Adam Gussow's amplified sound
Adam Gussow's acoustic sound
|Benoit Felten : I just bought the latest issue of Blues
Access and theres this little chronicle you wrote on New York blues. What do you
define as the "New York sound," if it can be defined?
Adam Gussow :
What did I write in the article? Hmm, something about it being like the sound of two taxis
in a head-on collision where what you make is one bigger, gaudier taxi. Sort of like a
head-on collision of styles.
I left Satan & Adam out of the list, I guess out of modesty. But I obviously think
that weve been a part of what thats about in the 90s. Its maybe a
little less obvious with someone like Shemika Copeland but its very obvious with
Michael Hill and the Blues Mob, with the Holmes Brothers, with Poppa Chubby. Those three
acts and Satan & Adam are all defined by just mixing a whole lot of different styles
and not just blues. I mean the Holmes Brothers mix in gospel and even country. Michael
Hill mixes in more of almost an Afro-centric thing where he would use music from other
parts of the African diaspora. Mr. Satan and I use
blues melodies, jazz harmonies,
funk rhythms, and soul vocals. Those are all black musics, really, but we also have a
little bit of rock in there sometimes. On our "Living on the River," we do
"Proud Mary," the old Ike and Tina Turner version.
Sweet Home Chicago into
|When we played the Chicago Blues Festival, there was a preview article
that talked about "post-modern blues." I dont know if Id say
were post-modern blues. But if by post-modern you mean that theres not one
style but several different styles coming into collision, we are. You know that
wasnt the way that blues used to be defined really. It was more of a folk music.
Well, not really folk music but there was CHICAGO blues and it sounded like CHICAGO
blues. We can take a Chicago blues groove; we can do a song like "Sweet Home
Chicago" and add in "Blue Monk." Thats a classic move that we do.
[Adam plays a 12-bar-blues turnaround and then goes into "Blue Monk".] To be
able to move from one idiom to another is nice. Blues has always done that a little bit.
Little Walter learned from Louis Jordan. Thats the way I would say that you
fertilize the music.
The particular impetus for my article was Shemekia Copeland who is
out of New York City and has been No. 1 on the LIVING BLUES radio charts for three months
in a row. She may well be voted Best New Artist at the Handys. She has a very good shot.
When was the last time New York produced that kind of a blues artist? So that was my
point, to be a LITTLE BIT partisan.
Now Im not saying that L.A. doesnt have it. But everyone knows about West
Coast blues, everybody knows about Austin, Texas, and Chicago, and Im sure there are
a few other places that are blues centers. But people dont think of New York as
that. And what I wanted to do is say, "you know, if you add all the stuff up
thats come out of New York, and people like Larry Johnson, who Nat Riddles used to
play with is a wonderful straight-ahead Gary Davis-type player, and Bill Perry, you know,
weve got some great players and some originators."
BF : So how is Mister Satan doing?
AG : Well, you know, he had a very mild stroke in April of last year.
The last gig we played was April 3, 1998. He had a mild stroke and I went down and visited
him in May and he looked really tired. So I cancelled all our gigs for the summer. We were
going at Notodden in Norway and three or four other big festivals. He agreed and I
cancelled. We havent played since. Its been 11 months.
I havent talked to him since late September. We were supposed to have a comeback
gig in early October and he cancelled two days before the gig. His wife cancelled. I
havent talked to him. I was kind of angry that I didnt even get a chance to
talk to him. He just was sort of off in his own place. Im not really clear where he
is, physically and mentally. He seems to be fine but I think hes ambivalent.
He lives about 40 miles south of Lynchburg (Virginia). In fact, Ill give your
readers for the first time where he is. If you want to go on a blues pilgrimage and find
Mister Satan, go to Volens, Virginia. Theres a little crossroads, sort of like the
little crossroads that Robert Johnson went to. And youll find Mister Satan and Miss
Macie and his car, Ive been told. So if you want to go on a blues pilgrimage, find
him and tell him that you hope he gets back in gear and gets out there on the road. All he
has to do is call me and say "Im coming up to New York, can we play?" And
Id say yeah. Hell yeah!
BF : So are you playing some other stuff?
AG : Well Im playing with a guy named Jerry Dugger,
whos a guitar player in New York. And Im a graduate student at Princeton so I
have to buckle down and work. I want to get my Ph.D. and get a teaching job as a professor
in American literature. Im kind of combining my interest in blues with my interest
in literature. I just did a lecture on Zora Neale Hurston and blues in the novel
"Their Eyes Were Watching God," her best known novel. I used a Memphis Minnie
song called "Bumble Bee" Its her best-known blues: "You stung me this
morning, I been restless all day long." I used it as a way of reading this novel.
BF : The only novel I read which was had a lot of blues in it was the
Walter Mosley book.
AG : Yeah, "RLs Dream." Thats one of the best.
BF : Are there others?
Adam's recommended blues reads
(By clicking on the links you can buy the book straight from Amazon)
1. "Another Good
Loving Blues" by Arthur Flowers
2. "Blues All
Around Me : The Autobiography of B.B. King" by B. B. King and David Ritz
by Gayl Jones
4. "Dirty Bird
Blues" by Clarence Major
5. "I Say Me for
a Parable: The Oral Autobiography of Mance Lipscomb, Texas Bluesman" by
6. "Ma Rainey's
Black Bottom," "Seven Guitars,"
and other plays by August Wilson
7. "Really the
Blues" by Mezz Mezzrow
Dream" by Walter Mosley
9. "Their Eyes
Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston
10. "The World
Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman" by Honeyboy
11. "Trouble in
Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow" by Leon F. Litwack.
12. "Worse than
Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice" by David Oshinsky
13. "Your Blues
Aint Like Mine" by Bebe Moore Campbell
|AG : Yeah, I would encourage people to go on Amazon.com
and get some of these. Theres one about a blues harmonica player, called "Dirty
Bird Blues," by Clarence Major. Theres a great novel called "Another Good
Loving Blues" by Arthur Flowers. Obviously there are the plays of August Wilson, like
"Ma Raineys Black Bottom" and "Seven Guitars." And then get
"W.C. Handy: Father of the Blues." Get Mezz Mezzrows "Really the
Blues." Get "Corregidora" by Gayl Jones. All these are great great blues
novels that feature musicians as the protagonists. The book Im reading now is called
"Your Blues Aint Like Mine" by Bebe Moore Campbell, which is a good one.
So yeah, theres a lot of stuff.
And then of course, go and get Honeyboy
Edwards "The World Dont Owe Me Nothing." And get the Mance Lipscomb
book. Get the B.B. King book, "Blues All Around Me."
These are mostly about men, but the Bebe Moore Campbell book is about women.
Oh, and if you want to know what is was like to be alive in Mississippi during the
period of time when the blues was coming into being, read a book called "Worse than
Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice," by David Oshinsky.
Its all about the criminal justice system in Mississippi. And another book called
"Trouble in mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow" by Leon Litwack.
You know, I think people who like blues really ought to learn where it comes from. Not
just where it comes from musically, not just get the old music, but really read the
BF : I had the feeling reading your book that you have a certain
ambivalence toward this white blues/black blues kind of thing.
AG : Im not sure what you mean by white blues/black blues thing.
BF : Well, this argument that if youre white you cant play
AG : Oh yeah. No, you certainly can. The problem is that theres
a lot of white folks who dont do it right, or who have the wrong attitude. Ive
always had a problem with white players who mix in comedy in certain ways. So I had a real
problem that I sort of have dealt with with Rick Estrin and Rod Piazza. The
problem is that theyre both fellow professionals and their playing is great. I have
NO problem with their playing. But I was bothered at a certain point in my life by the way
in which, umm, Estrin made the music kind of a joke and Piazza, his attitude sometimes
seemed a little bit what Id call "jive." The blues is supposed to be about
getting down to some truth and it didnt feel to me like thats what he was
Now, Ill tell you the truth, Ive read reviews of their most recent records
and Im going to go out and get their records. You can put this in your article.
Because in both cases, the way they were reviewed, these guys are getting more serious,
theyre singing from their hearts. I dont know if I had anything to do with
that or not. They might have gotten really pissed off at the things that I said, and I
wouldnt have blamed them. Well, I KNOW Estrin did because he came up to me at a
festival and we had kind of a little head-to-head conversation. [Chuckles.] He was upset
with the things I had written and I couldnt blame him.
I guess Im mellowing a bit, I was kind of hot-tempered back then. All I felt is
that I was restless with the revivalist mentality in the blues scene. The music only lives
if its made new and I know Im right in saying this.
The first generation of younger white harp players who came along Estrin is part
of that generation and Piazza too they were so reverential toward the older black
musicians they were playing with. They HAD to be. But sometimes they couldnt see
past their spiritual fathers. You cant see past George "Harmonica" Smith
because hes just so damn good. But you need to take risks. At a certain point you
almost need to kill off the father. Now, if hes a black father and hes in your
mind and you love him, thats a tough thing to do. But you almost have to say:
"George Harmonica Smith is good but his stuff is old fashioned, Im
going to do the new thing, the next thing." That was really what I was trying to
promote people to do. Dont just recycle it. Dont just caricature it.
Dont just be content to work through the variations on it, but really make it new.
I think were in a time now when thats starting to happen. And as I said,
Im going to go out and buy the new albums by Piazza and Little Charlie and the
Nightcats, because it sounds like maybe I need to go and take another listen. Maybe
theyre actually freed up and theyre pushing forward in a way they havent
BF : On another side, away from blues, do you listen to non-blues
AG : I listen to a lot of non-blues music. I listen to mostly jazz on
my local jazz station, WBGO. What do I listen to, Ill tell you right now, I
wouldnt even know that name of it, Ill just put it on. [Adam switches on a
radio. The DJ announces the stations blues show.] Oh no, now they have a
blues show! That doesnt work! [Laughing.]
BF : Lets talk about overblows and whats going to happen
in 10 years time.
AG : Well, as far as straight ahead blues guys are concerned, in 10
years time guys like me, who are now closer to a cutting edge because I add the overblows,
were going to be seen as a bit more of an old timer than I am now. And guys like
Carlos Del Junco, who just added so much to it (will be on the cutting edge).
BF : Yeah, but what hes adding also is that hes getting
away from blues.
AG : Thats true.
BF : I mean, as far as blues playing is concerned this is a bit like
guitar, isnt it. Some guys are adding a lot to it but after awhile theyre also
getting out of blues as blues
AG : I think youre right. We have to separate the idea of
pushing blues harp along and pushing harmonica in general. Carlos is really pushing
harmonica in general but as far as what he's adding to the blues repertoire - I dont
know, I just love what hes doing.
BF : I really like the second Del Junco record much more than I do the
first. The first is straight-ahead blues and the choice of pieces is very much in line
with the style that he plays. Theres not a lot of variety in the actual content of
the record, even though its played very well. But with this one, its really
interesting because he gets into a lot of different styles. Theres sort of a ska
thing in there, which I find really interesting.
AG : Yeah.
BF : Nobodys really used a harmonica on that sort of a beat and
thats what makes it quite nice.
AG : He does that wonderful thing where he just starts going up
chromatically. [Adam plays a series of chromatic walkups.] You know, thats all I can
do in that way.