Musician/ Journalist Debra Devi talks about her book The Language of the Blues, N.Y poetry scene, & Greece

"The whole point of the blues is to dig deep inside and connect with your own soul."

Debra Devi: Talking with the Blues

Debra Devi is a guitarist, singer, journalist and passionate blues fan. Her award-winning book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu, is now available as an eBook from Guitar International.. The Language of the Blues opens with a remarkable foreword by Dr. John, and is blurbed by Bonnie Raitt, Joe Bonamassa, producer Hal Willner, Ministry singer Al Jourgensen, Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino, Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin and Fugs founder/author Ed Sanders.

Debra’s the singer and guitarist for the New York City rock power trio DEVI, with brothers Kevin and John Hummel on bass and drums. The band's debut album, GET FREE (the album is currently available as a free download), has earned Debra comparisons to singers Sheryl Crow and PJ Harvey and guitarists Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison. She’s become a Fender Girl Rock Nation artist, and the first female guitarist to record for Guitar World’s Lick of the Day iPhone app.
She's a former associate editor of Blues Revue who has also written for Guitar, Guitar School, Guitar World,, JamTV, The Village Voice and co-authored Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Body and Mind That Liberate the Soul (Ballantine).

Interview by Michael Limnios

How you would spend a day with Devil in crossroad? What would you say to Alan Lomax?
I’d ask the Devil to show me how Robert Johnson really played “Cross Road Blues.” I’d thank Alan Lomax for his tireless fieldwork, traveling all over the Delta, Appalachia and other U.S. regions to record real American music.
As a writer, I also relate to the FBI’s report on Alan Lomax, which said “He has a tendency to neglect his work over a period of time and then just before a deadline he produces excellent results.”

What would you like to ask Memphis Minnie? What advice would you give to Leadbelly?
I’d ask Memphis Minnie if I could try on one of her silver-dollar bracelets, and what it was like being one of the only women on the blues circuit. Lead Belly wouldn’t need my advice.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does offer you?
My first response to the blues was visceral. I attended a Koko Taylor concert in Milwaukee when I was 17. Son Seals was playing guitar and I literally flew out of my chair onto the dance floor. I had never danced before. Met my first boyfriend that night, too.  That night also showed me how to approach electric guitar – because what Son Seals was doing on the guitar was different than a lot of the fast, superficial players I heard on the radio. He was wringing such emotion out of every note. I realized it wasn’t about playing a lot of notes; it was about playing the right note. I thought, “Well, maybe I could do that.”
I like what Jimmie Vaughan told me: “If a musician can get the blues and what it says about space and feeling…the space is as important as the notes. Because if you don’t have space, you don’t allow time for the listener to feel what has been said.”
As guitarist Robben Ford says, “The blues is a big house.” An astonishing amount of music has been birthed under its roof, all of it based on what is proving to be one of the strongest, most flexible, and inspiring musical frameworks ever created.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music... and the “blues life”?
From the many Chicago blues artists I was blessed to see perform while I was a teenager in Milwaukee. Seeing John Lee Hooker and B.B. King on a plywood stage in a cornfield halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago and dancing as the sun went down…

Which memory from your interviews with all those blues cats makes you smile?
They all made me smile because they were so generous with their time, and so gracious. I learned something surprising from each man: Milton Campbell told me he used to listen to the Grand Ol’ Opry on the radio as a child of sharecroppers and loved country music; Robert Jr. Lockwood told me Robert Johnson was a voracious reader. If you ask artists questions directly, a lot of myths fall away.

What is the best advice to listen from the bluesmen?
To be true to yourself and find your own voice. There’s no point in mimicking anyone else. The whole point of the blues is to dig deep inside and connect with your own soul.  

What is the “thing” you miss most nowadays from Muddy & Wolf’s blues?
They were both such deep and powerful singers – very masculine and strong. Can you imagine hearing that kind of maturity was heard on the pop charts today? That would be amazing.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
Son House – another powerhouse who would have incredible life stories to tell.

Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?
I would rather not choose; I admired them all very much for their achievements, their talent and longevity. Most of the people I interviewed were over 70 and still touring and recording quality music.
I interviewed as many legendary blues artists as I could find, including Robert Jr. Lockwood, Henry Gray, Hubert Sumlin, “Little” Milton Campbell Jr., Alvin “Red” Tyler, Mardi Gras Indian Chief Howard “Smiley” Ricks, and Jody Williams. I also interviewed next-generation artists, like Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan, Robben Ford and Bob Margolin.

What is the strangest desire that someone have requested to give you the interview?
No one I interviewed asked me for anything. They all gave time, insights and wisdom for nothing, because they believed this was an important project. None of their managers wanted them to do these interviews – because being in my book wasn’t going to sell records. But the artists felt it was important to share this history and wanted to give of their time.  I was very touched by their generosity.

Which of the artists were the most difficult and which was the most gifted front of the journalistic recorder?
I wouldn’t say he was difficult, but it took awhile for me to get Robert Jr. Lockwood to open up. You have to prove to him that you’re not a fool. Once he did open up, though, he shared really fascinating information. At age 91, he was still extremely sharp and shed real light on a seminal blues figure, Robert Johnson. Lockwood was Johnson’s common-law stepson—his mother lived with Johnson for seven years.  
Lockwood said Robert Johnson was a very nice man who was always reading to get ideas for his songs. That really counteracts the romantic view of country blues musicians as illiterate modern primitives.
Dr. John was probably the most gifted speaker. He’s extremely intelligent and fascinated with language. I’d interviewed Dr. John in the past and was struck by how knowledgeable and deep he was. I called him when I was working on the book and he was able to answer questions I'd been unable to answer for months. Like, where does the word “gig” come from? He knew that it came from gambling – a gig was a three-number (like a musical trio) bet and you didn’t know if it was going to pay off (like a musical gig!).
That’s why I asked Dr. John to write the foreword for my book. His foreword alone will teach you more about the language of the blues than most people ever learn.

What mistakes of blues business would you want to correct? How has the music business changed over the years?
I greatly admire the efforts of Bonnie Raitt and the Rhythm & Blues Foundation to try to get retroactive royalty payments to blues and R&B artists who were ripped off, and to provide for the financial and medical needs of older artists. Obviously, many artists signed very exploitive contracts and I’m glad famous artists like Bonnie and Sting have stepped up to help. I don’t think the music business has changed much – the contracts are still pretty bad.
The good news is today you can reach many people as an independent artist. My band, Devi, is independent and we are able to reach fans all over the world through social networking.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
I love to tour and especially enjoyed playing in Poland, Yugoslavia and other Eastern Bloc countries, where the people still have a very honest, raw reaction to rock music. They go crazy and it’s really fun to see, because usually we play in New York City, where people are more jaded and bored.
A worst moment was probably watching my book The Language of the Blues disappear from bookstores even though it had won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Outstanding Book on Popular Music. The publisher was going through a merger and my editor and publicist were laid off.
I’m so glad Guitar International has republished this new eBook edition of The Language of the Blues (with color photos and new photos!).

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
The blues just feels so real. It gets into your gut. As I say in the book, “The defining experience of Voodoo--possession--is the source for the idea in the blues (and later, in rock ’n’ roll) that the musician’s highest attainment is to connect with the soul beyond the body and the mind, and be so possessed by this connection that it animates and drives the artist’s performance.” Blues artists understand how to do this – so they will always be very compelling.
I have been encouraged by the popularity of artists like Cee Lo Green, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Joe Bonamassa and Jack White, who have strong blues vibes. I noticed that at the Grammys this year there was more real singing and more real musicians on the stage. I think we’re seeing a backlash against overly processed music. Listeners want to hear soul!

What are some of the most memorable interviews and meet you've had?
Interviewing Bonnie Raitt meant a great deal to me because I admire her so much – as a singer, guitarist, performer, activist. She was the first woman I ever saw play an electric guitar, so she was a huge role model. She did not disappoint – she’s very nice, cares tremendously about the blues and blues artists. I was thrilled when she contributed a blurb for The Language of the Blues. You have to check out her new album, Slipstream, it’s fantastic.

To which person would you like to send copy of your book?
Jack White (Racounteurs, White Stripes) – I think he’d love it.

Are there any memories from Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferbug and the Downtown N.Y poetry scene, which you’d like to share with us?
I met Allen, Tuli and Ed Sanders from the Fugs, and the filmmaker/collector Harry Smith when I was a little punk rocker in the East Village. They were all very inspiring because they had remained so curious over the years. They loved the energy of the hardcore punk scene. They came to our shows and sometimes we backed up Allen as The Ginsburgers, playing his poetry/songs. He would yell “Louder! Faster!”
Harry Smith had an expensive Sony Walkman that the Smithsonian Museum had given him. He was quite elderly but he would stand in the moshpit with bodies flying by, recording the whole thing. And I would think, someday someone is going to find this in the Smithsonian archive and be totally baffled. I remember Allen climbing on top of his rickety kitchen table in his apartment to take pictures of the band and thinking he was going to fall and break his neck and it would be our fault for killing one of America’s greatest poets.
Knowing these men gave me permission to think about what I was doing and what I'd experienced in Milwaukee too--the Blues scene--to think about it in a cultural framework and in an intellectual way without feeling I was being pretentious. Ed Sanders would say “Write your history or someone will write it for you.”
I wish Allen, Tuli and Harry were still with us. Ed Sanders is a giant of a writer and poet. He released his Poems for New Orleans in 2008 and Fug You, his history of the Fugs in 2011. Ed shows no signs of slowing down as an author, musician or environmental activist. He’s another person who blurbed my book, and I am so grateful.

What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
…performing! Like most rock artists I love the high of playing music for an audience. It’s an amazing exchange of energy. In Devi, we like to stretch out some of our songs and jam – and that’s where I really lean on what I’ve learned from the blues. I try to make that soul connection. When you get there, it feels like flying. [Check a video of Devi's jamming: Devi @ youtube ]

How do you describe your philosophy for the music …and for the life?
Get free!

Are you Greek? Do you have a message for the Greek blues fans?
I am ¼ Greek. My father’s mother was Greek. Her father was a Greek Orthodox priest in Monemvasia (Μονεμβασία). The Greeks are passionate people, so I am not surprised that there are so many wonderful Greek blues fans who understand the language of the blues. Keep supporting the blues! And, I want to visit, and see my great-grandfather’s church.

Devi - Rock      The Language of the Blues

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