Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Troubadour Eric Bibb’s chance encounter with blues history inspires a tribute to Delta legend Booker White
By Eric Schelkopf
A chance encounter with a fan led musician Eric Bibb to become connected with a piece of blues history.
After a gig a few years ago, a fan opened the guitar case he was carrying to show Bibb a relic from the past -- a 1930s vintage Resophonic National steel-body guitar that belonged to Delta blues legend Booker “Bukka” White.
The encounter inspired Bibb to write an album - Booker's Guitar, on the very guitar that inspired the album.
White, who passed away in 1977 at the age of 70, is known for such songs as "Shake 'Em On Down" and "Fixin' to Die Blues" (later covered by Bob Dylan). He presented his cousin, living legend B.B. King, with his first guitar.
Bibb, known for his soulful blending of folk, blues, gospel and world music, will perform with Texas songbird Ruthie Foster on Jan. 21, 2011 at the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
I had the chance to talk to Bibb about his brush with blues greatness and how it inspired him to write the album.
Q - How did it feel the first time you actually picked up Booker's guitar?
It was something beyond an everyday occurrence. It felt very momentous. This was the instrument that Booker had for years and used to made music that I listened to on records. It was a guitar that B.B. King called the "holy relic."
And then to actually play it was wonderful. It is a great sounding instrument.
Acoustically, it has a lot of volume and richness. There's a lot of National Guitars from that time, the early 1930s, that look cool, but don't necessarily sound great.
So this is really a rich sounding instrument, and it thrilled me, just the sound of it and knowing that it had been his companion for years. There was a set list taped to the side in his handwriting.
Q - Wow, that's cool. What songs were on the set list?
"Fixin' to Die Blues," "Aberdeen, Mississippi," were on there, along with someother stuff that really wasn't that legible to me.
It's a really cool looking guitar. He had it re-chromed, so it was pretty shiny and all that stuff. But the neck and the wooden parts were pretty weathered.
Q - I understand that you listened to his music growing up. What do you appreciate about his music?
He was a different kind of player than I am. First of all, I don't play bottleneck, and he was a really robust, bottleneck player who got a lot of volume out of his guitar.
He would get really physical. He had that slapping thing going on.
What inspired me most about Booker White was his total sincerity. He was totally there when he performed.
He was very focused. I got the sense that this wasn't just a guy who was entertaining people. This was his holy grail. He seemed very sincere, and honest about what he was doing.
Q - Did you feel like you were channeling Booker White when you were playing his guitar?
First of all, I was wondering, "Why me?" I was just thinking why did it come to me. I didn't think it was just a coincidence. There was a reason behind this whole experience.
There was a reason why this man even told me he was in possession of it. He liked my music a lot, and he made some sort of connection between me and his friend Booker.
I felt chosen in a way, without being too dramatic about it. Booker's energy through his instrument had somehow been passed on to me.
Q - Did you get inspired by the guitar to write the songs for the album?
I did. I really feel the whole experience kind of told me, "Man, you're on the right track. Trust your intuitions."
I think writing blues tunes in an old country blues type of format is really not the easiest thing in the world to do. Simpler songs are harder.
It's essential you are truthful and that you are not being kind of a cartoon reflection of your heroes. You're making sure that there are elements in the music, and in the playing and singing that resonate what was going on before.
If I thought too much about it, it might have been just a little bit too daunting. But I didn't. I just thought, "It's supposed to be this way. I'm supposed to do this."
Q - Do you think this album will get people to try to find out more about Booker and his music?
I hope so. I hope people will check him out, not only for his music, but also his life and career, and his connection to the whole genre.
Q - Your dad is folk-blues musician Leon Bibb. Was he an influence? Do you think he got you interested in folk-blues?
He gave me an introduction into that whole tribe of folks who were celebrating people like Leadbelly and Josh White. I became aware of all those people at a very young age.
Q - You are better known in Europe than America. Have you been trying to build your base in America?
Absolutely. I've been getting more mainstream media attention.
In America, if you are not part of the mainstream, it is very easy to slip under the radar. The response I got from the Booker's Guitar album is very encouraging.
It let me know that people appreciated it, and even more importantly, it was something that felt natural to me. So that is as good as it gets.