally on (prescribed) medication, and in therapy. I wish there wasn't such a mystique about alcohol and blues. It's a killer.

You can't really trust anyone completely. (Or rather, you can usually trust people to act in ways consistent with their character, but when push comes to shove, you should expect to be on your own.)

Money talks. If I'm playing your venue, that is a business PARTNERSHIP; unless you put me on salary I am not your employee, I am a contractor trying to help you draw business. Treat me accordingly, not like some kid trying to get “exposure.”

Money talks. If you want someone to be in your band, pay them well. As a bandleader, try to be consistent, conduct your business in a professional manner, make sure everyone knows when and where the next gig is. As a performer, make sure you know who you are and what music you want to play, or you will end up “playing to the gallery,”  taking requests the rest of your life.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

The principal of my high school used to lead singalongs around the campfire twice a year – that was pretty influential. My maternal grandparents were brilliant and had a big impact on my artistic and intellectual pursuits. My parents have been unusually supportive of my artistic efforts. Some of the folks I played with on the street, especially Augie Jr, Lissa Driscoll, Johnny Duff and Bobby Lewis (who plays with Little Freddie King) – I would not be the same musician or person without them. My New Orleans band the Deltabilly Boys-- Greg Schatz and Paul Santopadre; and up North, the Morphine guys, and my girlfriend Laura, and my buddy “Washtub” Robbie Phillips, all of whom helped me tremendously after Katrina. And my daughter, who is 17. The fact that she seems to have turned out really well is encouraging.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Stop playing before the band outnumbers the audience; never get the reputation for being the guy who will play all night for no money. Also: always offer gas money when getting a ride. (Sometimes I forget.)

The Big Mess Blues Band (Jeremy, Lissa & Steve), New Orleans c.1994/5, Photo by Allen Steinman

Are there any memories living playing in the streets and clubs of New Orleans which you’d like to share with us?

So many! I've finally started a blog, because I have many scattered bits I've written about those years, and am slowly editing and posting them.

During the tourist season, you could make good money if you had one of a few good spots, and it was first come, first served. We were always in spot wars with other bands for one of two spots we wanted, at Royal and St. Peter and a block down Royal at Toulouse. We had so many members in our band, we couldn't afford to share. But we would make up a schedule of two-hour shifts from sometimes as early as 2 am or even midnight, to come out, claim and sit on our spot. You had to bring an instrument with you. It could be pretty dicey out there in the middle of the French Quarter, a block from Bourbon St, in the middle of the night. Sometimes we would have people sitting out there all night, and then it would rain or the cops would shut us down. You never knew what to expect out there. But I loved the routine – for close to five years I was out there at least six days a week, several hours a day. It was the best training ground, and very cool place to perform. In the heart of the French Quarter. But you had to learn how to watch out for yourself quick, or you could be scammed, robbed, beaten up, and/or arrested on any given day, for no particular reason.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

The business used to be a lot simpler – you would book gigs by picking up the phone. Email made things better in some ways, but also helped erect a wall around promoters and bookers. Now all the extra message services – via facebook, instagram, twitter, etc – makes business communication very confusing (since a lot of people don't consider music a business).

But mostly I miss the people coming out to shows. In the States, anyway, it's bad – between Netflix, Spotify and Tinder, there's hardly a reason to leave the house on the weekend. Going out to see music was what people did. Now, not so much. I also wish white people could try a little harder to learn how to dance. (I was shocked when I attended my first show in New England after moving from New Orleans and everyone stood stock still with their arms folded, and then afterwards clearly had enjoyed a great show. (wtf??)

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Most of my hopes and fears have nothing to do with music, but with the state of the world. On a personal level, I would like to live a long healthy life, continuing to play music with people who I admire, and I hope to travel the world doing it. My fear I suppose is that I will indeed die in the end, like they've told me. Actually I do worry about my “golden years” – when I am too old to hustle anymore; most musicians don't amass a lot of savings, and I am no exception. We'll see what happens.

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

Rolling Stone Magazine would stick to investigative journalism, and stay away from trying to tell people anything about music.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Skiffle, Jug, Roots to R&B, Folk, Jazz, Jive and Hillbilly?

This question and the one following it could each be the basis for a doctoral thesis.

The exact origins of the Blues style of singing -- based in a minor pentatonic scale, with addition semi-tonal and microtonal bends -- in uncertain, but clearly originated with African-Americans in the postbellum South, probably goes back to work songs of the 18th and 19th Centuries. The Blues form is another story, but it is the song form where the name "Blues" was first used for music. Blues started out as a song form, plain and simple, and the song form became very, very popular, in wave after wave of a variety of genres picking up the form. There were W.C. Handy's blues that predate commercial recording; these songs were conveyed via performance and sheet music, and were hugely popular around the start of the 20th Century. Then there was the “Classic Blues” of the 20s – jazz bands with female blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, then the misnamed “Country Blues” of solo guitarist/singers in the 20s and 30s (many of whom lived and performed in cities). There have been many different styles (even within “Country Blues”), and the song form has led to variations. It has also led to what could be considered a sort of creed, which encompasses the idea that the blues singer is the confessor, the truth teller, and the blues song helps the singer and the listener rise above their woes. A lot has been written about this.

The other examples you give: Jug Band music, Roots (not an actual genre, just a term that is used to describe music that is “rooted” in tradition), R&B, Folk, Jazz, Jive and Hillbilly – those are genres basically determined by context, instrumentation and arrangement; in other words, these styles are more alike than different. Blues song structures have been utilized by musicians in all of the above genres, but not to the exclusion of others. (The same could be said of most Blues singers as well.) Jug Bands sprung up in the 20s and 30s in Memphis and other Southern cities. It's sometimes referred to as “poor man's jazz;” Jug Band music is a good example of a genre defined by instrumentation, in this case, the use of homemade instruments, like jugs, washboards, washtub, comb-kazoo, etc. A jug band can play any style and still be a jug band. But there are of course songs and song styles associated with the ensemble, some of which are indeed blues songs.

R&B is really a pop chart designation, and evidence of the continued cultural segregation in American mainstream culture. Originally “Rhythm & Blues” meant the same as “Rock & Roll;” then it became Rock & Roll made by black people. R&B has come to encompass all forms of secular, commercial Black music: soul, funk, hip hop, etc. 

“Folk music” is a problematic term to me, but one that I have certainly utilized to describe what I do. Pete Seeger was the most famous advocate of the term, but preferred to talk about the “folk process” rather than try to define folk music. To Seeger, the folk process involved adapting old songs to fit the current times, and emphasized the home-grown aspect of folk music. Today, what does “folk music” mean to most listeners? I don't really know anymore, but it seems that “folk venues” seem to define it loosely as (primarily) music performed on acoustic instruments (but not drums!)... and that's about it. They like girls with cotton skirts and cowboy boots, and fellas in flannel shirts. Most of these artists do nothing for me. But I can be an impatient listener.

Jazz is a legitimate genre with a history that goes back to around 1900, when it was invented in New Orleans by Buddy Bolden and his contemporaries. Jazz was originally was developed by blending elements of gospel music with contemporary, secular forms, and of course with an emphasis on improvisation. The blues song form has had an important place in the Jazz cannon, and it is often said that in order to play jazz one first has to learn how to play the Blues. I am of this school of thought. Otherwise you are building on a shaky foundation. But, even more-so than a term like “folk,” Jazz became a process of interpreting music; a Jazz musician can a play song from any genre and make it into Jazz.

The term “Jive” comes from a dance popularized by Cab Calloway and his contemporaries, and has come to refer to a humorous style of swing or jazz that he (Calloway) performed. Some artists that come to mind are Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Louis Prima and Slim Gaillard, all of whom were both hilarious performers, as well as consummate musicians of the highest caliber.

Hillbilly was an early terms for country music. The term refers to the fact that much of music came from the Appalachian mountain region and it's foothills. The Carter Family was probably the most famous proponent of the style, but Jimmie Rodgers was just also a huge star, and he was famous for adding yodeling to blues songs. That was back in the 1920s. So white people have been playing the blues for quite a while now, and we see it at the very beginning of the Country music industry.

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

I would like to go back to the 1920s in the Mississippi Delta and see Charlie Patton perform. He was the true King of the Delta Blues.

Jeremy Lyons - Official website

Vapors of Morphine / Photo by Zac Smith

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