Eric Bibb,
Blues People
(Stony Plain, 2014)

The prolific Eric Bibb, who issues about one album a year, calls himself a blues singer. In truth, blues is as much an accent as a defining characteristic of much of his music. An acoustic guitarist and songwriter melding old traditions and more recent (albeit not necessarily up-to-the-moment) styles, Bibb has the open heart and the social conscience of a 1960s Greenwich Village folk singer, as indeed his father Leon Bibb was. The elder Bibb was also a stage actor. Not surprisingly, the son's approach sometimes betrays the influence of theater music.

In short, the younger Bibb's talents and influences range fairly broadly. Like his contemporary folk-blues singer-songwriter Guy Davis, also from a stage family, Bibb is a black artist not much interested in current African-American pop. He's more in the line of Pete Seeger, with something of an overlapping listenership. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Besides the political concerns, Bibb shares with the late Seeger an essential hopefulness that we shall, indeed, overcome someday.

An assortment of 15 originals, covers and traditionals, Blues People amounts to a meditation on the experience of being black in America, and to a lesser degree of being one black man, Eric Bibb, in particular. The opening song concedes Bibb's privileged upbringing: "Some say I was born with a silver spoon / In my mouth." I presume Bibb feels he owes us this confession because he so often sings for those who weren't and aren't, but really, all that matters is the quality of the music. In Bibb's case that's not an issue.

The new album does address a few pretty dark subjects, most grippingly the Rosewood, Florida, massacre of January 1923. Besides succinctly laying out the core details, the well-crafted ballad "Rosewood" surprises with its remarkable charity toward those responsible, a lynch mob that burned and destroyed a small African-American community. Bibb manages, improbably, to discern a shared tragedy: "Whites an' blacks were counted dead / But the tears had no color / The tears their families shed."

Elsewhere he calls in a host of guests, most famously Guy Davis, Taj Mahal and the Blind Boys of Alabama. The latter two acts, along with Ruthie Foster, contribute to an epic reading of the traditional "Needed Time," which sets off on its odyssey with Taj's rough-hewn banjo plucking, always a thrilling sound. The next two tracks, the Bibb co-writes "Out Walkin'" and "Remember the Ones," evoke memories of the 1960s civil-rights struggles as well as the accompanying music, steeped in spirituals and gospel. Since those days, notwithstanding progress in important areas, it's become sadly evident that the longed-for "post-racial America" remains as elusive as ever. Still, the dream remains, and Bibb sings eloquently for the urgency of hope and our common humanity. Blues People is a testament to faith, of both the religious and political varieties.

music review by
Jerome Clark

3 January 2015

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