Q&A with Ireland-based Mary Stokes & Brian Palm, one of the most highly regarded Blues bands of Europe

"I think that the Blues continues to generate a devoted following in Europe and around the world for many reasons; because people recognise themselves in the Blues, we hear our own experiences, and we feel the expression as personal and yet shared. As Blues is at the heart of Rock and Roll too and is core to Jazz and so many music genres, I believe that people respond to Blues as something familiar yet perhaps unexplored."

Mary Stokes & Brian Palm: Let ‘Er Roll

During Mary Stokes’ exceptionally successful career spanning several decades, she has been internationally hailed as one of the most highly regarded Blues vocalists of her era. With a musical history spanning two decades The Mary Stokes Band has performed with BB King, Fats Domino, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Lowell Fulson, Johnny Copeland, Jeff Healey, Rory Gallagher, Carey Bell, Lurrie Bell, Pinetop Perkins, Georgie Fame, Louisiana Red, Joe Louis Walker, Lefty Dizz, John Campbell, U.P. Wilson, Eddie Kirkland and many other blues greats. Mary Stokes and her band have toured throughout Ireland, Europe, and the U.S.A, performing at numerous festivals and in many of the most iconic Blues Clubs in the World. Throughout the years, this award winning singer has captivated global audiences with a characteristically Irish approach of passion, honesty and integrity which she has continually brought to her interpretation of contemporary Blues music. The Mary Stokes Band’s new album, ‘Let ‘Er Roll!’, was released February 2023.          (The Mary Stokes Band / Photo by Miguel Ruiz)

During the past few years Mary’s sound has been invigorated in collaboration with the supremely talented guitarist Sarah Michelle, with her long time sideman harmonica maestro Brian Palm, and The Mary Stokes Band’s album ‘Comin’ Home’ was awarded 'Album of the Year 2021' by international media organisation, Blues and Roots Radio. ‘Comin’ Home’ and the 2022 relaunched ‘Clouds In My Heart, Live in Dublin, 1999’ garnered extraordinary acclaim and global airplay, reaching audiences and blues lovers all around the world. With ace bassist Zamo Riffman and drummer extraordinaire Jay Oglesby, The Mary Stokes Band sound on ‘Let ‘Er Roll!’ remains energetic, powerful and passionate. In 2022, The Mary Stokes Band won the Irish Blues Challenge to represent Ireland in the European Blues Challenge 2023 in Chorsow, Poland while recent guest appearances with Grainne Duffy and Mary Coughlan raised the roof.

Interview by Michael Limnios   Archive: Mary Stokes & Brian Palm, 2014 interview

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

Mary: A very interesting question – while I suggest that my commitment to Blues music has come from my views of the world, and the journeys that I have taken, but that those influences then becomes reciprocal. Through listening to Blues music, or Roots music, or knowing Irish Traditional music, or music that could be called ‘folk’ music, the ‘narrative’ of people and community experiences are illustrated. I have always been interested in people and in understanding why people are the way they are – why do we ‘do’ what we do and what the context for human behaviour might be, and Blues, Roots and Traditional music often provides a window into those contexts.

As the youngest of a large Irish family, I was aware of the Blues as one element in the music that surrounded me from a very early age. My parents and older siblings were also particularly political. Discussions, arguments and activities that engaged the promotion of freedom and justice, equality and human rights issues were commonplace, while the economic challenges of being a large family in an urban part of an economically challenged part of the world also informed my development.

I vividly recall seeing the news reports, hearing the conversations and feeling the outrage as news from the North of Ireland of 1969 emerged as the Civil Rights marches of that year became a very ‘close to home’ example of the social upheaval of that era worldwide. Thus informed, I was always keenly aware of the civil rights protests of the late sixties, and I continue to struggle with and advocate on issues of inequality and injustice for individuals and for communities in the world. 

My family have always been politically aware and motivated to promote decency and fairness in the world. Music of all types was all around me, and Blues music featured significantly. To my young ear, music of protest and Blues music expressed such direct human emotions in response to injustice and grief, but Blues also expressed humour and joy, resilience through difficult times and joy in times of happiness. Throughout my life, I have sung many different kinds of music, from Irish traditional songs, to popular songs, jazz, choral singing and classical songs, but the Blues has an honesty that I appreciate, it is eloquent, coming straight from the soul and can be as fundamental as a low moan to the complexities of full band arrangements.

My worldview is one of hope but also of sadness and often frustration at injustice, and the Blues, for me, is one of the most accessible yet profound music to express these emotions. Blues has an apparent simplicity, but I believe in that simplicity is a broad reaching medium for communication, through the music and importantly in the words that I sing. Having travelled extensively, I know that the human singing voice has the power to reach into the heart. In my extensive travel, I have often sung unaccompanied, and I feel the conviction and defiance of the great Son House’s ‘Grinning In Your Face’ or the tragic and emotional depth of Vera Hall’s singing of ‘Another Man Done Gone’, on Alan Lomax’s ‘Blues in the Mississippi Night’.

I feel that Irish traditional music and the Blues are very connected, they have many of the same basic formats – the Lament, the Work Song, the Dance songs and have never felt uncomfortable in being Irish and singing the Blues. Ireland has known much injustice, and identifying the global nature of injustice, the challenge of identity, of pride and of humility are all very important parts of my singing Blues.

Brian: I’m a professional artist, and I work in several different mediums: painting, drawing, collage, photography, film, sculpture, and of course, music. To me, Blues music is the deepest, most spiritual of all artforms, and the one most suited to the expression and communication of deep human feelings and beliefs. When I began fooling around on a second hand harmonica as a young man, I had no idea that my encountering that old instrument would eventually lead to a lifelong obsession. Harmonicas have been constant companions to me and have accompanied me through life since the age of fourteen. Playing harmonica has provided me with a fascinating conduit through which I have expressed a depth of spiritual, emotional and passionate intensity. At the same time, it has allowed me to express myself in a completely unique, abstract musical language. In conjunction with my partner, the sublime vocalist Mary Stokes, whose talent and musical articulation are second to none, I am allowed to communicate even further. Through lyrics, the story- telling aspect of Blues music allows the direct communication of intellectual, moral, philosophical and political beliefs. All this through a form of music which is at its heart entertainment.

 (Photo: The Mary Stokes Band)

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music?

Mary: As I cannot remember a time when I did not sing, so, as I have grown as a person, I have grown as a singer. My early experiences were as a member of choirs in school and of taking singing lessons, hearing music and listening to singing. Those were important introductions to performance, but there were restrictions to personal expression as the choir had to follow the lead, the conductor. As I progressed I recognised my preference for dynamic, expressive singing that is interactive with the other musicians and responsive to an audience. By recognising that this preference is often shared by those who love blues has been significant in my development, and extends to my interest in roots and traditional music worldwide.

I feel that I have certainly grown and developed as a performance artist, and that my performance artistry is through the medium of singing. I am very committed to art that values and explores human experience, that facilitates collective understanding by listening and sharing the narrative of life, to recognising the value of every individual, and respecting the individual's addition to the community, to society and to the world. I suggest that my growth has been in recognising the connections between people and the value of music, and that performing or recording Blues music provides an international channel of communication and shared experiences. In Blues music, the value for me as an artist is in recognising and communicating our shared humanity along with the value of respecting our differences.

Brian: For me personally, this question has a bittersweet answer! Needless to say, any ordinary musician improves from being a beginner to attain whatever level of musicianship that their talent, discipline and determination allow. I say ‘ordinary’ musician to differentiate between genuine musical prodigies and the rest of us! In my case, many of the greatest moments in my career happened when I was still developing as a harmonica player, and honestly I had a long way to go. We backed quite a few traveling Bluesmen early in our career, and I would prefer to have had the skill set then that I have now! When we worked with Lowell Fulson, Carey and Lurrie Bell, Louisiana Red, Fenton Robinson, Lefty Dizz, Byther Smith and many others, I was up to the task and did my best. There’s no point in regretting that I wasn’t a better player when we backed those guys; I was good enough, but not the player that I am now. However, I had a lot more explosive energy to expend back then so I guess it balances out! When we got the chance to tour with Hubert Sumlin relatively late in our career, I was more than ready. We played several shows in Ireland with Hubert and his band, and they remain among my most memorable moments on harmonica. So to return to the question, I’ve definitely improved as a player and an artist since my early days as a professional, and I look forward to what lies ahead. I have developed my long time interest in music recording into doing the record production for our band’s albums, which is a developmental skill which I didn’t have in the early days, and which I picked up simply by paying attention.

What has remained the same about your music-making process?

Mary: Fortunately, thus far my ability to sing has remained true, while my voice has certainly changed, but I start with my voice in any of my music making. As noted, I often sing unaccompanied, which remains an important part of my fundamental expression, but the voice alone is not always enough to deliver the energy and power that is required, so what has remained the same is my love of the surging energy that a group, an ensemble, a band can generate when they are all working together. This often acts as an analogy for how society could work – that every individual has something unique to offer, but it is with the collective and empathic work of a group that more can be achieved. What has remained as a challenge is to corral the energies of fellow musicians to deliver that energy, that can be very challenging – but when it works – it is remarkable.

Brian: My commitment to working with my partner Mary Stokes has remained steadfast since the earliest days of my career. Mary is an absolutely unique and extraordinary vocalist and interpreter of songs, and she is an exceptional human being. Performing beside her on stage has been an honour, and it has provided me with a musical career that would never have existed without her. My unwavering belief in Mary’s extraordinary talent and the depth of her musicianship, combined with her sense of humanity, has remained unshakable. That faith in her has been a constant element throughout my career from the very earliest days. If you want to experience someone’s sterling qualities, (or witness the opposite), go out on the road with them in a Rock ‘n Roll band for a few decades!

 (Mary Stokes Band / Photo by Brian Palm)

Why do you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following in Europe?

Mary: I think that the Blues continues to generate a devoted following in Europe and around the world for many reasons; because people recognise themselves in the Blues, we hear our own experiences, and we feel the expression as personal and yet shared. As Blues is at the heart of Rock and Roll too and is core to Jazz and so many music genres, I believe that people respond to Blues as something familiar yet perhaps unexplored. We have regularly had members of an audience remark to us ‘if this is Blues, then I love it!’ – sometimes surprised by the energy, or the variety of music that we present as The Mary Stokes Band. When people are drawn to the Blues, they will generally share that interest in the human narrative, the shared cry of sadness or the shout of exuberance, and then develop a passion for the music. It is remarkable that the story of Blues is a fascinating socio-cultural history, one that any modern music fan will likely find of interest in some way.  In Blues the variety of types of Blues provides such range, from Country Blues, to Chicago, Urban Blues, or Rock Blues, and every expression of Blues along the history of this extraordinary art form, there is something in the Blues to reach everyone.

Brian: The Blues will always have a following with future generations in Europe and Worldwide simply because it is such a powerful vehicle to communicate human feelings of despair, joy, anger, relief, etc. in a fully honest artform. It also is a form of contemporary music which can absolutely Rock! It is, for some, the ultimate dance music, party music and music to ‘Boogie’ to, a word indeed popularized by John Lee Hooker. The huge history of great recorded Blues music from the past is a vast reservoir for any enthusiast to delve into forever without ever being able to learn it all. For the modern Blues performer it provides a well of inspiration which only increases in depth the deeper you search.

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of album 'Let 'Er Roll!'?

Mary: Yes we do! In fact, the whole story is interesting! Many years ago, in order to bring a sense of urgency and discipline to our band rehearsals, we decided to start recording them. Everyone concentrates a bit harder when they know they’re being recorded. We used this approach in 2021 when one of our rehearsals became our award winning album ‘Comin Home’, and it is the sense that you are right in the room with the band that makes it sound special. So, we decided to try the same trick again, all the while being aware that we were ambitiously trying to follow up one unexpected success with another. Each band member wanted to record specific songs from our set, so we planned accordingly. We knew however that any Blues album requires some up tempo shuffles, so we casually asked our band to play a few just to get warmed up. We had a lot of fun playing them and we didn’t make much of them, keeping them short and punchy. Playing the shuffles immediately relaxed us for the rest of the session, which went very smoothly with most songs going down in one or two takes. Remarkably, we finished up early and were home before midnight. It was only a few months later when we listened back to the recording session with fresh ears that the shuffles began to jump out at us. Rather than moving on to the songs we had intended to record, we gave the shuffles a good listen and worked on them a bit. Each one ended up on the album, and ‘Let ‘Er Roll!’ unexpectedly provided us with the title track. Without the shuffles, there would not have been enough material for a full album. It wasn’t planned that way at all, in fact it came as a complete surprise that they sounded so good! It was a suggestion from Pete Holidai who worked on the final mixes in Pilgrim Sound to go with ‘Let ‘Er Roll!’ as the title song. Mary suggested using a photo taken in the studio on the night as the cover image, and luckily there were two more shots from the same session for the back and inner sleeve. It all fell together perfectly, and on the record you can hear our enthusiasm and intensity loud and clear! If you want to know what it feels like to be a member of our band, turn it up good and loud!

 (The Mary Stokes Band / Photo by Miguel Ruiz)

What touched you from the sound of harmonica? What are the secrets of Mississippi Sax?

Brian: To be honest, I feel that the harmonica found me rather than the other way around. I didn’t consider myself particularly musical, but I was dedicated to listening to music from my earliest days. Then as a teenager I encountered a harmonica, and it intrigued me from the very start. Instantly the expressive nature of the instrument appealed to me, and the directness (bypassing the hand to fretboard or hand on keyboard aspect) definitely suited my temperament. Early on I determined to keep one on my person at all times. Many were confiscated at school, others were lost or flattened, many were played until they wore out. As my skill improved, and I pursued the constant challenges which the instrument provided, it definitely added to my development as a person. It allowed me to actually PLAY music, not just listen to it. Harmonica literally helped define me as an individual, and informed all of my thinking about music in general.

Why was the Blues never a part of the pop/popular music? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

Mary: Certainly the influence of Blues in ‘pop’ music has rarely been adequately recognised, certainly in financial terms, but I would not agree that Blues has never been part of the ‘Pop/Popular Music culture’! Bearing in mind that ‘pop’ music refers to ‘popular’ music, I suggest that Blues is a fundamental root for rock’n’roll, soul, R&B and all  ‘pop’ music. The origins of recorded Blues was in a context of a marketing strategy to promote sales of records to particular audiences, differentiating the market to the African American population in the USA from a more ‘general’ music audience. Record labels considered that there was a specific ‘audience’ to which Blues should be presented, successfully developing the ‘race records’ system from the ‘20s – ‘40s, which indicated the audience for whom the recordings were intended. This reflected the segregation between African American and American white populations socially and had the impact of presenting music as ‘separate’, and as ‘appropriate’ to certain audiences – not unlike the way that computer algorithms ‘facilitate’ the ‘listeners’, or audiences for music today!

The separation in music and entertainment had already been compromised by the time that Elvis Presley had a hit with his rockabilly cover of Mississippi born bluesman Arthur (Big boy) Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ followed by his hit with Leiber and Stoller’s ‘Hound Dog’, a song originally written by the popular American songwriters for blues woman Big Mama Thornton, that marked a milestone in the development of ‘pop’ and rock’n’roll music. In an interesting 1990 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Stoller says, “We felt, in some cases, very successful if people thought that what we wrote was traditional,” says Stoller, who studied with the great stride pianist James P. Johnson. “We wanted people to hear that we were a part of the tradition, rather than imitating something that wasn’t ours.”

Earlier eras in modern popular music included the ‘Big Band’ era, and many had African American singers and musician members – Billie Holiday brought her blues infused vocals to the very popular music of her day, as did Ella Fitzgerald or Lena Horne – so Blues has had a massively significant role throughout the history of ‘pop’ music.

The Blues is incorporated and informed the remarkably popular ‘doo-wop’ sound of the ‘50s, and the influence of Fats Domino reached across the globe – notably, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly to 1950s Jamaica, where many of ska, rock steady and reggae’s greatest performers spent their formative years listening to blues and R&B broadcasting from radio stations in New Orleans and Miami. The UK’s Guardian newspaper obituary to Fats Domino, said “His records were certainly regularly played on Jamaican sound systems in the 1950s, and his accentuation of the offbeat in his playing is one of the roots of ska”, while in interview, the great Bob Marley said reggae started with Fats Domino noting that particular rhythmic style as a major influence – all that is the Blues influence on ‘pop’ music, and does not even begin to investigate the evolution of Soul music and the emergence of Motown, and the evolving R&B music industry.

‘Pop’ music has its blues base, while Rock music could be considered as essentially an extension of the Blues – consider Memphis Minnie’s songs as interpreted by Led Zeppelin, or the influence of Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson and so many Blues greats on popular music throughout the years… Jerry Lee Lewis, Big Joe Turner, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin - so many artists have roots in Blues, yet are part of the ‘mainstream’ ‘pop’ culture.                                             (Photo: Mary Stokes & Otis Rush)

With The Mary Stokes Band, Brian and I have been most fortunate to have met, performed and shared time with a vast range of Blues greats, including with Fats Domino, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Lowell Fulson, Johnny Copeland, Jeff Healey, Rory Gallagher, Carey Bell, Lurrie Bell, Otis Rush, Pinetop Perkins, Georgie Fame, Louisiana Red, Joe Louis Walker, Lefty Dizz, John Campbell, U.P. Wilson, Eddie Kirkland and more. In each experience, in every opportunity we have had to speak with these remarkable artists, we have celebrated our human connections, our compassion and understanding of life and the way of the world, and how Blues allows these very human experiences to be communicated and shared.

On our album, ‘Let ‘Er Roll!’ we address this question musically - and deliberately! On the tracks Dearest Darling, Bo Diddley and I Wish You Would, Billy Boy Arnold, we begin the songs as our interpretations of the original Blues songs by these two giants of the Blues. Through many performances, and inspired by Brian’s reflection and expertise in Blues music we began to ‘jam’ on both of these songs, and developed arrangements for Dearest Darling to include a snippet from The Doors song ‘Break on Through (to the other side)’, while on Billy Boy Arnold’s ‘I Wish You Would’ we jam a few verses of Bob Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’ – that inspired by Chicago born Mike Bloomfield influence on Bob Dylan in 1965, when Dylan ‘went electric’, using Billy Boy Arnold’s backing band of Bloomfield, Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold.

The question relating to a balance between technique and soul is interesting; without technique – to some extent, it is impossible to play music or to sing – however, as a singer, as I was fortunate to be born with a singing voice, I will generally put soul as the most important element – especially in any Blues music. My preference is always Blues that is raw and powerful, that is not over polished, nor overthought – technique can be distracting, or can undermine attention to the ‘message, not the messenger’. Nonetheless – as I need accomplished musicians to work with, I absolutely respect and admire good technique!

Brian: Blues was of course the Pop music of its day in certain places, initially as singles for the Jukebox market, then later for radio airplay and during the ‘1960’s Blues Revival’ it was again Pop music in the hands of Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and others. The same thing had been happening in England through The Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals and other individual performers, notably Mayall and Clapton, where Blues again surfaced as Pop Music. Those players were definitely Pop stars of their time! Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac were a Chicago style English Blues band who shot to fame, then imploded at the height of their popularity. They broke up in America, but they also broke through in the States, where they were hugely influential. As a Blues band which crossed over into Rock, the way was paved for the band to become a juggernaut of Pop; incredibly with two of the original members still on board. The work done in the brief creative period during which Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac recorded their remarkable hits remains a touchstone for all upcoming Blues players. Ireland’s Dea Matrona shot to attention with their version of Green’s ‘Oh Well’ recorded on the streets of Belfast, they are bona fide Rock Stars now! Today Blues music is a multi billion dollar a year industry and it is growing all the time. But to answer your question, yes it is way down the line in terms of Global music consumption, and that’s down to public taste and education/ conditioning/ advertising. If Bonnie Raitt can be considered to be an “unknown Blues singer” at the Grammys, there is little hope for the rest of us in that arena, I think! Regarding the question of technique and soul, both are crucial in performing Blues at the highest level. There is no denying that rehearsal and practice are paramount individually and to groups in any form of music. But not all forms of music demand that the player becomes deeply emotionally engaged by a piece of music; Blues does.

(Mary Stokes & Brian Palm / Photo by Des McMahon)

What is the impact of Blues on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Mary: I have addressed some considerations as described, I suggest that Blues music is a very human expression that facilitates the expression of a person’s anguish, or hopes, or joys. In my experience performing Blues, it has been satisfying to see how an audience – coming from myriad backgrounds, become a collective, sharing the experience, and sharing their own narratives through hearing Blues. I believe that Blues offers a dignity to the most oppressed person’s experience; that hearing and sharing these narratives brings people together and acknowledges all of our needs, and wants. In any performance, I have often felt the importance of moving one person, of connecting with that audience, and sometimes allowing even one person in the audience to feel less alone in the world.

Brian: Well, I think I’ve alluded to this question already; Blues music is about honesty. It comes from a place of cruelty and degradation, it is born from both anger and spirituality. What can society learn from the Blues? I’d start with a field recording by Alan Lomax called ‘Blues in the Mississippi Night’, and take it from there. In America during the turbulent period of the 1960’s, when racial tensions were at breaking point, Booker T and MG’s were a racially integrated Pop group, who also were Blues and Soul performers. The Butterfield Blues Band was also racially integrated, as were of course Hendrix’s bands. While clearly not specifically a Blues player, Jimi Hendrix gave the World some memorable Blues, and the fact that these groups were of mixed race was extraordinary at the time.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Mary: The ‘business’ of making music – any music, is tough, demanding and can be very disheartening at times, but I have been reassured so frequently - and especially in recent years by the generosity and commitment that so many people have shown in their work to engage, to broadcast and to perform Blues. It has been important to keep ‘the faith’, which I have found quite challenging at times; to remain true to yourself, and to respect yourself, and others, and to be decent and kind. We all have the Blues, and if we persevere, we can often overcome challenges if we support each other.

Brian: I have learned that I can trust my partner, and I can trust my instincts. If you want something done, do it yourself. Learn how to do your own promotion. Life on the road can be fun, rewarding, fulfilling, educational, exhausting, and dangerous. Do it right, stay alert! It is something you can only look back on with experience AFTER you’ve done it, so think first before you embark on the lifestyle, it isn’t for everyone! In my case I have seen a large amount of the World, visiting fascinating cities and towns not as a stranger or as a tourist, but as ‘Brian Palm, harmonica maestro in The Mary Stokes Band’!!

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(Photo: Mary Stokes)

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