Eric Bibb is an internationally acclaimed bluesman who just can’t seem to break the habit of life in the Nordic states. Since moving to Sweden from his native New York in around 1970, Bibb has travelled the world playing, touring, recording and generally making a name for himself while always scratching the itch that is Sweden. Again based in Sweden, near Nykoping, he laughs when asked about the region and why it seems to work so well for him and his music: “I guess Scandinavia’s been good to me and I’ve been good to Scandinavia,” he says with evident satisfaction and a hint of humour.
Door Iain Patience
He acknowledges the important – possibly seminally important – role that many of his countrymen have played in the development of modern, roots-based and blues music in the region generally over the course of the past half-century. Many American musician’s and musically significantly connected guys moved there, some clearly avoiding/dodging the US draft and the ferocious and appalling Vietnam war years, others simply because Sweden was a singularly welcoming nation at a time of need and change. Bibb recalls playing, recording and touring the region with Brooklyn-born resonator-man Brian Kramer who is still based in Stockholm; US-born blues mandolinist Bert Deivert, now based in Karlstad, and meeting up with the legendary New Yorker Tom Paley – the only remaining musician alive to have played and shared a stage with Lead Belly – at yet another New York/Brooklyn transplant, Izzy Young’s Folklore Centre.
Bibb agrees that this melting pot, which also included figures like Stefan Grossman for a while, has made its mark, leaving a lasting legacy of blues-inspired music that seems to thrive in the country.
Now something of a seasoned veteran, Bibb has been a professional musician, guitarist-songwriter for more years than he cares to remember and picked up his first guitar when still a kid aged seven or eight years old; “I’ve never really stopped playing. It’s always been with me, though I won’t say I was a diligent student. The guitar’s my third arm,” he quips, playing down the simple fact that he is a partially trained musician who previously studied classical guitar (he still employs an unusual three-fingers plus thumb-style of playing, a hangover from those days) with a love of Debussy, Faure and many others from the modern classical range. “I work on my picking, keeping it simple but it’s never a random thing. I like it to be melodious. I work it all out.”
Growing up in a family led by his late father, Leon Bibb, a noted New York civil rights activist and show-business character, meant the young Bibb was exposed to some great music at the time he was developing his own interests and passion for mostly pre-war acoustic blues music. Visitors to his home included the likes of Odetta and he also met and looked up to Dave Van Ronk, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt (whose music clearly resonates with him still in his own sensitive, melodic fretwork), Pops and Mavis Staples, Ritchie Havens and a near-lifelong friend, still of enormous importance and influence to Bibb, Taj Mahal.
He describes Havens as being a considerable influence but as being ‘the King of Strum,’ an apt analysis of the late heavy-hitter’s guitar style and delivery, but singles out Taj Mahal for his immense input and support at a time when the music was, if not dying out, certainly in need of a black musician with a keen eye to both the past tradition and its place in the future.
Of the current crop of pickers, black blues-based musicians carrying the tradition forward, he singles out another near-lifelong buddy in Guy Davis, (“He’s from a similar background to me”) adding Alvin Youngblood Hart and Keb’ Mo’ to the mix; all being guys who have grasped the tradition but made genuine efforts to move it forward, to keep it alive with a new purpose and relevance at its core.
With over thirty albums behind him – even he struggles to say exactly how many – he says he still enjoys getting out on the road, touring and playing around the world and his schedule remains as busy as ever. When we talked, he was having a few days downtime before heading off for Berlin, and confirmed he enjoyed the adrenalin-packed life of a live, gigging musician but generally preferred the studio to some extent, albeit there are always constraints to consider in both cases: “On the road you are never sure what’s up ahead, what the hall might be like, or the sound system, or the engineer. In the studio, I see the recording process as being a perfect counterbalance to touring. I get to hear what I’m playing out there at live gigs, in an optimal setting, with great sound and ambiance. It’s a bit of a vacation to me. I’m real relaxed in the studio,” he says.
As to his approach to the music, Bibb reckons there is a need for it to continually develop, to remain fresh and important and for that reason is happy to be able to write in the style of the tradition but without ever aiming to simply ape the old masters: “I don’t consider myself a true traditionalist, just playing the repertoire of the old pre-war heroes,” he says. “It’s important to take inspiration from that but blues needs new songs too. That’s important, it’s got to live and move ahead.”
Now nearing his sixty-fifth birthday, Bibb expects to remain in the business, health permitting, for another decade or so and sees no reason why he can’t be out there enjoying the music, the life and contributing to the growth and development of blues and roots-based music like his old mentors, buddies and influences, Taj Mahal and Mavis Staples included. With his current album, ‘Lead Belly’s Gold’, a project part live in a Parisian club and part studio recording accompanied by French Harp player Jean Jacques Milteau, gathering accolades, he is never one to sit still for very long and already has another release waiting in the wings entitled ‘The Happiest Man In The World’ Due to launch in April, Bibb will again be out there, putting it about, with his trademark mellow, soulful delivery and deceptively simple guitar-picking style. (Bob Dylan once advised Bibb to ‘keep it simple’). He confirms dates in USA for both June and August are lined-up and a visit to Australia is also on the cards. Meanwhile, he’ll be touring and working extensively throughout Europe.
Website Eric Bibb