When your father was a musical theatre and folk singer, your uncle was one of jazz’s most famous pianists (John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet), and you grow up in New York during the 1960s folk boom, perhaps the cards have already fallen. Perhaps a career in music was inevitable. Eric Bibb thinks it was.
Not only was the singer/guitarist/songwriter surrounded by music, he was surrounded by real-life musicians ranging from Pete Seeger to Paul Robeson. His parents fostered his early obsession, taking him to concerts and classical guitar lessons, and meanwhile he immersed himself in the family’s diverse record collection, soon zeroing in on what moved him most.
Bibb, speaking while touring the UK, describes his childhood as an environment in which “music was like oxygen”. As a teenager he took his cardboard-cased guitar to Greenwich Village on Sundays to “observe and listen and be nurtured by all of this wonderful music. So with going to my dad’s rehearsals and recording sessions, my daily life was a whirlwind of musical activity. It was just a total submersion.”
The music that snared him most was “American folk music in all of its glorious forms, particularly African American folk music traditions: spirituals, work songs, blues, of course; but everything from Lead Belly to Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis, the great Son House – all of those people were musicians who I had early exposure to and even had a chance to meet quite a few of them. Jazz and classical music were a big part of my musical diet as a listener, but as a player I was really enthralled by rootsy folk music.”
Bibb is often called a blues musician, but what he does is infinitely broader than that, incorporating the breadth of his musical exposure as a child. Nonetheless he is grateful that the label gained him entry as an artist to blues clubs and festivals, allowing him to find a wold-wide audience. “I’m happy to be an ambassador for broadening the blues,” he says. “It’s my foundation. It influences my writing: even if I don’t write a straight-ahead blues tune, you’re going to hear that fact that I listened to and absorbed a lot of that music.”
Acoustic blues has proved a timeless idiom, appealing “to all people with a heart and a soul”, as he puts it. He sees this breadth of appeal as a consequence of the music’s source lying in slavery. “It came from a situation amazingly extreme in its tragic suffering,” he says, “and I think it came out of some kind of transcendental survival instinct that is in all humans.” But it can also be humorous, celebratory, or as Bibb prefers, “triumphant” music: “It’s a triumph over misery and oppression,” he says.
Bibb lives in Stockholm, a town he first visited when 13, on a tour that took his father Leon to the then Soviet Union. Later, when he left home, he returned (after a year busking in Paris). “I met musicians and people who just really felt like my tribe,” he says. “So I stayed for 10 years before I went back to live in the New York area for another five years, and just decided Scandinavia really suited me, so I returned again. I was happy to get away from the disappointment of the collapse of the civil rights movement. I was disheartened, having grown up with this wonderful music and wonderful mindset that we could really change the world, and that we were a human family. All of that was part of my upbringing. And then, towards the end of the 60s, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the movement splintered, and it just got to be really disheartening for people who’d been really so hopeful. I thought I needed a breather.”
On this tour he brings a new band that includes drummer Paul Robinson, whom Nina Simone, one of the fiercest civil rights torch-bearers, used for nearly 20 years.