The Language of the Blues & the Stories Behind the Music:
An Interview with Debra DeSalvo
[Debra DeSalvo is a guitarist, singer, journalist and passionate blues fan who has racked up an impressive list of credits: playing guitar with the punk band False Prophets, rap-rockers Plastique, Karyn Kuhl, Lysdexic, Grooveananda and Flesh Test among others. She's written for Guitar, Guitar School, Guitar World, JamTV, The Village Voice and co-authored Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Body and Mind That Liberate the Soul (Ballantine). She recently formed her own band, a rock power trio, and released the EPs Electric Goddess and Hoboken Demo to rave reviews. I met with Debra in a diner in New York City and discussed a wide range of subjects including: music, the Lower East Side poetry and arts scene, matters of the spirit, race and her new book The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu (Billboard Books) an anecdotal dictionary of the blues.]
Wanda Phipps: I wanted you to talk a bit about your friendship with Allen [Ginsberg] and the Downtown New York poetry scene while you were with the band False Prophets. That was when I met you, right?
Debra DeSalvo: It must have been in the early 90s. That's when we all met. It was such a great time for the band because we met all you guys—all the poets. It was wonderful. It gave us a shot of creative energy. When Steven [Taylor] joined the band we developed a connection with Allen Ginsberg because Steven had been Allen's accompanist. We'd go over to Allen's house on East 12th Street Street to hang out. I think I was already going to the marathons at the Poetry Project [at Saint Mark's Church] before that but then we started performing at the marathons. And that was really fun. That was so great. I remember I was so nervous when we did our song "Eggshell Walk" because I got to play the grand piano there in the church right after Philip Glass had played it. And we would back-up Allen as the Ginsbergers sometimes at the Pyramid and that was really fun.
Knowing people like Allen, Harry Smith and Tuli Kupferbug [of the Fugs] was really exciting because they were so excited by culture and what we were doing and what everybody was doing. And I think they gave me permission intellectually to think about what I was doing and what I'd experienced in Milwaukee too--the Blues scene--to think about it in a cultural framework and in an intellectual way without feeling I was being pretentious. Because they were always doing that as a matter of course, you know. So they were just really inspiring.
WP: Speaking of blues… how did you get the idea for the book?
DD: I'd been working as associate editor for Blues Revue magazine. The editor-in-chief, Andrew Robble, and I would talk a lot about what different words meant. I'd call him if I didn't know what something meant or he'd call me. And one day I was thinking about the word "mojo", and I thought, "Do I really know what that word means? I don't think I really know. I don't know where it came from. I mean I kind of know—'mojo' sort of like magnetism." It dawned on me that I batted these words around but I'd never investigated their etymology or their history or meaning...and I really wanted to.
WP: I think when I was reading about the derivation of the word "mojo" in the book, I thought about that Jeff Buckley song "Mojo Pin" and I was wondering how they're connected. Have you ever thought about it?
DD: One of my favorite people to talk to when I was doing the interviews for the book was Robert Lockwood, who sadly just passed away. I interviewed him right after his 90th birthday, and he was so smart, sharp, funny and irascible. He was amazing. And I would talk to him a lot about Robert Johnson. Robert Lockwood is famous in his own right as an artist but his mother was with Robert Johnson for seven years. Lockwood was Robert Johnson's common-law step-son basically. He told me that Robert Johnson was a voracious reader, loved to read and was always getting ideas for his songs from things that he read. That was so great because there's often this view of blues musicians as somehow primitive. And Robert Johnson had a lot of songs inspired by hoodoo lore….the devil, the crossroads, he had these powerful images. It was great to talk to Robert Lockwood and hear that Robert Johnson would read about something and then put it in a song. And I think that's what artists do. It's not necessarily because Robert Johnson was standing at a crossroads and made a deal with the devil that he wrote "Cross Road Blues." No, they're artists, they're creative. I'm sure Jeff Buckley took "mojo" in another direction--because that's what artists do.
WP: How do you manage your parallel careers of writing and music? I know you have your masters in journalism from Columbia University and you do a lot of freelance writing. How do you stay motivated as a freelancer and a musician?
DD: Survival, needing to survive. For me, writing and music are really compatible career paths because you have to be alone a lot as a writer. And then as a musician I get to go out and I'm with my band or I'm touring and I'm with people every night. I'm playing in clubs and it's just insanely social. Then I can retreat to a writing project. When I was finishing this book the last three to four months I was doing 16 hour days in my apartment. I would go to the bathroom, eat at my desk and that was it. It was so intense. It's great to go out and play music after that.
WP: How did you start your own thing, fronting your own band after playing guitar with so many other bands?
DD: I always loved singing but I was so passionate about electric guitar from a really early age. When I was a kid trying to get my mom to let me play electric guitar (she didn't think it was ladylike), I would always sing the guitar solos in the songs on the radio, not the lyrics. After False Prophets disbanded, I toured with some other bands. And all of a sudden I began to realize I had something to say vocally. I had been writing songs for a band that I was in called Happy Boy. We had a great singer and so I never thought to sing the songs. But that band broke up and I was kind of bummed out that those songs would never be sung.
So I started going to a voice teacher. I was never taught how to play the guitar but the voice is different, you can really wreck your voice and never recover. My teacher, Don Lawrence, teaches a lot of amazing, famous singers and I don't think he works with beginners much. I remember him asking me in a session, "What's your vocal identity?" And I just looked at him and said, "I have no idea." It was a fun process of discovery because you don't know what your voice is really going to sound like until you sing. And he is an incredible teacher so he got me there really fast. But I don't think I really found my voice until this new EP. I did the Electric Goddess EP shortly after I'd started singing. Then last summer I did the Hoboken Demo EP and that's the first time I felt like I had the right balance between the guitar and the voice and I felt like "I think I know who I am as a singer."
And again this is what inspired me about Allen and Harry. When we met them they were pretty old and they were just doing their thing and growing and excited. And for me to learn to sing at a relatively late date was kind of like, wow, no matter what you can still surprise yourself.
WP: You mentioned Harry a few times, Harry Smith, maybe you should explain who he was and your relationship to him?
DD: Harry Smith, Oh my God, he was so incredible. Above all he was an archivist. He was a filmmaker. He would paint on filmstrips and create stop-motion collages. He did these films where he would periodically change the soundtrack. He used to have a Beatles song on the soundtrack for one of his films and he replaced it with "Baghdad Stomp" by False Prophets for a while. He would come to our rehearsals and our shows. He had this high-end Sony Walkman that the Smithsonian had given him. He would be standing there, this elderly guy, in the moshpit with bodies flying by, recording the whole thing. Then he would come to our rehearsals and somewhere in his archives are these tapes of Stephan [the lead singer] and our bass player at the time, Anthony, having these fights shouting, "Fuck you!" "No, fuck you!" They went totally Brooklyn, "What the fuck!" "Fuck you!" And I would think, someday someone is gonna find this in Harry's Smithsonian archive and be totally baffled.
WP: I remember seeing him somewhere once, I think it was at the Kitchen, and he had his headphones on wandering around and just recording the ambient sound in audience before the performance started.
DD: Yeah he had a real sense of the archival importance of what was going on. Going back to the why of the book, it dawned on me that a lot of the guys that I had been seeing when I started seeing the blues were gone, like Muddy Waters. B.B. King is still here, thank God, and I see him whenever possible. Right after I interviewed Milton Campbell he died and he was one of the youngest guys I interviewed. He was 70 or so. Then Mr. Robert Lockwood. I felt this intense urgency.
When I wanted to find out what those words meant I began by looking at scholarly references. What really freaked me out was that I got a sense from the scholarly research that people weren't asking the artists. It really struck me when I talked to Hubert Sumlin (who used to be Howlin' Wolf's guitar player). I had read in every reference that the phrase "killing floor" in the song "Killing Floor" by Howlin' Wolf referred to the Chicago slaughter houses. I'm sitting down with Hubert and he tells me that's not what it was at all. He tells me this whole incredible story.
WP: Oh, yeah about Howlin' Wolf's girlfriend shooting him.
DD: Yeah , and I was stunned. Did anyone ever sit down and ask the artists? So, that became the way I wanted to go. I wanted to find as many of these older gentlemen as I could and ask them directly "what do these words mean to you?" I thought that that would be a contribution I could make. And that goes back to the influence of someone like Harry. He thought it was important to sit with the artists directly and ask us questions and record our fights in rehearsals.
WP: What was most exciting in the process of writing the book and doing the interviews?
DD: All the interviews, because I really admire these guys. The best thing of all was being able to talk to them, and how generous they were with their time. There's a story about how I got the interviews. I was calling the managers, calling the publicists and no one would get back to me. Because being in my book is not going to really sell records. It's not tied to a record release. So their managers didn't want to bother them. But I got a tip that they were all going to be here for this big concert at Lincoln Center to honor the blues and that there was going to be a press conference in the afternoon. So I went to the press conference. I saw the same managers and publicists that had not been talking to me, and sitting in little chairs all along one side of the wall were: Sam Lay, Robert Lockwood, Henry Gray, Milton Campbell, Eddie Shaw, I mean these are major blues stars and I was just…oh, my God. The reason they were all sitting there was that they were in an autograph line. People were asking them to sign this CD, sign my guitar and so I got in line. I talked to each man and said, "This is what my book is about: I want to find out from the artists what these words mean, their relevance to your songs and would you be willing to do an interview?" I think there were twelve men sitting there and I left with ten home phone numbers. They all said I could call them at their homes, most of them were in the South, some in Chicago. The managers never saw me and I walked out with their phone numbers. And I just called them. They were all incredible. They gave me insanely generous interviews because they feel the music is historically important. They want their contributions and interpretations to be heard.
WP: That's great! Did you do most of your interviews by phone?
DD: I did. If I had the money I would have gone down South and videotaped all the interviews…I'd have a documentary. But I didn't have the presence of mind to try to sell a documentary ahead of time and I was under a lot of pressure. But I wish I had done that, especially since a few of them have passed away already.
WP: Did you interview a lot of women?
DD: Not really. I mean Bonnie [Raitt] gave me an interview and I think that was it. I tried to get Koko Taylor through Alligator Records. Bruce Iglauer who runs Alligator is really cool but his vibe was the same: It's not going to sell records so we won't make it happen and she won't want to do it. I had all the managers telling me that the artists didn't want to do it. But then when I met the artists they all wanted to do it. I would have loved to have gotten KoKo Taylor or Ruth Brown. So, women are underrepresented. In the book I mainly ended up focusing on people who had been connected with really legendary bandleaders like Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters. I kind of focused on people who had reached that level and I figured that would guide me in my interviews.
WP: What's your favorite part of the book?
DD: I think the stories that the artists tell, like the one Hubert told me about killing floor. I love Jody Williams' story about meeting B.B. King in the studio. And I liked whenever I got information that was really contrary to what I'd heard in the past. When I was talking to Robert Lockwood, for example, he said he was raised in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. So, right away you think he's black, they must have had nothing, they were sharecroppers, etc. But he said, "No, my people owned property. Everyone in Turkey Scratch owned." And then I talked to Milton Campbell, whose parents were sharecroppers but they worked their way out of it and owned land. And also Milton Campbell was great because he said, "You keep talking about the blues as if that's all we listened to. We listened to the radio. We listened to The Grand Old Opry and Eddie Arnold." They were very open about their influences. I just wanted to try and widen the picture. Similarly, I was talking to pianist Henry Gray about hoodoo and he said, "I don't believe in that stuff but it's great in a song." These are intelligent creative artists, they might believe in hoodoo or they might not. Henry said about Muddy Waters, "yeah he didn't believe in any of that stuff but it was great language for songs." Like when Dr. John talks in the foreword about how musicians steal language from the street. Dr. John was so cool. I'd interviewed him in the past but I didn't touch base with him about the book until it was almost done. He appointed himself my research partner. He would call me up and say, "What about this, do you have this?" Man, I should have been talking to him from the start. He gave me the key to various things I'd been tussling over for months. Like, where does the word gig come from? He said "the lottery business."
WP: Numbers running? I'd never think that that's where that came from.
DD: Me neither. I'd been asking and researching and I kept hitting a brick wall, and he just told me.
WP: So, is that how he came to do the foreword for the book?
DD: Well, yeah because we had some amazing conversations. He's really smart and just a wordsmith. I asked him if I could write up some of the stuff he said for the foreword for the book and send it to him, and he could to fix it up like he wanted. He said sure. And it was awesome.
WP: One thing I wanted to also talk to you about is the yoga connection. I didn't know that you had co-authored a book on yoga.
DD: Yeah, to me all these things are tied together. When I started researching this book I began to understand intellectually what I'd already understood as a musician when I saw great blues artists: they were operating from a much more mature musical aesthetic than a lot of the young brassy pop guitar players that you hear on the radio. They were after something different. When I really began to investigate African art and African music, I learned that the paramount goal is basically the same as the goal of yoga. The goal of yoga is samadhi, the goal of Buddhism is nirvana, the goal of art in Yoruban culture and of possession in the Voudou religion is to touch the divine. They all seek the same experience of having your small personality self taken over by a divine larger Self. Once I logged onto that, the whole thing made a lot of sense to me.
African slaves came here and were stripped of their languages, their music, their drums--which were outlawed after slaves used talking drums to successfully plan some escapes and rebellions. At first slaveowners didn't understand that because of the tonal quality of African languages, slaves could use drumming to communicate. Once the slaveowners caught on, the Slave Act of 1740 in South Carolina and the Black Codes of Georgia outlawed the use of drums and horns by slaves and forbade teaching them to read and write.
But somehow their aesthetics and their ethical values were so strong that they survived to surface in the blues. That's incredible to me, given everything that was taken from these people. It's not that blues is an African music but that it's an American music that expresses African aesthetic and ethical values, and is rife with African vocal and musical techniques.
We've seen "voodoo" possession demonized but the true goal of possession among Voudou practitioners is possession by the divine. And black musicians dropped this concept of possession into American rock so you began to see performers like Elvis, see performers acting like they're possessed by spirits. The African influence is so huge and powerful in American culture. It's what makes us uniquely American.
WP: Like James Brown breaks down and is covered by his cape and helped off the stage like he's getting happy in a sanctified church.
DD: It's all religious, it's all about soul, being connected to soul. That's the paramount goal of the musician, of course you want technique but you never sacrifice the ultimate goal which is possession by the divine. So everything you do is inspired. So technique no longer becomes relevant then.
WP: I love when you talk about that in the book: the idea that physical passion and creative energy all come from the same source.
DD: Yeah, definitely. Could I say one more thing to tie up the two concepts we were talking about? I was struck over and over by the generosity of the people I interviewed for the book. And when I was researching the word "cool," I learned that in Yoruba culture the ability to connect with one's inner divinity is called "coolness" (itutu), which describes an enlightened person who is connected with the divine and is able to express this connection artistically…
WP: Like the cool cat…
DD: Yeah, and in the Yoruba culture the ultimate expression of being that kind of person is if you are generous. Generosity is revered. When I was interviewing these men, they were cool. Their attitude was: We'll give you all the time we got because this is important. I talked to many blues artists when I worked for the Blues Revue and it was always the same positive, generous vibe, and I believe that this is an African ethic that survived slavery--the idea that as an expression of being a great person you're supposed to be generous. Powerful stuff.
WP: Is there anything else you'd like to say that I didn't ask you about?
DD: I just wanted to say that I did wonder at times if it was presumptuous of me, as a white person, to be writing about this. The way I made peace with it was--yeah I'm white and I have a strong desire to write this book. And any people who aren't pleased about that can write their own books. That's another reason I didn't want to do a lot of pontificating. I wanted to talk to people who were still alive who were black and had grown up in the culture playing the music. I was really much more interested in what they had to say than what I had to say.
If you are an American and you are moved by this music, it's really cool to become conscious of the fact that these are African musical devices. For me as a rock musician it was really exciting for me to explore all of the different African vocal techniques that came over and are so important in rock, such as shouting and falsetto and distorting the voice.
WP: And how has it been promoting the book?
DD: Well, when I started doing radio interviews it was really weird. It was always white DJs who brought up the race thing. The black DJs never brought it up. I don't know if they were just being polite or what…I know a lot of these older black blues artists probably do feel co-opted, certainly there's a history of blues artists who got nothing while white artists made a fortune covering their songs without crediting or paying them.
WP: Yeah, well what do you feel about the whole Alan Lomax situation?
DD: Black artists in the South were incredibly hospitable to Alan Lomax and he was the first person to talk about the hospitality among the even poorest people that he interviewed who would say "come in and have a piece of bread". And he was really struck by it. He was this white guy wandering around the deep South and all the white people were telling him he should be afraid of these black people and they were all being really nice to him. They were saying, "You wanna hear about what we do? Well, come on in." Again that's this tradition of being cool, literally.
WP: What do you feel about him recording the music and making money when the artists didn't? Some people say that it's good because at least now the music is out there and more available to the world.
DD: I don't know what his arrangement was. Did he rip people off?
WP: Yeah, at least that's what I heard and that's the impression I get.
DD: That's probably true. I don't know. There's certainly been a history of ripping people off. I had this radio interview that really freaked me out. I didn't know it was a conservative radio show. I'm waiting to go on and I hear the DJ say, "OK, we were just talking to Rush Limbaugh about his great new book Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed and now we're going to talk to Debra DeSalvo about her new book The Language of the Blues."
I got on and no matter what subject I bring up, the DJ starts talking about a white blues artist. He was like, "Yeah, Stevie Ray Vaughan…"and I'd say, "Well, I interviewed Stevie's brother Jimmie Vaughan for the book and Jimmie said Stevie was very inspired by Freddie King." And then he'd say "Well, what about Eric Clapton? Now there's a great blues artist." And I'd say, "Well you know Eric Clapton's was heavily influenced by Freddie King, as well…." And then he'd say "Well you know who started as a blues band and not many people know it? Fleetwood Mac! That Peter Green is a helluva blues guitarist." Which is true, but I mean do you not have enough as a white male, do you need to try to claim the blues too?
DD: It is true that Peter Green is a great blues guitar player. But it was just so appalling.
WP: Oh yeah, I know what you mean. Maybe we can end on that note. Thank you so much for the interview.
DD: Thank you, thanks for doing this.
The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu on Amazon
Debra DeSalvo's Official Website
Debra DeSalvo @ myspace.com
The Language of the Blues @ myspace.com