Keeping it simple with American bluesman Eric Bibb

ACOUSTIC BLUES singer-songwriter Eric Bibb was born in New York in 1951 and grew up surrounded by the Greenwich Village folk music and literary scene which included Bob Dylan, Dave Von Ronk, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez.

His father, Leon Bibb, is a noted folk singer and actor, who was the featured singer on American musical variety television show Hootenanny in the mid 1960s, and Eric’s uncle was jazz pianist and composer John Lewis, who played in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band.

At the age of eight Eric decided to pick up the guitar and began writing folk and blues songs. Over the next few years he developed his craft more and more and he experimented with different styles.

“When I was 11 I took some classical lessons and that was wonderful because it really gave a sense of what was possible on a guitar as a kind of mini orchestra,” he tells me. It was also around this time Eric received his first career advice and it came from none other than Bob Dylan, who told him: “Keep it simple, forget all that fancy stuff.”

Over the course of the past four decades Bibb has heeded Dylan’s advice and has ensured that his music has stayed simple, poignant, and true. He has cultivated a worldwide audience - especially in Ireland, Britain, and continental Europe - for his unique brand of acoustic blues, country, jazz and gospel. Q described the New Yorker as “a superb musician and performer” and The Times said he has “a voice to die for”.

Going down to The Village

Bibb remembers with fondness his formative years in The Big Apple and the musical education he received from watching performances in cafés and folk clubs.

“From about the age of 10 or 11 I would cut school and get the subway in to Greenwich Village to see people like Dave Von Ronk, Odetta, and Richie Havens perform,” he says. “Actually for years I was kind of obsessed with Havens and would go to see him play whenever I could. I found the whole scene just bursting with positive energy and it was a really exciting thing to watch.

“Through my dad I was able to meet a lot of people on the folk scene and it opened up a whole world full of music and hope for me. When I first met Dylan he was new on the scene but he was definitely the talk of the scene.

“There was a lot of friendly competition between the musicians but there was also an amazing camaraderie. The family-like feel was the glue that kept the whole scene together and there was a feeling that the musicians were working towards something that was bigger than individual careers.”

By the mid-1960s the glue that kept the folk movement together came undone when Dylan performed an electric set at the Newport Folk Festival and was met by booing from the audience. He left the stage after only three songs.

“I was actually at Newport and saw the performance when Dylan went electric,” Bibb says. “My whole take on it was that it was a good move because the folk movement had become a little bit too precious about things.

“People became very dogmatic in their views of what was the correct thing to do. The very people who’d been advocating freedom of expression years before became very restrictive in what they thought American folk music should be.”

European adventure

As the 1970s approached America was at a crossroads. The peace and love movement of the late 1960s had given way to more militant confrontation and there were riots in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Bibb was also at a crossroads and decided his future lay in Europe. Aged 19 he moved to Paris and focused on his interest in blues guitar.

“I remembered a trip of Europe I’d taken with my family when I was 12 and I was totally amazed by this whole new world beyond American shores,” he says. “Then later my father did an extensive tour of the old Soviet Union and I got to celebrate my 13th birthday in Kiev, which was an incredible experience.

“When I went to Paris I met and worked with a great American guitarist named Mickey Baker. There was a brilliant level of musicianship in the city at that time but it didn’t seem to have the baggage attached to it that the music scene in America had.

“The transition to Europe was quite easy for me though because of having growing up with the cosmopolitan mix and embracing of other cultures in New York. I didn’t feel like a fish out of water and so I adapted to my new life quite quickly.”

Eric later moved to Stockholm and then London as his career went from strength to strength. He toured and recorded with Scandinavian and British artists in the 1980s and in 1997 released his debut album Good Stuff. He signed to British label Code Blue and recorded the album Me to You, which featured appearances from his personal heroes including Mavis Staples and Taj Mahal.

“Taj has been an inspiration, a hero and a role model to me for many, many, years so to have been afforded the opportunity to collaborate with him was a big thrill,” says Bibb.

Throughout the late 1990s Bibb was at his most prolific as he toured and recorded with more of his heroes including Odetta, Charlie Musselwhite, John Mayall, and Robert Cray. He has also been influential in giving other young musicians a leg up and has recorded with Irish artists such as Wexford lapsteel guitarist Clive Barnes and Ballyhaunis singer/songwriter Brian Flanagan.

“Those were wonderful experiences,” says Bibb. “I’ve had so many great collaborations with musicians down through the years and Clive is somebody who I really admire. His musicality and dedication are really great attributes and he’s a really lovely guy.

“Brian is a great guy too and we really hit it off from the start. Hopefully he’ll get up and do a couple of songs with me when I play the Róisín Dubh. He has got a truly wonderful voice and he is somebody I’d really like to write for. He’s the kind of singer that can really grab hold of a song and take it to the top.”

Yes he can

In recent years Bibb’s thoughts have returned increasingly to home as he watched from afar the election of America’s first African-American president in Barack Obama. Having come from a family that was at the forefront of the civil right movement it was a welcome development.

“It was a bit of a pleasant shock that Obama was elected because I, like a lot of people, thought that day would never come,” he says. “The fact that he did get elected was a really encouraging sign to me that perhaps, finally, as an American people we can start to look at our past with more honesty and to try and work on some of the problems that have plagued our society since before the abolition of slavery.

“Obama is held up as someone who is courageous and who has a high moral stance on a lot of issues. In that it reminds me a little of Dr Martin Luther King and I like the whole tone of his administration. I think it was really needed after the selfishness of the last few years. There are a lot of different agendas though that he’ll have to grapple with, but so far I’ve been impressed by how he’s gone about his work.”

Bibb aims to bring some of the positivity he feels to Ireland next week and temporarily lift us out of the slump.

“I know the economic situation there has been really challenging recently,” he says. “I’m good friends with Trevor Hutchinson of Lúnasa and he keeps me abreast of the events in Ireland. Music is a great healer of your woes though.”

Eric Bibb plays Róisín Dubh on Saturday May 29 at 9pm, where he will be joined by harmonica player Grant Dermody and special guests. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.


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