Canadian blues musician Joel Poluck talks about Bo Diddley, Robert Lockwood Jr., Floyd Lee and Sam Carr

"I think Blues music should always remind you of how people felt living under oppression in a racially segregated society. To be disadvantaged and looked down upon."

Joel Poluck: One Love, One Blues

The Floyd Lee Band formed in 2001 when Mississippi bluesman Floyd Lee (guitar/vocals) teamed up with Canadian guitar player, song writer and producer Joel Poluck while playing in the streets and train stations of New York City. They quickly forged their own sound and style, bringing old and new ideas together. After recording their first album later that same year (Mean Blues), it was released to high acclaim. Eventually evolving into the classic lineup with veteran bass player Brad Vickers (Pinetop Perkins/Jimmy Rogers/Chuck Berry) and legendary Mississippi drummer Sam Carr (Sonny Boy Williamson/Frank Frost/Buddy Guy/Eric Clapton) the band went on to record three more albums on the Amogla Records over their 12 year career (Ain’t Doin’ Nothin’ Wrong/Full Moon Lightnin’/Doctors, Devils and Drugs).

The Floyd Lee Band was subject to the feature length documentary “Full Moon Lightnin’” which went on to be voted the 2009 People’s Choice Award for Best Blues DVD of the Year in Living Blues Magazine and garnered top honours in film festivals around the world. Canadian bluesman Joel Poluck talks about Bo Diddley, Robert Lockwood Jr., Floyd Lee, Sam Carr and his blues paths from Clarksdale to NYC and beyond.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What have you learned about yourself from Blues music, and what does the Blues mean to you?

To play true Blues you have to be honest with expressing your emotions. You have to get to the heart of what it’s all about. People have to believe what you are saying and that it comes from somewhere deep inside. If you’re not doing that, it isn’t the truth and it isn’t the Blues. It isn’t easy and it may not come out right every time, but that’s what you need to do. You’re sometimes looking for answers to questions that there are no answers for. It’s comforting to know people have those feelings and that your thoughts and experiences can be shared through music. Black, white, young, old… we all get the Blues. There are common feelings we all have. How it is presented is the challenge.

How would you describe your sound? What were the reasons you started playing the Blues?

Floyd is pure emotion. In his voice and in his face you can feel and see the scars of his past. It’s in every word, expression, and movement. He’s a survivor who’s been through it all and has really lived the Blues. He keeps going no matter what. He can make you laugh and make you cry. As for the band, he’s the focus and the messenger. To get that message across you need the right sound. Basic and direct, you need to hear the history in the music. Down low and gritty, down in the gutter. Like the dark emotion coming out, it sounds rough and unrefined with no apologies. A little out of tune? Doesn’t matter. Wrong note? No worries. There’s a story being told in the notes and sound as well as the words. Life isn’t perfect… we’re not perfect. Floyd and I play different parts on guitar but it comes together as one. The whole band is there together to get across one message. Each song is a little piece of the puzzle. It’s a continuing story. Past, present and future.

Living in a place the size of New York City can make you feel lost and unimportant… invisible. With Floyd, we had the opportunity to say what was going on and to tell stories of who we were and what we were feeling. We could let people know not only in New York, but back home what we were up to, and give them a glimpse into our experiences. I remember when we had just finished recording our song Mean Blues in 2001, and were driving back to Floyd’s place in Harlem, I said they might hear us now up in Canada, and Floyd said right back, ‘they’re going to hear this all over the world!’ I liked the directness of the blues. It’s basic and straight to the point but with a lot of emotion and depth. Seeing BB King on TV as a kid and hearing early Elvis recordings was what first got me interested. The first thing I learned to play was the opening Scotty Moore riff to King Creole. My parents had a ukulele lying around the house and that’s what I would play it on. I didn’t get a guitar until much later.

"To play true Blues you have to be honest with expressing your emotions. You have to get to the heart of what it’s all about. People have to believe what you are saying and that it comes from somewhere deep inside. If you’re not doing that, it isn’t the truth and it isn’t the Blues."

How has the African American music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The music connected us to a lot of people and places in the world that we never would have met or visited. We were as interested in them as they were about us in the countries we were asked to play. In the U.S, it was cool to connect with people who grew up with the Blues. It was part of their culture and heritage. Once, a man in his seventies told me I reminded him of how his Dad played guitar. I still look back on it as a great compliment. Older black women in New York also had commented that they couldn’t tell that I was white on the records. I found this funny as I had never been described as young or white before I played with Floyd. I also had been told I was ‘too young’ to write songs for an old black man. Mostly, I found it was white people working in the Blues recording business who would have preferred that I was black but blacks didn’t care. They were happy I was playing their music and working with Floyd. I didn’t see myself as white or trying to be black. I was a musician. I’m a guitar player. I remember in France that the locals did not want us to talk with the Algerians, but we did anyway. There’s a lot of great people out there, but racism exists all over. In the U.S, once you cross the Mason Dixon line, it’s all rebel flags and the South Will Rise Again memorabilia. The gift shops are full of them. You don’t see Robert Johnson on a t-shirt until you get to Memphis and Clarksdale.

During the time I was living in Taylor Mississippi (just outside Oxford), I went with a reporter to cover a story on the Ku Klux Klan. She was scared to go alone and asked me to go with her. I assumed we were meeting them at a restaurant but ended up at their clubhouse in Shannon Mississippi sitting in the middle of a circle of ten Klan members, in full costume, wearing their white robes and pointy hoods. Rebel flags hung on the wall with KKK written in big letters across them. It was pathetic and sad to see them sitting there in their ignorance, so proud of themselves. The Klan and racism that existed sixty years ago were still on Floyd’s mind when we travelled down the backroads of Tennessee and Mississippi. When he went quiet, I knew what he was thinking. Each year, thousands of tourists visit Mississippi to see where the Blues came from. In 2003, when we first travelled there, a small industry was just popping up to welcome them. We talked to one of the town’s officials in Clarksdale at that time and she said they don’t like the Blues but they liked what it does for the town. Devil music and the Bible belt were still at odds with each other.

Which acquaintances have been the most important to you? What is the best advice someone ever gave you?

My fiancée Nella passed away in 2006 from ovarian cancer. She was everything to me. She was very strong minded and independent, as well as a talented fashion designer and artist. She was a true talent and so together in comparison to Floyd and I, who were confused, chaotic, and insecure. She would tell me to just get out there and play and not to over think it. She would stress the importance of the lyrics in songs and why certain artists wrote the way they did. She was a kind, giving, beautiful woman. Many of our songs are about her – such as Bird With A Broken Wing, Blues is a Beautiful Woman, Think I Got Something On My Mind, and Red Sun to name just a few. She was such a strong presence. There would have been no Floyd Lee Band without her. After she passed away, it was never the same and we only recorded one more song. My heart wasn’t in it anymore and my motivation to play was gone. Floyd and Brad Vickers remained my closest friends and I kept in close contact with them, as well as Sam Carr until his passing in 2009.

"My hope for the future of the Blues is to see the great recordings of the past still available and preserved. I’d like to see the more successful musicians out there taking an active role in this." (Photo: Floyd Lee Band - Floyd Lee, Brad Vickers, Sam Carr and Joel Poluck, MS 2004)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts, or studio sessions that you’d like to share?

Being on tour, there were many memorable moments. When legendary musician Robert Lockwood Junior came down to hang out with us on the coldest night in January at a gig in Cleveland, or Howlin’ Wolf’s piano player Detroit Junior who stopped by to see us in Chicago. Bo Diddley’s band also came to meet us at a festival in upstate New York. We became good friends with Willie Smith and Bob Stroger from the Muddy Waters Band. Bob is the nicest person you could know. We would see them everywhere – Switzerland, NYC, Mississippi…

Playing on the streets and in the subway stations of New York City was a different experience every day. Right after 9/11 we’d have two national guards standing on either side of us holding machine guns while we played in Penn Station. Once, we played on a moving truck in the dead of winter as part of Legends of the Blues Concert that was held at the Lincoln Centre in NYC. We played during the press conference in front of Tower Records. The truck was supposed to be heated but wasn’t and the cold cracked the paint on the front of my guitar like shattered glass as I played. Out in the crowd we saw Jody Williams from Howlin’ Wolf’s band and Bob bowing to us. The sound was good though despite the setup. As the crowd grew larger, the police shut us down. When down in Mississippi we’d play in the juke joints with T-Model Ford and Robert Belfour. They could play their hypnotic hillcountry blues for hours.

We also recorded an album down in Clarksdale in 2003 at an old radio station where Ike Turner, Elvis Presley and Sam’s father (Robert Nighthawk) played in the 1950s. It only took 2 ½ hours and we were out by midnight. Sam’s wife, Doris, listened to us from outside, sitting in their van with the window rolled down. A few months later, Elvis Costello heard a recording of our session and came to record there too.

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

It’s always disappointing to walk into a blues night at a local bar. The form is there, but not the substance. It’s a ghost of what it was in the past. It’s for the tourists. There is no depth or believability. They have an interest, but there’s no history there and they offer nothing of themselves. To me, it’s a caricature of the Blues, and you don’t feel anything listening to it. You need to have an emotional connection. Sam Carr once told me that grown men would ‘fall out’ listening to his father play. When was the last time you saw someone crying at a blues show? My hope for the future of the Blues is to see the great recordings of the past still available and preserved. I’d like to see the more successful musicians out there taking an active role in this. Jack White seems to be leading the way these days. My one fear is that my own recordings with the Floyd Lee Band may somehow disappear and that we would be forgotten.

If you could change one thing in the musical world, what would it be?

I’d like to see more filmmakers take an interest in not so well known regional players and use their music to expose them to a wider audience. Some of the most interesting and exciting musicians are playing for a handful of people in a juke joint in Mississippi. Guys are playing into their eighties and nineties and nobody knows about them. Even great dedicated musicians in New York city that played in the train stations with us like country blues player Carolina Slim and harmonica player Lester Shultz were mostly taken for granted and disappeared without fanfare.

What has made you laugh and what touched you emotionally from Floyd Lee and the late great Sam Carr?

Floyd was always the master of ceremonies wherever he went, on and off the stage. He was a natural entertainer and wanted to make people happy. Just walking through an airport people would come up and offer him drinks and want to sing with him. At one festival, the whole crowd turned their backs to the headliner to watch Floyd dance with a woman in the audience. Floyd brought excitement wherever he went, and was always the center of attention. He was kind too. I remember one time we were outside a restaurant in rural Tennessee and he gave his whole sandwich to a stray dog.

Sam was much more laid back than Floyd, but he liked to be in the action. Floyd could always make him laugh. I still remember him waving to us from the doorway as we drove away down his long driveway. It was hard watching Sam and Floyd grow older and lose their memory. The stress of caring for his ailing wife took its toll on Sam.

"The music connected us to a lot of people and places in the world that we never would have met or visited." (Photo: Joel Poluck & Floyd Lee, the Blues King and the Blues soldier plays chess, NYC)

What is the impact of Blues music in society and its cultural implications?

I think Blues music should always remind you of how people felt living under oppression in a racially segregated society. To be disadvantaged and looked down upon. Blues was a way for southern blacks to document their feelings and now there’s a permanent record of that. As Blues spreads around the world, so should the knowledge of the historical wrongs of the past. Maybe this could influence people in certain parts of the world where there’s similar problems with inequality. I never would have thought someone in Greece would be listening to our music. You never know how or where your music will have an effect.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine – if you could go anywhere for a day, where would you go, and why?

Sam was going to take us to visit R.L Burnside at his house in Holly Springs Mississippi on our way to Lamar where Floyd was born. We ended up running out of time and had to get back for a booked recording session in Clarksdale. So no visit with R.L. If I could go back in time, I would have had us all wake up a little earlier that day. I also would like to go back in time and witness first hand Howlin’ Wolf recording at Sun Studios, or one of those early big RCA Elvis recording sessions, with the full band and The Jordanaires. To walk down Maxwell Street in Chicago in the 1950s…

To see Bo Diddley playing on the street and all those unrecorded Blues artists back in the day. To see Elmore James playing live in a juke joint – there’s no film of him anywhere. His producer Bobby Robinson told me a lot of stories about Elmore so I can almost envision it. Back when I started playing with Floyd I’d tell people the past was great but we have a lot we can do right now in the present. 

Joel Poluck, NYC 2007 - Photo by Fabian Jolivet

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