Eric Bibb,
Deeper in the Well
(Stony Plain, 2012)

Guy Davis,
The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues
(Smokeydoke, 2012)

Acoustic guitarists and sometime banjo players Guy Davis and Eric Bibb are two of a small number of younger African Americans keeping rural black musical traditions alive while contributing their own original compositions in a compatible vein. Davis hails from a prominent acting family (his parents were Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee), and Bibb's father was Leon Bibb, a figure in the Village folk revival of the early 1960s. Though blues inevitably is a good part of what they do, they are bluesmen in only a broad sense. Their influences are not so much the deep blues of the Delta as the broad range of vernacular music -- Piedmont-style melodic blues, ballads, dance tunes, spirituals -- sung and played in the South from the 19th until the mid-20th century.

After nine releases on the St. Paul-based Red House, Davis takes the independent route for the two-disc Adventures of Fishy Waters, which employs both spoken and sung words, in approximately equal measure, to relate the story of a fictitious African-American hobo circa the 1930s. It's a performance piece Davis wrote 20 years ago, in large part inspired by writer/folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), who collected oral lore and song from black people in Florida's country districts. Though Davis doesn't mention Woody Guthrie, readers of Guthrie's semi-autobiographical novel Bound for Glory are likely to reflect that Woody might have sounded something like this if he'd been born of black parents. The tales told by the rambling hobo of the title incorporate fantastic yarns (often with animals as protagonists), jokes, road wisdom and horrendous violence.

It makes for gripping listening, though perhaps not suited, as the songs are, to repeated hearing. All but four of the songs are originals. The others come from the pens, or at least the repertoires, of such seminal tradition carriers as Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Willie McTell and the Rev. Gary Davis. Original or cover, Davis handles them capably with no more than a single six- or 12-stringed guitar to accompany him.

I can't claim to have heard all of Eric Bibb's albums, but I can say that Deeper in the Well is the most fully satisfying one to pass so far through my speakers. Bibb had the inspired notion to hook up with Louisiana-based folk musician Dirk Powell, who called in other first-rate players (including local Creole fiddler Cedric Watson) to fashion this rich, rewarding recording of old-timers, originals and covers, one of which is Dylan's venerable "The Times They are A-Changin'," once ubiquitous but now rarely heard. Done in surprisingly effective fashion, it closes the album on a note of implicit hope.

Possessed of the sensibilities of the earlier folk revival, Bibb wears his conscience on his sleeve, delivering the occasional message song about the poor and the homeless. Happily, besides giving voice to worthy sentiments, such turn out to be solidly constructed songs. Most of the cuts here are set to attractive neo-stringband arrangements in which various downhome instruments communicate a warmly languid, jazzy ambience. To me, though, the standouts are Bibb's heartfelt, creative readings of the African-American folksongs "Boll Weevil" and "Sinner Man." One would like to think that a whole album's worth of similar material will follow soon.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 April 2012

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