Blues master Giles Hedley talks about the British blues, Son House, Mississippi McDowell, & slide guitar's secrets

"I wish that each generation of youngsters discover the blues for themselves and re-invent it to fit their own lives."

Giles Hedley: Fly with the Blues

Giles has been singing and playing roots blues across UK and Europe since the sixties, on harmonica - his trademark is  simultaneous nose-and-mouth harmonica playing, - and bottleneck and lap steel guitars, acoustic and electric.
A regular on blues festival and club circuits both solo and with The Aviators, featured repeatedly on national radio in England and France, Giles is, in the words of blues magazine Blues in Britain, " a mainstay of British blues" or as Blues Matters puts it, "one of Britain’s foremost roots and country blues performers".  His solo work recreates the passion, grit and fire of the delta blues greats - Son House (with whom Giles appeared in the Seventies), Kokomo Arnold, Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell.
His band The Aviators is a funky, danceable roots-blues trio steeped in early Chicago blues. Earthy slide and steel guitars, a unique rack harmonica style, a passionate, Wolf-style voice, adventurous bass and drums right up front in the mix create the unmistakable Aviators sound, quite unlike other British blues bands.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues?
That if you’re not honest with yourself and with the world you have nothing to say – and nothing to be.  

What does the blues mean to you?
Playing the blues makes me complete- it’s one of the ways I connect with my own life.  I need to play every day. 


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Best moment so far – a gig we played last week with The Aviators (Sam Kelly, Richard Sadler and Christophe Pélissié). Something magical happened - the music came out so good it was scary! And the audience was right with us – understood what we trying to do and came with us every inch of the way. An unforgettable night.
Shaking hands with Son House back in 1971 was pretty amazing, too.
Worst moment- like everyone, I’ve had some bad experiences with promoters – but I’d rather not go there!
The moment that felt the worst at the time was when I was young back in the 70s.  I was playing solo in front of a big audience at the Melkweg in Amsterdam. I was very nervous and just as I began to play, I jammed my right -hand fingers between the guitar strings and all my fingerpicks pulled off and scattered all over the stage. No big deal, remembering it  now, but when you’re young, you’re so embarrassed you just want to die. These days I don’t use picks – I get my nails reinforced instead!
My worst moment in recent years was when I was playing a big festival and this guy came up, said he liked our music, and suggested he might join us on piano. I was nervous about the gig and so I put him off. He looked a bit surprised but took it very politely. Afterwards I realized that I had failed to recognize Jon Cleary, the wonderful New Orleans-style pianist, whose music I love and respect enormously.  What made it worse was that I’d met him before!  I still feel terrible about that.

Is there any similarity between the blues today and the 70s?
Interesting question! Here are some similarities, first:
The most important similarity is that, both then and now, there is an audience of ordinary folks who passionately enjoy blues in all its varieties and empathize with the people playing it.  In big venues that put on different kinds of music, the staffs often tell me that blues audiences are the most good-humored, friendly and positive of any type of music they put on.   I can certainly believe it.  And there are all the little blues clubs, run not for money but for love of the music.   It’s this warmth and enthusiasm that keeps me playing this stuff.     
A less welcome similarity is that there came a time in the seventies when audiences started to get very hung up on endless screaming guitar solos – pointless displays of technical facility.  Exactly the same thing is happening now – especially as rock players who fail to make it, tend to try again as blues musicians.  They don’t appreciate that blues is basically about songs. And like all music of African origin, it’s fundamentally a co-operative exercise. In the classic blues bands everyone contributed to the groove, as musicians do in reggae, in township music, in highlife, in soca, in funk, in jazz... As Muddy Waters said, blues is always about question and answer. According to Bob Margolin, Muddy would not hire a musician who “answered himself” and left no room for give and take. It’s like the difference between good sex with someone else, and the solitary variety!  
So, just as in the 70s, a lot of the big festivals now do not feature what I recognize as blues – many acts are closer to stadium rock.  The funny thing is, many audiences tell me they would rather hear rootsier blues - but promoters are often ex-rock people, so I suppose they feel safer booking what they know.    
And here are some important differences:
There are many more people around nowadays who really know about blues – so much research has been done, so much more recorded material, books and “how-to” advice are easily available, and people start younger. The standard of playing is much higher. A boy called Aaron Keylock – he has his own band now - sat in with my band recently  and played the most soulful, deep-feeling blues guitar you can imagine - he was twelve years old at the time!
Many more people know how to get a good blues sound, too  - harmonica players, for example, like “Shakey Vick” Graham Vickery, Giles King, Paul Lamb, George Suaref, Rollo Markee, Laurie Garman. They all have the technique and the technical know-how to get the most delicious Chicago sounds. And there are web forums where blues guitarists can discuss equipment and share info about what gear their heroes used back in the day.  
By contrast, when I started out all we could do was to listen to the records (if we could find somewhere that even sold them) and try to work out what was going on. My first blues band, in 1964, featured a guitarist who played into a little PA amp, then fed its speaker output into his guitar amp, to get a good blues sound. It worked fine if the PA was turned almost down, but one day someone turned it up and everything blew up in a cloud of smoke...
Another difference is that there is less prejudice against blues now. When I was at school my band was not allowed to practice on school premises because we played blues – whereas pop was allowed. Now I give talks on blues at a local school.  And in the 60s and 70s many folk clubs, which were almost the only blues venues outside London, hated Europeans playing blues.  The folk singer Ewan McColl once ranted at me about this for what felt like hours. He felt I should only play English folk music, because I am English. I thought this was a bit much from someone whose real name was Jimmy Miller, but I was far too scared to say so ...  

What are some of the most memorable tales with Clyde Stubblefield?
I only met him once. He was in a blues bar in London with a group of other Americans. I played a few songs and then said something, and when they heard my very English speaking voice they almost fell off their chairs laughing. But when I had finished the set Clyde came up and said how much he liked what I was doing, that it felt real and that I was the funkiest singer he’d heard in Europe. He gave me his card.  When I read who he was it was my turn to fall off my chair. He’s always been a hero because of the truly revolutionary beats he developed in the classic James Brown era.  Incidentally, classic funk is very similar to Delta blues rhythmically - listen to Kokomo Arnold, Booker White or Son House and then JB, and you’ll hear it...      

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Interesting to me, or to other people? If you mean to me, I would always answer”now”. Reality is always more interesting than memories!  Right now I’m still working on my music and learning about life, and the Aviators and I have just finished recording by far the best album we’ve ever done.
But I suppose my life in the 70s was probably more interesting for other people to hear about – I was living in squats, touring Holland, sleeping on floors and playing in Amsterdam bars till 5 am, to audiences of Vietnam deserters, pimps and dealers. I got to hear some great music, too – Muddy, Jimmy Witherspoon, Ray Charles, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, even a kid called Eric Clapton, who played some nice guitar with John Mayall’s band...
But at the time, I would have described that life as tough rather than interesting; I’ve always been the sort of person who worries a lot about where the next meal’s coming from, and where I’m going to sleep – not the happy-go-lucky type at all.     


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?
Do you think I’m a good bluesman? If so, I’m very pleased! I think the common factor linking all the bluesmen I respect is that they hate bullshit. It’s true for me too: I don’t mean that I make a moral judgement about it, I simply mean there’s something missing in me, so I can’t cope with people who are false. When I meet people who project an image based on lying to themselves and to the world, I can’t be objective, I just run away from them, or I say something that makes them cross.  I grew up surrounded by lies – I didn’t find out who my father was until I was in my thirties – and I suppose the blues has been my refuge from deceit.  
So many of the blues musicians interviewed by Paul Oliver in his book “Conversation with the Blues” said, when asked to define what blues is, that real blues is unmistakably honest, that the singer tells the truth as he or she sees it. Christophe Pélissié, our guitarist, saw BB King a few years  back and noticed that during a slow blues solo BB was quietly crying ... after so many years and gigs, he was still so emotionally close to his music, still telling his truth.  
I think that’s partly why most bluesmen did not become superstars – they were not equipped to deal with the manipulation and deceit which is inseparable from the music business.
So I would say that the experiences in life that make you value the truth, even the unwelcome truth about yourself, are those that make you a good bluesman. Most of those experiences are tough – making mistakes in your loves or your life, being screwed over by people and having no redress against them – but some of them are positive, like finding you can create joy and satisfaction for yourself even in the difficult times.

What's been my experience from “studies” with Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Juke Boy Bonner among others?
I learned some things about technique which I’ll come to in a moment.  But the most important thing I learned was what I mentioned just now. All the bluesmen I saw seemed to be singing directly from their deepest personal truth.  They were not shielding themselves behind showmanship, even if – like Muddy for example – they were great showmen. Listening to them I felt that, in a sense, both they and I were naked.  When I heard Jimmy Witherspoon sing, it was desperately uncomfortable for me, being a 16 year old middle-class English boy, in a culture where feelings were never displayed. But it felt like I’d been handed a lifeline.  
Fred McDowell was different again: he seemed to go inside himself when he sang – he did not, like many performers, expand outwards to envelope the audience, but he drew those inwards to himself. Extraordinary.
Son House immediately created an atmosphere of shared truth by joking about the fact that when he was offered a European tour his wife insisted he had his hair dyed, because “those kids won’t want to see an old man”. When he stood up and sang “John the Revelator” unaccompanied, you felt that he was alone with his god.
Technically, I’m still learning from everyone  – from Fred McDowell, how to set up a hypnotic, grooving bottleneck riff, and how to sing gently but compellingly ... from Son House, his wonderfully free and percussive right hand, setting up polyrhythms like a flamenco player, and his charismatic, churchy singing ... from Juke Boy Bonner, how to set up a hypnotic boogie with rack harmonica and electric guitar, and to make chord changes at random to suit the song, like John Lee Hooker, instead of meekly trotting along the 12-bar path ...  from Muddy, how to sing simply but with total authority and how to build a set slowly and evenly to a climax ... from Kokomo Arnold, how to use two or three different rhythms in the course of a single song ... from The Wolf, how to sing dramatically with pin-sharp diction, from Sonny Boy II and from Big Joe Williams that Less is More ... from Willie McTell, from Robert Johnson, from Willie Johnson, from Tommy McClennan, from Blind Blake ...  

Are there any memories from "Really the Blues" & "The Aviators", which you’d like to share with us?
Oh Lord ... I suppose my best memories of “Really the Blues” are of our residency at the legendary London blues venue “Bob’s Goodtime Blues” at the Station Tavern in North Kensington. We were there once a week for years, and if I could see any carpet on the floor when I was onstage it was an unusually quiet night – normally the place was packed solid. The audience was a real mixture of folks, blues fans and local lowlife, and very enthusiastic, so we dared to do some unusual stuff – duetting my lap steel guitar and Bob Morgan’s clarinet, for example, or playing a Delta number one minute and a Jimmy Witherspoon jazz-blues with Bob on Hammond organ the next. When we built a song to a climax the whole room was right with us.  One night the whole 100-year- old plaster ceiling fell down into the audience. We were quite a quiet band and I still believe it was not the sound but the sheer emotion in the room that brought it down!
 Another night, I remember this French guy came up and asked if his friend could sit in on guitar. When this friend took a solo, I was so blown away I forgot to come back in with the vocals. It was my first meeting with Christophe Pélissié, now the fourth Aviator – our new CD “So Glad I’m Living” was recorded in his studio.           

Where did you pick up your guitar style & what were the first songs you learned?
I started guitar quite late – about 20 – up till then I just sang and played harmonica. I decided to play guitar right-handed, but I’m a leftie, so I was too clumsy to do the sort of ultra-clean fingerpicking fashionable back in the sixties. It wasn’t until I saw Son House and Fred McDowell play that I found a direction for myself. I saw that Delta playing all comes from the right thumb, with a loose wrist so the fingers can bounce those Delta rhythms off the beat, and I thought “hah! Those rhythms are really exciting – that’s for me!”
The first songs I learned just to sing. As a kid, before my voice broke, I learned classic Bessie Smith-type jazz blues and Elvis Presley blues covers from my big brother’s record collection. Then as a teenager it was mostly Sonny Terry/Brownie McGee stuff, because my schoolfriend Oliver Whitehead (now a jazz composer in Canada) played guitar with me.  Then I learned Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed and Howling Wolf songs with my first band.
The first guitar songs I learned were by Fred McDowell – Few Short Lines, 12 Gates to the City, etc. – which made it quite embarrassing when I played support to him!  But he muttered “not bad, kid” when I came off stage, so I guess he didn’t mind too much...
My all-time favorite guitar, which I stupidly sold when I was broke in the 80s, was a 1930s wooden-bodied Dobro – in fact one of the first 75 the Dopyera brothers built. It had a much more versatile sound than a National, and was beautifully made.
Apart from that, my favorite guitars are the ones I have now: a 1920s Levin parlour guitar – tiny, but with a shockingly big sound for bottleneck, a 1934 Grimshaw Hartford XII archtop also for bottleneck, and a 1928 Aristone for fingerstyle. They’ve all got lots of attack, which suits me as I’m into percussive, polyrhythmic playing. I’ve learned that you can buy excellent old European guitars for a fraction of the price of old American ones – and these guitars all have slightly odd sounds, which suit my slightly odd playing!
Although I do a lot of songs that were originally recorded on resonator guitars, I’ve not been tempted to get one,  as I find it hard to get more than one sound out of them – most of them are a bit inexpressive.

What were your favorite guitars?  
My all-time favorite electric guitars are the ones I use now: a very rare early Yamaha semi, with Seymour Duncan pickups that actually belongs to my wife and a cheap Strat copy that I fitted with my favorite pickup – an old Bill Lawrence blade humbucker – for bottleneck. I’ve disconnected all tone controls – I hate what they do to the sound.
 I’m very proud that Leburn Maddox, a very sophisticated guitarist who uses a huge board of effects pedals, told me he wished he could get a sound like mine!
I’ve owned some interesting guitars over the years - Gibson 330, Harmony Rocket, SG Junior, Jerry Jones Danelectro, Ibanez twin-neck – but they were never favorites.

Do you know why the sound of the slide guitar is connected to the blues?
Right from the earliest 19th century descriptions of proto-blues Afro-American songs, two things were written about: (a) the instruments aimed  to imitate Afro-American vocal music – ring shouts, field hollers etc ,  and (b) the tunes hover between major and minor. Blues harmonica, bottleneck guitar, trumpet, fiddle can all slur towards or away from notes, as the human voice can.  Pianos can only suggest that slurring, so these were more popular for ragtime and gospel music, styles more influenced by European melodies.  Bottleneck is brilliant for getting that slightly sour, wistful tonality, and for wailing like a voice.

What characterize the sound of Giles Hedley?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask! But blues critics have described me as:  caught up in the feeling of songs; an entertainer and communicator; funky and passionate; with a lot of respect for roots blues, a big, warm expressive voice and exciting slide and harmonica playing.
For me - first, last and all the time - it’s about the songs and what I need to do to put across their atmosphere. Musically, I’m more excited by a hypnotic groove than by dazzling solos, and more into subtle, funky rhythms than melodies.  Above all, I believe in leaving space in the music: holes and pauses for the drama and feeling to pour out, and to interplay with other musicians.  Most European blues is FAR too busy and densely-textured, in my opinion!  

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
That’s a really tough question, because I learned different, important things from different people. But the hardest lesson for me is “LESS IS MORE” – I’m still trying to take that one in.  When I was a teenager, a young jazz musician said to me “the secret is, if you’ve got nothing to say, have the courage to shut up and wait till you do”. My friend of 40 years Bob Morgan, when he  was in “Really the Blues” used to say “keep it simple,  don’t try to impress people, and be yourself” and that’s pretty good advice for blues – in fact for all music!
 The people whose recordings  taught me the most about leaving space for the feeling to come out are  probably Rice Miller( Sonny Boy Williamson I), Bessie Smith, Fred McDowell, BB King, JB Lenoir, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, James Brown ...

What is the “think” you miss from the 70s? 
What do I miss from the 70s? The chance to hear the great names of blues!  There are some good players around now – although very few good singers. But it’s hard to explain to people that hearing someone like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon or Fred MacDowell was a totally different level of experience – deeply moving and tremendously exciting - like hearing Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley live. 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
I think it’s because it is honest music: it moves people because it’s about the real bedrock emotions that we all share underneath our cultural differences. If it’s not real it doesn’t move you, however clever the music is. You can’t make a good blues recording by spending money on the orchestration or effects or gimmicks or flashy musicians. Either it moves you, or you hear it and say “bullshit”.   
And it’s very physical – as Alexis Corner once said, “blues hits you between the navel and the kneecap” – it’s about not being ashamed to be human animals, with all the good and bad that that implies.
 That’s why the churches have always hated the blues – and still do. The power of Christianity comes from making people feel ashamed to be human, so that they need a god to make them feel OK again.   It’s like cosmetics advertising on TV, which convinces women that they are disgusting and their only hope is to spend money buying beauty products.  There was nothing wrong with them in the first place! The blues says “here we all are, good points and weaknesses, trying to live right in spite of everything life throws at us”.
As long as people have the courage to let their defenses down occasionally and risk being open to life, they are going to get hurt sometimes. And then they will need the blues – both the lowdown blues and the goodtime blues – to help them carry on.

Give one wish for the BLUES
I wish that each generation of youngsters discover the blues for themselves and re-invent it to fit their own lives.   

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
I don’t really know. I’ve never really engaged successfully with the music business. That’s why I get so few gigs.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Here are the three things that I didn’t learn until very late – start doing them now!
1. Play a lot with other musicians – learning to listen and to fit in are as important as learning to play
2. Play in public as often as you can – don’t wait until you think you’re good enough. Don’t worry about making a fool of yourself – it’s by far the quickest way to learn how to perform.  And it shows people you exist – the world is full of undiscovered talent, so you need to be visible.
3. If you see someone doing something you want to learn, don’t be afraid to ask them how! Nine times out of ten, people are flattered to be asked and happy to share their knowledge. You can save yourself so much time!

What’s the best jam you ever played in?
I love sitting in with other people’s bands – I joined Sam Kelly’s band Grooviticus for a couple of numbers and had a ball – excellent musicians with a lot of give-and-take and good humor, and a tremendous ability to groove. Rollo Markee and the Tailshakers is another – they have the most authentic downhome vibe I’ve heard for a long time, and we always have a great time together.  

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Paul Jones's Radio Two blues programme?
Once I was interviewed by Paul solo, and the recording was held up by a technician’s strike. The two of us had to wait until a dispute somewhere else was resolved and everyone went back to work.   Paul and I chatted, and he was so interesting, friendly and knowledgeable about the blues – without being in the least academic -  it was a delightful experience. He has a real, deep-down, love of the blues.
I laugh when I remember the time we were mixing a set with the Aviators in the Birmingham studios, for Paul’s programme. The way I hear our music, the bass and drums are as much lead instruments as mine are – I sometimes describe our music as “drum n’ bass with added blues”. So the engineer played us a mix and I said “no, bring the bass up”, then he would play it again and I would say the same thing. This went on four or five times – he simply couldn’t believe we really wanted Richard up that far in the mix. We got there in the end, and the engineer did say he liked it ...

Are there any memories from “THE ROAD FOR THE BLUES”, which you’d like to share with us?
Oh boy ... there was the time we were driving between gigs in Holland in a hired van, and at about 2 in the morning a police patrol car pulled us over. Two cops walked over to us - fully armed, the whole thing – and I thought “I don’t know why, but we’re clearly in trouble”. One cop asked us who we were and where we were going. Then he grinned and said “I just wanted to say I saw you play last night – you were fantastic”. I could have killed him for giving us such a fright! I wonder how he recognized us in the van ...
Then there was the time, way back in the 60s, when I was playing a private society party in a huge mansion in the country. We stopped the van to open a gate and I fell in the ditch up to my neck. I was already in my stage clothes, so I did the gig soaked to the skin and covered in pond weed. The hostess was not pleased!
Another time, in the 70s, I stopped in southeast London to pick up a Chinese takeaway meal after a solo gig. As I sat waiting for the meal, four big gangster types in suits came in, wearing big gold watches and bracelets. One of them asked me about my guitar and I reluctantly opened the case. When he saw my prewar Dobro he said he liked blues, and would I come home and play for them. I thanked him very politely but said I was very tired after my gig and just wanted to take my meal home. Then the four of them closed up round me and he asked again. I clearly couldn’t say “no” so I went outside, thinking “there goes my Dobro”, and was bundled into the back of a Pontiac GTO with no license plate, with a huge guy sitting either side of me. We drove fast round a lot of back streets until we came to a big house on an industrial estate by the river, with a big motor launch and a garage full of American muscle cars . I complimented him on the cars and he said “oh, they all come to me for motors – the Krays, the Richardsons [famous London crooks]...” which worried me still more. Then he said “I really like music – I’ve got a Stradivarius in the cellar” – I believed him.  They took me into a private bar and poured me several large gins, while I played as best I could. The end of the story, I am happy to say, is an anticlimax: I was bundled back into the Pontiac and driven safely home – with my precious Dobro at my side. I still wonder who they were – and what happened to the Stradivarius!

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between the Folk Blues & modern Blues?
I don’t know anything much about the blues that is being played nowadays, except what I happen to hear when we play  festivals. But I think, generally speaking, with folk blues the feel of the song is more important, and the musical structure is more likely to be slightly odd and interesting, with bars dropped out or added, and more interesting rhythms. Starting with some of the very prolific Bluebird recording artists like Jazz Gillum and Washboard Sam, a fashion came in the late 30s and 40s for very formulaic straight 12-bar shuffle blues, with the interest added by novelty lyrics. And nowadays I sometimes think we’ve kept the predictable, formulaic structure and lost interest in the lyrics as well, so a lot of stuff is very samey. What my bassist calls “donkey blues”, because it goes “don-key, don-key, don-key, don-key...” But I’m being a bit unfair, as there is some really interesting, subtle stuff happening as well – especially with some funk-blues.

What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
This is going to sound really boring, but it’s true!  My dream is simply to do a lot of profitable gigs with my favorite musicians and to have nothing to worry about except the music. So I need a really competent and trustworthy agent who get me lots of work at the right prices, a nice car and someone to drive it for me, someone to take care of my gear, someone to talk to promoters ... and enough money to get out of debt!

Giles Hedley's Official website

Photos Credits: Mike Ross, Bob May & Giles Hedley's archive

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