An Interview with folk blues/ roots guitarist Mark McDonald: The Blues is real. Real stories, real feelings, presented in a real way.

"People now days want processed and perfect, radio friendly tunes.  And that ain’t the Blues."

Mark McDonald: Real stories, real feelings, presented in a real way

Mark McDonald took his first music lesson when he was 5 years old and played woodwind instruments throughout Grade and High School. He bought his first guitar when he was 14 , an electric Silvertone Les Paul Copy ordered from the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue, and delivered to the small Kansas town where he grew up. That started a lifelong relationship with the guitar. 

Throughout a very interesting and adventuresome life, a guitar was always there. Mark has worked as a fireman on the railroad, has been a professional pilot and aviation businessman, as well as a real estate broker.  But over the years  one overriding passion has always been at the forefront of his thoughts, that of music and making it in the most articulate, soulful, and passionate way attainable. His biggest influences were Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, and Southern Rock/Blues. The originals like Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Muddy Waters, Blind Willie Johnson, and Son House made a big impression on him. Second generation guys like John Hammond, Duane and Greg Allman, also played a big role in the music that he loved and in the evolution of his own sound.  

The music of Robert Johnson has probably made the biggest impression on Mark and any show incorporates many of the 29 songs that Johnson recorded. He has spent many hours with Honeyboy Edwards over the years, listening to many of the first hand accounts of experiences with Robert. Honey Boy traveled with, befriended, and was there by Johnson's side at his death bed. Sharing those stories and experiences had been invaluable in understanding the man behind the music. Mark is devoted to being the best that he can be and is always striving to improve and expand his capabilities. He  has either studied personally or played with David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Lousiana Red, Robert Belfour, Jorma Kaukonen, Carey Bell, Lurrie Bell, Paul Geremia, Terry "Harmonica" Bean, Steve James, Bob Brozman, John Cephas, Phil Wiggins,  Drink Small, Warner Williams, Walker T. Ryan, David Jacob Strain, Keith Allen, and Geoff Achison over the years.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Mark, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
I grew up playing an instrument from the time I was 6 years old.  By the time I was 14 I was playing guitar and it was then that I heard the Blues in a local club.  I was there with the son of the owner and we were just hanging around.  I was lucky enough to be raised in a place that was pretty color blind.  But that whole vibe, and the fun that was happening just really touched me.  I then got into Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Howling Wolf.  

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?
The most memorable gig was the first one.  Rented a hall for Saturday night.  We were totally unprepared.  Long story short, people left and asked for their money back.  I still have nightmares about that.  Learned a valuable lesson.  Always be prepared.   Playing with Lousianna Red has to be some of the best times.  
Great Jams:  Louisianna Red is great to jam with.  Loves to play music and he just lights up.  Very generous.  John Cephas was the same, and Phil Wiggins too. . Red and a great player by the name of Jeff Akers out of Spokane, Washington and Calvin Streets from LA used to jam til the morning light.  All that would take place up in Port Townsend, Washington at Country Blues gathering.

Are there any memories of  David "Honeyboy" Edwards &  Lousiana Red, which you’d like to share with us?
Honeyboy had an incredible mind.  Remembered tremendous amount of details about his youth and Robert Johnson in particular.  He would go on for hours about his experiences with him.  They met each other because Winnie May, Robert’s girlfriend, was Honey Boy’s first cousin.  The same Winnie May featured in the John Hammond documentary from a few years ago.  Love in Vain was written for her.  Honeyboy liked to play Blues in A and often stated Blues in E was for sissys.  I always loved that comment.  
Many of the great bluesman have their own style and would be confined to that style but Lousianna Red can cover any one and in so doing is a great teacher.  Great stories as well.  Red is a real philanthropist.  He was raised in an orphanage and to this day he still gives much of his CD sales to the very same orphanage.  He and is wonderful wife, Dora, are just some of the finest people on the planet.

You have played with many bluesmen, which are mentioned to be a legend. It must be hard, but would you try to give top 3, which gigs have been the biggest experiences for you? And why?  
The top three.  Wow.  Well Honey Boy for sure.   Lousianna Red, but probably the nicest guy and a great Bluesman in his own right would be Jorma Kaukonen.  He is just a wonderful human being, player, and teacher.  He is very personable and really wants to connect.

How do you describe the “philosophy” of Mark McDonald about the BLUES?
I believe that Blues has to come from the ground up. There are some great electric players out there but a lot of them started with SRV, or Albert King.  I wasn’t happy with that and went back as far as I could.  When I studied the Delta Style, and Mississippi Hill Style then I began to get a grasp of what the Blues is all about.  Its about RHYTHM and FEELING.  All the rest falls in behind that.  The fancy licks and tricks are tools used to make up for what you may really be lacking in trying to interpret the Blues.    

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?  
Well we talked about the worst already, that first gig with the disgruntled audience.  The best would have to be recording my first CD.  Just went into the studio for about two weeks and pounded it out.  Darryl Webb was the engineer and together we had a wonderful time.  

Why did you think that Robert Johnson continued to generate such a devoted following?  
I think that RJ is the consummate artist.  His songs are timeless and his skills were other wordly.  Hence all the myths and tales.  Those very myths I think also contribute to his popularity, which is unfortunate.  From the first time I heard him I was hooked and continue to be.  I am definitely a devoted disciple that continues to and will always try to spread the word and the music of the great Robert Johnson.   I think he had that great gift to be able to connect with people, through his stories and tremendous musicianship.   Great melodies, stories, and a complex sense of rhythm.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
Well the Blues means the world to me and it has offered me a way to express feelings and emotions in a medium I am most comfortable with.  I think if you listen to an original of mine “Going to the River”, which is actually based on a Mississippi Hill Country style,  then you will hear how the Blues form can be used to translate one’s inner most emotions.

Why do you think that the blues doesn’t quite get the recognition and respect that other genres seem to get?
Well I think when people think of the Blues, they think of old black guys playing out of tune guitars, drinking whiskey and primarily having a good time rather than trying to entertain.  That’s what I like about it.  I don’t consider myself a fancy “artist”.  I just play good time music, never the same way twice.  People now days want processed and perfect, radio friendly tunes.  And that ain’t the Blues.

Alive or dead, who is the one person that you’d like to meet face to face if they were alive, and talk to over jam?  
Well it has always been a fantasy to meet with Robert Johnson.  Talk about the music and his life.  Play some music with him.  Wouldn’t  that be a gas!!  As far as alive goes I would love to sit with BB King and chat.  I have seen him live but not talked to him.  I think that would be fun.  From everything I’ve heard he is a wonderful person.  If he is like any of the other real Bluesman that I know and have known I am sure that is true.  Would also love to meet Greg Allman as well as Eric Clapton.  I think Greg is one of the great Blues voices ever.  I have been a devoted Allman Brother fan for many years and have seen them perform countless times.  And Eric is such a devotee of Robert Johnson that I think we would have some common ground and could even trade some licks. And I can’t leave out the great John Hammond.  I have met him but would like to spend some time with him. He has been very much of model for my style, since I do play racked harmonica.  He is just just a phenomenal musician and a great Delta player for sure.

What are the things you’re most passionate about in life?
Family, friends, and the Blues.  I love connecting with people through music, whether at a club, a show, or Alzheimer’s patients.  All of my kids are musicians, one a front man for a National touring rock band, my daughter is a highly trained and accomplished classical guitarist, and my youngest son is a player as well.  I guess the passion for music and expression has been passed along.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?  
Honey Boy Edwards, Cary Bell, Louisianna Red,  John Cephas, Robert Belfour, and Terry “Harmonica” Bean, and of course, the great Jorma Kaukonen.  There is a little mix of all styles there.  Honey Boy and Red represents the Delta style, Robert Belfour and Terry Bean represent the Mississippi Hill style, of course Jorma and John Cephas/Phil Wiggins helps to spread the Piedmont word.  I play harmonica as well so Cary Bell was inspirational and represented more of the Chicago style.  I was lucky enough to play and learn from him just months before his death.  He was a trooper.  He never let down.

Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new? What was the last record you bought?
Robert Johnson, of course.  Son House, John Lee Hooker as far as the originals.  I also love Luther Allison.  He is probably the one of the most soulful guys that ever walked the planet.  I think an old compilation album of Luther’s was the last CD I bought.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
The Blues is real.  Real stories, real feelings, presented in a real way.  Blues is real.  Unprocessed, no gimmicks, from the gut.   That’s why it will always be with us.  My wish is that people will always have access to the Blues and that the torch be carried on as long as man walks the earth.  

Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
“Death Letter Blues” is one I never tire of hearing or performing.  I lost my mother (who I was very close to) tragically when I was eighteen, just days after I had moved away).  I packed my bag and headed on down the road…  Then I lost my first girlfriend a few years after that.  I am also a big fan of Fred McDowell, so” You Got To Move” really speaks to me.  That song kind of sums up my philosophy on the Universe.   And Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” also speaks to me.  BUT you gotta throw in “Kansas City” a city where I spent many a year.  Plus I just love that tune.  Great jamming, fun times tune.

I've heard two sayings about the blues, which are a little bit confusing. One is "Blues is a healer". Another one "You have to feel blue to play Blues". If it's suppose to be a healer, why should it make one feel sad?
Well I don’t think you have to feel blue to play the Blues.  You just have to feel the music.  It is indeed a healer because of the real nature of the beast and the rhythm of it.  I have played twice a month for the past 15 years for an Alzheimer’s Respite Center and I can testify that the Blues heals those people.  When I leave they have all danced, laughed, heard my crazy stories, and they all have a smile on their face.  There was some healing going on there because the Blues reached out and touched deep inside.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
Well we just talked about the first gig.  First songs I learned was for the cover band I started.  Louie Louie I think was the first.

What would you have given to Bukka White?
My ear, for as long as he wanted to bend it.

What would you ask Muddy Waters?
I would ask him a bunch of questions just to hear him talk.  Whenever he would speak it would be like he was singing.  Wow what a talent that guy was.

What would you say to Allman Brothers?  
I would tell them that I am so sorry for Duane and Barry.  That they didn’t live to make the incredible music they could have.  And I would also thank them for continuing to give us music that touches so many people so intensely.

How you would spend a day with Son House?  
On the porch with good food and drink.  Talking, playing, and singing.

What is the “thing” you miss most from the “Old good days of Blues”?
The acceptance of the music as a centerpiece for good times.  It was a simpler time in which good food, good friends, and a guy or two with a guitar and a harmonica could provide the backdrop for a perfect time.  Now people are so tuned in to their Ipods, computers, processed music, etc that a lot of connecting to one another is getting lost in the shuffle.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Ooh that is a tough one. I would say that if you are going to try to eek out a living with this genre you had better be dedicated to the craft and to the history.

How has the blues music changed your life?
Well it probably cost me some money because I have certainly spent a multitude of hours listening and playing that could have been spent accumulating dollars.  But it has also kept me sane, with a vehicle to express myself in good times and bad.  And to me that is the most valuable of all.

What are your plans for the future? Do you have a message for the Greek fans?
I am just going to continue to play.  Am 61 now but still try to improve and expand my repertoire.  I do so much solo stuff but I would like to play with the band more.  I just love the camaraderie with the guys.  We have been together for many years and have a blast whenever we play.  I would like also to teach a little more, especially the music of Robert Johnson.  But that crowd is pretty small, except for Port Townsend each year.
To the Greek Fans I would like to say thank you for giving me this opportunity to tell a little of my story.  Keep listening to the Blues and keep it real.  I would love to come over some time and make the rounds.  Oh what a time we would have.

Mark McDonald - Blues & American roots music

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