Interview and photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Acoustic blues singer-songwriter Thomasina Winslow is no stranger to Nippertown having grown up just south of Albany in New Baltimore. Her father, the late Tom Winslow, was a celebrated folk-blues musician and part of the inner circle of friends and activists surrounding Pete Seeger. As a child she sang back-up vocals on her father’s folk music classic, “Hey Looka Yonder (It’s the Clearwater).” Thomasina grew up with the annual Clearwater Festival: Great Hudson River Revival, and she’ll be kicking off the fest at Croton Point Park in Croton-on-Hudson at 11am in Saturday (June 16).
Q: Thomasina, you have become one of the most important and popular female acoustic blues singer-songwriters on the international scene today. Within this narrow field of acoustic blues, which is traditionally dominated by men, what do you feel sets you apart from the men? What are you offering that’s different from them?
A: The fact that I am a woman is the most obvious thing that sets me apart from the men, but I prefer to think of myself as offering a balance in the blues field with the female energy and voice. This adds to the beauty of this music that is the foundation of all we love in popular music today from rock to R&B to hip-hop. My guitar playing and singing would be the next aspect of my performance that differentiates me as an artist of this music because I have kept with the finger-picking styles and play them softly as a woman would do but with the same type of facility and sometimes aggressiveness that many of the guys play with. There are so many great players out there that are men, and I love them. I learn from them, and I have a style that they also learn from. Other than that I don’t like to separate myself from them because we all are here to bring the blues to the world, but I am happy to offer the balance that a woman can bring to it.
Q: You grew up around your dad, the late Tom Winslow, who was a legendary acoustic blues and folk artist in his own right. Did you always feel a calling to follow in his footsteps as a musician?
A: I honestly can’t remember a time when I did not want to follow in his footsteps. From the time I was a child telling him, “That’s not how to sing that song, Daddy,” and getting on his first album as a four-year old, to the last five years prior to his passing, when I decided to go ahead and pursue acoustic blues in my own way with his support and pride in me, I have been steady on the same path to sharing culture and Americana with the world.
Q: You must have known from the very beginning that this is a hard life, and it’s extremely difficult to make a decent living doing this. What made you dig in your heels and get out there and do this?
A: My father. He said to me that this did not have to be hard and that there were choices I could make to simplify it for myself. He alerted me to that fact that when you trust what you do, you are able to have some control. The lifestyle can be hard, but you don’t have to allow it to be. I am finding every day that he was right.
Q: Was your dad a major influence on you, or did you discover and plug into what the legendary blues women like Jessie May Hemphill, Cora Mae Bryant or Beverly “Guitar” Watkins were doing?
A: My dad was a major influence on me by showing what those artists did and presenting me to them. He took me to meet Etta Baker in her home. He knew the late Odetta, and therefore so did I. He put me in a position to meet Maybelle Carter. And I was able to play Libby Cotton’s guitar. Both of my parents worked around these great women and made sure I was around them. I put myself in their hip pocket whenever I could. I tribute them by playing certain selections in my set list that reflect the best of the music they brought to us.
Q: Your music has evolved over the years to include the classical, African pop-music, funk and folk idioms. It’s interesting to note that because you received your BA in classical guitar performance, and usually in a classical-music college program, there is a traditional disdain to pursue or incorporate other musical forms. Were you the rebel who incorporated everything in your final recital?
A: No, quite the opposite. I love classical, Spanish and Latin American guitar music. My philosophy about that is in order to be eclectic, which was my goal, I needed to be open to all styles but open to me means being completely involved in what you are studying from its history to its pedagogy, so that when and if I came back to it, I would be able to tune in to the subtleties of it. My final recital was Bach, Villa-Lobos, and Lauro, all very traditional art music. I have done the same with the other styles you have mentioned and when I was asked to actually perform in those styles, I was able to do so with comfort. That was more important to me than being a rebel. I will say that this allowed me to fuse together many styles in my own writing.
Q: Your fantastic YouTube posting of “Rowdy Blues” with Nick Katzman, has created an international sensation with over 300 thousand views and still growing. Were you thinking, “Huh?” and shocked at this international ongoing interest from just one post of one of your songs?
A: Absolutely! Especially when we were told that the first day of “Rowdy Blues” as a featured video got 87,000-plus views! It was a shock, but it was very timely. For acoustic blues to reach that height was an absolute joy to see. I am glad it was Nick and I who were the trailblazers.
Q: You’ve been touring around the world, Australia, Germany and other countries, playing festivals and concert halls. How do you perceive those audiences love for your music compared to American audiences? What are the differences in understanding your music between the two?
A: I get asked this one a lot. In the countries where English is not the first language, the only thing that I found was different is that they enjoyed the feel of the music, even though they did not always understand the text. On occasion when I could, I had select songs translated – when I thought that certain things that would strike them emotionally in the lyrics were important.
People in other countries know the country blues material. But I find that I have to use the term “acoustic blues” for American audiences because they may not understand that acoustic blues is really called country blues and may get it confused with country music. In the other countries, people come out in droves to see an acoustic blues guitar concert and love the authenticity of it. American audiences have a tendency to consider it preservationist, and I have to say to them, “This isn’t for the museum anymore. This is the authoritative model of what has come before.”
Q: You are kicking off this year’s Clearwater Festival on Saturday morning. What’s your relationship with the Clearwater Festival? How many times have you performed there?
A: I grew up at the Great Hudson River Clearwater Revival Festival. My parents were “grass rooters,” as they called it. This will be my third time performing there. The first time was in 2009, I had the honor of having our family friend, the great folk icon Pete Seeger, introduce me. That was also the first time that I performed there with my father.
Q: What will you be performing? And what do you hope the audience takes home with them in their hearts after your performance?
A: I will be performing a set of Delta blues and some snappy finger-style Piedmont blues. The audience should come away with a sense of rejuvenation because that is what I feel when I play it, and I am happy to share that with them.
Q: Is there anything you would like to add or say about your work or anything else?
A: Well, the work continues, and I want to let everyone know that I am in the studio now working on my new full-length, all-original blues album. You can get the newest updates and look for me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. I invite everyone to sign my guestbook on my website and share your thoughts. I hope to see you at the Clearwater Hudson River Revival. It will be a great time. It’s been a pleasure.
Thomasina Winslow opens up the Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival festival at Croton Point Park in Croton-On-the-Hudson at 11am on Saturday (June 16). Tix to the two-fest are $120 in advance; $150 at the gate. Single-day tix are $75 in advance; $85 at the gate. More info here…