Let’s face it. The blues world in the 21st century is predominately old, white and often a bit arrogant in defining what the blues should be, albeit well intentioned. A frequent complaint by African Americans is that too many “blues folks” take it on themselves to create the blues in their own image and dictate to them what the blues is, but the blues was and is an African American roots music and art form. Black folks are well capable to preside over that domain without the pontification that is sometimes associated with outside blues lovers, scholars and writers. There are very few black folklorists, musicologists, writers, radio hosts and critics, very few studios and sound-engineers, and even less blues fans. Of course that’s not to say that the white people who engage in their love of the blues are not making a positive contribution. Even this writer hopes and believes that he is helping to advocate for the music we all love. But, there is a certain irony when there is so little black representation and participation.
Along comes Lamont “Jack Dappa” Pearley from Brooklyn, now residing in the Bronx, New York. He is a deep roots blues musician, a radio host, filmmaker and folklorist who is a rapidly rising articulate voice and an advocate for both the roots blues and greater inclusion of African Americans in their own heritage of this globally important musical genre. “I document blues culture, music and heritage from the past, the present and the future. I record blues music to preserve my heritage; and I interview historians, musicians and filmmakers and share their story in how they connect with the blues. So I guess in a nutshell I am a platform to celebrate the blues, celebrate my heritage and preserve blues music.”
Lamont “Jack Dappa” Pearley talked to thecountryblues.com to express his philosophy, and discussed current projects and the state of blues music.
He started his career in rap music, evolved into independent film, television and news media. His experience with internet radio began with hosting and producing a talk radio show Indie Film Makers Talk on Blogtalk radio in 2007 with his wife, Denise Pearley. Currently, he hosts a weekly radio program on WFDU HD2 89.1 called Jack Dappa Blues. He is mostly active in New York City, including as performer and host of musical programs in Harlem with the New Amsterdam Musical Association. Pearley has been a successful multimedia and independent film producer whose current project is a feature film called “The Story Of Johnny Spirit, which is Heavenly Blues carrying a church influenced thematic. He produces the podcast Talking Bout the Blues, which is gaining in popularity as Pearley is producing audio recording of interviews with blues historians, blues enthusiasts, blues and folk musicians and documentary filmmakers, book-writers – everybody who has an interest or connection with the blues. People can find these programs on iTunes, talkingboutthebluesradio.org, WFDU HD2 89.1 or MDO Radio Blues.com every Friday. You can also catch the archives on YouTube – Talking Bout the Blues YouTube channel. Brother Pearley does not offer high-cost, fancy productions, nor does he need to. The homespun, down-home, easy going podcasts are honest, vital and significant on multiple levels and the grass-roots approach is refreshingly unpretentious: People to people, friend to friend, nobody plays the upper hand. No snobbery or pseudo-intellectualization of the blues. It’s from the heart and it’s the truth.
His stated mission is to promote the traditional blues and especially to re- introduce African American audiences to their roots music. He told thecountryblues.com, “… the journey actually started when I buried my father in Belle Rose, Louisiana, and then my grandfather from Gloster, Mississippi – we buried him in a military base in Virginia. And all my family from Mississippi and Louisiana was there. In both Louisiana and Virginia, as I was talking with my family and catching up with people I hadn’t seen since my childhood, the backdrop sound of music – the backdrop was blues, you know, old Negro spirituals. So I came back to New York – both my family and I – my wife and I and kids – we just spent two or three months listening to old Negro spirituals and then listening to more blues. I started my career in music in Brooklyn as a rapper, but I also wrote rhythm and blues songs. Something about the blues was calling me. I started asking questions to my older relatives, and I realized that my family actually was part of that African American migration from the Delta and the bayous to the Midwest all the way here to the Northeast, and that’s when it struck me this is not just music I enjoy; this is actually my personal history. And that’s how it started…I’ve always been a recording artist and as the video medium started I went to school – that’s where I met my wife –for that medium so I could upgrade my platform to another level. And it just so happens that everything just made sense. It was even God-given.”
Musically, Pearley Lamont “Jack Dappa” Pearley sits deep in the Mississippi mud, even if he is from New York. His acoustic blues is gritty, ethereal and emotive, calling out with a level of anguish and unrepentant fury, yet subdued and gentle. He sings the blues with warm, hopeful expressionism juxtaposed with a certain stark harshness and a bit of pain. He explains, “The blues is a lyrical story that actually started prior to the slave trade. This is an American story that is underrepresented and appreciated at this time for a lot of reasons. But my philosophy is to reconnect African Americans to their lineage. The blues to me is documented history of the experience of African Americans and poor people in America. I say “and poor people,” because there were towns that whites and black people got along and they could play music together. So my philosophy is simple. It’s really just to leave a trace of this history in modern day. A lot of people did that – like John Wesley Work III and people like that. That was a long time ago. So it needs to be done now. So young people – adults, families – can actually sit around and listen to my work, listen to the stories of a lot of these artists, and listen to the stories that are pretty much the history of our people here on this land.”
“ When I see someone paying homage and honoring the original American art form – because all the music that you mention stem from the blues and work songs and prison songs and field hollers. I think it’s a good thing, but at the same token, I hope they’re not just honoring the music and performer – and take seriously the legacy that’s behind that. That’s how I feel about it, because the reality of the situation is there’s a lot of guys who are extremely business savvy and to American standards they were book illiterate, they were very good businessmen – they were able to write and perform music. But their respect level didn’t reflect their work ethics or their business savvy. And it wasn’t because they were illiterate. So these are the things that I have concern with.”
The task of reuniting African Americans with roots blues, or any blues for that matter, is a big, difficult task. Pearley works hard on multiple levels to make it happen, “It takes a lot of time and effort. You know, one of the things that really got me gung-ho about doing this was when Macklemore, a present-day rapper, was winning a whole bunch of awards in the rap/hip hop section of the Grammys. A lot of black people that I know personally – like I said, some were friends and some were acquaintances – were really angry, and they were yelling appropriation and they were yelling all kinds of crazy stuff. At that moment my biggest issue wasn’t Macklemore. My biggest issue was the fact that you cannot leave something behind and forget about it and talk down about it and then get mad when you see someone of another culture dominating in that art form. For several reasons – primitive blues, classic blues, even Chicago blues to a degree – but mostly primitive blues and old Negro spirituals were left behind. Of course during the civil rights movement the spirituals was the soundtrack to that. My point is, just like hip hop, just like rock ‘n’ roll, because Chuck Berry or Little Richard — these guys and some others were the spearheads of rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll is just the blues. It’s just the blues. It’s not the blues sped up; it’s the blues. They just gave it another name. There was a time in the Reconstruction and during the age of the new Negro and W.E.B. DuBois – and I believe it was Black Swan records and stuff – there was a group of people that thought that the blues and the spirituals was a bad representation of black people and they did not want to remember those times or be identified to being backward, country black folk. So anything that represented that they threw into the trash. That happened for hip hop as well in the majority of the ‘80s. The issue that I have with that is that is our culture – good, bad and indifferent –you can’t talk bad about someone else, and only talk good about yourself, you’re not identifying or connecting with everything… I just want to say, to be clear, I don’t want people to think I believe only black people and black artists were being exploited. White artists from the Appalachians and different other regions of America have gotten exploited as well. That is the nature of the beast. I just want to be clear.”
Pearley understands the significance of acoustic roots music in today’s electronic, computerized music world, “…We use this modern day medium to try to get the word out to people and show them the connection. And a lot of people look at it and they get excited. You know, music – not just black music – a lot of music has been mechanized in all types of craziness. There are people – human beings, not just black or white or Asian – there are people that are looking and searching for a music they can connect to, because the artists of today isn’t connecting to them. So it’s a good time. And that’s what we’re trying – we’re pretty much taking a grass-roots approach to a grass-roots music.”
“The blues should be part of a history course in the African American community, – a lot of these programs cost money. A lot of low- to-no-income black folk aren’t privileged to this information, and if they are they don’t have the money to do it. So a lot of time they’ll turn their nose up to it as a way to hide their shame to not be able to pay for it, because these things aren’t given affordably. And there are those that are affordable, but nobody knows about it – you know, in the black community. That’s something else that we’re working on. I’m a member of the New Amsterdam Musical Association, which is over 110 years old, the first – if not the first, one of the first black unions in New York, in America, for black musicians to be able to play. And jazz and blues musicians from the turn of the century all the way up until it became a nonprofit. And they give very inexpensive music lessons. I host a show there also, The show is called Blues and Poetry. It’s a family program. We perform original works of blues and poetry. I also give history of blues and poetry and their connection – from Zora Neale Hurston to Langston Hughes to Sterling Brown. It’s once a month as of now, usually the last Sunday of the month in Harlem. We also have a part where one of the brothers that are a member of the NAMA that does the program with me, he’s a guitar player, he gets up and plays a blues shuffle, and then we have people in the audience come up and sing their personal blues to give them a connection. It’s things like this that we try to do to reconnect the community with it, because for the most part it’s exposure. People gravitate toward what they’re exposed to, you know, and most people don’t connect – I’ll give you an example. A musician friend of mine was in a debate with this younger gentleman, and this is a folk artist who mainly plays folk, but he does some blues and some ragtime and jug type of things. In the heated debate that he was having with this younger guy, the younger guy did not think hip hop should be connected to blues, folk and ragtime and this kind of music, and he said – he thought that this music was “Shoe Shine Sambo” type stuff. Now, he didn’t know who he was talking to; didn’t know he was offensive to the person. The person addressed him and told him he was offensive. I share this with you, because that is a direct example of the ignorance of our knowledge of the connection of this music to our culture. And the only way to do that is to get black kids, black young adults, black adults in these classes. I’m aware of a lot of these blues classes – and everybody I interview I ask them, you know, how many black kids are in this program? And it’s next to none. Some people do it in black schools, but most don’t. I don’t know if that’s the principal’s fault, the district’s fault – I don’t care. But what I do know is that’s something else I’ll be working on because we have to get this at a scholastic level so young kids, who aspire to be musicians, can understand their history and the connection of their history and that music to what they want to do now. “
He offers podcasts to the public of interviews with Larry Morganfield, Muddy Waters’ son, Guy Davis, blues musician actor, Dom Flemons, Veronica Jackson, Shemika Copeland, Dexter Allen, and many more. Look for more important things to come from this important voice of the blues.