The Grammys are on Sunday January 31, 2010, and I had the wonderful opportunity to interview David Bromberg. For those of you that do not know David, David is a 2008 Grammy nominated artist. This was quite an honor for me to be speaking with David. David has quite a sense of humor which is conveyed in his answers and his songwriting. I am glad that I had the chance to meet David.
David was taking a break from his violin shop, as he is presently touring with Jorma Kaukonen. I always wanted to interview Jorma and it was quite unexpected when he joined us in our discussions. Jorma was a person in my quest for interviews. Jorma was named in 2008 as one of the top acoustic blues guitarists, according to a poll in Acoustic Guitar Magazine. From that time, I have set out to interview all of the named. And, now I am half way there! It’s always good to have goals in life. Jorma is an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is a former member of Jefferson Airplane.
Both men are extremely articulate and they have incredible knowledge of blues history. It was a pleasure to capture their thoughts here with you.
Monica: David, I see that you have mastered many instruments.
David: I wouldn’t have claimed to have mastered anything!
M: Which ones are the most challenging for you?
D: Well all of them! I mean I play a tiny bit of fiddle. Just a tiny bit. A little bit of mandolin. A little bit of dobro. When I pick them up to practice, my guitars yell at me!
M: Do they?
D: Yeah. They say, “You’re not done with me!”.
M: You do practice everyday?
D: No, I should. But I do practice.
M: I’m always amazed how some artists still tell me that they practice. What about you Jorma?
Jorma: Yeah, the same thing. I probably don’t practice as much as I should. But you know if you don’t keep at it, it goes away rather quickly. My practicing involves running through songs that I already know. I never learned to practice scales. But whatever your method, whatever your practice thing is, everybody has to practice.
M: And both of you are teachers as well?
J: We are!
D: I actually stopped playing entirely for twenty two years.
M: Yes, Why?
D: I actually got burned out on the road and didn’t recognize it as burn out. I realized when I was home, I wasn’t practicing. I wasn’t jamming. I wasn’t writing. There’s nothing about that, that’s a musician. So I felt that I was no longer a musician. I didn’t want to be one of those guys that drags his butt up on stage and does an imitation of what he used to do, cause he doesn’t know any other way to earn a living. So I decided that I have to find another way to live my life. So I did.
M: So that’s when you did the violins?
D: Hmm mmm, which I am still doing.
M: Do you enjoy that too?
D: Yes. It’s like music. No one will ever learn all of it. There is no end.
M: Question for both of you. I hear all of the time, as an artist, you want to make blues new and innovative. How can you make something classic, as the blues, new and innovative today?
J: I’m sure David has a take on this too. If you think about…I don’t think you can look at any music as an immutable form. At one point blues was a popular music for a lot of people and so in that moment, it was something new.
There are certainly things that we all need to do. If you don’t do them it doesn’t sound like blues. We don’t have to get into what the notes are and stuff. You know what I’m talking about. There are certainly things you need to do for it to sound like blues. But there are a lot of different places for it to go. That’s the beauty of the form.
I find that every now and then you run into someone that goes, “Well I think blues are boring.” and I go, “You are not listening to the right blues. “ I’m not sure that I consciously set out to try to make things innovative. But, I’m constantly learning from my friends. Whether I like it or not, it makes my music go someplace else.
D: I steal from my friends.
J: I call it the folk process.
D: Blues was a marketing term developed in the thirties when they started selling those discs. Anything that a black person sang they called blues or race records. They developed some other names. All of this stuff was not as popular as the religious music at the time. That was much more popular.
I think anybody who is worth listening to, even if he is doing something old, makes it his own. I always feel that any tune I do belongs to me at least for the period of time that I am doing it. It might be someone else’s before and after. But while I’m doing it, it is mine and I can do what I want with it. So, I, ah, end up ruining a lot of them!
M: I doubt that! Whenever you say that it’s your own, for the blues, do you think it is more important to have the feel and sing from your heart or sing it technically correct?
D: What is technically correct? I don’t think there is a technically correct in the blues. I was telling Jorma the other day. John Sebastian and I had kind of parallel careers. John and the Loving Spoonful. That John Sebastian. His father was John Sebastian too. We both took care of old blues players amongst other things. We had other parallels.
He watched after Lighnin’ Hopkins. He told me about one session where Lightnin’ was recording with one of the young up and coming jazz bass players. After a take the bass player said, “Mr. Hopkins, I believe that the last chorus you played thirteen bars“. Mr. Hopkins said, “Yeah?” “Well I thought the blues was supposed to be twelve bars.” Lightnin’ said, “What man said that?”
M: You made it your own.
D: Yeah. That’s it. In making it your own, you make a lot of changes to the correct way. The whole idea of correct is what has killed all kinds of music. You can’t play ‘High Society’ with a dixie land band unless you do that famous clarinet obligato. So everyone does that famous obligato. It’s dead. The music is dead. You have to make it your own and it will live. Classical music has absolutely no surprises. People go in to hear what is old and comfortable to them. And the people who it isn’t old and comfortable to aren’t interested. It’s dying.
M: You stated you write songs. Don’t you think as a song writer your audience expects verse, chorus, verse. Specifically for radio, there are expectations and standards.
J: I have to jump into that. I’m sure David has a take on this also. That’s a good question. None of us…people always say well I don’t play pop music. No one wants to play unpopular music. But there are a lot of different ways to approach things. I think that if you are one of these tunesmiths trying to write hit songs that’s an art unto itself. If I had, I would probably have more money than I do.
When you put things together, my responsibilit
y to my art is to give them an honest pure show. That’s as far as it goes. I don’t write things that are going to cater to what they want; and at the same time, I don’t say f*** you or whatever to them because I don’t think that either. What I do just comes from the heart because that’s when I write, when something moves me. If I was a professional songwriter things would be different. I would still write from the heart but I would be drawing from a wider palette.
As it is, if you listen to some of my songs, some have hooks, the good ones have hooks, some don’t . Some have choruses some don’t. That’s just the way it is. If you listen to a lot of music, some of the stuff you really like, as David says, is really true. There is sort of a seductive thing about something that you feel comfortable to listen to. That’s OK to. There is also something really exciting about those surprises of what just happened in a tune.
D: I agree with Jorma one hundred percent. If you are trying to do what you think your audience expects or what you think your audience wants, you are not being true to music. I believe that the people who are successful in pop music are successful because they like that. They’re successful because that means something to them just as what I do means something to me. If you want to trash Brittany Spears you are talking to the wrong guy. I’m not a fan of Brittany Spears but I feel she is probably awfully good.
J: Taylor Swift is a young country singer. She’s not my thing. She writes all her own stuff, she works very hard, she is very talented.
D: She’s into it.
D: Both of them are into it. They both put a lot of work into their music. What was that book that someone wrote on the hundred thousand hour principle? That a genius is someone who spent a hundred thousand hours working his tail off of at what he does. I don’t know about genius. But both of these people Taylor, Brittany, Christina Aguilera who I’ve become a fan of. They put in that time. They put in a LOT of time and hard work.
M: You said hours. I always heard and read ten years to be a master on a instrument or as a songwriter.
D: Ten years if your working a lot of hours a day. I don’t think that everyone can be a master. I’m not sure what a master is.
J: It’s sort of a mutable concept because we are dealing with language. To me, contained in that word, master, it’s almost like it means when you get there you are done. And we all know that you are never done. If you spend a lot of time you get good at what you do, hopefully. You have to keep an open mind and keep listening to stuff and learning and absorbing or stealing as some of my friends like to say..stuff from their buddies. That’s exciting stuff.
If you just…one of the things that are dangerous for guys like us that have been around for a long time… One of our strengths is a lot of our stuff has been around for a long time to our fans. God bless them. It evokes the sound track of their lives. And, I’m the same way about stuff that I like. I know Eric Clapton very casually. Some of my favorite stuff of his is Cream and that’s his least favorite, you know. I understand totally. That was exciting for you but not exciting for me. That’s all right.
I know enough songs over the years, so I don’t play songs that I don’t like to play. The good news for me is I can find songs that I find extremely enjoyable and will do it tonight. I have songs that I’ve been playing for almost fifty years that evokes that sound track of your life and at the same time opens people’s minds when you play something new. It’s very easy to get…I like the way you put it….trying to be…
imitating yourself. That’s such a depressing thought. I’ve never reinvented myself and I probably never will. I sound like me no matter what I do.
The good news is at this point in my life I only have to sound like me. Now when I was a kid and I was learning how to play, I wasn’t one of those guys that could learn these blues things form the masters and do it that way. I caught a lot of flack from those New Yorkers about it. You know, Blind Mississippi Driveway, he didn’t do it like that. I said he didn’t, but I did. All that I really wanted to do was to play for people. I didn’t get hung up in that. What may have been a shortcoming to some people back then, has turned out OK for me because I just have to sound like myself.
D: There is such a thing in every genre of music…there are bluegrass Nazis and blues Nazis. These people will come up to you when you do a tune and let you know that T-bone Walker, who recorded that, didn’t play that chord. Well., maybe not when he recorded, but he may have performed it that way a number of times. He only has one recording of one performance. You don’t know what happened.
D. Besides which, this is how I play.
D: The whole idea of all of this stuff is to bring somebody with you to transport someone…to take someone outside of themselves and transport someone. You can’t transport them to somebody else’s place. You can only transport them to your place . You therefore have to do it the way you do it, which at the same time it’s not to say you don’t listen to anybody or pay your respects.
I mentioned that I have become a fan of Christina Aguilera. Also what attracts me, is the respect they showed for where they came from. I was never a Christina fan because the tunes I heard, she always seemed to do every vocal thing she could in every tune. And, then I saw her on a Grammy show and they did a tribute to James Brown and she did ‘It’s a Man’s World’. And she DID it. I mean she sang the hell out of it with no tricks. She just did it and it was gorgeous and she was paying her respects. That won my heart.
I was nominated for a Grammy and went to the Grammy awards and Beyonce did a duet with Tina Turner. Tina wasn’t dancing for whatever reason. Beyonce did all of her moves. I said this woman knows where she came from. She is giving her respects. That won my heart.
Etta James was kinda bitter. She wanted to play herself in that terrible movie. She was lucky not to be a part of it. But Beyonce sang ‘At Last’ and she sang it as close to Etta as she could possibly do it. There was no doubt she listened to it really, really carefully and studied it. I have to respect that and at the same time both of these women do things the wrong way.
M: The song was close but there were some subtle differences.
D: There had to be, of course. Even if she didn’t intend for there to be, there would be.
M: Christina is a Pittsburgh girl.
J: I didn’t know that. No kidding. Cool.
D: The girl can sing.
M: What do you think you’re your biggest legacy is. The fur peace ranch? You played? What are you most proud of?
J: I guess the thing I’m most proud of is that I turned a lot of people onto the music where I got my start. The American traditional music. I guess that’s really it. I just love the traditional songs so much. There are so many great new artists. There are so many great old artists. Every now and then you get the question, What do you attribute to the resurges of the blues? I go, hey listen. It just never went away. Maybe there is some good looking kid who has a hit now and that’s why you know about it.
D: I think people should start doing it their own way and stop trying to parrot note for note and lyc to lyc on the record. It’s good to learn every one of those lycs so you have them in your vocabulary. But then when you do it, you have to do it with spontaneity. The same way those things were recorded. If I can just interject.
D: Jorma was personally responsible for popularizing the work of my teacher, Reverend Gary Davis. He deserves huge props for making people aware of that music and performing it and giving them the spirit. We did a show last night and Jorma sang ‘Let Us Get Together’ and it just got to me.
M: Jorma did you sit in with him to?
J: No. My mentor was this guy in Buchanan, may he rest in peace. He was one of the Reverends. But the interesting thing to me, after the fact, was his aunt introduced me to the Reverend and showed me his take, which was different from the Reverend too. I didn’t realize it at the time, because I was just so excited to be learning that stuff . Ian…my mentors real muse, was Lonnie Johnson. So, there are all these great connections out there.
When I went to New York, I had a job out there and I met the Reverend a number of times and went to see him when I could. But, I didn’t have the three or six bucks an hour. I didn’t have the money. I just watched him when I could and talked to the guys I knew who knew him and absorbed it that way.
In my opinion Reverend Davis is one of the great figures of 20th century American music and not just because of his guitar playing. His use of harmony, singing, I mean he was a deep cat. A really deep cat. Woody Mann is doing a really interesting documentary about him. He has been working on it for a couple of years now. I think it is going to be really enlightening.
M: I hear the Reverend was pretty tough. I interviewed Ernie Hawkins this week.
J: Ernie is the man too, by the way.
D: So did Stephen Grossman. Woody Mann. In return for the lessons I used to lead him around. Some of that was extraordinarily valuable to me. I spent a lot of time in Church. One of the biggest influences aside from the Reverend were some of the other preachers that I heard at these churches. Jorma just mentioned Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie Johnston was the biggest influence in my theory, anyhow. Lonnie Johnson and preachers. If you take Lonnie Johnson technique and tone and combine with a preacher’s phrasing you have BB King, Albert King and Freddie King.
J: You mentioned Ernie Hawkins. He is one of the heaviest cats I know. You are so lucky to have him here in Pittsburgh. He is a great player. He can certainly do all of the stuff the Reverend did if he wants to. But, he has his own style. He plays his way. Ernie is brilliant. He really is.
M: What do you admire most about the person you are taking the stage with?
D: Oh oh.
M: I know such a chick question. Really throwing you off.
J: We have been friends for a long time. I guess the thing I admire the most is what I admire about Barry. He stayed true to his tradition all of his life. You can say he didn’t play for twenty two years, but he never left it. You hear it in his playing. His commitment to his roots are strong. You have to love that.
D: He plays. He means it. He means it in every part of his life. There is not much I wouldn’t do for Jorma. He’s one of the best people walking the earth.
M: That’s so nice.
D: It’s true.
M: Let’s finish up with talking about where you are going.
D: Straight to Hell. We’ll meet all of our idols there! (We all laughed)
J: We are on this tour for the next couple of weeks. We are both fortunate that there are many aspects to our lives. I have a daughter at home that takes a lot of my time when I am home. We teach. Doing things with my friend Barry. Just trying to stay as sharp as I can as I slip moderately gracefully in my dotage.
I’m the luckiest guy. In the course of my life, I’ve occasionally had to do things I would rather not do.
But, I never had to do something I really didn’t want to do. That’s lucky stuff.
M: What’s in store for you David?
D: I’m doing a CD. A really strange one. I asked a bunch of people I’ve known through the years to write a song for me then produce me doing it. I’m calling it “Use Me”. So far I have three tracks in the can. One with Los Lobos. One with Tim O’Brian. One with John Hiatt. I don’t want to mention the others. But, they are good people.
M: It will be interesting what they pick for you. That’s gutsy.
I thought we were going to wrap up. But, we kept going and I have to share because this is in a sense documenting some blues history.
M: Anything you want to share with me that I didn’t ask you?
J: You are pretty darn on top of it.
D: You asked really good questions. I hate when people ask me where do you think music is going today?
M: I sometimes ask a similar question of where do you think blues is going. There is such a fine line between blues, rock, country. Where is that line?
D: I don’t care where music is going. I care where I go.
M: You are so diverse. That was one of my questions that I didn’t ask. Do you think it helped or hindered you, being so diverse?
D: Commercially speaking it is a huge liability because you are not accepted. I’ve never been accepted by the blues community. I haven’t sworn allegiance to just do blues. The same thing with the bluegrass community. Things are loosening up a little bit. Things used to be tight like that.
Early in my career I had the pleasure of being asked to produce Johnny Shines. I’m very proud to say that in many of his interviews he has said that my producing was one of his best. It was the one he liked most. I had the pleasure of sitting with him. Johnny Shines probably spent more time with Robert Johnson than anybody else ever knew of. He told me a few interesting things about Robert Johnson.
He told me that Robert only had one hit. It wasn’t really blues. It was terra plane blues. He was a professional musician. According to Johnny Shines, he would sing a Bing Crosby song as much as ‘Hell Hound on My Trail‘. He had to do whatever his audiences wanted him to do. He did everything. If you read John Work and Alan Lomax’s account of their travels when they discovered Muddy Waters, they not only interviewed these singers and recorded their music, they checked to see what they had. They went to every juke joint that they passed in Mississippi to see what was in the juke boxes. The thing that was in every juke box and in Muddy Water’s collection, and it wasn’t a big collection, was Gene Autry.
J: Yeah you have to check Gene out.
D: Woody Herman’s stuff was widely listened to. We listen to these blues guys and think this is all they did, and no it wasn’t. It was all the record companies wanted to record them doing. Which is a totally different thing. So, did I make a mistake for being diverse? I don’t know. I heard a rumor that when Hank Williams played Kansas City Charlie Parker would sit in.
J: Jimmy Rogers recording of ‘Waiting for a Train”, it’s Willie Armstrong playing trumpet.
D: And Bennie Goodman is on one of those early ones.
J: Funny thing is, I started out as a folkie before I got into Rock ‘n Roll. I become a well paid folk musician as a result of Jefferson Airplane. Also as a result of that, when I started out playing straight acoustic music, I didn’t play the wooden music gigs because I was tainted by Rock ‘n roll. That’s how it was.
M: We talked about a lot of things. I want to thank both of you for your time. Take care.
In 2008 Jorma was named one of the best acoustic blues guitarists in Acoustic Guitar magazine. You may enjoy reading about Chris Smither who also was named.
If the electric guitar sound is your cup of tea, you may wish to read my Robin Trower interview.
Catch the Grammys on Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 8:00 pm on CBS. Here are the blues nominated artists:
BEST TRADITIONAL BLUES ALBUM
A Stranger Here
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band featuring Rick Vito
Rough and Tough
Stomp! The Blues Tonight
Chicago Blues: A Living History
Billy Boy Arnold, Lurrie Bell, Billy Branch, & John Primer
BEST CONTEMPORARY BLUES ALBUM
The Robert Cray Band
The Truth According to Ruthie Foster
Live: Hope at the Hideout
Back to the River
The Derek Trucks Band
Should be an interesting night for Derek and Susan, since they are married and all!
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may enjoy reading Kim Simmonds.
Copyright © 2010 Copyright Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.
Photograph Copyright © 2010 Charles Bennett. All Rights Reserved.