Eric Bibb – Booker’s Guitar

January 01, 1970



Eric Bibb, a modern day folk blues troubadour, was
performing in London
several years back when a fan approached him with a tantalizing offer. Would he
like to see the actual steel guitar of Delta blues great, Bukka White, who died
in 1977? The instrument turned out to be a Resophonic National steel bodied
guitar circa 1930 given to the fan by White himself.


“Holding the guitar that Booker (his formal name) White had
played for so many years,” Bibb said, “seeing his actual handwriting on a set
list that had been taped to the side of the guitar…made me feel like the time
was finally upon me to make a statement about my relationship with the Delta
blues tradition.”


The result was the CD appropriately titled Booker’s Guitar with the first track a
song by the same title played on the master’s instrument. Booker’s Guitar is a quiet, acoustic album of short songs done by
just Bibb on vocals and guitar, and Grant Dermody on harmonica. The Delta blues
was country blues but Bibb tries here to put the songs in a contemporary
context. This is not like the recent note for note tribute albums to blues
legends like Robert Johnson and Son House done by artists as diverse as Eric Clapton
and Rory Block. Thirteen of the 15 songs are Bibb originals, the exceptions
being a traditional folk song and a song by Blind Willie Johnson.


Both the album and songwriting work. For one thing, the
original Delta bluesmen were itinerant musicians. They traveled widely, and
they wrote about what was going on in the lives of their audiences. Many blues
artists sang about the catastrophic Mississippi
flood of 1927. Bibb has a song here entitled “Flood Water. He sings, “People
straddlin’ their rooftops, water reachin’ to their knees.” The listener cannot help
but see the images of New Orleans
after Katrina. In songs like “With My Maker I Am One” Bibb channels the eternal
struggle between the blues and gospel, the sacred and the profane. So the
singer might be carrying on all Saturday night in a juke joint but Sunday
morning finds him in church listening to the preacher. Both activities were not
mutually exclusive in the Delta.


No song better captures the spirit of this album that the
one song that actually predates the Delta blues and that is the traditional
folk song, “Wayfaring Stranger” which legend has it was taught to the slaves by
British or Scotch slave owners. It has been recorded by many, including a
haunting version by Johnny Cash on American
III: Solitary Man.
Along with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank
Williams, these might be the saddest songs ever written. Bibb plays baritone
guitar and sings in the somber voice of the dying man, “I’m just a poor,
wayfaring stranger, traveling the world of woe. There is not sickness, toil or
danger in that bright land to which I go.” The sadness just rises off the music
like predawn mist off the Mississippi River.


On “Rocking Chair,” Bibb sings, “Blues is a woman walking
out the door, believing she’ll never return. The blues is a teacher and life is
a school. All we can do is live and learn.” But the blues is not just “woe is
me” music. It is a mistake to think that. The blues is the music of a proud,
defiant people, of anybody who survives everything life throws at them and is
still standing and ready to fight another day.


The blues is ultimately about hope. Bibb captures that here
with a song about reading, “Turning Pages,” and a song about the power of love,
“A Good Woman.” While playing a 12 string, Bibb sings on the latter: “A good
woman will make the difference between glory and defeat…A good woman will be
your anchor when the storm is raging so. When you’ve been drinking. When your
ship is sinking, When the waves are already high…”


Booker’s Guitar might
have been inspired by a master’s guitar. But you got to believe it would have
made Bukka White proud. It would have showed him that his music and its spirit
are still going strong over three decades after his death. And indeed, they
will go on for as long as humans wander this lonely planet with a steel guitar
slung over their back.


Standout Tracks: “Wayfaring
Stranger” “A Good Woman” “Flood Water” “Booker’s Guitar” TOM CALLAHAN 


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