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World Tracks

Eric Bibb and stories from Bukka White's guitar

Audio 20:06
Booker's guitar cover (detail)
Booker's guitar cover (detail)

When African-American bluesman Eric Bibb was handed a 1930's guitar owned by the Delta blues legend Bukka White, something spiritual, even divine, occurred. The result is Booker's Guitar, an album of some of Bibb's finest songs to date, inspired by and sung in homage to some of his heroes. The guitar had many stories to tell and Bibb shares some of them in Worldtracks.

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Eric Bibb grew up in one of those families that let’s say encourage musical sensibility.

His father Leon Bibb was a successful folk/blues musician and a good friend of Paul Robeson. His uncle, the pianist John Lewis, was a founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. A host of other eminent musicians, civil rights activists and “lefties” would drop by to their New York home in the 50’s and 60’s when Bibb was a youngster.

One day Bob Dylan called in. Aged just 11, and already keen on guitar, Bibb asked if he had any tips. “Keep it simple, replied Dylan “forget all the fancy stuff”.

Sound advice. Eric Bibb has never really done “fancy” but his latest album Booker’s Guitar is perhaps his purest, seemingly simplest, and most inspired to date.

There are 18 accoustic blues songs with Bibb on guitar and vocals and Grant Dermody on harmonica.

Bibb pays his own handmade tribute to the blues musicians of a bygone era that have most inspired him: people like Jerry Roll Morton, Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, Booker White. He felt part of this lineage, even if, as he freely admits, he grew up in a privileged environment.

“I couldn’t have made this album 10 years ago”, Bibb tells me, “it took time to absorb their experience”.

While Bibb has been carrying a torch for his musical ancestors for 40 years or so, it took a chance encounter with a guitar owned by one of Bibb’s heroes, Delta bluesman Booker White, to set it ablaze.

It happened after a concert in the north of England a few years ago. A fan came up and asked him if he’d be interested in playing this old guitar. “I opened the case and there was this wise old instrument - it played like a dream” explains Bibb.

The bluesman wrote and recorded the title track Booker’s Guitar on the vintage Resophonic National steel instrument, while the other 17 songs were all a product of that poetic encounter. “It’s as if the arrival of Booker’s guitar was a real sign, a signal. Booker was reaching out and saying 'go on, you’re the one I’ve chosen'”.

The album tells stories, simply and beautifully. Floodwater tells of the catastrophic Mississippi floods of 1926-27, an event Bibb remembers his Aunt recounting as he sat on the porch at his grandparents in Louisville, Kentucky. With my maker I am one is inspired by Deepak Chopra’s writings. Deeply spiritual, it emphasises the duality in us all, both sinner and redeemer, prisoner and warden.

Bibb wrote all but two of the songs. One is the soulful Wayfaring stranger which centuries ago was taught to a group of slaves by an English or Scottish slave owner.

Bibb’s own roots as a travelling troubadour who’s spent most of life outside his native U.S. give the song added resonance. The other is Nobody’s fault but mine which Bibb reinterprets in homage to Blind Willie Johnson, the street evangelist bluesman who made an “awe-inspiring” definitive recording of the song in the 1920’s.

Bibb’s own story-book had a page added to it when he came into RFI’s studios recently for Plein Sud and found himself sharing a table with the legendary Clive Wright from the Golden Gate Quartet.

As Bibb launched into his piece, the octogenarian Wright unexpectedly joined in. “I just couldn’t help myself man,” he said by way of excuse afterwards. It was simple, it was spontaneous, just like Dylan suggested. You can hear it in the programme.

Eric Bibb on myspace

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