Professor of ethnomusicology, Dr. David Evans talks about Al Wilson, Hammie Nixon, Jack Owens, & his big road blues

"Blues speaks to the human condition, everyday life, and universal themes."

David Evans: Doctor of the Blues

David Evans has been performing country blues (vocal and guitar) since 1962, having learned directly from many southern blues musicians of an older generation. Much of this learning was gained in the course of field research on the country blues tradition, beginning in 1965. Evans is currently Professor of Music at the University of Memphis and has taught on a visiting basis at the University of Mississippi.

He is the author of Tommy Johnson (1971), Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues (1982) and The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Blues (2005), along with many other publications, and he has produced over 50 LPs and CDs of his field and studio recordings of blues, gospel and folk music.
Evans’ first musical partner was the late Alan Wilson, who went on to become a member of the blues-rock group Canned Heat. Since 1980, Evans has toured in Europe as a guitar accompanist to Jessie Mae Hemphill, Hammie Nixon, Johnnie Shines, and Jack Owens, and has made over 40 solo tours around the world. Evans is also a member of the Last Chance Jug Band, a five-piece group based in Memphis that since 1989 has recreated the sounds of that city’s jug band tradition. They have performed in a number of Mid-South and national concerts and festivals and have twice been featured artists on the nationally syndicated radio program Beale Street Caravan. Evans has presented country blues guitar workshops and lectures at many venues in the United States and abroad, often in conjunction with concert and festival appearances. Evans has recorded “Match Box Blues” and “Needy Time”.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in music & what have been some of your musical influences?
I began to take trumpet lessons when I was about ten years old in Dallas, Texas.  My family had moved there from Massachusetts.  This was around 1954, and I continued until around 1958 when we moved back to Massachusetts.  I wanted to learn to play the “William Tell Overture,” a piece featuring the trumpet, because it was used as the theme music of my favorite television western series, “The Lone Ranger.”  I continued to play in a Junior High School marching band at football games, switching to baritone horn.  I gave this up around age 15 in order to concentrate on my school work and had no involvement in music until the age of about 18 when I entered Harvard University.  There I was attracted to “folk music” and quickly moved in the direction of blues.  My first influences were Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio, who were very popular at the time (1961-62), then Pete Seeger and the Weavers, and soon on to Leadbelly and various country blues artists.  I was able to see a concert by Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon in 1962, then appearances in Cambridge and Boston by Mississippi John Hurt, Big Joe Williams, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, and others.  I started playing guitar in 1962, maybe late 1961, and first tried to imitate the artists I had heard – Leadbelly, Estes, Hurt, and others on records.

                                                                                            Photo: Michel Verlinden

What first attracted you to the Blues & what does the BLUES mean to you, what does music offer you?
I first encountered blues as a type of folk music.  At that time “folk music” reached me through revivalist interpreters like Joan Baez, Belafonte, etc., and I quickly realized that their performances weren’t very authentic.  Pete Seeger and the Weavers sounded a bit better to me, and the notes to their albums mentioned Leadbelly.  Then somehow I encountered Samuel Charters’s book “The Country Blues” and the reissue album that accompanied it (RBF 1).  This music sounded much better to me than anything by the Weavers, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, or anyone who was playing in the local coffee houses.  Blues seemed to be a very personal expression of deep emotions.  It was from another culture, but it spoke about universal things.  As it turned out, many of the singers on the original records were about the same age when they recorded as I was at that time, and they sang about things that interested me (girls, etc.).  The music conveyed ideas of freedom, longing, adventure, etc., and was very attractive to a young person like myself.  We lived in a social environment that seemed quite regimented and restrictive, and blues conveyed the opposite feeling.  Of course, this was simplistic youthful romanticism, but it was enough to get me started.  I’ve developed a deeper and more mature appreciation of the music over the years, as now I’m older than most of the blues musicians I met.  

How has the blues business changed over the years since you first started in music?
There was hardly and “business” at all when I first started.  In fact, there was no blues “scene” except the traditional scene of black night clubs.  Blues artists occasionally performed at “folk” clubs, coffee houses, and festivals, or at jazz clubs and festivals.  So an entire scene has developed since then – blues clubs, blues festivals, blues societies, blues magazines, specialist blues record labels, etc.  I can remember being part of an audience of about 25 people to hear Skip James in a club in 1965.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
For my career as a researcher/writer the best moments were finding and recording such great bluesmen as Jack Owens, Roosevelt Holts, Mott Willis, etc., and the worst moments were arriving a few weeks too late to record and interview artists like Henry Stuckey (Skip James’s mentor) and Joe Callicott.  They had died!   Also winning a Grammy Award for “Best Album Notes” in 2003 was a great moment for me.  As a musician there have been many great moments, such as performing last year for an audience of about 4,000 in Ethiopia.  Or the tours in Europe in the 1980s accompanying Hammie Nixon, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Johnny Shines.  Not too many bad moments, except the time I didn’t get paid for a concert in France a few years ago.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
The period 1965 to 1973 when I made my initial field trips to the South.  I was recording many great artists for the first time and discovering many things about the music.  I made eight field trips during these years.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
The most important thing was to be able to observe so many great musicians up close at small concerts and during field research.  Blues has a very important visual and kinetic quality.  It’s not just sound.  It’s important to observe and listen and absorb these things internally.  You can’t always get this from jamming with other musicians.  In fact, when I do play with other musicians, I’m always watching them.

                                                                                            Photo: Michel Verlinden

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of Jessie Mae Hemphill?
Jessie was a great musician but could also be a difficult personality.  She was often very suspicious of other people, especially other women including some who employed her at gigs.  I remember her almost getting in a fight with a secretary at a concert hall in France.  She liked to wear fashionable clothes, sometimes very provocative outfits like leopard skin-tight pants, etc.  I remember one time she bought some tight black leather pants at a boutique in Rome, and they split on her the first time she wore them at a concert!

Do you remember any interesting from Hammie Nixon?
I learned a lot about entertainment from Hammie, and I still perform a lot of his songs.  He was a survivor in music and knew the ways to please an audience.  My kazoo style comes from him.  Hammie had spent most of his life helping others, particularly Sleepy John Estes, and I was able to help him in his last five years of life.

Any comments about your experiences with Jack Owens? How you would spend a day with him?
I visited Jack Owens many times from 1966 until his death in the mid-1990s.  Usually at visits I would record or interview him.  He lived alone, or with his invalid wife until she died, so often it was just me and Jack.  Sometimes Bud Spires or another musician or friend would drop by.  He was a total bluesman, one of the few whom I never heard sing a church song.  It was a very moving experience, even sometimes a bit scary, to hear him sing late at night or during a thunderstorm.

Why did he think that David Evans continued to generate such a devoted following?
That’s hard to stay.  I’ve tried to stay with the sound of early country blues.  I don’t try to perform pieces note-for-note or word-for-word like the originals, but I do try to perform in the style and spirit of the originals so that my own performance might have been viewed by them as worthy of being “in the same league.”  I don’t know if I always accomplish this.  That’s for others to judge, but I’m still here, still getting concerts and tours.

How did you first meet “Blind Owl”? What is the think you miss most from Al Wilson?
I first met Al in 1962 at a record store in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  We were both looking at bins containing blues LPs, and naturally we began talking about our interests in music.  It turned out that we had similar tastes and interests and were both beginning to play guitar.  Al was slightly ahead of me at the time in his knowledge and tastes, so he was able to introduce me to the sounds of some great artists.  We became good friends and developed our listening and playing together for several years.

What kind of a guy was Al Wilson? Which memory from him makes you smile?
Al was a very gentle and peaceful person.  He wasn’t shy around people but was very introspective and lacked any sort of pretense, which unfortunately included things like personal hygiene!  Many people were put off by this, but others like myself tolerated it because we appreciated his artist and intellectual gifts.  He was interested in philosophy, mysticism, the environment, and many other things besides music.  Even his tastes in music were very wide ranging, including some classical and Indian music, also a lot of jazz.  Other blues musicians, like Son House, Fred McDowell, and Robert Pete Williams especially appreciated his talents and interests.  Only Skip James was initially a little bit hostile, but Skip was like that with many people.

Tell me about the beginning of Last Chance Jug Band. How did you get together and where did it start?
It started in 1989 as several musicians jammed at a benefit program to raise funds for our Memphis community radio station, WEVL.  The music sounded good to us and the audience, so we decided to form a band.  I had already been performing in a jug band since 1979 with Madame Van Hunt and Hammie Nixon and others.  Madame Hunt retired and Hammie died in 1984, and I continued with pickup musicians until the Last Chance Jug Band was formed.  Over the years we have had a few personnel changes, but the present group has been together for five years.

How did you first meet Johnnie Shines & What advice has given to you?
I first met Johnny around 1967 or 1968 in Los Angeles when I was a graduate student at UCLA.  Pete Welding was a fellow student, and Pete had known Johnny in Chicago.  Johnny came to Los Angeles for some concerts.  I had some involvement in the album Johnny recorded for Milestone, produced by Pete Welding.  Later in 1979 I met Johnny again when I was able to book him at the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis.  I continued to see him from time to time and had the privilege of touring with him in France and Italy in 1989.  This was his last European tour, after he had his stroke, and I essentially played the role of his left hand on the guitar.  He could only keep up a rhythm with his right hand and hold simple chord positions with the left hand.  

What do you think of FOLK BLUES & how close are to MODERN BLUES?
That depends on what is meant by “folk blues.”  If you mean blues that are a product of oral tradition and performed in a community setting, it hardly exists any more today except as a revival or imitation.   My own performances are a revival.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see and meet many great folk blues musicians, but I did not grow up in a “blues community” like they did.  And there is no community of that sort any more.  So we have to appreciate folk blues today a bit like art music.  It should be performed with feeling and talent, like any good art music, but don’t pretend that one is “living” this music.  There still is a modern blues scene that has a connection to a community, but most of it today is part of the international popular music scene.  People who support modern blues often have very eclectic musical tastes.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Think about long-term survival in the business, and learn to please an audience.  Most of the audience is not musicians, so you don’t need to impress them with virtuoso playing.  You need to reach them with words and music that sound good and address their concerns and interests.  Dress well on stage, and look at the audience.  Act like you came there to give them a show, not to “express yourself.”  Vary your repertoire and style – different keys, rhythms, moods, themes.  Pay attention to your timing, and make the audience feel every word and every note.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
Hammie Nixon, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Johnny Shines, among artists I accompanied at concerts.  Also a lot from Son House, Fred McDowell, Napoleon Strickland, Babe Stovall, Roosevelt Holts, Robert Pete Williams, Jack Owens, and Mott Willis.  I feel that I’ve learned a lot from Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, and Tommy Johnson, but that’s all from studying their lives and recordings.  Of course, I never met them in person, though I have met people who knew them.  I think deeply about all of these artists when I perform versions of their songs.  Most of my songs are based on ones I learned directly from artists such as these – people I met in person or whose recordings and lives I researched in depth.

Of all the people you’ve met, who do you admire the most?
I admire all of them for their individualism of expression, their willingness to “do their own thing,” often at great personal cost.  I would say I especially admire Hammie Nixon for his generous spirit of helpfulness.  He was often the responsible one when others weren’t so responsible.  I also greatly admired Robert Pete Williams.  He was someone who easily could have rotted in prison.  He had a lucky encounter with folklorist Harry Oster, gave generously of his music, used this opportunity to get released and to build a career and life for himself and his family.  He demonstrated the possibility of rehabilitation.

                                                                                             Photo: Michel Verlinden

Which is the most interesting period in blues scene and why?
If you mean my opinion about blues history, I guess it would be the 1920s.  There was great variety of blues then – vaudeville, country blues, piano blues, jug bands, etc.  It was new to recording, so much of it sounded very original and fresh.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about the “Beale Street Caravan”, how that came about?
I guess you mean the syndicated radio show.  I have appeared on it two times, I think.  Sid Selvidge, the host, is someone I have known since I first came to Memphis in 1978.  He invited me on the program.

How do you characterize the philosophy of David Evans music?
Try to perform within the tradition.  There has always been room to create new songs and variations on familiar songs.  But don’t try to “improve” the tradition or bring it “up to date.”  Nobody’s going to get better than Blind Lemon, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, et al.  Just try to perform to their standard, so that they wouldn’t laugh at you if they were in the audience!  And don’t try to fool the audience by being overly dramatic.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
Blues speaks to the human condition, everyday life, and universal themes.

Are there any memories of all these GREAT BLUESMEN which you’d like to share with us?
Well, there are many, but I think I’ve shared quite a few already.  There are more in my various writings.

You have traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions?
Blues is well liked everywhere.  I’ve seen its popularity grow in eastern Europe, for example, since the early 1990s.  I saw it well accepted in Ethiopia last year, even among listeners who heard it for the first time.   I think it will continue to become a major genre in the international music scene.  I’ve met many fine artists outside the United States.  There are some in various countries in Europe who can even compose songs that are very much in the spirit and style of old country blues of the 1920s and 1930s.

“Tommy Johnson”, “Big Road Blues”, “The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Blues”, “Ramblin’ on My Mind”, how did this projects come about?
Tommy Johnson was a byproduct of my master’s thesis (M. A. degree) at University of California, 1967.  I had heard Johnson’s early recordings and met Babe Stovall, who performed one of his songs and had met Johnson.  Babe led me to Roosevelt Holts, and from there I met other people who had known Johnson.  Tommy Johnson seemed to me to be the perfect example of a folk blues singer, and I chose him as a focus of a study of how the blues oral tradition worked.  Big Road Blues was an outgrowth of my study of Tommy Johnson and is a version of my Ph. D. dissertation (UCLA, 1976).  It studies the larger blues tradition that Tommy Johnson was a part of.  The NPR book was something the publisher asked me to write.  Around 2005 blues was enjoying a surge of popularity, and several publishers were putting out guides, encyclopedias, etc.  The publisher offered some pretty good money, and I decided to write the book for them as an effort to generalize about blues from my experience.  Ramblin’ on My Mind is an edited collection of essays by various authors, many of whom are old friends.  It started as a special issue of a journal for which I was the guest editor, and I expended it to a book by adding other essays.  The publisher requested it as a book.

Dr. David Evans     David Evans to Youtube

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