"Socio-cultural really incudes both the racial and the political, as well as the personal and broader cultural environment. In that context, I think the blues, with its message of triumph over adversity, has universal appeal that can speak to and voice the hopes and dreams, the losses and struggles, the love, the success that comes from not giving up, of anyone who will listen and submit to the power of the blues."
Michael Bloom: The Blues Prophecy
Michael Bloom is a Chicago-born, classically-trained guitarist, singer and songwriter of classic and original blues. From Oakland, CA to Chicago, IL, Michael’s been writing and playing the blues in one form or another for most of his life. The poetic voices of Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed, and Mississippi John Hurt, the lyrical lines of BB King and Otis Rush, the rhythms of Muddy Waters and Little Milton all echo through his songs. When you see Michael and the Blues Prophecy testify on stage, you’ll feel his passion for performing the blues and his love for bringing it to the world. Some of the places Michael has performed include Rosa’s Lounge, Buddy Guy’s Legends, The Kingston Mines in Chicago, the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale MS, Wild Bill’s in Memphis, Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland CA, Starry Plow in Berkeley, CA, El Farol, Tiny’s Dine and Dance and Evangelo’s in Santa Fe NM and the historic King William IV pub in Fenstanton, England.
What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and culture? What does the blues mean to you?
Great question. Music by nature is a collaborative endeavor. The blues culture is really one of community born of perseverance through struggle, of survival to triumph through the music. For me personally, it’s been everything from community to food. I’ve learned to love red hot tamales (like the ones in Robert Johnson’s song, Red Hot Tamales), eaten chicken feet and cooked greens but what binds it all together is the music. The other thing I’ve learned is that I’m not a quitter. I can always get to the other side, but I have to commit. And I’ve learned to commit to the blues.
To me, Blues expresses the basic truths of life, that struggle is the path to triumph, that no matter how bad things might seem, there is something better around the corner. Little Milton said it best, I think. “Hey, hey, the blues is alright!” I believe that if you fully invest yourself in what you’re doing, you will be rewarded. I invest in the blues.
How do you describe your songbook and sound?
My sound is a conglomeration of the musical influences I’ve encountered throughout my life. West Coast Blues, Chicago Blues, Country Blues. I think the sound I have now is probably best described as Chicago Blues Rock. But there are a lot of other influences in there…country, rock n’ roll, folk. There is some element of Roots Americana. A bit of everything really. But blues is where I landed. It’s what I love, what speaks to me musically and personally.
Funny you should ask that. I started out as a poet when I was 13. I began playing the guitar at 14 and soon after moved from poetry to songwriting. With blues, on the one hand it’s maintaining the simplicity of the form—not getting too deep into the complexities of lyrics and language—while telling a compelling story and leaving room for the music to develop. On the other hand, it’s not letting the form get stale. That’s a combination of performance and form, like adding a bridge, or an intro or outro that helps shape the song and, yes, a hook. Blues songs need good hooks, too. A good song needs to reach people emotionally to cut through all the other noise. A hook helps do that. But in the end, it comes down to a great performance. You’ve got to give it all you’ve got!
Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?
I studied classical guitar in college and a key acquaintance was my guitar teacher. I used to have terrible stage fright, so bad that my hands would shake. She told me, “Music is a river. It’s always flowing, you just have to step in.” I still think about that sometimes. Playing with blues people in Oakland was always a gas. I jammed with Freddy Roulette, Birdleg, and many others too numerous to name. I always walked away with something new in my bag of tricks. But really, Mary Lane, an 83-year-old blues singer in Chicago, a Chicago Blues Hall of Fame Inductee, who came up from Arkansas in the 50s and played with Howlin’ Wolf, Jr Wells, Robert Nighthawk. She sang with Mississippi Heat for a while. Mary took me under her wing, and we became close friends. I worked with her for the 2 years I was in Chicago. She wouldn’t let me get away with anything (musically)! She really finished my education in the blues. And her guitar player, Minoru Maruyama, mentored me as well. He’s on my album, Whisper in the Wind. Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi plays keys with Mary and also played on a couple of tunes on the album, and is a Chicago Blues Hall of Fame Inductee, has been hugely supportive.
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
1st I’d have to say, “Do what you love and the money will come.” 2nd, a long time ago someone told me that record companies make money off of records—yes, it was that long ago—that an album is really an advertisement for your music. With digital and streaming, I think that’s truer today than it was then. Unless you’re Lady Gaga or the Rolling Stones, etc, don’t expect to make money off your album, whatever the format. You’ll make your money in live performance, sync rights, etc.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
The one thing I would change is I would give the musicians more financial support for their work and their art. It could be better pay for gigs or some kind of social net that helps musicians pay their bills so they can keep creating great music. I think the arts and artists in this country are undervalued. That’s a travesty.
"I grew up in the sixties and I loved that music, but I don’t really want to see that evolution of the blues. I do believe that the blues needs to evolve, but I hope it can evolve and maintain the essential character that makes the blues so accessible and inviting to so many people." (Photo: Michael Bloom & Mary Lane)
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
Before I left Chicago, I wanted to do something for Mary (Lane) to say thank you. What we ended up doing was a 5 song EP that we recorded live in the studio in between two days of recording for my CD. Mary had told me about how she would sing in the fields when she visited her father, making up words as she went, and later did the same thing on the streets of her hometown. We did 5 songs in the studio, one take each. She would say, “Play this kind of beat,” or, “That kind of beat,” and she made up the words as she went. Everyone involved in that session knew they had participated in something really special, including the engineer. I’ve played in so many jams over the years, in the cities I’ve lived and places all over the country, all over the world as I’ve traveled for my work. What is special to me about that is being in the moment, of connecting in ways that you could never do any other way, of connecting with people you might just pass right by on the street. I’ve always been big John Coltrane fan. Aside from the music, I love the spontaneity of his playing. I heard an interview once with his drummer, Elvin Jones, who said they never had a rehearsal and he never knew what they were playing until he heard the first downbeat of the tune. That is real magic. Blues jams at their best have that magic. When it happens, it’s like great sex.
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
There’s something very powerful about a single voice and guitar in the original Delta blues. It can take you to places a big sound can’t. And in the blues of the 50s, it was more focused on syncopation and “tasty” licks rather than loud guitars like it is today. Don’t get me wrong, I love loud guitars, but I don’t want to lose the delicacy and the other aspects that have made the blues so enduring. A lot of what I hear today sounds like late 60s rock. I grew up in the sixties and I loved that music, but I don’t really want to see that evolution of the blues. I do believe that the blues needs to evolve, but I hope it can evolve and maintain the essential character that makes the blues so accessible and inviting to so many people.
"Music by nature is a collaborative endeavor. The blues culture is really one of community born of perseverance through struggle, of survival to triumph through the music. For me personally, it’s been everything from community to food. I’ve learned to love red hot tamales (like the ones in Robert Johnson’s song, Red Hot Tamales), eaten chicken feet and cooked greens but what binds it all together is the music." (Photo: Michael Bloom's pilgrim at Robert Johnson's gravesite, Mississippi)
From Chicago and California to New Mexico. What are the differences between the local scenes in USA?
Before we talk about the local scenes, we should talk a little about the regional/local styles. The style of blues you’ll hear in Memphis is going to be different than what you hear in Chicago, or even Kansas City. The Memphis sound has a more R&B flavor to it. Think Little Milton or B.B. King. Chicago is more straight ahead. It’s harder and more in your face. I got schooled at a rehearsal when I was laying back too much and told, “It’s Chicago Blues. It’s loud, it’s strong and it’s hard.” You can really hear the thumping rhythms of Robert Johnson in the Chicago Blues, the rhythms that became rock n’ roll. Muddy Waters wasn’t joking when he said, “The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll.” A lot of that started in Memphis, but I really believe it was the Chicago Blues that drove modern rock in the sixties and beyond. West Coast/Bay Area blues has its own flavor as well. You had people like Brownie McGee, folk blues players, in the bay. Jimmy Reed moved there in the sixties. With the Bay Area’s folk music history, I think that played a role in the sound of West Coast blues, certainly in the Bay Area region. Overall, West Coast Blues swings more than Chicago Blues, though not to be confused with West Coast Swing, which is a different animal all together.
On the different scenes, Chicago is a tough town. Chicago blues players take their business very seriously. While it’s a welcoming scene, you have to prove yourself. Andrew “Blaze” Thomas, my friend and drummer on the Whisper in the Wind album, told me he used to hang out at the jams at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, one of the key blues clubs in Chicago, and they would never call him up. Eventually, he started touring with Bernard Allison and boom, he was in. Now he’s playing with Billy Branch. He’s become a mainstay on the Chicago blues scene. Another friend of mine, Jeffery Labon, Mary Lane’s husband and bass player, snapped at me when I tuned my guitar to an open G tuning to play slide. “D,” he said. “You tune your guitar to D!” G is a country blues tuning. In Chicago, you tune to D, like Muddy. It’s a Chicago thing.
I spent nearly forty years in the San Francisco Bay area, a good portion of that in Oakland, and jamming at clubs around the bay. I used to go down to Eli’s Mile High Club in West Oakland when it really was “The Home of the West Coast Blues.” Over the years, the scene would ebb and flow, sometimes Eli’s was the only place to Jam, sometimes there were jams all over the Bay. It was a fun scene, easy to penetrate and a lot of great players.
Santa Fe is a different animal entirely. There really is no indigenous blues scene here like there is in Chicago. There was no migration of African Americans from the south, where the blues was born, during and after World War II like there was in Chicago and Oakland. So the blues here has a different feel, with more modern influences, as well as different rhythmic influences, Latin and Native-American. I can hear some Cajun and Tex-Mex influences as well. On the other hand, there is a vibrant music scene in Santa Fe and people love to hear straight ahead blues. But you’ll hear a lot of stuff at a blues jam here (Stones, Hendrix, Clapton, Allman Brothers) that you would never hear at a blues jam in Chicago or Oakland. People in Santa Fe call me the “Chicago Blues guy.”
"My sound is a conglomeration of the musical influences I’ve encountered throughout my life. West Coast Blues, Chicago Blues, Country Blues. I think the sound I have now is probably best described as Chicago Blues Rock. But there are a lot of other influences in there…country, rock n’ roll, folk. There is some element of Roots Americana. A bit of everything really. But blues is where I landed. It’s what I love, what speaks to me musically and personally."
What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?
That’s a deep question! Let me try to do it justice. I’d say before we can talk about impact and implications, we need to go back to understanding the blues. The perception most people have of the blues is that it’s the music of struggle. It is that, but it’s also the music of triumph. It’s the music of love and community. The loneliness one feels listening to Robert Johnson is a shared feeling. A great song touches the listener in two ways: personally and culturally. It’s about exploring common, everyday themes with universal appeal. Who can’t relate to losing a love or a livelihood? Expressing that distress brings people together—emotionally or physically—through a shared experience where they can celebrate making it to the other side, driven by a powerful musical structure.
As far racial impact, the blues was born with the call and response of the work song, transitioned to entertainment then to art. The blues travelled from plantation shotgun shacks to the heart of the cities with the people that played, sang, and loved the blues. Today’s world shares that music across racial, cultural and generational lines. I’m finding a growing audience among the younger crowd, college age and twenties. Racially (and in other ways) blues is music that breaks down barriers and brings people together.
Politically, we’re in a time of divisiveness. The blues is music of community and unity. Most blues players and blues lovers I’ve met lean toward inclusiveness, not division. The blues carries that message and can be a vehicle to bring people together, even if only for a few hours.
Socio-cultural really incudes both the racial and the political, as well as the personal and broader cultural environment. In that context, I think the blues, with its message of triumph over adversity, has universal appeal that can speak to and voice the hopes and dreams, the losses and struggles, the love, the success that comes from not giving up, of anyone who will listen and submit to the power of the blues.
That’s a tough one. Just one day? A few things come to mind. I wonder what it would be like, seeing BB King playing on the street corner in Indianola with his box guitar.
But if I have to choose just one, I would like to go back and spend a day in the studio with Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. More than anything, I consider myself a songwriter. Willie was a prolific songwriter and wrote a lot of the iconic blues tunes of his era. He is someone I greatly admire. And Muddy…well, Muddy was, and in many ways still is, the Chicago Blues. Willie wrote a song called, “I Am The Blues,” but the one who really personified that was Muddy Waters.
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