feature photo: Keith Perry
Eric Bibb’s brand of country blues is a reminder that this precious paragon of African-American culture is music with deep soul. And more recently, Bibb has also reminded us that the blues is also about conscious and courage. His 2014’s Blues People examined the sordid history of racism in America and the lessons we can draw from it today. His current project Migration Blues (March 31, 2017 from Stony Plain Records) draws parallels between the mid-century Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the industrial North, and the current refugee crisis facing our world from the Middle East to the West as well as numerous other circumstances of forced displacement. In all instances, the people who sought to escape hardships have faced new hardships on their journey and at their destination. And once again, Bibb raises awareness and asks for compassion at a time when both are badly needed.
Bibb has never had to yell to get his point across, his brand of folk blues involves him speaking one-on-one with each listener, not hollering to a crowd. Migration Blues gets even more intimate than Blues People because Bibb’s warm voice and his guitar is exclusively backed for most of the record by only Michael Jerome Browne (guitars, banjos, mandolin) and the harmonica talents of JJ Milteau, who recently made a live record with Bibb. As Milteau and Browne also pitched in on the production and songwriting, it’s virtually a full-blown collaboration among the three.
Bibb’s “Refugee Moan” herald the simple elegance of the understated approach, his baritone guitar finding simpatico with Browne’s banjo as Bibb assumes the role of the refugee longing for “a road to a peaceful country/Where the people have pity on a homeless man” not needing to pose the obvious question, is America still that country?
“Delta Getaway” shifts the story to Mississippi, where the narrator heads up to Chicago to avoid a lynching. The stomp of Olle Linder’s drums breaks in on the third verse as Bibb wonders aloud why innocent people are persecuted to the point of being driven out of homes, lamenting that “it’s not God’s will/To keep the Black man down.” There’s a thread that links that story of the Great Migration to the historically-based story of “Diego’s Blues,” the tale of a woman who was part of the migration of Mexican workers who replaced African-American ones in the Delta region.
For the slowly sauntering “Prayin’ For Shore,” the storyteller is cast in a different time (today) and a different place (across the Mediterranean) but the challenges, hopes and fears aren’t that different at all. “Migration Blues” doesn’t even tell a story — through lyrics, at least — it spins its tale through the strings of Bibb’s resophonic 12-string guitar. Browne wrote “Four Years, No Rain” with BA Markus, and in this migration sage, drought is the instigator, whereas eminent domain was the culprit on “We Had To Move.”
These originals all evoke songs of the early-to-mid twentieth century rural and folk America so convincingly, but that didn’t stop Bibb from choosing a few songs that were actually from that period and mindset. They don’t address the theme of displacement as directly, but perhaps the point here is that migration is deeply connected to so many other phenomena. Starting with Bob Dylan’s confrontational anti-war screed “Masters of War,” continuing with Woody Guthrie’s eternal “This Land is Your Land” and ending the album with the hopeful African-American spiritual “Mornin’ Train,” Bibb ties it all together in a very lucid, presentation that not only soothes the soul but kindles the mind.
Sometimes addressing contemporary social ills is best done using old, trusty traditional methods of music making. Leave it to a real pro like Eric Bibb to undertake that task. Migration Blues is on-point for today, but the topic has always been salient.
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