Rambling Steve Gardner - Michalis Limnios Blues@Greece Interview
What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?
Some of my favorite down home quotes and sayings are: “Don’t start me to talking I’ll tell everything I know.” “ Don't eat the fruit without praising the tree.” “You spend your whole life living and learning and then you die and forget it all...ain't that a shame!” “Everybody needs a chance to be told to SIT DOWN!” “If life is like a bottle of good whiskey, a rare and precious thing, then drink it up and don't waste a drop of it. And then shake the bottle real good before you let it go! Shake it, real good!” “Because EVERYBODY gets the blues some time.”
To me the “blues” is a musical mirror reflecting our lives back at us. Not all good, bad or in-between. The blues is the hole in your shoe and the warm place in your heart. The blues isn’t a color, it is all of the colors, all the sounds, all of the flavors, all of the smells and all of the feelings that let us know every minute of every day that we are alive. The blues tells it all but makes us use our imagination to hear it clearly. The blues is the music of the beating heart, the story seen by blind men sung into the deaf ear of the legless dancer. The blues is the dirt under our feet that will cover us over one day when we stop rambling. The blues is a song of pain from living too long coupled with the wink and crooked smile of knowing that it wasn’t all bad. The blues are as universal as they are individual, like the lines on our faces and on our hands our blues set us apart while bringing us together. Some blues we share with the whole world. We record it. Maybe even send it on rockets into outer space. Some blues we dare not share even with our own selves; we keep those blues locked down deep inside our souls. But shared or not all of these are “THE BLUES”.
Learning how to share the blues opened up a whole new world for me. A new way to be in the world expressing myself though music and stories. But of course the more you know the more you understand how little that your really don’t know at all. Just like Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge the blues will open your eyes but can be a heavy load which must be carried up a steep and treacherous path filled with stones. The blues may take you to a place where your enemies over take you, leaving you so that you never have a bird to whistle or one to sing. But then again, you might.
The blues is not a play thing to be taken lightly. Some blues lines have flowed out like blood for generations, moaned and sung low; a rumbling from deep down heard only on dark, moonless nights when the wind howls and it seems that the hell hounds run free upon the earth. Other blues can be in between or light and happy. Tunes that are just hummed from time to time; tunes that seem to dash about with no direction like dragon flies after mosquitos. These tunes are for the back yard, the front porch, the kitchen or even a good day in the field. These are the tunes you might sing to your lover on the brightest and hottest days of summer because the blues is night and day with all of the seasons rolled up into one. Songs of hope, hopelessness, happiness, the highest high and the lowest low.
Playing for many years, traveling and exchanging thoughts on the matter of “What is the Blues” with older and wiser blues players, no one seems to agree on much other than that you have to live, really live, to even get close to the blues. “The Blues.” I guess thats why the blues just grabs us by the heart and pulls us in when we hear it being done right.
You can’t shake that beat. That beat is right inside each and every one of us. I think that is why the blues is so hard to play. Anyone can play “A Blues.” But “THE BLUES” is a lot bigger and tougher than any shuffle or boogie and it will never, ever be held back by only 12 bars. “The Blues” is a way of life, of living life. The Blues is never satisfied. Some might say that the Blues is kneeling in prayer while holding hands with the Devil. And they might be right. But no matter what you say about “The Blues”, it is like all things in this life. You have to work at it to be good at it. No amount of talk about selling your soul to the devil is going to help you unless you practice and work at it.
In the early 1990’s Mr. B.B. King was doing his Mississippi homecoming tour and I got to spend some time with him over two weeks of the tour while he was playing shows in central Mississippi and his adopted home town if Indianola. I got to watch the great man up close while he was out doing his shows on his own time for his hometown friends, family and local fans. (I even got to play on stage at couple of the shows but well after Mr. King had returned to his tour bus.) Anyway one of the many things that I noticed that made Mr. King so great, adored by an uncountable number of life-time loyal fans from around the world, was how he showed his appreciation to those who were gathered for his shows. All the shows, large or small. Taking the stage Mr. King’s band would kick off a number while he would usually spend the opening 10-15 minutes of his show letting the band vamp as he walked from one end of the stage to the other, shaking hands and “recognizing” people out in the crowd. He would call out to them by name to the crowd’s delight.
He would point out as many musicians as he could see, saying something like, “Everyone how about a hand for my friend and one for the best guitar players ever, Little Bill! And if you need a good used car, he’s your man.” He loved children and always made time for them. And even when “heckled” for a tune he had just played or by someone wanting attention, I never saw him even once loose his cool. Then after his show, no matter how hot or tired, he would spend as much time as it took, greeting folks and signing autographs, swapping stories and posing for pictures. He gave of his time before shows too, in ceremonies that had him putting his feet and hands in concrete for memorials, singing with grade schoolers and lunching with the mayor and all of the local community church leaders as well as doing interviews for local media. Mr. King never really stopped. He always seemed to be in motion. He worked at being THE KING a title as well as a name that he deserves especially when you consider that he plays as many as 300 live shows a year, every year!
What I took away from that experience is that a part of Mr. King’s philosophy was that the audience doesn’t always come out to a show to see you; the audience comes out for YOU TO SEE THEM! Take that to the bank and never for one minute forget it. It is true! I figure that if it works for Mr. B.B. King it will sure work for you and me! But you have to love what you do. You have to love it enough to share it. You have to put in the effort. You have to really care for those folks that you are playing for. You have to love what you are doing enough to share your time as well as your music. You may never know whose life you might touch or even have a hand in changing or saving.
I used to play in a little club in Tokyo the last Friday night of the month for abut 11 years. This young mother used to bring her two sons down into that smoky den to catch our early acoustic set. (We played from 9PM until 4AM) From the stage I watched those boys grow-up from elementary schoolers to early high school. I really didn’t know much about them except that they really seemed to like the music. On those Friday nights I always tried to look out for them sitting up at the bar sipping coca-cola with their mom.
In 2011, more than 10 years since I had stopped playing that club I was having a concert in a local 200 seat hall to raise money for earthquake relief projects shortly after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan 3/11/2011. Anyway as the show got started I looked out into the crowd and right out on the front row was that small family, the same Mother, now with hair of gray with her two grown-up sons, sitting there enjoying the show just like way back when. It was really great to see them all again after all that time so on the break between sets we talked some and they told me that they had both become musicians of a sort playing Mississippi Delta Blues, rag time and jug band music on the street and in little clubs around their town. One of the boys played the washboard while the other played a National Reso-phonic Style-O guitar like mine! The mom added that about the time that she started bringing the boys around to the club their dad had passed away and that my music and live shows were about the only thing that her boys would show any interest in. She told me, “Your music kept me from loosing my mind. It kept our small family together. We came tonight to say thank you, to you and to donate to help others.”
Yes I choked up on hearing that. And it reminded me again of how powerful “The Blues” really is, because after all, “If life is like a bottle of good whiskey, a rare and precious thing, then drink it up and don't waste a drop of it. And then shake the bottle real good before you let it go! Shake it, real good!”
How do you describe Steve Gardner sound and songbook?
Which is the moment that changed your life most?
Well My basic bio describes me like this:
Rambling Steve Gardner, Mississippi Roots and Bluesman, based in Tokyo, Japan, plays original, acoustic roots and country blues music; finger picking and slide on National Reso-phonic guitars, with harmonica. You know, Big Leg Acoustic Stuff .
With more than seven CDs of traditional and original music, Rambling Steve Gardner plays and tours solo and with the JERICHO ROAD SHOW in the Southeastern United States, Austria and Germany as well as his home base of Japan, where many of his tours have been sponsored by the Cultural Affairs section of the United States Department of State.
Growing up in Mississippi, Rambling Steve Gardner heard, learned from and played with many of the legendary blues greats from: Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, Booby Barnes, James “Son” Thomas, all in the Mississippi Delta; to Jessie Mae Hemphill the “She Wolf” of the Mississippi Hill Country, grand daughter of Sid Hemphill and mentor to Bonnie Rait; down to Central Mississippi Blues Man and long time friend, Jack Owens from Bentonia, protege of Skip James.
He has also opened shows and/or played shows with Kim Wilson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Mojo Bu ord of the Muddy Waters Band, Big Jay McNeely, Shemekia Copeland, Gate Mouth Brown, Washboard Chaz, Jimmy
and Eddie Burns, Jimmy Dawkins, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Harmonica Shaw, Howard Tate, Ben E. King, Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones.
But I think that the best description of me and my music is that it is “the real deal”. I alway try to be my best self on my worst day, with one foot pointed back at where I came from and one foot pointed ahead. I don’t like, write or perform what I call “blame songs”, mainly because I try to accept responsibility when something goes wrong if it is my fault. I try to dig in as deep as I can and consider where a tune came from, how it has changed and what it means to me and those for whom I might play it.
I have always liked history. I think that it is real important to know of what it is (the facts) that you are singing about especially if you are doing an old song (authors and dates published) or even writing tunes that include old song phrases. Some tunes like that I wrote and published on my JERICHO CD in about 2009: “Been On The Job Too Long”, “Wind Storm Blues” and “Come On In”. These tunes were my take on U.S. Presidential politics, hurricane Katrina and the story of a homeless Vietnam War Veteran. These tunes all needed the facts, the history and the story.
I like to be described as a story teller. Hearing good stories and telling them are my great delights. Growing up I had the chance as a boy to sit with the men folk and listen to their stories and jokes. On Sundays after dinner, out camping or at the deer camp where the men gathered round to tell tall tales about “the ones that got away”. I was all grown before I realized that most of the stories they told were not about hunting “deer” but hunting “dear”!
One fellow told about his fishing buddy who went fishing more than anybody that he had ever met. Almost every Saturday and Sunday. But he didn’t ever bring back many fish except for this one time when this fellow came back home with a big mess of fish. It seemed that he wanted to surprise his wife since he never brought too much home.
While they were cleaning the fish the husband was bragging to his wife about how he caught them, he said to his wife, “I guess that I was just lucky this time. Every time I opened my fishing tackle box and snapped on a bait those hungry fish would hit it! Every time! I got so many in the boat I had to start throwing them back. But Honey there is just one thing? I appreciate how you packed my travel bag this past fishing trip but I dug all though that bag and I couldn’t find my underwear. Next time you have to be more careful.” His wife just smiled and said, “Well Honey, every time you opened up your fishing tackle box I just don’t know how you missed seeing them. I put your underwear right on top!”
My Daddy, my Granddaddy and Uncle used to tell stories like that. And every blues man that I have ever met worth a damn was an over flowing faucet of stories! I think that wanting to be a part of those stories, listening to and wanting to make those guitars ring surely had a hand in changing my life and putting me out on this path. It has always been hard enough to be my self, so I haven’t ever really wanted to “be” anyone else after they took cowboys o the TV. I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to try a lot of things but no matter what I was
doing I have always wanted to be in the middle of a good song and a good story. I hope that when I am long gone and there’s nothing left of me but my music that maybe folks might remember me and say, “He was the real deal and he sure could tell a good story.”
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues past?
What are your hopes and fears for the future?
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?
What is the best advice ever given you?
What I really miss the most, especially when I get back home to Mississippi, are the friends that I made along the way early on, as well as my loved ones, who have already passed away. I would sure like to sit with all of them again, as myself now, to really thank them for sharing their time, their talent, their hip flask of gin or whiskey, plates of fried fish, their songs and guitar licks, their strong words or just a mouthful of frank, friendly advice that was always wedged in between the shot guns, the tall tales and the music. I would like to tell each and everyone from my Dad, Big Steve who played the kitchen knives, on down the line that my life forever was changed because of the time and talent they shared with me.
As I get back down south a few times a year to tour or just visit I sure miss seeing folks gathered up out in someone’s front yard, sitting on lawn chairs or up on the porch, pickin’ guitars while waiting on the catfish to fry or the BBQ to get ready.
My grandmother used to have a fish fry nearly every week in the summers when I was growing up in central Mississippi. Sometimes someone would stop by with a guitar or the neighbor girl would come over with her accordion to play as we turned the crank on the ice cream maker. Folks usually didn’t stay late on those nights she squeezed the accordion. I remember that my granddaddy said to me that the squeaky gate on his horse trailer sounded better than that accordion. I thought so too. But let me tell you, when those guitars were ringing out, just being a part of it all, I didn’t want it to ever stop. I was determined to master one of those six stringed beast someday. I am still wrestling with it but I think that I am going to get the hang of it before too long.
You know another thing that I really miss is the fact that folks don’t dance much now like they used to. My folks, Big Steve and Miz Sally, danced and went out dancing regularly until my sister and I got into middle school. They mostly did square dancing or two stepping. We grew up watching the latest dance crazes on TV. The twist. The jerk. The swim. My grandmother would chase us out of the house with her broom if we got to trying to “dance” like the folks on TV. I can almost hear her now, yelling, “Stop all of that horse play in my house. I’m not going to have any chicken struttin’ up in here. Take that outside.”
These days folks go out to “see” music rather than to listen to it. A long time back going out was special. You dressed up for it. We had to get dressed to go to church of course but also to go to town, to the barber shop or out to eat if we were real lucky. That meant shinned shoes, “Sunday” pants and maybe even a bow tie! And of
course slicked down hair. Most of the musicians that I saw and met when I was coming along sure dressed up. It was a matter of respect and ritual. The old guys that I used to hang with, all sharp dressers, would often remind me with a scolding when I showed up a little too casual, “Man it’s a show. Give ‘em something to look at. You know that nobody out there wants to pay a dollar to see you up on that stage dressed like you just come in here from working on your car. Don’t you come back up in here lookin’ like a grease monkey again.” And I didn’t!
When I am on stage these days I am reminded of those times as I look out across the crowd at a festival or even regular club shows. As I stretch my eye out to the edge of the crowd it seems that our world is covered in a kind of spandex, one size fits all jogging outfit, with everyone wearing white rubber shoes. We are in the age of the ultra casual I guess. What would my sharp dressed friends have thought about that? I imagine that pistols might have been involved as they sought to rectify the situation and reclaim the stage from the musicians dressed like yard boys, grease monkeys and wearing those nylon knit chicken house hats pulled down over their ears.
In Mississippi since casino gambling was legalized some years back it has just about put all of the little local jukes out of business. Those small, local joints just can’t compete with the lure of the casino’s bright lights and “free” drinks all served up in a plush, air conditioned room with free entertainment, cheap food and the chance to loose your money without loosing your life.
I always had so much fun when I could make time to stop by some local hot spot like Smitty’s Red Top to catch a set with the likes of Frank Frost and the Jelly roll Kings; maybe sit in with Booba Barnes over at his Playboy Club in Greenville or just hang out at one of the many local places in between.
I remember one night sitting in on harp up in Sunflower County with a bunch of local players who had gotten together to do a gig with some of the members of ZZ Hill’s band after ZZ passed on. We were playing up in a squat concrete block building that was known as THE BOAR’S NEST. It was a hot night and the place had been packed from early on. Big cotton gin fans were blasting the hot air around and keeping the mosquitoes down but that was about all. Most of the dancers had forsaken their shoes and were barefoot out on the slick concrete floor. Men’s shirt collars were well open and most of the beer had been sold early on. It had been a great night. A mix of all ages had gathered from near and far, everyone enjoying some really good, down home blues, played by many of their favorite local musicians.
Well at about 4 AM, with everyone tired, drunk or both, the drummer, Mr A.J. who had leaned back too hard on the window frame, fell through the screen, lost his footing, slipped off the drum stool and got up mad. He shouted that he wasn’t hitting another lick as he waved his drum sticks in the air and kicked over his drum stool. With that, we called it a night because we would have had a fight on our hands otherwise. Before the guitar player could step away from the mic after thanking everyone for coming out, an old woman of about 78 or so, shot up out of the crowd and staggered to the front of the stage with her shoes still off, Sunday hat stuck
onto the back of her head with sweat trickling down the side of her face. Without a word she hauled off and cracked a beer bottle onto the edge of the nearest table and just stood there holding the jagged edge staring with blood in her eye and pointing the sharp end of the broken bottle at the guitar player as she shouted out for the whole club to hear, “I done paid my two dollars to come up in here and I ain’t near ‘bout ready to go home yet. So y’all better get to playin’ right now! I said RIGHT NOW! Or I am coming after Y’all! DO YOU HEAR ME??”
Here we were, seven grown men, cornered by one old woman holding a broken beer bottle who wanted to hear one more tune. I had the least amount of gear to pack up that night and since I was the skinniest one in the band, they all figured that I would be a hard target for her to cut. The guitar player said, “Steve step up to that stand mic and play that harp for her while we try to get packed up.” So I did.
No one called the police. Someone called her daughter to come and get her. As I played every now and then that old woman would close her eyes and sway to the music that I was playing. After a little while her daughter, who was none too happy, came down to the club, with curlers in her hair and a grim look pasted on her face. She didn’t say much, she just grabbed her mama by the arm and took her out of the club. The old woman, took her time leaving but looked satisfied as she put down her broken bottle. She was still complaining as she was guided out the door by her daughter that she hadn’t gotten her full two dollars worth yet and that she wasn’t going to pay the full price the next time we played there! We could hear her still shouting as the car cranked up and pulled away from the club. We all laughed and figured that she must have really been a handful when she was young.
These days we have so much music everywhere; pouring from loud speakers, in cars, stores, on the street, from the TV, the computer or from those wires that seem to be stuck into the ears of all of those walking bodies around us. Those bodies which have hands and eyes glued to their mobile phones. I am not sure that we really “listen” to music much any more since we “hear” it all of the time.
Folks go to concerts where an enormous volume of sound is blasted out at them and attend events where the only way to see the musicians perform is to watch them on the big screens placed all around the stage. More now than not the band is likely to be playing “along” with something that was recorded earlier if they are plugged in and playing at all, as in the case with the American Super Bowl half time entertainment or even President Obama’s inauguration. I haven’t run into anyone in a long while that would break a bottle and say, “Play more” but I sure would like to. (These day they might break a bottle and say “STOP NOW!”)
I miss local radio. AM radio. Hometown radio. Thats the kind of radio that once would have their DJ’s and on air personalities go out to events with piles of gear all loaded into a station wagon. A remote mic would be set up and a link to the station would be made to introduce and interview local folks, broadcast church services on Sundays, cover the rodeo or ball games as well as play fresh cuts from local bands who might be performing at a local record shop. Local music was played right along side of the Bill Board Top 100. Local radio brought you local news and told you as well as took you there, LIVE. The blues needs radio. This music needs more outlets and support than just the internet. Youngsters need the chance to hear and SEE music being played in a friendly, live environment. They need to experience the blues, to feel it deep, not loud. Not hundreds of notes but hundreds of stories. Otherwise this great music with its deep heritage will most likely fade away. The blues in the schools is a start but it is not a finish.
The blues is a “real, live art form” that must be lived and experienced not just observed.
I was sitting with the talented artist and blues man Mr James “Son” Thomas one hot afternoon in the front room of his house in Leland, Mississippi. He lit a cigarette and turned to me, looking me straight in the eye and said, “You know Steve, a lot of folks think that blues is easy to play. But you know what? They are wrong. You got to live a whole lot before you can get up on the blues.” From that day so long ago I never forgot Mr. “Son”‘s lesson that the blues is all about the story. Not just your story but the telling of the story. The instruments, the guitar or harmonica or whatever are there to make comments, but if you haven’t got a story to tell then no matter how well or how loud or how long you can “choke” the neck of the guitar to make it sound like a cat with his tail caught under a rocking chair, you aren’t doing a thing except giving everyone close by an ear ache. The only thing that you are doing is letting those who know, know, that you, don’t know.
Mr. Jack Owens and Ms. Jessie Mae Hemphill both told me in one way or another to “be myself” when it came to playing. They would say things like, “Well Steve, you ain’t me and I ain’t you so what’s all the fuss about. Play it your way.” I think as a young player you have to find a way into the music. It is natural to try to copy a style or play a tune by tabs but you have to try to be your best self on your worst day. We aren’t machines, yet. You have to find your path and remember to thank those who passed along that path way before you did so that you could have a chance make those old songs and old stories your own as you tell them in your own way.
But it is not easy to find your way in the world or the world of music unless you know where you are coming from and have some idea of where you want to go. You don’t get anything for free. You have to work for it. You have to study and I don’t mean just your instrument. A good player is a student of history and human nature.
If you study up and gain a good understanding of the times, social and political conditions and circumstances then this knowledge that will help you better tell the story when you are covering old tunes or building the foundation for new tunes that you might be writing. The more that you know, the better a player you will be. You will have depth and width. These days with youtube and remastered CD collections there is little to no excuse for not knowing about the tunes that you are covering or departing from. Find out. Dig deep. Don’t be that guy that Sonny Boy Williamson ll was talking about when he said, “Yes sir, they want to play the blues so bad...and they do too.”
Why did you think that the Southern culture and music continues to generate such a devoted following in Japan?
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from US to Japan (and from old days of Mississippi to todays)?
In my opinion the American South and Japan are very much alike. The American South was defeated and occupied after losing against the Federal troops in the American Civil war; a war fought on its on soil, just like Japan after WWll. Both areas have strict codes of behavior, manors and use a vertical paternal structure for their social interactions. (Yes Sir. Yes Ma’am. Brother, Sister, Uncle, Aunt and so on.) When visiting one always brings a gift of some kind such as a pie or a cake. Both are very guilt motivated. You are moved to do things because you have to rather than want to. Both have an exaggerated since of pride coupled with guilt and inferiority that is designed to keep everyone in their place. (The struggle in the American South by poor whites and blacks alike against all of this structure resulted in spirituals,as code talk, the blues, the civil rights movement, the KKK and on the brighter good side, southern hospitality.) Of course it is important to note that in both cultures when someone is being overly polite to you they are most likely mad as hell at you.
Both groups worship their ancestors, like and seek out a since of “real” and “authentic” while living in the past with a foot planted grudgingly in the future. Both groups feel that they are “special” and therefore whatever they create is “special”. That goes for music and the music makers as well. Jealousy kills more folks in the American South than fried food. A countless number of musicians have been killed because of their careless behavior around another man’s woman or another woman’s man! It is said that the late great Robert Johnson met his death by poison at the hands of just such a jealous husband who didn’t appreciate that feeling of “specialness” and attention being paid to his wife by the young musician.
After its defeat in WWll Japanese set aside a great deal of their own traditional music and sought to find out about western music. The emphasis was on rebuilding and musicians weren’t considered builders. So to make money Japanese musicians and the curious took American music as their own. (This behavior is not unlike the Japanese chess game SHOGI in which captured pieces on opposite teams are not “killed” off like in western chess, but change side after they are captured.)
Occupation forces blasted American music and culture out over military radio; imported records, movies and television followed close behind introducing new dances, fades, fashions, life styles and foods. USO shows brought musicians over and after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics the doors opened even wider to musical artist of all kinds from the west as the Japanese wanted to know, have and hear everything. Everyone from John Lee Hooker, Johnny Shines and the Beatles passed through Japan. The Japanese loved America and couldn’t get enough of cowboys, hamburgers and loud electric guitars or big fat acoustic ones; James Dean and Marilyn Monroe on the movie screens with Muddy Waters or even Elmore James sharing the juke boxes with Frank Sinatra, Lois Armstrong and Elvis.
The Japanese study the American south in school. Most know where to find the Mississippi River on maps, have read at least one Mark twain story and are planing a trip to New Orleans some day. Most notions of the American south are an image of cotton fields created by the movie “Gone With The Wind” combined with a dark crossroads where one can still sell a soul to the devil at a discount price while on the way to juke joints where all you need is a pig foot and a bottle of beer to get your mojo working. There are live houses and Japanese Blues bands everywhere you turn. The lyrics my not be too plain but the message is loud and clear-”Everybody gets the blues some time....”
What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from your travels in Japan?
Well I tell you, I love to laugh and out here in Japan when I am on tour most anything can happen to bring on a good laugh. I was playing some shows in west Japan one night a few years ago when an older fellow walked up to the stage at my show with a small brown bag which he presented to me and said, “I heard on the news that all Americans like this, so I bought it for you.” I thanked the man, played another set, packed up and opened the bag on returning to my hotel to find a gift wrapped bottle of ketchup!
A couple of months back I was playing a small festival, not too far from Tokyo but out in the country all the same. After letting go on my take of “Oh Glory How Happy I Am”, a tune popularized by Rev. Gary Davis, a woman came up to me on the break and said, “I am not sure what that song was about but it touched my heart...and I just love the way that your guitar sounds like a tractor.” (I play National Reso-phonic single and tricones.) I really got a kick out of that. Other times folks, mostly kids want to touch my guitars. I have a one of a kind hand painted Tricone with Southern cotton fields and cotton bolls decorating it. But if you have never seen cotton before you might be like an elderly woman who came up to me at a show where I was promoting American culture for the U.S. Dept. of State. She hesitated and shyly asked, “Mr. Steve why do you have white mice painted on your guitar?” I took a closer look and sure enough the screws on the cover plate looked just like eyes and the cotton bolls looked like mice.
Of course I have tons of stories about playing up in the earthquake recovery zone of Tohoku, Japan. I joined a tour with Jett Edwards of Believers today a month or so after we played a huge fundraiser put on by the American Dept of State and the Tokyo American Club. We flew my friend and playing partner Bill Stebeer in from Nashville for the tour too. We headed out into the earthquake “no man’s land” with two buses packed with musicians, dancers, food and supplies along with folks to cook and serve, a sound crew and film crew. Planing what we might do, Bill Steber told us that he had brought along about 75 or 80 kazoos, so we decided to work up a jug band tune using the kazoos as part of a sing along/play along. Well most of the crowd were elderly women who had lost pretty much everything. They sure needed some cheering up. The show was out of doors on a vacant lot and the crowd was gathered round sitting in lawn chairs and wearing heavy coats with blankets across their legs as it was pretty cold that day. Everyone who was hungry was fed. Then we started the show.
We passed out the kazoos and kicked off the tune. As we watched, the crowd struggled to play them with some just gave up and were throwing their kazoos toward the trash piles while shouting at the stage, “Broken! Broken! Broken!” Hahaha we nearly died laughing when we realized the problem. They didn’t know how to HUM. They were just blowing through the kazoos. We stopped the tune and they all laughed too when we explained it and had a great time kazooing away their blues after that.
But maybe the most heart warming request that I have ever played was in the spring of last year. The Japanese wife of a good friend of mine was in hospital with cancer that had made a turn for the worse. She asked if I would play for her so her husband sent for me.
I was out on a short tour at the time along with my friend Chaz (Washboard Chaz) Leary, who plays with many groups but was touring with me and my group The JERICHO ROAD SHOW along with the TIN MEN. After we played the Yokohama Jug Band festival together we headed back to Tokyo where we went up to the hospital guitar, harmonica and washboard at the ready. Well there were protest from the moment that we walked onto the cancer ward. We explained that we just brought our instruments to “show what they looked like” so that everyone could save face then. (We didn’t say that we wouldn’t play.)
After a little while they wheeled my friend’s wife out of her room and into the lobby. She was swollen and had all sorts of the tubes stuck in her; you could tell that she was in pain, but when she saw us there she lit right up with such a smile as you have never seen. We talked some and then Chaz and I did a soft version of “This Train Is Bound For Glory”. We were all crying by the end, of course, even the staff who came over to stop us, but kindly waited until we finished the song, seemed moved by it all. The head nurse said to me, “We are so glad that you only showed your instruments. It is against the rules to play here”. That broke the serious mood, the tears dried up and we all broke out laughing- So loud in fact that they then asked us to leave. But they smiled and waved as the elevator doors closed.
My friend’s wife died less than a week after that. I played for her memorial service at her request too. I have played a lot of gigs, live shows and sessions since starting down this long road so many years ago but I will not soon forget playing in that hospital. Life, so fragile, so precious. Breaking the “rules” to play a simple tune,
which turned out to be a dying woman’s last request re-reminded me yet again of how much music can and does make a difference in our lives. In a warmer light the tired old slogan takes new strength, “No Music. No Life.”
You are also known of your work as photographer. What characterize your philosophy on the art of image?
I could never really draw or “stay in the lines” as a kid growing up in the 1950’s. I’m a lefty you know and the teachers just didn’t know how to work with that. I discovered photography in my late teens, about the same time that I was really giving the harmonica a good workout. (My cousin took back his Sears Silvertone Acoustic that I had been “beating on” since about age nine. I guess that it was just as well that he took it back as the strings were about a mile off of the neck of that old wooden acoustic guitar and I imagine that I had not strung it back up correctly. For sure I was tuned to sounds that only dogs can hear on a dark night, because most every time I cut loose to beating on that box, the house dogs around out back door would get beside themselves barking. I took it that they enjoyed it and wanted to sing along so it usually took my daddy coming down the hall with some “outside” work for me to do, to get me to stop.
At any rate, photography coupled with music became a great passport for me to cross social barriers and have an excuse to enter into so many places when I was young and running the road. I met and made friends with folks who changed my life forever, became life time friends, many closer than my blood relatives. Folks who shared their skills and passions with me for music and life, who helped me to see, look, listen and hear!
I strived to “make” photographs rather than “take” them. Showing folks how I saw them. Showing them that they were interesting and important. Respecting them. Even in my student days I tried to never showed up at someone’s home without some groceries, tobacco, guitar strings or prints form the last visit. Folks who would say “NO PICTURES!” would melt when their grand babies would crawl up into their laps. They would say, “OK. You can take a picture of my grand-baby.” After I had been around awhile if I showed up and didn’t take any pictures they would often ask, “Are you alright? Is something wrong? Let’s feed the chickens or saddle the mule and you can take some pictures then it will be all right”
They were right too. After a few pictures were made, it was all right. We would eat a little something, begin to enjoy ourselves, start sharing tall tales and the music wouldn’t be long in getting started; and it might not stop until the sun began to break through the pale morning sky.
In my mind the images and the music are in-separable. Music has color and tone while the images have a sound that can be heard and understood in almost any language. A great song paints a picture for us just like a great photograph plays a great song.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day?
That is such a difficult question and I am really tired of typing! (hahaha) Really I need to get out the door as I have a rehearsal across town coming up in 45 minutes. So I guess that if I could go back I would like to be on hand in 1941 in at the Lake Cormarant, Mississippi site when Son House, Charlie Patton and Big Joe were gathered up along with a whole lot of other cats to record for the Lomax’s who were traveling for the Library of Congress. Of course it would have been something to catch Robert Johnson on on that San Antonio recording session with Don Law 11/23/1936. Just thinking about all of the “what if’s” makes my mind scratchy as it reels like an old 78rpm spinning on a Victrola.
I try to look forward everyday to every coming day, with high hopes. They tell me that’s the future. But I try to live every day that I can right here. Right now. They tell me that is the present. And I take my strength form those who came before me. Those who smoothed the way. Those who stood beside me and pushed me along and have now gone on. They tell me that’s the past. That’s history. And as we live on we become the past. I want to leave behind a history, a memory, that what I did while I was here counted for something. And when my time is up and I am called home, I want to go knowing that I took time to help out when and where I could because “Death Don’t Have No Mercy In This Land.”
Michalis Limnios Blues@Greece Interview