"I think the Blues is still there you know. Since I started to listen to the Blues people told me that the Blues is dead and is still there. Of course is not the same Blues. I would say that there are several kinds of Blues now, I would say several base music."
Gerard Herzhaft: Portraits en Blues
Writer and Musician Gerard Herzhaft is a specialist in traditional American music and Southern United States culture. He is also the author of the novel "Long Blues in A Minor", which was awarded the 1986 Grand Prix Litteraire de la Ville de Lyon and was published by the University of Arkansas Press as translated by John DuVal. Gerard was born in 1943 near Lyon (France). He fell in love with American music and especially the blues (thanks to a Lightnin' Hopkins record) when he was a teenager and started listening, playing and collecting records. While studying History at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Gerard met almost all the bluesmen who came to play in France during the early 60's, befriending several of them from Muddy Waters to John lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker. He paid them a visit during several trips to the USA since 1967. Gerard made American fields researches thanks to several Fullbright Grants.
Gerard started writing about the blues and other American musics during the 70's, publishing his "Encyclopedia of the Blues" for the first time in France in 1979 that has been translated in English and published in the USA from 1989. He published more than 40 books, essays and novels, has been translated in many languages (including English, Spanish, German, Turkish, Portuguese, Magyar). He has also written almost a thousand articles for magazines and newspapers. Gerard has also been giving lectures in Europe and North America and recorded three discs as a musician. Gerard Herzhaft has been the recipient of a Keeping the Blues Award from the Blues Foundation in 2014. His latest books are: Les lumières viennent du fond de l'espace, 2015; Les musiques Incas, 2015; and Portraits en Blues, 2016.
Interview by Michael Limnios - Transcription: Dimitris Epikouris
Special Thanks: Gerard Herzhaft, Dimitris Epikouris, Nikos Delijannis & Zorz Pilali
First of all I’d like to ask you about what you really miss most nowadays from the blues and the feeling of past. What do you miss most from past.
Well, I think first when I was starting to dig the blues, when I was younger of course, in early sixties and even in seventies, blues was still, a strong thing among the black neighborhood, you know. You had that, in Mississippi, in Arkansas, in Chicago even in New York you had the blues world sometimes even in that time the blues were composed by older blacks of course but anyway, if you went to a club, for instance in Chicago, you had the opportunity to go there, you could see Floyd Jones, Big Water people like that, in blues context. I mean you had to go there and when you entered the club you had to go to the bar, to the owner of the bar and say “well, I’m just a friend”, you know, because there were only blacks there. Only African-Americans, the blues men were playing was not at all the same than in the 50s you know, and that I guess that not everywhere but in the hard core blues hadn’t disappeared. You could still find I guess among soul blues people, like Miss Jodie or people like them but it’s not entirely the same (deep) blues of course. That I miss a lot, the other thing that you miss now of course are giants of the blues. When you had the opportunity to see on the same stage BB King, Muddy Waters, Luther Allison, and people like [them]. I meet a lot of people now in the blues stand around the world, they tell me or write to me “Well, how is it possible to see people like them?” It was the common law. I remember very well, I saw in France near Dijon at the center town, a concert with blues back then and Muddy Waters blues band, and I remember I was chatting with them before the show and Freddie King didn’t want to come, because he thought he was the boss, and Muddy had to convince him: “You know, I’m an older man, I’m grown tired after this and I would like to go to the other places”. [laughs] So, you can’t find things like that you know, I don’t think so, of course there still are great musicians of blues and all that but it’s the same context.
You are European, you’ve been travelling a lot in the United States, working with black American blues musicians. Do you find any difference between European and American supporters of blues?
When I first went to the USA it was the 60s, there were very, very few blues stands/supporters, particularly in the areas where the bluesare still very strong. I went to the Mississippi in the 70s and, well, I was guest of David Evans who played a major role in the recognition of the new Mississippi blues people, he was very, very alone you know. And even in the university you had to be very careful because many people didn’t want to get into the blues as a study. Even black people didn’t want that. I was at the beginning –at Clarksdale– of the Delta Blues Museum which now is a [haven] of blues stories, but at that time it was just beginning and the director of the museum, who’s dead now, was so happy that someone from Europe came to visit him; he quickly called the local newspaper to interview me. [The reporter] said to me: “I don’t understand you, you are European, French, you’ve made university studies, why are you interested in blues?” And even the black were like that, you know, in that days, some [of them], not all of course. But they didn’t want me to be interested in the blues “they are not literate people”, “they don’t know what they do”, “they are just a bunch of drunk people who make noise”[laughs]. So, you see, it was very difficult. In Europe already at that time there were people very cool about the blues feeling and I saw that, and started to listen to blues in the very late 60s. People liked rock ’n’ roll and so on, you know. I liked people like Elvis Presley, and after that the Western Swing and from the Western Swing I went to the Blues, because you know, they drew their music from the Blues. I didn’t see it very quickly, but sometimes a little bit, anyway, people were coming to the Blues because, well, with the Rock music they came to the Blues, with the Rolling Stones and people like that, Moody Blues etc. The British in fact made a lot of things and played a major role in the recognition of the Blues in Europe. At that time the European public never thought “ha-ha they are just a bunch of drunks that make noise”. The first time I was in the USA the Blues men were like mazut for classic musicians, so it was very different.[The Europeans] made a big role in spreading the Blues because they were there [for it], but, you know, when you look now, when I see on YouTube for instance or in DVD all the films for Muddy Waters and people like that were filmed in Europe, and in America they never had the idea to film those people.
For me, France was the first capital for Blues because in the 60s the Jazz revolutions that started in France showed too many American poets and writers in the 50s followed the line Jazz-to-Blues-to-Rock ‘n’ Roll. So, what are the lines that connect the Jazz music with Blues? I’m especially talking about France; in the 50s Jazz revolutions, the famous Big Hotel and later in the 60s in your generation with the Blues.
Well, when I started to dig Blues [music] in France, the Blues at that time was mostly among Jazz hands, and some of them didn’t want to see the Blues as something outside Jazz. They thought it was the root of the Jazz [music]. In fact, this is not true. Neither is Jazz root of Blues. A lot of black musician came to France to live, you are right. I remember when I was a teenager I saw Jazz musicians who played a lot of blues in fact, and there were maybe 2.000 people and it was tremendous and after that people like them came to live in France, in Paris and married French girls Do you mean what is the link between Jazz and Blues?
Well I think historically there is no link in fact at the beginning. The Jazz is music from New Orleans and this is the way the slaves in New Orleans, who were people much more educated than the other slaves in the USA because they were working on the ports -the docks- and they knew how to read, how to write how to make additions and so on, so the different statuses, they had the right to live in the buildings in that area, in the storages and there they were making their music by taking music from the marching bands in fact. The military marching bands, French and Spanish bands who played in the city center. And they played the music they took from the marching bands; they chose from the marching bands the did whatever they want with that, they jazzed it –you know the meaning of “jazz”of course– and the Blues came much later,I would say at the end of the 19th century and not there at all.In the Mississippi, in the Arkansas maybe in the East coast but I don’t think so. I think really in the Mississippi, in the Arkansas maybe at Tennessee area, Alabama. And then this was the beginning with folk songs. They sung like telling “I did that”; when you take the folk songs, the American folk songs isn’t like the French folk songs, as the French folk songs don’t tell the story of the singer. They tell the story that has been told, “this a story of John Henry”, this is the true folk song. That’s what the African-Americans as they had no real identity as part of the America, they started to play and sometimes invent new folk songs, but progressively during the 1890s they changed and they started to tell their story. “I woke up this morning and my wife had left me”. You would never find that in a folk song before that. He said “I”, and for the people who had no recognized identity by the rest of the Americans, it was a tremendous thing, and I think this is very different. And at the beginning if you’ve listened to the Blues, this is very close to the other folk songs. There is no difference between that. And even people like Jefferson, you know, they don’t swing, the Jazz thing came to the Blues in the late 1920s and 1930s. And there the Blues’ men and women would start to play to the Swing [music] because it was a trend of the day. The tremendous sections of Jazz in all America started to Swing and started to unfollow that. This you don’t find very much before that if you listen at them. You think that people like Robert Johnson play only one guitar solo in the entire song. The Blues’ guys tell the story, the Jazz men play it. The Jazz influenced the Blues of course and the Blues because became so popular among African-Americans and [especially] the poor part of the African-Americans, of course Jazz men took the Blues and jazzed the Blues. And if you see the situation now,lots of Blues are in fact is no more inside the Jazz; it’s inside the Rock [music]. Even in the drummers and the bass players this is very different situation. Recently in France they issued an unissued concert of an American band recorded in 1962, it was a very good album, 3 CDs in fact, and lot of young people asked me “well, the Blues is into the Swing?”, “It is too light” and so on. If you listen to a lot of Blues even in the 60s there were some very, very tough. “You didn’t add that before”.
You studied at the famous Sorbonne University in Paris. So as a historian, what is the legacy of Blues in the 21st century?
Yeah, University of life.
You know, when I started to be interested in the Blues, I just listened to the music. Progressively after some years I realized the music was great because the people making that music were great. And by experience of life we didn’t know in Europe, we didn’t understand very well. And when I came to the US I met the Blues bands of course, but after that I met them in their context and I realized that thing and once I was with the Blues men in Chicago and he told me, you see I was following him in clubs, “Why do you follow me? You’ve made studies, you are French. I don’t know what I’m playing, I don’t understand”. You know, it moved me and I thought what can I do for them after all? Just buy them a bottle of whiskey or a gin? No, not at all. And so, I said, well, I made history studies, I will try to tell the story of the Blues like I would tell the story of Louis XIV or Beethoven or something like that. I also wanted my books to reach the wider audience possible, not only because it would give me money but for the Blues. So, I thought I will put the Blues and the American music in context with the history of the USA. In fact, you don’t understand their music, Blues and Country and so on if you don’t know the real story of the USA, how it was populated and what matter had the people. For instance, one thing that is very hard in France to understand in the American music is that it’s a major part played for [America’s] origin.People like Evangelists, Methodists, you know, they all had no education outside their Methodists and Presbyterian and so on. They went to the church and learn everything from the church, and if you listen to the Blues at that time all the Blues profaned some. If you take a Gospel or a Spiritual of the 19th century –it’s really the same, you know– the Methodists took the folk songs of the people and pushed the meaning away of its origin. They transformed the origin and took the “Blues” outside of the meaning. And this is really the Blues. Even BB King and people like them, are preaching the Blues. This is true. You won’t find that is Europe.
I’m sure. You have met all these legends of Blues, which meetings were the most important experience for you?
It’s hard to tell. I would say first that we needn’t realize at that time that it was so important. Because those people were the Blues people playing the Blues. If you go to a concert now and you see maybe, I don’t know who, you’d say “Well, I’m going to sit with him at a concert”. It’s the same you know. When we were going to the concert there was there Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Milton and people like them all the same it wasn’t very expensive.
My friend, well, I don’t know if I was really a friend with them, but I had the opportunity to meet them very often, so, Muddy was very, very charismatic, you know, he was unbelievable, and this is one thing of course, you can see that through the music, but in the early life it was terrible, it was overwhelming as everybody was listening to what he was saying, he was a guru. Also people less known like Walter, Jones, and like them were very charismatic, of course a lot of them didn’t know how to handle their life, they drank too much, and they were exploited and sometimes wild. I remember Walter being beaten by his wife all the time, he was no fool, she took all his money and he was the poor guy. I remember also people very tough like Williams, he was very tough, he wasunbelievable Blues man, wonderful people but he was a very hard people to go along with. I wrote a novel about [him] you know. [laughs]
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you and what advice would you like to give to the new generation?
Well, I don’t know, I remember at the beginning when I started to know Blues men, because I was new and after that I went to some concerts, so it was very, very easy to go and chat with musician at that time, there was no police men and so on and sometimes there where very few people in the audience you know, I saw Muddy Waters for instance in Paris in 1970 maybe there were 25 people listening and he made an unbelievable concert anyway. Well, I asked them at the beginning “What is Blues for you?” and they said to me “Well, this life. Blues is good men feeling bad”.“Don’t try to make the notes” and so on, I don’t know them they told me. I don’t even know what a key is or an E or C is, lots of Blues men didn’t know at all what they were playing and there were the other musicians who didn’t go along with them, I remember for instance “Who cares Johnny, you?”. He just didn’t know what he was doing, always doing like insane in fact. And people had to go wrong with him. And so, I said this is the real life. That was his life. You had to live to know the Blues, you have to understand the people. And the Blues can be a great moving music if it’s played by great people. It’s what life can tell through the music. And now I would like to say to people: Well, don’t listen too much to the solos, of course it’s wonderful to have a good guitar player, but this is not what that makes the real Blues. The real Blues come from inside of the man and it goes through his voice, his [lyrics], his ability to play of course, and his attitude, his charisma on stage. People say: “Did you see that? He’s an unbelievable guitarist he is wonderful!” I said “Well the best guitarist in the world I’m not in Blues in fact”. I also dig country music of the 1960s. Then you had tremendous guitarists. People like Travis, Jo Memphis and people like them, nobody in the Blues could cooperate with them. You know, a very good musician is not the one who plays a lot of notes, but the one who knows the one note to play at the good moment. And so this is the right thing. I remember a young musician in a BB King concert and he told me “BB plays only a couple of notes but it’s so moving, it gives you a lot of feeling, that is very, very difficult to do that”. And I would say to people: Try to go outside of the Rock side of the Blues because they may play very well, but what kind of Blues is that? It is more Rock and Blues, but the real Blues men play for his audience. You can take music from Johnnyfor instance. Johnny plays very, very soulful sometimes, but everybody in the audience is enthralled, is moved by this and they come to his Blues, and this is the same way the preacher in the black churches did. He sometimes stopped and waited as the audience came to him, to God and people like Hopkins, Muddy and people like them, did that you know, I remember even in the soul Blues a girl, Lynn White. I met her in America and I saw her in Paris this one time and I had the opportunity to chat with her and I asked: “What are you playing tonight?” And she said to me: “I’m not playing, I just sing, but, watch me,and I will makeall the women jealous and all menpecking my hand”. You see? You will never find a French or Greek or even British telling that, you know.
How difficult or how easy was for a person to live only with the blues?
Oh it was not possible.[laughs] Only a few of them you know. Are you meaning in the 60s, 70s or now?
No, now, I am talking about now.
Oh yes it is very difficult. I guess and I think it is easier in Europe. I don’t know about Greece but in France, in England, in Germany, you have clubs, concerts and so on, so sometimes [it is] well payed for that. You will not be well payed in America.My son is living in America, I was in Los Angeles, for instance, he lives in L.A and we went to see a concert by Robin Ford, he’s not a blues man but he knows the Blues. He was paid four hundred dollars. My son is playing harmonica and he likes a lot of Jazz, he plays mostly Jazz and he jams with people like Lee Ritno and others who are very big names in their field and they playing songs for twenty dollars so, it’s not possible for most of musicians who live in America in the Blues field, they need another job outside or they teach and the situation is worse because music industry is in a bad shape so a lot of people who leave their records, I don’t think so, not in the Blues field, anyway.
Let’s go back to the ‘60’s, your generation, which were the reasons that made the young French to start the Blues research and experiment.
Well in fact it was America. Because you must realize that the war were very, very hard, I was born in the war, I didn’t know the war myself but I remember very well that my post made very harm in France like everywhere in Europe. Everything was ran down. You had nothing to eat and so on like that. The Americans freed Europe, in fact. It’s like that, you know, it’s the truth. In France particularly we are in 7th[of] June and nobody during 50’s and 60’s didn’t remember that Southern Americans, Canadians, Australians died to free France from the Nazis. So, we were with the American soldiers when I was a young boy, there were a lot of black people among them and usually they were very friendly, they had nothing to do in fact, they were in bases they just drunk and chatted, well when you had a sister like me they try every day to embrace “bring your sister”, they bring you history [laughs]who did that and they gave us comic books, chewing gums, chocolates and records! That’s how we met the RnB, the Blues, Country and Soul of course like that. The same trendto the American movie industry of course and the western songs. Sometimes people say “America wants to export its goods in industry in Europe”, but in fact they didn’t export, what we really did is shape culture.
Detective novelsand something like that, and of course Blues and Country music were not considered in America as music, even Country, you know.
Let’s take a trip with the time machine. Where would you like to go with a time machine?
[laughs] Well, I don’t know really. It’s a very interesting question. I think each time has its good and its bad, but most of things now it’s better than it was. Not for the Blues music of course but for living. Young people don’t realized in what unbelievable comfortable world they are living. Even me, you know, I’m not so old after all, I’m not from Louis IXVgeneration of course but I remember when I started to work I hadn’t no room, no toilets, no water maybe in Greece was the same, and you had to go to the public toilets but now nobody could accept that. When we were married we had no washing machine, no car. We weren’t unhappy of course but it’s more comfortable now. People are not satisfied. For the music of course it was much betterin 60’s and 70’s, until 80’s I could say. But I think if you go to America now you can find in a way, a very good music a very good Blues music I would say but in Europe and in France particularly they don’t bring too many good Blues acts. They just pay French Blues musicians, of course they are good ones of course, but it’s not the same I don’t think if you see Greek blues bands is not the same than black American blues bands.
Exactly. Zydeco are so close to the French music and French culture. Do you find any similarities between Blues and Folk music from Andalusia in Spain, from France, from Greece, and I talk about the Folk music.
Well, I’m sure all of us grow a lot to America [laughs]. The French were veryimportantin colonization, in exploration of America. You must remember that France had all the Far West. Not only Canada, and Rocky Mountains of course, maybe 2.000km of large, from Canada to Golf of Mexico. Everything was French there. And also the French were the only ones, for decades to navigate on the rivers, you know, and they brought goods and sold goods from North to South until Stimons in fact. This was until the 1860’s and 1870’s, something like that and they brought a lot of things in America. Of course the Spanish;it was the same. If you take all the texts in Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, California everything was Spanish in fact. If you listen people like Benjamin Jefferson there were a lot of Andalusians in fact. Even Hopkins sings and he plays like an Andalusian [laughs] his music. They were taught guitar by Mexicans, in fact, who are of course from Spanish kinfolksand Greek maybe they came later on in America. I think so, but a lot of Greeksare in America. I wrote a book about that it’s only in French it calls “Americana”. It’s a book about how the music in America, not only in the USA but in Canada, in Mexico was elaborated during the centuries and this is a real melting pot. Of course the British and the French who were the first but you must not forget theIndians, Native Americans. Because we think that they disappear but they didn’t. They are everywhere. You take the corpusin the politics in America with all the music and girls and so on. It was coming directly from the election of Indians’nation. It is not at all from England.
So, the music also is very important, I would say people like Bomside or Delta people they were very much in NativeAmerican music because they were Native Americans, in fact. They were called “not black” they called “colored”. “Colored” were all, you know, everything was “not white”. You take the Greeks. You must know that the Turks took most pattern Greek, unfortunately during the 15th and 16th century, they were defeatedby the Spanish. In 1573, if my memory is good the Spanish took all sailors and soldiers of the Turks’ ships and they brought them as slaves in America. You find[their descendants]in Alabama, in Tennessee and those people were considered as Indians. Turks were not Greeks of course but they were very close physically, I would say, I don’t want to offend you of course, in Blues DNA you didn’t have not a lot of Turks in Anatolia. People there were Greek. The real Turks I would say, are like the Huns and the Mongols, in fact they have Greek descendants. So they considered like Indians in America. They say “so, we are the realIndians.When everybody brought their parts and of course the African-Americans also, but what is African music? You mix, French, German, Greek, Italian, Spanish music but what is African music from where? You have very different music from Africa. I’ve been there you know, if you go to Angola, Senegal in eastern part of Africa, music is absolutely different. There is a legend made by people from Mali to Mississippi this is absolutely silly. The Malian music is, of course, very nice but it comes mostly from the Arabs and this is not so much African. If you take them coming to America, most of them came from all over Africa, Central Africa, Congo, and so on You have a place called Congo square were the music was played because people were coming from Congo. So, it’s absolutely silly to say “Western African, Malian music in there”. It happened to know Ali Farcatori who is dead now, unfortunately, and he was one of the fathers of the new Blues music, the Malian Blues music and in fact he knew nothing at all of Blues music, we were listening the same records together. You know Uka? He didn’t play that at all, before. When he came back to Mali he just played Uka and he said “this is my ancestors”. Of course African play their music but this is African-Americans.
"One thing that I’m always amazed in Blues concerts everywhere. In America, in France and maybe in Greece and everywhere I’ve been, you find people of all origins, of all ages among the public. You won’t find that in old music."
Gerard, you are a veteran in the Blues. What did you learned, what are your lessons, what are your Blues experience from all these years?
Like I told you, people matters. Music can be nice or not nice is enthralling, is thrilling, is a lot of feeling because of people who play it are like that. You might be the greatest musician in the world, as a person who can play, but if you don’t bring emotion everybody in the world bring what they have in them. Their experience and this is the true experience of the Blues I would say and maybe this is more relevant in the Blues than in other kind of music because the Blues is very simple music in factasa music, but is very complicated to bring the real feeling of the Blues.
Are Blues’ lyrics, poetry, or not?
Sometimes yes, of course. Sometimes is poetry, sometimes it’s mostly fun. One thing people don’t know. Most of the Blues were for fun! When you see those concerts of the 60’s in DVD’s or on YouTube you can see that the bluesmen are laughing together when they play. Life was hard. Was tough, but they were very happy to play together and they laughed together. Of course is poetry but not only this. Is a story. People in Blues tell their story. As I told you, the best Blues are the preaching Blues. You take Johnny Hooker or Muddy Waters, Williams, they will tell their story. You listen to Big Joe for instance I used to know a little bit Big Joe, he had a tremendous song, atremendous Blues about his stepfather, “MeanStepfather Blues”. In fact he had a horrible and mean stepfather in truth. I saw him in 60’s he was still upset to play that song because his stepfather wasbeating himuntil he wasbleeding, when he was a young boy. He told me that he ran out of his home at the age of 9 because of that. So, of course you can play “Mean Stepfather Blues” it’s not very hard to play that, but I didn’t have a mean stepfather. [laughs] Even if I played that I would play the same notes with Big Joe but the feeling? I can’t do that.
What are your hopes and fears for the future of Blues?
I think the Blues is still there you know. Since I started to listen to the Blues people told me that the Blues is dead and is still there. Of course is not the same Blues. I would say that there are several kinds of Blues now, I would say several base music. You have of course, Rock Blues which grows from Black Blues but it’s different and you have also people like Miss Jodie you know, the Soul Blues. When you take the notes and the tunes it’s not really the same Blues and we like to listen to but in the spirits, in the feeling, is the real Blues. Black American is preaching the Blues with their soul to the black audience and it’s very interesting to watch that. Bobbie Ross, people like him and there is also the real European and International Blues and is very interesting too because lot of people in the world find in the Blues a way to express themselves and this was too unexpected if you would say that in 60’s. Back then people not even thought that it was possible to find Blues in Greece or in Singapore. Everybody in the world is playing the Blues. I think that in the future the Blues will still be there. Blues is a music played by musicians, I see in concerts even young audience coming there, watch the musicians playing and singing. This is not the same in Rock concerts and so on, so very often in big concerts I would say, people don’t play. They use background music in fact.
I don’t believe they play Blues. They play something like Blues.
Of course. [laughs]
My last question is very important because this is all your legacy, all your work. What is the impact of Blues to the racial, political and sociocultural implications? You are the only person who knows the answer.
One thing that I’m always amazed in Blues concerts everywhere. In America, in France and maybe in Greece and everywhere I’ve been, you find people of all origins, of all ages among the public. You won’t find that in old music. You take a Jazz concert, the all the audiences at least most of them, they have a good standard of life. You go to a Reggae concert where there are only blacks and only a few whitesin [laughs]I don’t know why but it’s the truth and you go to a blues concert and you see everybody. In France you have blacks, North Africans, whites of course, poor, rich. Just everybody. So the Blues is federating everybody. So, the racial issue in America, I don’t know really because situation evolved tremendously in America. When I went there in 60’s there was still strong remains of immigration in the South. This probably did not disappeared when you have a black President, black in the police, and so on everywhere, the issue is still there. People keep telling: “blacks cannot have the same places with the whites” but O.K., you find African-Americans everywhere in American society, you didn’t find that 50 years ago. That’s true. So, I guess the Blues like all kinds of music but the Blues particularly, opened those things. When you admire people like Muddy Waters, BB King and so on, of course you had to be friend with African-American culture in a way. Politically I don’t think that there was something political. I don’t feel that.You have everybody listening to the Blues whether they’re lefties or righties,of course racists don’t like Blues but I’m not even sure about[that].
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