In March 2007, we sought out Gaye Adegbalola, Annieville Blues, Eleanor Ellis, Andra Faye, Judy LaPrade, Annie Raines, Del Rey, and Lauren Sheehan for a conversation about their lives as blueswomen.
Centrum: As professional blues musicians, what are the challenges and opportunities for you as a woman in what is often seen as a male-dominated field?
Del Rey: What field isn’t “male-dominated” (other than kindergarden teacher and other under-paid professions)? I see few arenas where women shape the paradigm, and while the highest compliment in the old days was “she plays like a man,” I suspect this is still a compliment in many listeners’ minds, but they know better than to say it! Although I frequently do hear “You’re the best woman guitar player I’ve ever heard.” To which my reply is, “Exactly which man can play better than me?” I feel that my challanges are those of any artist whose media outlets are dominated by corporations which market to an eighteen-to-twenty-five-year old male demographic: those outlets will never play the music of an independent middle-aged artist—male or female. My challenge is to stay content playing small gigs and doing things DIY while not growing bitter when young cute people who can’t play get giant marketing pushes. The good thing is that there is a devoted and knowlegeable audience for my music all over the world, from Paris to Sydney. Exactly thirty-five of them in each town.
Gaye Adegbalola: [All-female band] Saffire has been together for almost twenty-five years. Initially we were like some novelty act because we were women. Then the media slant became “old women.” Then “old raunchy women.” Then “old raunchy culturally-diverse women.” Finally, one day, someone said, “oh, and they play good music too.” I don’t think this would have ever happened to men. Our worth was lessened and downplayed, not by the fans, not by other musicians, but by the media. Ultimately, it really helped us get out there. People came out in droves to see this novelty act. But one has to be good to have staying power and we stayed.
The classic blues created by women of the nineteen-twenties was the first commercially viable music ever—the first of any kind of music created by anyone. Those women built the music industry. Today, they are almost written out of history. Even in the Scorsese The Blues series—fourteen hours of blues—not fourteen minutes are about those women. I think even the so-called blues “purists” try to write them out of history. As a woman and as a black woman, it is my challenge to keep this music alive.
For me, I see it as a real opportunity to write from my perspective—as an older, black woman who has been around the block a few times. It’s an opportunity to express unique stories in a universal way.
Lauren Sheehan: I find that many people are curious to see if a woman “can hold her own.” When a woman has a reputation for being able to do so, there is a tendency for audiences to rally behind her. After that, it seems to me that musicality and giving a good show is what really matters over time.
Annie Raines: Some people find me less threatening as a competitor, while some people are more intimidated, so it comes out about even. The great musicians I love never played up that angle, so I don’t either. I would have trouble marketing myself that way and being sincere in my performances. Music doesn’t judge you by your gender or the color of your hair or skin; it helps you realize that the truth is much bigger than those things. I think the field has opened up dramatically since I started playing. On the positive side, peoples’ attitudes have changed and women are widely accepted as instrumentalists in the blues world. On the negative side, the job doesn’t pay what it used to, so maybe the kind of men who used to dominate the middle of the field aren’t motivated to compete for the top jobs.
Eleanor Ellis: To quote my friend Pearl—“Who says it’s a male-dominated field?”
Sometimes it’s hard to separate the personal from the general. Which things are the result of being a woman? A woman playing music at a particular time in history? A consequence of just being me? Some of my greatest challenges have probably come from myself. But not all of them.
As of now I really can’t complain, but I did encounter some situations when I was first starting out. Women have always been accepted as vocalists, but in the nineteen-seventies there weren’t nearly as many of us playing instruments as there are now and it was harder to be taken seriously. My first band experience was with a bluegrass group, and I was asked to join because of my singing. They stuck a funky old upright bass in my hands, put some white tape on the neck to indicate where the frets would be, and gave me a week or so to learn how to play it. It had a beautiful sound. It also had a hole in the side about the size of an old-time silver dollar, which I covered up with a piece of black tape.
I could play guitar, but they had a guitar player and the leader of the band never wanted me to play guitar, not even when the regular guy wasn’t there. Maybe I never got to play guitar because I was such a good bass player, but I don’t think that was the reason. I think he was afraid I’d mess up. So I got to be in a band and sing and play some bass, but I wasn’t given the chance to play guitar. Which I could have done, and did do in other situations.
But—it was my first band! I was in a band and we got to be on local TV and play a few festivals and had a regular Sunday afternoon gig at The Maple Leaf. So we all dressed alike, so what? I left off the black bow-tie as my little sign of protest, and had a great time. It was a challenge, but it was also an opportunity.
And there are definitely advantages to being a woman in a male dominated field.
Sometimes it’s really good to be different In the early days, when I played with street bands the more women we had in the band the better we did. We got more attention which, unless it’s cops telling you to move on, is always a good thing and usually translates to money.
I guess it’s important to take advantage of what comes your way, whether it’s a challenge or an opportunity or a little bit of both. Or to try to make an opportunity out of a challenge. I wonder if things are different for women musicians who are starting out now? It will be interesting to see what other women have to say about it.
Annieville Blues: What I’ve learned is that you have to make your own way as a woman. I’ve always made my own territory. In Seattle, they plain hadn’t had a woman start blues jams, so I did it, in 1996—I started the first kids blues jam on the west coast. The kids worked with mentors in the blues world and did onstage jams. It was a wild success; after five and a half years I’m the one that left! That’s what women need to do in the blues, start your own thing. That’s the beauty of a woman in blues. Guys tend to stay in their own compartments.
The women keep the women up. Although male musicians can be supportive, we can’t depend on it. Often I find the women educate and inspire the men in this music business. Women have come a long way and it should not matter whether you’re male or female but are you a good artist, period.
Andra Faye: I think we have a wonderful opportunity to shine at what we do, because there aren’t as many women. Sometimes we might get attention just because we are women, sometimes, that we might not get as men, but you have to be able to back that up with being pretty darn good! It’s a challenge to be taken seriously, not as often now, but still once in a while. Saffire occasionally will still get asked, “Where’s the band?”
Centrum: What was your journey into the blues like?
Del Rey: I found the old folkies at Folk Arts Rare records in San Diego when I was fourteen. I started showing up at hoot night and, probably because he was sick of listening to bad renditions of “Stairway To Heaven,” the owner, Lou Curtiss, gave me a cassette tape of Memphis Minnie. After I learned those songs, Lou invited me to sit in with Sam Chatmon when he came to town from Hollendale, Mississippi, thus sealing my doom.
Annie Raines: Hearing the blues was like being born again. I was in high school and learning to play the harmonica, when I heard a couple of Muddy Waters records that blew my mind. When you’re seventeen, finding something to obsess about besides zits and boys is miraculous. To me it was like finding out about the Holy Grail and starting on that journey. I started sneaking into the 1369 Jazz Club in Cambridge, Massachussetts, every Sunday afternoon for a weekly blues jam that ran from one to eight pm. I met a lot of great players and gradually worked up the courage to get onstage and play.
Lauren Sheehan: My journey to the blues has been one of artistic seduction, and Centrum is at the heart of it. I’ve been a musician since I was a child and was an acoustic folk musician when the Centrum country blues program started. I enrolled as a student on a hunch and the blues came on in.
I was stunned by the sounds and feel of the music, by the “collective soul” of the people I’ve met and played with here at Centrum, and by the depth of the blues. I remember a time, about the third year into the program, when we were in the theater for an orientation, the faculty sitting or standing, talking and playing directly to the audience, no PA—very intimate. I began to sense something both humble and extraordinary going on, realized that I was sitting there grinning and that it felt like coming home.
The sounds and historic/cultural expressions are the most important elements in blues, including vocal and instrumental timbres and the feel of the music. But the live, accessible, and spontaneous personal qualities that arise during a week of spending time with generous acoustic blues players has been extremely inspiring. At home we can read about the blues, listen to records, study history and art and formulate ideas about it. But at Centrum, we spend time around people connected to oral musical traditions, who share stories from their traditions, their history, and their lives. What glorious afternoons, especially those sunny ones, on the white clapboard schoolhouse porch, with John Jackson playing, or Del Rey and Suzy Thomson singing through hours of Memphis Minnie. And, of course, some of the best dance music in the country happens in the juke!
There are quite serious aspects of sound and expression too, like John Cephas’s Skip James sessions, or the sounds and presence of R.L. Burnside or Louisana Red. The simple humanity and graciousness of most of the musicians I’ve met here is one of the main forces that brought this music to life for me.
Eleanor Ellis: I’ve always been drawn to blues, and to all kinds of roots music. The first blues I heard was over the radio station WLAC when I was growing up in Louisiana. The station was in Tennessee but at night you could hear it all over—I since learned that there were kids from as far away as Chicago who were also listening to that same station. Like me, they were probably supposed to be at school the next day and had the radio drawn up close to the bed and turned down real low. I heard people like Lightnin’ Slim and Lillian Offett and Carol Fran, Slim Harpo, all kinds of incredible music. There was also a gospel show on Sunday night, the theme song was “Walk That Milky White Way.”
Anyway, that was why I asked my parents for a guitar for my birthday. I got the guitar but I had no idea what to do with it. I used to lie on the bed holding the guitar and listening to the music on the radio, thinking “How do they do that?” My parents gave me a few guitar lessons with a man from the local college, but he had me playing scales and trying to read music and that wasn’t what I needed. It wasn’t until later, when I got to college myself and began to meet other people who knew how to play, that I finally began to catch on.
Even so, I didn’t just jump into blues. First of all, I couldn’t play it and secondly, at the time I couldn’t sing it either. I had no role models and I was too young. I had to evolve into it.
Meanwhile, I listened and gradually, I began to learn. I began to concentrate on playing blues, and I began to meet people and learn more about music and about life. I got to know musicians from the DC area like Archie Edwards and John Jackson, I began to accompany gospel streetsinger Flora Molton, I traveled down South with photographer Axel Kustner to meet and hang out with older musicians like Eugene Powell, Jack Owens, and J. W. Warren. And as my life changed and my experiences broadened, I ended up singing a whole lot of blues.
Judy LaPrade: I grew up playing piano, the standard classical lessons kids get. I played piano for church starting about age ten. I also directed and played for the patient choir at the local state mental hospital from age thirteen. (Long story how I got that job!) I always felt my ear for music was not being used anywhere near its potential, but I didn’t know how to change that. Then, in 1985, a friend told me about a blues week camp that taught piano and since I loved listening to blues, I thought I’d give it a whirl. It was very scary to play a form without written music but I kept coming back to camp every year. I had fallen in love with the blues, both for my own playing and playing with other other people. Some women in my little town who were like-minded began jamming together and started a band, the Elktones, and it was a marvelous way to play the blues year-round. Now I live near D.C. and am lucky enough to be around the blues community all the time.
Annieville Blues: Little Richard was a start for me. At age six, I watched American Bandstand, and Little Richard was a guest. That day my ears bent their way to boogie-woogie and rock and roll. I’d watch Little Richard doing a boogie-woggie pattern on the piano then run over to our organ and try to imitate him. My parents were not blues listeners, so it was up to me to figure out a way to find the blues. Since boogie-woogie was my attraction to the blues, I’d save my allowance and buy records that were blues, boogie, jazz, honky tonk, and classical.
Andra Faye: I always loved music of all kinds, growing up. I was lucky to be in an integrated school system in the Midwest, so I was blessed to learn to dance and hear very cool music with my friends. Lots of Motown, Aretha and The Temptations, and The Jackson Five early on—mixed in with classic country music from my parents, and Creedence Clearwater and the Beatles from my older brother. (And I admit, the first album I ever bought was The Monkees…yikes). I loved all kinds of music, and learned to play violin in sixth grade, so I was exposed to classical music, too. But I always loved songs with soulfullness and a great beat. Loved early rock-n-roll when I heard it, loved trying to dance to it…and as it turns out, that was so related to blues. When I was given a B.B. King album and a Bonnie Raitt album in high school I felt like I found my music and place to be. I especially loved that I could sing right along with Bonnie—and I fell in love with her uppity Sippie Wallace covers. Those are some of the first songs I learned to play and sing.
Gaye Adegbalola: I don’t think I found the blues, it found me. When I was a child, my parents would make trips to Washington, D.C. to hear live music. One summer, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee opened for Harry Belafonte. That was my music. I knew it through and through. It spoke to me then and still speaks to me now. Something about that sound resonates in my soul.
Later, as a young adult, I was a big Nina Simone fan. She was my main musical mentor and a major influence in my life. She helped me to be comfortable in my blackness. On a live album, on the piano intro to “Sugar in My Bowl,” she whispers, “Bessie Smith, y’all.” That took me to Bessie and my life has never been the same. The women of that era are my sheroes and they really took/take me on a journey. I’m still traveling and they are with me. Their spirit lives in me.
I started playing and writing when I was thirty-five. Moonlighted, solo, in a bar for years and taught eighth grade science by day. Formed Saffire in 1984. Went on the road full time for a living in 1988. I was forty-four—old to start a new career—but my passion took control. Ann Rabson, the pianist and other founding member of Saffire, and I did it all—booking, advancing, driving, hauling, bookkeeping, sales, producing, writing, arranging, mailing lists, advertising…we did it all. We loved the music and worked hard to make it. (It’s a big difference between weekend warrior and full-time musician.) We drove all over the country in a drafty old van playing off-nights for the door. Now we have a support staff and often headline, but at this age, sixty-two, due to health and family responsibilities, I’ve been forced to slow down. Slow down, but definitely not stop.
Centrum: Who were/are your influences, either in music or in other areas?
Gaye Adegbalola: I already talked about Nina Simone—she’s first and foremost. However, I grew up dancing to Ray Charles, Etta James, Little Richard, and Ike and Tina. I know about finding the groove and riding the groove. James Brown taught me that I can scream in a song, wail, moan, roll on the floor, or dance on a table (I’ve done both).
Obviously, I’m influenced by the classic blueswomen. I think I want to be Alberta Hunter when I grow up. For songwriting, I love Willie Dixon and, this might be strange, Bob Dylan. I love how they tell stories. I could go on and on. One life influence, other than family and other than music, came from a high school teacher. She taught me to cheer loudest when you’re losing—to love and comfort the most when someone is hurting. It’s been a major guide.
Del Rey: Miss Jerry, the librarian who told me I was ready to read the books in the adult section and the bohemians who took me under their wing when I was a teenager and taught me how to drink coffee and pursue art.
Lauren Sheehan: Before I came to Centrum, Mississippi John Hurt, Bonnie Raitt and David Bromberg were important blues influences. Later, the Centrum musicians were my biggest influences, and there are too many to name them all. But, in different ways, Phil Wiggins, John Jackson, Etta Baker, Lightnin’ Wells, John Miller, Gaye Agdegbalola, Ethel Caffie-Austin, Howard Armstrong, and Joe and Odell Thompson stand out.
Annie Raines: In music, Little Walter, Rice Miller, Jerry Portnoy, James Cotton, Kim Wilson, Paul Rishell of course, Otis Spann, Bessie Smith, Stevie Wonder, Jerry McCain, well, this list goes on and on. My mother is an artist and I learned a lot about the learning process and the artistic process from her.
My father is a great storyteller and he also taught me about the art of silence. When I worked at a homeless shelter in Washington, DC, the late activist Mitch Snyder had a huge influence on me dropping out of college and approaching the harmonica as an apprentice to a master. In a less healthy vein, I’ve always adored Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Scarlett is so bad!
Eleanor Ellis: I grew up in a small town in Louisiana, listening to stories told by people who loved to talk about anything that was humorous, strange, or eccentric. At some point we always ended up talking about ghosts and snakes. Because of those stories I knew as much about people I’d never met as I did about my own friends. The present and the past were both very real, and I looked at life as a continually unfolding saga. This has become a part of who I am, and it’s given me certain attitudes and ways of looking at things which carry over into the music I do. It has also led to my interest in documenting people’s lives and stories.
I also learned a lot by playing before all kinds of people in many different situations. I learned some common-sense things early on, like don’t hand over your guitar to somebody you don’t know, especially if they’re drunk and want to do a song over the mike, and don’t try to accept every drink somebody offers to buy you just to be polite. And if you accept it, you don’t have to drink it. Stuff like that. But I also learned more important things, like how to improvise, how to work with an audience, how to keep up the intensity when no one is paying attention or the place is practically empty. I learned how to take energy from all those experiences and transform that energy into music.
And when I began to accompany Flora Molton, that was when I really learned how to listen. Flora played her “spiritual and truth music” on the streets of Washington D.C. from the late nineteen-thirties until her death in 1990. She sang and played slide guitar from her feelings, and she didn’t worry about exact measures or other such irrelevant formalities.
When she asked me to play guitar with her in the early nineteen-eighties, she gave me some tapes, and I thought I had really learned her songs. The first time we got together I was happily playing along at a brisk but relaxed pace when I suddenly noticed that Flora and I were at completely different parts of the song. That really brought home to me the importance of paying attention. With Flora it was an interesting experience, almost like mental telepathy. I got so I just knew when a chord change was getting ready to happen.
Andra Faye: Well first, my parents and brother who’ve always shared my love of music and have long been my biggest fans. I loved great singers, Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves, as well as Johnny Cash and many more from the country world I grew up in. Certainly Bonnie Raitt, who took me to Sippie Wallace and Robert Johnson, and taught me to notice the songwriter, because she chose such great tunes to sing. I also love Emmylou Harris and listened to a lot of Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. I love Aretha, and Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Ray Charles…and on and on. I love great tunes and a well-sung song. And then when I found blues, I looked especially for other blues-playing women. I found Memphis Minnie, Ida Cox, and so many others. Attending Augusta Heritage Blues Week, first in 1984, heavily influenced me, because I was introduced to a whole beautiful arena of acoustic blues, and particularly Piedmont Blues. Rich DelGrosso also introduced me to Howard Armstrong and both of them changed my world by teaching me blues on the mandolin and fiddle. Joan Fenton knew so much about women in the blues world…it was amazing. And, then in 1987, Gaye Adegbalola and Ann Rabson came as students and we met and became friends. It certainly changed my life when I joined their band called Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women in 1992!
Annieville Blues: I was influenced by many male musicians in my early years, as it seemed to me the women did not receive as much recognition. The music of Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Otis Spann, Leroy Carr, Jelly Roll Martin, Ray Charles, Gene Harris, Pine Top Perkins, Johnnie Johnson, Jimmy Yancey, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Dr. John, Huey Smith, Charles Brown, Hadda Brooks, Katie Webster, Mary McPartland, Marcia Ball, Ann Rabson, Julia Lee, Hazel Scott, and many other great piano players who helped me shape my playing.
Judy LaPrade: My first blues piano teacher was Maureen DelGrosso. She really understood the transition I was making from the chains of classical training, and she turned me on to some greats, like Otis Spann. He’s something else. I later studied with Ann Rabson, Daryl Davis, and Erwin Helfer. I listen to many people, originators like Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, as well as more comtemporary folks like Memphis Slim and Ray Charles.
Centrum: What other music influences your blues playing?
Del Rey: Duke Ellington and X are big influences.
Annie Raines: I love gospel and soul music, and it has crept into my playing, both from without and within the blues; that is, I hear Sam Cooke or Otis Redding and I try to capture those sounds, but I also hear B.B. King and Albert King and Otis Rush make those same sounds with their voices and guitars, so the gospel and soul is inside the blues too.
Judy LaPrade: I grew up playing and singing church music on Sundays and listening to rock and roll the rest of the week. My sister dated a local DJ that gave me tons of 45’s and I wore them out. Then in high school I sang with and accompanied my high school choir for an amazing choir director who taught us gospel in the style of the black church. After that the blues really felt like coming home.
Andra Faye: I still am entranced by all kinds of music. So I listen to lots of styles, from jazz to Latin. But I still find myself going back to classics. Right now I’m stuck on an Etta James album. And I’m re-arranging some of the country stuff I’ve done for so long, giving a more bluesy feel to the songs.
Eleanor Ellis: There’s so much amazing music in the world, and it just keeps coming! I like all kinds of stuff. I like music from the nineteen-twenties and -thirties: blues, country, old-time. I like Cajun. Irish. Bluegrass. Certain contemporary songs and songwriters. Rock and roll. Some of the music I like, I play. Some I don’t play. And some I only play among very good friends. I’m not sure how much of what I like directly influences the way I play blues. But everything ties into everything else in one way or another. It’s important to be open.
I do think that some of the way I sing was at least partially influenced early on by trying to sing like Ralph Stanley. It taught me how to project in a certain way, to do certain things with my voice that I hadn’t done before.
Jazz and gospel music is a part of my blues playing. My classical training gave me the chops and dexterity. I am also influenced by guitar and horn players. Also, horn players are great to learn background riffs from. This has taught me how to back up other musicians and play with rhythm sections. I enjoy all kinds of music and try to get inspiration from it all.
Centrum: What do you write about? How do you decide what tunes to write or perform?
Lauren Sheehan: I listen to and play a variety of traditional or roots music in addition to country blues, and I know that old-time, early bluegrass, and string band music influences my blues playing.
Eleanor Ellis: I’ve written a few songs. Some were kind of interesting but, with a few exceptions, I never got around to singing them because they just weren’t that appealing to me. They mostly came out sounding like they were written by a stranger who didn’t share my taste in music. Fortunately, there are already plenty of good songs out there.
I choose songs for different reasons. It might be just a phrase or a couple of lines which draw me in and open up the entire song for me. Like Mance Lipscomb’s version of Charlie James: “If you see Charlie James, coming down the road/will you please don’t tell him which way you see me go.” You could write a whole novel around those two lines. Sometimes it’s an attitude that comes across in a certain way, sometimes it’s an irresistible rhythm or beat or guitar part, sometimes the words might be trite but the person singing has so much emotion that it transforms the song and makes it interesting.
Also, I’ll choose to do a song because I can sing it. Some songs I like, maybe I can play them on guitar, but I can’t get a grip on how to sing them. The hardest songs to sing, for me, are the more gentle songs. It’s easy to put a punch behind a song like “61 Highway,” but it’s much harder to do that with a sweeter song. I’ve loved Rabbit Brown’s “James Alley Blues” for longer than I’d want to remember but I can’t sing it right. It’s lacking something. It comes out too pretty. It doesn’t have that little bit of edge that it needs. Still, I work on it from time to time.
Trying to exactly reproduce the original guitar part or to sing like someone else can be a good learning tool, but in the end people need to put their own personal touch and interpretation on things. Sometimes you have to work with a song before it happens right. You have to play around with keys. With phrasing. With sounds. And I have no problem with changing, adding or modifying the words if I need to. Sometimes there are lines that I just can’t sing without changing them, either because of the content or the way they fit into the song.
Sometimes you have to work with the guitar part. I consider the guitar a second voice, it’s like a duet. A lot of country blues are recorded by men, maybe they’re not in a good woman’s key, and sometimes you have to really change or modify the guitar part to be able to sing a song. Which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a little harder.
Whatever the reason, sometimes a song just sounds so good that you want to jump in there and do it too. Like wanting to jump into cool water on a hot day. You just want to be there.
Del Rey: I don’t know that it’s a decision in a concious sense. When I write a song, it’s as if I’m transcribing something already written somewhere, and the songs I’m immediately attracted to seem to me to be something I wrote but don’t remember.
Judy LaPrade: I tend to write songs that are one of two extremes: either deep, dark stuff I need to get out or humorous outlooks at the topic at hand. Once in a while, both aspects end up in one song—which I think I like the best. I definitely use music to try to keep moving along, to stay on the sunny side of the street, so to speak. I have songs wake me up when they need to be written mostly, I don’t really decide “OK, now I’m going to write.”
Gaye Adegbalola: I write about life—mostly my own experiences and my own observations. Occasionally, I will write from stories others have shared. I love to find humor in the pain and my humorous songs are my “hits”—“Big Ovaries,” “Bitch with a Bad Attitude,” “Silver Beaver,” “No Need Pissin’ On A Skunk,” etc. I often have to sing the hits even though I might prefer performing the heartbreakers. Again, I try to write universal stories from a unique perspective. I always say that the blues is the poor person’s psychiatrist. So that when I write I want to empower, to raise self-esteem, or to get one through a bad time. Sometimes the song will just let you know that you are not alone. Others might give permission to shake one’s butt, to party and live for the moment. Other songs allow one to get revenge out via the music. I try to bring peace through music. You’ll also find a lot of “be here now” and spiritual influences in my writing.
Andra Faye: I tend to write about things that happen to me, or to someone around me. Songs usually still come from an emotional place for me, in some respect. But, first, no matter what, I usually start with a groove. I’m not a writer who writes every day…I occasionally have songs come and I try to catch them. I tend to pick songs that speak strongly to me. Gotta catch my ear, in message, or groove, or being funny, whatever. And, a good song is memorable, so if you find yourself singing it a lot—that’s a great sign. Sometimes I just remember a song, or a part of it and can’t let go until I go look it up. Usually that’s a song I end up learning and performing!
Annieville Blues: They come to me by way of life experiences, whether they be mine or someone else’s. Blues tunes are often written with a lot of double entendres. And sometimes the songs are just raw and right to the point.
Annie Raines: What do you write about? How do you decide what tunes to write or perform? I never decide to write a song. I just get lucky sometimes and a song comes to me. Most of my songs are just about being Annie, little confessionals sung to an imaginary or actual lover. When I write a song, I usually let it sit for a few years to see if it has any staying power before I perform it.
Lauren Sheehan: In my own shows, I play music I love, that grabs me, or that I learned under special circumstances, and from artists whose work deserves to be kept alive. Sometimes I learn a piece because it will round out a set or the words or melody stand out. Since I play in a variety of styles, I tend to shape performances around specific festivals or audiences. When playing country blues, I like to work in some banjo and mandolin.
Centrum: What do you see as the future of blues music?
Del Rey: I see all genres, including “blues,” bifurcating into corporate and DIY. Unfortunately the corporate, profit-maximizing mindset is taking over every endeavor, art included. Fortunately, the tools in the hands of the DIYers are increasingly powerful, so those that want to can find us and be found.
Annieville Blues: I see it going up and down, as it always has, which is a good thing as blues has never gone down and disappeared. It’s refreshing that the younger generation is carrying the blues on. However, some of the up-and-coming young blues artists have not lived long enough to live through a few of life’s bumps and burns. I look forward to hearing them in another few years, after they’ve gone through marriage, divorce, rehab—life’s dues that one pays. I can only imagine how much more they are gonna become and tear it up. This I do know: they all make a hell of a lot more money in their twentysomething age than B.B. King did back when he was that age!
Judy LaPrade: The future of blues music worries me a bit for several reasons, a big one being the lack of support for the arts in general in this country. Money is harder to come by, especially for traditional music education like blues. The changing technology is tough too. Some people do find ways to make it work for them but for many others the loss of the old system—actually selling CDs in stores and other markets—is a hard hit. Maybe we should get some of these smart young’uns that love blues to get out there to help our blues musicians make that change.
On the positive side, the people who love blues are passionate and growing in numbers, as are the people who are learning it and will carry the torch forward. There’s so much talent out there to be treasured. I think there’s tons more potential in the music market for blues’s commercial viability than has been tapped. First-rate camps have a tremendous impact. Every single person that comes is another seed to go out and spread the power of the blues.
Eleanor Ellis: I can’t predict all the forms it may take, but I know it will always be around. The great thing about blues, especially acoustic blues, is that it’s quirky, it’s unique, it’s subtle. Just like people are. It isn’t the most lucrative music to play and it exists well under the big money radar, but it’s not a fad and it’s too real to disappear. There will always be someone, somewhere, who will be discovering it for the first time, learning to play, putting their own spin and interpretation on it. Blues comes out of a particular culture and time, but of necessity it’s no longer confined to its beginnings. I think it’s really important that we always remember and honor our musical ancestors and look to them for our inspiration.
Lauren Sheehan: “Blues” is a very broad musical genre, and its diversity suggests survival. It has become one form of people’s music, especially “modern blues”—the more standard electric dance band variety. In Europe, for example, blues is often a more sophisticated art form. I think players will continue in the different blues styles as long as we have many forms of documentation, as long as we have masters willing to share the music. Festivals and other venues, blues camps, magazines and other media helps keep the music alive. Front porch blues, Chicago rhythm and blues and the Zydeco two-step are not going to shuffle away soon. But some aspects of the music are bound to grow more obscure while others are more shaped by corporate influences.