“He did not know he could not fly, so he did,” sings bluesman Eric Bibb on his recently released “Troubadour Live” CD on the Telarc label. Although this song “The Cape” is one of the few songs on this record (and in his repertoire) that he did not write – it was written by Americana artist Guy Clark and his wife Susanna Clark – it most assuredly is autobiographical.
“The Cape” first appeared on his “Friends and Songs” LP in 2004, and it is a staple of his live repertoire, often beginning his set, one that we certainly can expect him to sing at Club Helsinki in Hudson Friday (July 22). Eric had never really thought much about “The Cape” as a defining song. It was his fans who gravitated toward it.
“The thing that really got me for keeping it on the list was people’s response to it. It was just as if the song really – what can I say? I think everybody really feels that desire to really trust their cape and fly. So many of us are inhibited by all kinds of things, and that natural gene to take off and fly is slowly but surely stamped on and kind of suppressed through the years. So that song kind of – I guess it starts with an eight-year-old boy, and people can kind of relate to that.
“They either were that boy, or they knew somebody like that boy, and I remember actually being up on garage roofs. I wasn’t trying to fly off with a cape, but I was trying to jump to the next garage that was across a little alley that was junk-strewn. I had some daredevil friends. I was never really that way, but once or twice I did that, and it’s – the thing kids do believing in their own immortality is really amazing.”
Eric’s Dad is Leon Bibb, a would-be opera singer who found as an African-American that he was unable to make advances in that all-white culture of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Instead, he made a name for himself as a folk singer, musical theater singer and TV personality. By age 18 in 1961, Eric found himself playing lead guitar on dad’s “Someone New” TV show in New York.
“I was hired as the guitarist for his house band for a time, totally unprepared for the job. I was surrounded by Ron Carter playing bass sometimes. Seldon Powell played saxophone, the guy who played on Aretha Franklin albums. I mean, heavy duty New York musicians, and I was struggling to read very simple charts, but my dad kind of threw me into the deep end wisely.”
Eric did not know he could fly, so he did.
Comparing stories, I tell Eric I’m a white man from a privileged family. He responds that he’s a brown man from a privileged family. “I saw Son House in 1965. I was 14, just the fact that I actually remembered and could tell people that I’d seen Dylan. I met Dylan, I met Gary Davis, seen Son House. That filled me with a feeling of not exclusivity so much as empowerment just because I didn’t think or don’t think it’s an accident.
“I feel like who I am and what I do has something to do with the fact that those people were in my path. Just like that meaning of “Booker’s Guitar” (his last album that took first place in last year’s Downbeat Critics’ Poll). That happened to other people. Mark Knofler has played that guitar (a National Steel guitar once owned by Booker White) and other people.
“Still I felt there was a real reason that my experiences kind of had drawn me to that experience of ‘meeting’ Booker’s guitar. I felt like there was almost an equation involved, you know? Two plus two equals four. And it encourages me, man. It just makes me feel like there is logic to this universe. Energy is a pretty exact
business. What you passionately pursue, you attract to you, and you get the kind of nutrition you need on your journey. So trust ‘The Cape,’ you know?”
Eric donned his cape and moved to Paris at age 19. He’s enjoyed a much higher profile in Europe and has lived for decades in Sweden, but with “Booker’s Guitar” reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Album charts in 2010, a Grammy nomination for “Shakin’ a Tailfeather” and nine Blues Music Award nominations, his profile as a creative acoustic folk blues artist is growing ever larger in the United States.
In that growth process, Eric has developed a rapport with his audience that’s almost more intense than the old-fashioned call and response best captured in B.B. King’s “Live at the Regal” LP in the mid-1960s. So when he includes a false start and begins his homage to B.B. King, “Tell Riley” on “Troubadour Live,” he is making a statement as significant as on “The Cape” about his comfort with his audience.
“When I listened back to it I realized, of course, I could just chop this out. Nobody would ever notice the difference, and I would have a seamless record, and people would think that’s how professional I am. But the reality is that my performances are not pristine, and I just wanted a dose of reality. And it was a little bit
boastful actually saying, ‘I’m competent to include a false start,’ because what it does is it tells people not only that I’m not that vain, that I need to appear infallible. It also lets people know that I have a certain connection with my audience.
“If I can do that, laugh about it, and they can laugh about it, too, and it doesn’t become an embarrassing moment. If I can recover because I am comfortable in front of my audience the way I did, then maybe that’s something worth sharing, too. It’s not all about just showing you’re a good musician.”
But it is about remembering that feeling of invulnerability you had as an eight-year-old, putting on that same cape and believing in your ability to fly.
“I think if we were aware of all the things our kids do or remembered what we’d really do, we would realize that something about our trust in nature, trusting nature is in itself protection. And I think that vibe, that feeling, is something worth holding onto because I think it would really serve you all through life. For some reason that song, without my being really conscious of it, became a mainstay of my repertoire. And I’m really comfortable, especially when people really understand the words. And I think it’s for all audiences, whether Italian, Swedish or whatever, but Swedes in general are very fluent in English, especially music people.
“There was no problem, and people get it, you know? And I like the fact they get it. They’re not only responding to the first song to my set. If I open with it, they’re not only responding to a musical performance they like, they’re responding to a story that I didn’t write, but they’re responding to something that – it’s like
they’re saying, ‘Yay for that guy,’ you know? And they’re really saying, yay for themselves. So, it’s a real connection.
“You know, it does get easier. The more you think, ‘Well, I’ve done this before and usually things work out good.’ So, it’s not something you consciously think about, but somewhere in your cell memory you remember that it actually works. You can actually fly … It’s thrilling to actually feel your own wings and do stuff that –
gosh, it doesn’t take much for me.
“Every time I pass a musician who busks in the street, I make a point to put money in the case because I did that, and it wasn’t that long ago. And remember I was busking outside of a bank in Sheridan Square in New York, and this was the ’80s, man, the early ’80s. I’d come back from Sweden, and I was really struggling, and I remember a guy comes up to me, and he looks like a musician, and he says, ‘Man, I just want to tell you one thing. Don’t stop! Don’t quit! You got something, and I hear it. And it’s going to work for you. Just keep going.’ And it turned out it was G.E. Smith, the guitar player.”
Wearing that cape does require a certain amount of dexterity, and that was something Eric learned from his dad who beat back the winds of prejudice to make his way and act as a mentor to his son.
“To be an African-American of my dad’s generation and to be accomplished and successful and not bitter is a huge, huge victory, and I really feel empowered by what my dad has been able to do and pass on to me. So, yeah, you kind of just have to forge ahead.
“When you feel really kind of weighted down by a challenge or an uncomfortable situation, it’s basically trust -‘The Cape’ thing. You gotta face your fears. You actually have to take that leap of faith knowing that the actual leap is what will protect you. It’s like teetering on the edge. If you can just accumulate fears and
anxieties, somehow actually decide you’re supported. I’m doing a good thing here, and despite all appearances sometimes there’s something more powerful in all these appearances that support a courageous good move. So you go ahead with it.”
It was Eric’s visceral reaction to the NewSouth edition of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” that brings home the sharp perspective his African-American heritage brings to his art. Edited by Alan Gribben of Auburn University, the revised edition substitutes the word “slave” for the “N” word the 219 times Twain used that word in his fictional classic.
“Oh, did they delete all that stuff?” says Eric. “That’s a drag. You can’t do that.
“You can’t do that.
“You can’t do that!
“That doesn’t work for me at all, (but) the reason I say I really dislike the word is because it had tremendous weight within a lot of different contexts, hip-hop not being the least of them. But I resent the use of it because I feel like until collectively we, particularly Americans, deal with this incredibly poisonous past, that it’s still with us. I feel like it’s too cavalier. It has too many connotations that we only half-understand, and until we do our homework, I don’t want to play around with such a loaded word. It pushes the wrong buttons.”
Interview and story by Don Wilcock