Traditionally, bluesmen are sufferers–hard-living chroniclers of hard times with nothing to show for it but wasted lives and livers, hounded by demons both real and imagined. Yet Eric Bibb has built a career on blues that are demon free, un-dogged and happy. How does he keep such a positive spin on the mean ole genre?
“I didn’t really live a mean ole life when I started singing,” Bibb says. Son of folksinger Leon Bibb, Eric grew up in New York City, with a worldview enhanced by going along on globe-trotting tours with his famous dad. Bibb’s first exposure to folk music and blues was through his father’s access to artists like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Bibb honed his skills not in the bleak Delta but in the sleeker environs of Europe, living in Sweden for many years before moving to his current residence in London.
“I realized that it was just not gonna fly for me to pose and pretend that I’d had a razor-totin’ upbringing, ’cause I didn’t,” he says. “But if anything, blues for me is the language of truth. You gotta tell it like it is. I’m gonna be myself, and some people are gonna criticize me for being too gentle, but that’s really their issue, not mine.”
Though soft spoken, Bibb’s message is moving and powerful. He dedicates his latest release, A Ship Called Love, to another soft-spoken troubadour who packed a powerful punch, Curtis Mayfield. Playing what Bibb describes as folk gospel music, Mayfield made hits with a message that was connected both musically and lyrically to a larger picture. “That’s basically the way I see a lot of what I’m wanting to achieve artistically,” Bibb says. “I just relate to him very much.” Bibb feels that the tune “A Ship Called Love” is very much in the spirit of Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which he’s recorded for an upcoming project.
Bibb is currently on tour with John Mayall, which at first glimpse seems to be a strange pairing. Mayall’s raucous, electric, Chicago style blues are in sharp contrast to Bibb’s quiet, folk/blues offerings. Mayall was familiar with Bibb’s work, recording two of his songs, “World War Blues” and the Handy award-nominated “Kokomo.” But Bibb says it was Mayall’s touring partner, Robben Ford, who recommended tapping him for the tour. “I’m sure it was Robben’s people, through John, who suggested we have somebody contrasting who’s an acoustic-oriented artist to make an interesting show and combine our fan bases.”
Bibb calls what he does his own version of Americana. “I’m kind of concerned that what’s become known as Americana music is somewhat segregated, to say the least.” African-American music has been cross-pollinated into folk music everywhere but the marketplace, Bibb believes. “And that’s one of my pet missions, to break it down.”
In order to accomplish that, Bibb has developed what he calls split vision–to keep traditional music in his work, but not cover up his personal need to express his unique sense of who he is. He’s developed a following that seem to get it, unlike many in the music industry. “The people who come to my shows really have no trouble accepting that I’ll do a Guy Clark song followed by St. Louis Jimmy’s ‘Going Down Slow’ followed by Reverend Gary Davis’ ‘I Heard the Angels Singing’ followed by a ballad that I’ve written,” Bibb says. “I’m really seeing a lot of progress when it comes to making my particular vision acceptable.”
He’s also beginning to see his music crossover into other markets as well. Bibb had a brief fling with the pop world in the ’80s working for BMG writing pop songs. “Music is funny–a song will basically choose its time to emerge in the world. You can’t always steer it,” the singer says. “It’s good to know what you have and be prepared to present it at the right moment. It’s all about timing. I’m hoping that you’ll see more of my songs coming by other artists in the future.”
Until that happens, fans will have to be content with more from the Bibb family. He’s just completed Praising Peace, A Tribute to Paul Robeson with his father Leon. “We decided that we would just sing songs that meant something from his past repertoire and new songs that I’d written,” Bibb says of the work linking his godfather, his father and himself. “There’s a lineage involved and I think it really comes across in that record, and I’m really happy about that–happy to let people know where I was coming from.”
Eric Bibb appears with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and Robben Ford on the Rockin’ Blues Revue Tour, Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. at the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Tickets are $30-34.