Will the Acoustic Blues Survive?

Posted on April, 6th 2014 by Frank Matheis in General | Comments (0)

by Frank Matheis, publisher,  2014

The good news is that there are still at least 500 or so musicians actively performing the acoustic blues today, many (if not most) of them listed here in thecountryblues.com. The acoustic blues is still alive and well in the 21st Century.

For those of us who love this music, that’s a hopeful sign, but undeniably, the existentialist facts are not so rosy for the long term survival of acoustic/folk/country blues.

Let’s start with the good news…

Plenty of musicians are still able to make a living playing the old time blues. Many of the musicians who were the disciples of the great originals, who learned directly from the blues musicians who reemerged during the 1960s and 70s, and who picked up the styles, tuning and songs as apprentices from the old masters, are still active and successful today. Indeed, today they are the blues elders: Taj Mahal, John Hammond, Paul Geremia, Doug MacLeod, Phil Wiggins, Roy Bookbinder, Jorma Kaukonen, on and on. Then, there are the guitar virtuosos, the supreme guitarists of the genre, with a broad repertoire of folk/roots styles: Ry Cooder (when he is in a blues mood), Woody Mann, Ed Gerhardt, Mike Dowling, and many more.

There is a core group of excellent African-American players who have achieved wide ranging success and who carry on the blues tradition internationally: Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Guy Davis, Eric Bibb, Keb Mo, Otis Taylor, Phil Wiggins and Samuel James. Some wonderful younger players are infusing new blood into the scene, including the new blues sensation Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, the MSG Blues Trio and Valerie & Ben Turner

The blues women are as powerful as ever, thanks to Shemika Copeland, Rory Block, Valerie Turner, Maria Muldaur, Mary Flower, Valerie June, Emily Druce, Eleanor Ellis, Janiwa Magness and many more.

Plus, there are wonderful players all over Europe, and increasingly, even Asia, in Japan and even in Pakistan.

There are great records being produced, concert halls and clubs filled by the musicians who are keeping the acoustic blues flames burning today. Blues Festivals still draw a good crowd and acoustic blues is still a small but steady portion of this. There is also still a fascination and strong interest in the acoustic blues over in Europe. Many American players regularly tour Europe and rely on that market as an important source of income.

Yet, the genre’s very survival, in the long term, is challenged.

The audience demographic is aging and there has not been significant interest among the younger generation to infuse new enthusiasm into the genre. The baby-boomers of the 1960s and 70s who formed the first ‘folk & blues revival’ that gave a second wind to an entire set of blues musicians, are by now in their late 50s and up. With plenty of attrition and no considerable influx of new audiences, the currently active musicians are reporting a decline in listeners. Unless there is a resurgence of interest, a new blues revival or a sudden shift in the wind of popular music, it is likely that the core audience of today is the last and that the acoustic blues will experience a decline after this generation.

There has been only a tiny black audience for the acoustic blues, even during the heyday of the 1960s blues revival, and today its is minuscule, almost down to the angstrom. African American audiences left the genre decades ago, except in a few pockets in the Deep South. Most acoustic blues fans today are white men over fifty – many in their sixties and seventies. The counterculture baby boomers are aging and they are buying less music and going out to hear live music less.

Radio is no salvation. The deep roots acoustic blues is virtually shut out of the radio. You’ll hear a fews classics here and there, but the picture is bleak in the syndicated shows, satellite radio blues shows and even the independent DJs focus mostly on electric blues and blues rock.

Blues record labels also report that sales of acoustic blues are so sluggish and weak that they are reluctant to sign folk blues acts. Alligator, for example, once signed Corey Harris and Cephas & Wiggins, but now shies away from country blues acts due to lackluster sales. Consequently, musicians are increasingly self-producing their recordings, with mixed results. Some very excellent musicians are churning out poorly produced, lackluster albums, often in studios that do not understand or know how to record acoustic music. The market is flooded with self-produced albums that never really get off the ground. Sadly, today this is the norm for many struggling and upcoming artists, rather than the exception today, because few “not yet famous” acoustic country blues artists have the financial backing to be able to afford a professionally produced album where everything is done right. Even in cases where everything is played and recorded perfectly well, many “good” albums simply lack the energy, fire and passionate intensity of the early blues, or those produced in the 1960s and 70s, when record labels still had an interest in the country blues.

The blues today maybe the only profession in America where it is a distinct advantage to be a black man – and of course that speaks volumes about the plight of black men in America today, still struggling for equality – and worst than that, still struggling against racial stereotypes and injustice. Blues is an African-American cultural contribution to the world, a black musical form and an inherent part of the African-American experience. Yet, black musicians can feel a form of estrangement, as this music which had its origins in the black experience is now in a white dominated world. The blues press, blues forums, record labels and radio DJs are predominately white (including this writer) – as is the audience. Even the one blues magazine devoted to the preservation of the African American legacy, Living Blues, is drastically underrepresented by African American writers and critics. The blues academia, the professors of the blues, the book authors, all mostly white. No wonder that black blues musicians want to hold on to the fact that they are, indeed, the authentic cultural heirs to the blues. These are legitimate grievances of black musicians.

Yet, like any successful cultural phenomena, the blues is now international, a cultural triumph that should be celebrated and a source of pride. Blues has circumnavigated the globe, just like jazz, rock and roll and Classical music, Many people from all over the world play, feel and love the blues. This is not cultural theft, as some like to call it, but it is a natural aspect of the powerful international cultural contribution of African-Americans.The blues is a musical form that has been integrated from the time of Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang (even if only behind the scenes). Musicians broke the color barrier, played together and learned each other’s music, maybe not openly when oppressed by Jim Crow laws, but certainly they hooked up and sat in with each other when possible. This is evident by the wide ranging repertoire of the Piedmont songsters, for example, which drew from ragtime, Country, Appalachian Mountain music, blues, gospel and even European folk songs. Music was always the true melting pot.

Today some people talk about “true blues,” not how the music is played, but by the authenticity of the music based on the skin color or the performer. This is simply wrong in the blues as anywhere in life. Music should be a unifying force, and not a reason to judge human beings by the color of their skin.

Ostensibly, a threat to the very survival of the genre may be those who profess to know and love it the most. Admittedly, that seems like a bizarre statement. Because the acoustic blues is a very small world compared to electric blues, and the blues overall is a very small segment of the popular music culture, you would think that the genre’s survival will be carried by the true fans, the blues aficionados, the most devoted acoustic blues fans. The problem is that a sizable portion of the acoustic, folk and country blues fans only love the original old blues, and tend to dismiss the new purveyors of the musical form. Of course, people can like what they want to like. Nothing wrong with that. If people enjoy only the blues of the golden era (1920s-1930s) played exactly as it was in the original 78 rpm recordings, that’s perfectly fine. We love that music ! Otherwise those songs would wither on the vine. The only way people will know and love the blues is to cherish the legacy. Everybody has a right to like and listen to what they want.

The problem comes in when the fans of the old blues don’t love, and even reject, the new blues for whatever reason. If the celebration of the past comes with the rejection of the present, there is a logically risk that there will be no future, just cultural extinction, that the music they love will simply be locked into a time capsule in a museum or in the Library of Congress.

At its worst, some hardcore blues purists dismiss contemporary players as “mere imitators” or they question where an acoustic blues musician is from (I recently read a very misguided review of the new John Hammond record where the writer claimed that John sounds “like a New York musician copying the Southern blues”); what the skin color is ; or, they categorically attack anyone who changes the music even slightly. Scathing criticism is reserved for those who don’t play it note for note as it was played 70 years ago on the original 78 rm records. The level of criticism holds no boundaries.

This phenomena among acoustic blues audiences seems to be unique in contemporary American roots & folk music. Bluegrass, Cajun, Zydeco, Celtic-American, Tex-Mex and many other roots music forms are going strong, in large part because the audiences may cherish the past but celebrate the present. Bluegrass audiences may love Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs, but they love and support the young players on the scene today. In Zydeco, everybody cherishes Clifton Chenier, but they still turn out for the new generation.

So there it is, pure common sense. Unless the blues can progress, stay vibrant and relevant today, there may be no folk and country blues in the next generation, given the demographic reality. To preserve the old blues, we need new blues – new songs, new songwriters, new interpretations, new sounds along with the originals. If we can swing that, the acoustic blues has a fleeting chance. Hopefully, folks will see that this is the point of this website.

Please check out the musicians listed here, both in the Who is Who directory, and in the full profile section here.  The acoustic blues today may be summoned up by an old song lyric by Johnny Winter:

So everyone will know

I’m still alive and well

I’m still alive and well every now and then 

its kind of hard

To tell I’m still alive and well

 

Frank Fotusky

Posted on March, 15th 2014 by Frank Matheis in Artist Reviews | Comments (0)

The new profile for the picker Frank Fotusky is live. Read it here.

Shelton Powe Jr.

Posted on December, 24th 2013 by Frank Matheis in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Read the new profile of Piedmont blues artist Shelton Powe, Jr. here.

Dr. Bruce Conforth

Posted on July, 21st 2013 by Frank Matheis in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

The new profile of musician-musicologist Dr. Bruce Conforth is now live. Read it here.

Concert Review: Piedmont Blues – May 3

Posted on May, 12th 2013 by Frank Matheis in Concerts | Comments (0)

It was a great night for the acoustic blues with Valerie and Ben Turner, Toby Walker and Phil Wiggins. See the review here.

Eleanor Ellis

Posted on April, 10th 2013 by Frank Matheis in Artist Reviews | Comments Off

The profile for the grand dame of the Piedmont style country blues, Eleanor Ellis, is now live. Go check it out here.

thecountryblues.com hosts Piedmont Blues concert in White Plains, New York on May 3, 2013

Posted on March, 29th 2013 by Frank Matheis in General | Comments (1)

As part of the exciting Live@ArtsWestchester  Spring 2013 concert series, thecountryblues.com will host an evening of acoustic blues featuring Valerie & Ben Turner (Piedmont Bluz) , acoustic blues guitarist and singer/songwriter Toby Walker, and the great harmonica player Phil Wiggins (formerly of Cephas & Wiggins).

“Blues harmonica master Phil Wiggins makes a rare appearance in Westchester, accompanied by local rising stars of the east coast ‘Piedmont’ acoustic blues tradition, Toby Walker, guitar, and the Piedmont Bluz duo featuring Valerie & Ben Turner, guitars, percussion and vocals.Presented by the ArtsWestchester Folk Arts Program, in association with Frank Matheis, publisher of www.thecountryblues.com, with support from the New York State Council on the Arts.”

When: Friday , May 3, 2013 at 8 PM

Where : Arts Westchester – Peckham Gallery

Address: 31 Mamaroneck Ave., White Plains, NY 10601

Tel.: 914-428-4220

Website: https://www.artswestchester.org/things-to-do/event/an-evening-of-piedmont-blues/

The duo Piedmont Bluz is Valerie Turner on guitar and vocals and her husband Ben Turner on washbord & percussion.
Toby Walker has emerged as one of the finest acoustic guitarist on the scene today.

 

Valerie Turner carries on the Piedmont tradition of her teachers John Cephas and Woody Mann, carrying the flame of Elizabeth Cotton, Etta Baker and all the great acoustic country blues women.

Interview Notes: Eric Bibb & Habib Koité

Posted on March, 10th 2013 by Frank Matheis in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

In the Jan. 2013 issue of Living Blues Issue 223, Vol.44 #1, Frank Matheis, publisher of thecountryblues.com published an abridged interview with Bluesman Eric Bibb and Malian Musician Habib Koite as a contributor to LB. He spoke to these wonderful artists about their new album Brothers in Bamako as part of the regular LB  article series Living Blues Talks to

Here is the complete interview, unedited, as in the original notes.

Habib Koité

LB: Mali’s militant insurgency in the north of the country is threatening a strict Islamic fundamentalism that threatens to eradicate music, among other things. Mali has a rich musical history. How is this affecting you and your fellow musicians?

HK: Diplomatic solutions to resolve the troubles in Northern Mali are underway. The Malian people are 95% moderate Muslims. It’s incredible to be in a situation with so many restrictions for music on the radio, in concert, and for traditional events like weddings, births, and funerals. The daily life of Malian people revolves around music. It’s impossible to imagine the future of Mali without this basic cultural element.

 

LB: African-American musicians often feel a special kinship to the music of West Africa as the place of origin of the blues, as well as their ancestral homeland. How, in turn, does the American blues sound to African ears?

HK: Since the 1970s, we have been listening to musicians like John Lee Hooker. African music was one of the major precursors for the blues. While Blues is clearly not an African music, but we can hear some similarities due to Pentatonic tuning and with Mandinguo rhythm.

 

LB: Which blues musicians do you listen to and feel a connection with?

HK: Lee Hooker, but I also listening to soul music like Percy Sledge & James Brown. I like Clarence Carter and more recently Corey Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Bibb.

 

LB: What type of guitar and what tunings were you using for this project with Eric Bibb?

HK: I played a semi-acoustic nylon string Godin, the same guitar I have used for 16 years, in E B G D A E tuning.

 

LB: Besides the influence of your own musical family, which musicians have been most influential on you?

HK: Pat Metheny, John Lee Hooker, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Malians Kante Manfila, Ali Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore, Salif Keita.

 

LB: The music scene in Mali has always been rich. Who is now emerging in Mali or other African countries that is deserving of attention by blues lovers who also appreciate African music?

HK: In Mali, Baba Salah, Adama Yalomba, Idrissa Soumaoro.

Eric Bibb

LB: Eric, as an American ex-pat who has made a career as an acoustic bluesman living in Finland, how do you compare the blues scene in Europe to the US?

EB: The blues community worldwide is interconnected. There is a tribe of blues lovers everywhere. In the States, Australia, in Europe, people are on the same page. The opportunities for work at festivals are increasing. Being on the blues circuit these days is very encouraging. There is a real renaissance. There are new people coming along who are really creating interest, like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who have done a good job in rekindling interest in the earlier side of this music. So I think these are good times.

 

LB: Eric. You are now reconnecting with Habib Koité of Mali after more than 10 years since the Mali to Memphis project for Putumayo. What is the main point of synergy between you two musicians?

EB: I got interested in Malian music, kora music and West African music at age 14. It was different, but some part of me knew it. Even before I met Habib, I was aware of him – a fabulous player who I felt that would work with. I realized that the West African guitar style and my fingerpicking are related to each other. Not only that, but Habib is a wonderful, warm guy, easy to get along with. We became friends.

 

LB: What kinds of tunings and instruments did you use on this album?

EB. We did not use many alternatives tunings. Habib is the “King of the Pull-off.” He sounds somewhere between a kora player and a Flamenco guitarist.

My tunings were standard or dropped D. Sometimes I tune the bass string to D, first E to D. We used many different types of guitars. I used a steel string Fylde guitar built by Roger Bucknall in the UK and also a baritone guitar, a 7-string Martin, an 8-string ukelele, and a 6-string banjo.

 

LB: How did the American musicians who have played with Malian musicians before, like Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Corey Harris, Bela Fleck, etc. influence your decision to make this album?

EB: I have always had a fascination with West African music. The other projects did not influence us. We had a connection as two troubadours from different cultures who had the experience of playing together and realized that we did something new. We did not look to other projects for ideas, nor try to demonstrate that the blues came from West Africa. It was not a musicologist statement. It was just two guitarists who found each other musically.

Copyright: Living Blues 2013

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M.S.G. Acoustic Blues Trio

Posted on March, 4th 2013 by Frank Matheis in Artist Reviews | Comments (0)

The cool Piedmont ensemble the M.S.G. Acoustic Blues trio has a new review. Read it here. The YouTube video is coming soon.

Veronika Jackson

Posted on February, 8th 2013 by Frank Matheis in Artist Reviews | Comments (0)

The new profile of the amazing Georgia blueswoman is now up. Read it here