Guitarist/songwriter Carol Bean talks about Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Route 66, Ash Grove in L.A , & Kiwi blues scene

"I wish the blues will enjoy a life eternal and never get watered down"

Carol Bean: Route To Original Blues

Carol Bean lived in five countries before settling in New Zealand. Her dad was an RAF pilot during WWII who flew Sunderland sea planes. At the age of 14, Carol got her first guitar. At 16 she was a student sitting with Ry Cooder at McCabe's Music Store. She spent the next year learning chops from Dave Cohen, an LA session musician at the legendary music venue the Ash Grove.

At the Ash Grove she saw Lightnin Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscome, Sonny and Brownie, and of course Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal. Taj was teaching harmonica at the same time. Carol's first guitar, an old Martin 0021, was spotted by Ry in the window of Reno's Music on Pacific Coast Highway in Manhattan Beach.
Carol's song 'Land of Smiles' is about these experiences of growing up in Los Angeles while 'Downstairs Blues' is a salute to the Mohave Desert section of Route 66 that she re-visited as a musician years later. Since living in New Zealand GODZONE, Carol has worked many jobs from tobacco picker to a classroom teacher and national arts adviser. Carol's band BLUE HIGHWAYS played the Wellington blues circuit through 1998-2008. Her longtime musical interests in alt-country bluegrass and punkfolk created the Mt Misery Band. Carol's mission was to "put the blues back into bluegrass". She often plays solo and a duo with her partner Lester Mundell on harp and Dave Murphy with her on guitar.

Interview by Michael Limnios


When was your first desire to become involved in the music?
When I was 14, I heard my older brother playing a Bob Dylan album in his bedroom. I ran down the hallway, burst into his room and asked ‘Who’s THAT!’ I made a point of seeing Dylan in concert as often as I could. Growing up in LA, I saw a lot of my favourite bands on a regular basis. It was a great time to be living there. In high school I was in a folk group. We sang Peter Paul and Mary songs in harmony. It was fun, but I soon immersed myself in the acoustic guitar scene at McCabe’s Music Store and The Ash Grove. My interests shifted to the old blues I was seeing on stage at the Ash Grove, Doc Watson style bluegrass, and the ‘modern’ blues of JB Lenoir. Of course if the Rolling Stones came to town I was there.


What characterizes Carol Bean’s blues?
In my own style of acoustic blues guitar I use Travis picking, and Piedmont. I love Memphis Minnie and Mance Lipscomb. I fell in love watching his style at the Ash Grove. I loved Lightnin’ Hopkins too. His electric guitar sound was so raw that people walked out - but I loved it. I’m a claw hammer. Just can’t get away from it. I use a thumb pick. I use a flat pick on the Strat and do that in the band, but my natural right hand is claw. That’s why Dave Murphy and I play so well together. We both use thumb picks and have the same tempo in the right hand.


Are there any memories from your ‘studies’ with Ry Cooder & Taj Mahal, which you’d like to share?
I was 16 when I had guitar lessons from “the good looking, one-good-eye, 17 year old Ry Cooder at McCabe's”. McCabe’s is still there at 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica where musos congregate and jam. Last time I visited, (2005) Jack White was trying out a new Martin. I told Costa Botes that when he was in LA it was a MUST to go there. Unfortunately he only got to see it from the back seat of a car and he waved.
To my chagrin, Ry Cooder said to me in class, “If ya can’t play a Bb without looking, go home and stay there til you can”.  I said “I can’t go home now, I ‘m giving you a lift back to your place after the lesson!” “Well then keep it down” and four rows of people sitting on those wooden chairs at McCabes all turned around and stared at me. It was like something out of a Cohen Brothers movie. I almost died. All the way back up to Laurel Canyon to drop Ry off, neither one of us spoke a word. I still had a crush on him though. We all did! But Ry - he lived for the music. I never saw him go out with a girl once.
My first guitar, a 1955 Martin 0021, was spotted by Ry in the window of Reno's Music on Hwy 101.  To raise the $200, I working as a ‘salad girl’ on Redondo Pier, and then I had to audition for the guitar's owner- a bluegrass player from San Fernando Valley. My best friend Chris Thomas taught me Ry’s finger picking on Ma Rainey’s 'Milkman Come Here' and I made it through the song and got to buy the guitar. Unfortunately that guitar has just been stolen from me. It was close to my heart from 1964 to 2012 and now it’s gone. If you see my baby, serial #144442, Please Contact Me!
From 1964–65, I was a guitar student at the Ash Grove with Dave Cohen (no relation to the Cohen Bros, Dave was an occasional guitarist for the Country Joe and Fish, and a great session musician). At the time, Taj Mahal was teaching harmonica and only had one student, a skinny little white boy who was terrified of him. Taj was 22 at the time – an old bloke – and had just teamed up with young Ry Cooder to form the Rising Sons band.  While he waited for Dave to finish with us, he’d pop his big head over the divider and say “Bean, lend me your car”. At the time I was driving my Mom’s beige Impala. “No way Taj, my mom would kill me” I’d say as I struggled through another run I hadn’t practiced for my homework.
“Come on Bean, pleeeease.”
 “Well, can I play your little Martin when yer done?”
“Go away Taj! You and your big hands’ll crush it!”
Despite my teasing, Taj has remained a family friend. He is close buddies with my sister Terry Bean, and when he met my 82 year old Mom he gave her a hug and said, “Ah-ha! Now I know where the Bean girls get their beauty from!”  Two of his children lived here in Wellington, NZ. His daughter Diva (a wonderful jazz vocalist now in New York) and his son Iman Star (a vocalist for the dub band Rhombus) opened for their dad the last time he played here. I have to say that I have never seen Taj in such good form. He played solid BLUES that night! A few years before that gig, Taj came to cut a juice commercial and to visit his kids. He and I sat together and talked about old times and laughed ourselves silly.



What advice Taj Mahal given to you about the Blues ...and the Blues "road"?
Taj is a great blues player. He told me that amongst the sad stories in the blues, there are uplifting songs. Taj always searched for that uplifting side, and he sang his songs with humour and love. He wrote country blues songs about ordinary people doing ordinary things like painting their mailbox blue.  Later on as he toured the world more, he favoured Jamaican style music because it made people laugh, be happy, get up and dance.


What is the “thing” you miss most from psychedelic / folk era in US?
That era was a time of experimentation. Sometimes based on blues rhythms, it was unfettered to any previous style. It was music that had never been played before. Psychedelic / folk, if that’s what you want to call 1960s California rock,  not only flowed freely but also pushed the creative boundaries of technology, as well as the tolerance level of the general audience. Not many songs from that era got played on the radio for example. Nevertheless, that style of music has been long-lasting, and although somewhat dated now, has inspired many kids to take up the guitar and sing with their hearts.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I have a couple of favourite moments. First, playing to two thousand people, pin droopingly quiet, at the National Music Festival in Auckland. The sound was crystal clear, and the fold-back was the best I’ve ever had. That is so important onstage! I was playing with Robbie Duncan and Chris Price and we were on fire.
And secondly, playing with Dave Murphy at the Rotorua Blues Festival was great. LA Bluesman Doug McLeod was in the audience and he came up to me afterwards and said “You got a real good thing going here Carol”.   
The worst was when there were more people on stage than there were in the audience. It was a Rehabilitation Conference! I’ve learned not to play weddings, or conferences. They always call out “Play something we know! Play Neil Diamond! Play Delilah! Stairway to Heaven! Something!” Arhg.


Why did you think that the blues music continued to generate such a devoted following?
There is a deep rhythm-based feel to blues and no matter what the words are, that emotion gets through to people’s souls. That will never change.


What does the blues mean to you & what does offer you?
I love the genre. When you look at those TV sessions of the old blues players performing onstage in Germany in the early 60s, they were rocking! BLUES has swing, laughter, guts, and best of all raw emotion. My husband is a harmonica player, Chicago school. We watch those DVDs of Sonny Boy Williams, Little Walter, and Muddy Waters, etc., with total devotion. I think the music keeps us young, keeps us interested in always learning new songs, and being with people who play.


What do you learn about yourself from the blues?
I play hard and in the electric band, often quite loudly, some say too loud (smile). And so at the end of a gig I am buzzing, fulfilled, and raring to go all night. We get a whisky and settle in for a long jam session with the boys. It fills a need in all of us to express those raw emotions, to get the groove going and stay there for as long as we can. Hell, we all have day jobs. It’s difficult to make a living in New Zealand from music and so we seek those pure moments of bliss on stage. Sometimes I feel I can’t live without being in centre of a hot blues band!


What are some of the most memorable stories you've had on the Route 66?
Well that hotel I sing about in my song Downstairs Blues, that’s real.  Just when we were thinking we were ‘nowhere in no time’ in the middle of the Mojave Desert (1969), there appeared a bluesman tuning up and settling in for a night of music. Magic! I never found out his name and I’ve been looking for him ever since. I’ve experienced a lot of misery and pain on Route 66 and I’m not going to talk about that, but I’ve had some fun too. When I was a kid of 11, my parents moved from Ontario, Canada to LA. We drove very inch of Route 66.  I looked out the back seat window at every Burma Shave road sign there was. We’d read them out loud and laugh - simple pleasures.


Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your experience in Los Angeles at the legendary Ash Grove music venue?
I interviewed Sonny and Brownie once for my high school newspaper. I asked Sonny “How many harmonicas do you have, sir?” He grabbed his lapels and opened his coat. “How many do you want girlie?” Sewn into the inside of his coat were dozens of pockets filled with harps. “I suppose those are in alphabetical order” I laughed. “Now Sonny boy,” interrupted Brownie, “You cain’t take this here girl home with you. She too young!”
I was watching Doc Watson (with Clarence Ashley) play a particularly blinding run and I moaned out loud. I was 15 and embarrassed because a few people laughed at me. Then Doc said “Eat yer heart out”. The place erupted.  I got a free coffee out of that one.
The guys at McCabes and the Ash Grove used to invite me to parties like this; “Hey Carol, come to our party tonight - bring that Martin”. I learned to ignore them.
At the Ash Grove I saw Lightnin Hopkins (6/2/1964), John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt (7/5/1964), Mance Lipscome (12/4/1964), Doc Watson (5/9/1963), Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee (1/27/1967), Clarence White, and of course Ry Cooder & Taj Mahal. My song Land of Smiles on my first album Read the Road Signs is about the experience of growing up in LA. 


What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?
In 1968, I jammed with Jimmy Page once on a back porch in San Francisco.  I didn’t know who he was at the time so that’s just name dropping. There was lots of jamming with Taj after class, but the best jam sessions I’ve enjoyed are the ones in my own home with my husband Lester on harp, and a whole battery of fine guitarists slugging it out (like Dave Murphy, and Costa Botes). There’s a fine tradition of venues in Wellington where one can go and jam the Blues and Americana. I show up once in a while, guitar in hand. The music scene here is very healthy and musicians play on each others’ album regularly. I help to run the blues club jams at the Hotel Bristol



What do you think about MODERN BLUES & how close are you to the BLUES of Lightnin Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, and Mance Lipscome?
I don’t deny that it is hard to write in a blues style with a modern theme but it’s possible. There is a critic who has slammed me for playing my song Hard Drive Blues, which is a piss-take on having a computer job. It’s meant to be funny and it rattles along at a good clip with some great harmonica battles, and guitar work by Mike Petrie. Purists might hate it but the dancers love it. I believe Keb Mo’ dragged the blues into the 20th century, but we all eventually bounced back to listening and playing the blues of Hopkins, Hooker and John Hurt. I’m a devotee of pre-war blues. So if Modern Blues splashes out once in a while that’s fine, but people will revert to the original. There’s nothing better.


How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage? What compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?
I love the onstage/audience rapport thing and I’m good at it. I tell stories about the songs, point out the great dancers, talk to the ‘hecklers’, laugh a lot. I used to be a teacher and spent years on the stage of the classroom or the hall, always involved in the arts and then in the city arts programmes getting kids up and performing. So it comes naturally to me to be up there. Now, as I get older, I get less ‘out there’ and more ‘in there’ - making the audience lean in closer. It’s nice. After a gig I love it when someone says to me “You played that guitar well tonight”. I’m the front person, the singer, the song writer, but if I play guitar well – I’m happiest.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
I don’t care if there is a small audience, and here in NZ the audience is quite limited, but the blues needs to retain its integrity. We have some young people graduating from the music schools here with a good understanding of traditional blues styles. This is healthy. They love playing it as well and they do a good job even though they often copy the Ben Harper sound.


Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Making two albums at Braeburn Recording Studio was really great Mid way between these albums 2007 and 2010, I gigged a lot and also sold two songs [Freeze Frame and Eastbourne Jetty] from the first album to the sound track of a Hollywood movie called Player 5150.


How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
For starters, I think it’s a bit easier for women to get into the world of blues music. I know Memphis Minnie spent many years hoofing it with the boys, and she was a pioneer! There are some fine blues divas here in NZ, they sing with feeling.
The sale of CDs has dropped. So it’s really important to have a web presence. I have a company called Press Go that makes music videos. People come to me to film them and get them onto YouTube.


Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues in NZ?
A case of the blues: we have five blues clubs in NZ, dozens of really goods blues players and a steady audience. I believe that Blues music will never lie down and die “down under”!



Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene and why?
Looking through the Wellington Blues Club’s past newsletters, I noted that 1995-2005 was a very active time for blues musicians here. Good bands do come touring, like John Mayall last year; but things have gone quiet at the moment. There is a big swing to Americana music, and the younger people are still into Pop.


Give one wish for the BLUES.

I wish the blues will enjoy a life eternal and never get watered down.

Which historical music personalities would you like to meet?
I would have loved to be a fly-on-the-wall when Memphis Minnie was in the studio recording with her husband Kansas Joe McCoy.


What would you ask Memphis Minnie? What would you say to Jerry Garcia? How you would spend a day with Ledbelly?
I think I’d be scared of the old Huddy, and probably scared of Memphis Minnie as well, but I’d ask her to tell me how to survive in a male dominated music world. It’s really hard to be a female in the blues world of guys, guitars, and pushy testosterone. Sometimes I despair.
Jerry? I’d say, “Hey babe. Let’s take a walk on the wild side”. Girls used to sit down on the floor of the concert halls right beside the door where The Grateful Dead came and went. Every so often Jerry would wander through and pick a couple of gals and they’d disappear behind the door. I sat down once, but the minute I was picked, I ran away. Never a groupie, I just wanted to see what would happen. Oops I’m telling tales.
Being from Los Angeles, I was a Mothers of Invention fan and loyal to Frank Zappa. I was at his infamous concert at The Shrine Auditorium when Charlie Musselwhite opened for him. Zappa made everyone faint. I was part of the sound crew for The Turtles who opened for Canned Heat at the Whisky a Go Go on the night of Sunset Strip riots, summer of ‘66. Easter 1968, I went to a concert at Limekiln Creek in Big Sur. Limekiln still is one of the most amazing spots in Big Sur, with wooded waterfalls minutes from the spectacular rocky shoreline. The gathering was for Neal Cassady’s Wake. Everyone was there including Jack Kerouac, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother. That’s where I became chauffeur for Mike Bloomfield. “Won’t you be my chauffer...?” Now there’s a guy - Mike Bloomfield’s guitar work was the best. He hated driving and my first job was to take him to Huntington Beach. The first album I ever bought was East West by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1966 Electra). The second was Geoff Muldaur’s Sleepy Man Blues (1963 Prestige). I loved The Jim Kweskin Jug Band and saw them often at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. I went to university at Long Beach College so the Golden Bear was our local.  Now I’m rambling; it’s time to stop.  Arohanui


You had pretty interesting project / bands Mt Misery Band. Where did you get that idea?
I loved my Americana-style Mt Misery band! We live beside a hill called Mt Misery and I researched the history of it and wrote some songs for my second album Crossing the Dirty River. We got good gigs at the Wellington Folk Festival. Costa Botes was in this band. He played banjo and guitar, Andrew Delahunty from NZ’s oldest jug band Windy City Strugglers played mandolin, and Richard Klein, a NYC Cajun fiddle player and vocalist was my right hand man.


You have travelled all around the world. What are your conclusions?
I love travelling. My conclusion is that I live in a really fantastic place and I’m staying here to live out my days and play the blues in Wellington, New Zealand!  Last year I had the joy of being in Athens and despite the strikes, it was a trip of a lifetime! I want to return. Maybe Dave Murphy and I should come back! I’ve found that radio stations in the USA want to play their own local favourites, not people from overseas. But in northern Europe, I’ve sold a good amount of CDs there.


What are the things you’re most passionate about in life? What turns you on? Happiness is……
Obviously playing guitars, then I love making films, writing novels and painting. I trained as a visual artist at university in California. I love watching good films at festivals, and reading good books.

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