GUY RAZ, host:
A few years ago, blues guitarist Eric Bibb walked into his hotel after a gig in London. A fan carrying a guitar case approached him. And in that guitar case -well, here's how Eric Bibb tells it.
(Soundbite of song, "Booker's Guitar")
Mr. ERIC BIBB (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) The guitar only played by the great Booker White, found its way by grace into my arms...
RAZ: A 1930s vintage Resophonic National guitar that once belonged to blues legend Booker White. Eric Bibb convinced that fan to lend him the guitar. And with it, he produced a record inspired by the pre-war Delta blues.
Eric Bibb's album is called "Booker's Guitar." And he joins me in the middle of his tour from Tucson, Arizona.
Eric Bibb, welcome to the program.
Mr. BIBB: Thank you, Guy. Pleasure to be here with you.
RAZ: How did you react when that guitar case opened up and Booker White's guitar was inside?
Mr. BIBB: This is the guitar, mind you, that Booker's younger cousin B.B. King calls the holy relic. And that's what it felt like. It really had a vibe, you know, a mojo. It had something above and beyond just a good guitar. It had something indescribably wonderful that really inspired me.
(Soundbite of song, "Booker's Guitar")
Mr. BIBB: (Singing) Booker's guitar rings like a bell. It's gonna keep on ringing for a thousand years.
Being able to actually embrace physically a guitar that had been pressed next to Booker to realize that so much of who he was musically and otherwise was somehow absorbed by that steel-bodied guitar. And to realize that for some reason, which I think is beyond coincidence, that guitar wound up in my arms inspiring me and giving me an opportunity to pay homage to some of my heroes -Booker included - but also to continue his legacy, and that felt like an honor, like I'd been chosen for that role.
RAZ: Eric Bibb, I've read that, to you, this record is a sort of culmination of everything you've studied, the pre-war blues, a sound you've been trying to capture and interpret and express around the world. And you have lived in Europe for most of your adult life. How is this - the culmination of everything you've been studying?
Mr. BIBB: It took me a long time to really feel that I was ready to not only recreate the music that was inspired by a lot of these pre-war blues songsters, like Booker White, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Son House - these are people who have influenced me.
But I realized really early on in my career that I was not going to be a museum curator. It seemed like my mission was not to, verbatim or close to verbatim, recreate the guitar sounds and the songs of my heroes. I always felt that even though they were colleagues of mine who could do that wonderfully, enviably perhaps even, I felt like as a songwriter, what my calling was, was to create new material that was inspired by other material and really continue the blues lineage, the acoustic blues tradition in my own way.
RAZ: You seem to pay homage to that idea. In one song - it's one of the few songs on this record that's a cover - and I think blues fans will recognize this song as Blind Willie Johnson's "Nobody's Fault but Mine."
(Soundbite of song, "Nobody's Fault but Mine")
Mr. BIBB: (Singing) She taught me how to read, if I don't read, my soul be lost. Nobody's fault but mine. I have a Bible in my home...
RAZ: How hard is it for you to take a song by somebody like Blind Willie Johnson and make it your own?
Mr. BIBB: It took me a long time. I've known this song for a very long time but it wasn't until the idea occurred to me to let my wonderful compatriot there, Grant Dermody on harmonica, be my main accompanist.
(Soundbite of song, "Nobody's Fault but Mine")
Mr. BIBB: (Singing) Nobody's fault but mine, nobody's fault but mine. If I don't read, my soul be lost.
I wanted Grant to play the role of Blind Willie Johnson's slide guitar. I felt like I was - it was too daunting to recreate it as Willie Johnson had recorded it, guitar and vocal. But I loved the song. And it's often a question of finding the way in. You know, that's the thing. When you're presented with a fantastic original recording that's inspired so many listeners and music lovers through decades, you're looking for a personal way in that's going to make you stay in your own zone and not constantly be reminding yourself that there's an awesome recording out there that might be something people compare yours to.
RAZ: I'm speaking with blues musician Eric Bibb. His new record, inspired by the music of Delta bluesman Booker White is called "Booker's Guitar."
Eric Bibb, you brought your guitar with you to the studio, and I was hoping you could play something for us off the record.
Mr. BIBB: Love to, love to. This is a song that just came to me as a way of revisiting some of the imagery and zones that my heroes inhabited, wandering around, traipsing around the American South playing their music. Hence the title "Walkin' Blues Again."
(Soundbite of song, "Walkin' Blues Again")
Mr. BIBB: (Singing) You can't stop it. It's like a runaway train, pumping through your heart, running around your brain. Talking about the walking blues, my friend. Play it when I'm sad, play it when I'm happy again. John Henry had a helper, I've been told. With rain like silver, shine like gold. Talking about a steel-driving man. Just like John, I'm doing just the best that I can.
RAZ: That was absolutely stunning.
Mr. BIBB: Thank you.
RAZ: Listening to that song and reading your notes about it, you talk about how it taps into a righteous anger that many of my heroes must have felt.
Mr. BIBB: Yeah. You know, the whole culture and the whole atmosphere that embraced the whole blues tradition was so much more than just wonderful music. It was the whole historical reality of Southern racism, post-slavery trauma, all of the above. And when we think of these pre-war blues heroes, we're concentrating on their wonderful music, this incredible sound borne of all kinds of pain and oppression.
What I wanted to just refer to without beating it over the head with a hammer was a sense of rage even that obviously had to be tucked in big time for survival. As a blues musician who feels connected to the tradition living in this new century, I felt it was appropriate and my responsibility even to just make a reference to those things that I'm talking about. And in the lyric let it come out without it taking over.
RAZ: Your life story is so compelling. You were surrounded by these legendary figures. I mean, Paul Robeson was your godfather. Obviously, your father, Leon Bibb, was well known in the folk scene in New York. You've met Bob Dylan. You knew Pete Seeger - know him. In one of the songs on this record, you sing that the blues was in your bones, but I wonder if folk music was really in your bones even earlier.
Mr. BIBB: You know, that's the funny thing. These categories are really something that was not really part of my consciousness until I started trying to make a career. And then I heard people talk about, oh, he's more folk than blues, he's more pop than blues.
When I was coming up, the wonderful world of folk music as it was at the time was an umbrella concept that included music from Africa, the Caribbean, Mahalia Jackson's spiritual praise songs. It included Leadbelly. It included Big Bill Broonzy.
I never really sliced it all up into separate parts because many of these people were crossing all of those boundaries. Music is a fluid thing, and it disrespects boundaries. And I think we've gotten too used to categorizing music.
RAZ: That's blues troubadour Eric Bibb. His new record is called "Booker's Guitar." He joined me from member station KUAZ in Tucson, Arizona.
Eric Bibb, thanks so much.
Mr. BIBB: Guy, thank you.
RAZ: And before we let you go, can you play us one more song from the new record?
Mr. BIBB: Love to. Here's a tune called "New Home."
(Soundbite of song, "New Home")
Mr. BIBB: (Singing) I'm building a new home, cross the county line. I'm building a new home, cross the county line. Up on a high hill, where the view's so fine.
RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening and have a great night.
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