January-February 2016

Talking Blues with Doug MacLeod

Part One

By Audrey Coleman

Doug MacLeodListening to a concert (or set) by Doug MacLeod means confronting the cruel jokes life can play on us, sometimes evoking moaning protests, other times raucous laughter. MacLeod’s guitar playing is gritty and true. Like the sound of his instrument, his voice and storytelling draw from the roots of the blues in the African-American South. The evening before our interview, I had ridden a roller-coaster of emotions listening to this white-skinned, white-haired bluesman at Boulevard Music in Culver City. With a packed tour schedule and his latest album Exactly Like This named “one of the best albums of the 2015” by Billboard Magazine, he continues to emulate the African-American musicians who inspired him while at the same time conveying his own unique voice. MacLeod will be performing in Los Angeles again on March 26 at McCabe’s along with his frequent collaborator, bassist Denny Croy, and blues vocalist Lawrence Lebo. During our conversation, the two-time Blues Music Award winner was soft-spoken and unassuming. It's rare that I divide my column into two parts, but I don't want to deprive readers of the stories, warmth, and wisdom he shared. And so we begin Part One.

AC: Is blues African-American music or American music?

DM: I call it American music. But there was a trial by fire when I was coming up. There were no CDs. The only way you were going to learn the music was being accepted by the people who were playing the music.…

AC: How did you come to be accepted?

DM: The old man that I learned this music from – when I first met him I was about 20 years old. I was in the Navy and they sent me to Norfolk, Virginia and that’s where this guy lived. His name was Ernest Banks. Honeyboy Edwards (later) told me he thought that wasn’t his real name because he didn’t play like the guys from Virginia. He played like the guys from Texas. When I was introduced to this man… who ran with Blind Lemon Jefferson, he gave me advice –once he liked me. At first he didn’t like me because I was the wrong color. But he saw something in me. I remember the first time I played for him. I played terribly. So many notes… I was so nervous and when I got done, he looked at me – and he only had one eye – he looked at me – cantankerous guy, chocolate skin, head like a bowling ball, he looked at me and he said, “Gimme your guitar, boy.” And he started playing and he hit these notes with so much feeling and looked at me with that one eye as if to say, “Can you do that, boy?” And I realized that if I lost sight of this man, if my eyes left his eye, I’d never see him again. I had to stay and go through this. He played for about four minutes. There were other people and this was just embarrassing me. I just wanted to get out of there.

“So what do you think, boy? Which one moved you more? Yours or mine?”

I said, “Yours did.”

He said, “You want to be a bluesman, boy?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “Never play a note you don’t believe and never write or sing about what you don’t know about.… Can you do that, boy?”

I said, “No sir, I can’t.”

He said, “Then you aren’t a bluesman, are you, boy? No matter what those people call you.”

I was really crushed. Before I was going out of his house, he put his left arm around me and said, “You know where I live now, don’t you, boy?”

I said, “Does this mean I can come back?”

And he said, “You ain’t deaf, too, are you, boy?” (MacLeod laughs.)

I often wonder what he meant by that. I wonder if he meant did I know where he lived as in which magnolia tree to turn left at to get to his house or did I know where he lived in his heart. And when I got to hang with him and be with him, it’s when I learned about this culture of blues which I realized – there’s more to this music than chords. This music is about overcoming adversity and not subjecting (yourself) to it.

AC: You absorbed a lot of the culture. I heard it in your voice when you were doing something like “the dozens” (an African-American taunting game) last night. You quoted, “Your mama so mean that a freight train takes the dirt road when it sees her coming.”

DM: Yeah, I was around it.

AC: It seems like maybe your association with blues people has affected the way you speak, your intonation.

DM: I used to have trouble talking. That started when I was a kid. I was abused when I was a little boy. I think that messed me up and I had a stutter. You know, like all stutterers, you hold things in because speaking is so embarrassing. You can’t get a word out and people are trying to anticipate the word you trying to say. Well, I remember when I tried singing and I (realized) when I’m singing, I have a voice that doesn’t stutter, I’m taking that voice. I was playing bass in those days in St. Louis and I was around blues people a lot. I tried to sing, and this voice came out.

AC: You’ve said people really don’t know the history of the blues. Or a lot of them might just know it superficially, recognize Robert Johnson, but there were so many more. How is that going to change? Do you have a mission?

DM: Maybe I do. I did a concert a couple of weeks ago for a blues society. And I said, “How many of you know about Louis Jordan?" And out of 80 people, three (indicated they did). To me that’s like the de-education of music, especially for a blues society. Goodness gracious! Louis Jordan influenced so many people. And I’ll say, “How many people know who Tampa Red is?” I have to do something. Like I say, there’s more to this music than just chords. This music’s got a message.

AC: I remember last night you also mentioned that the old bluesmen didn’t just listen to other bluesmen. They were interested in all kinds of music.

DM: Robert Johnson…used to listen to Gene Autry because he was on the radio. That’s what Honey Boy said. They might’ve been listening to jazz, to Louis Armstrong. Lonnie Johnson.

AC: What do you listen to?

DM: I’m a big fan of Ahmad Jamal. I’m also a fan of Jimmy McGriff, an organ player, Hank Crawford, Kenny Burrell, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery. And then I still love listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, I never get tired of listening to them. I listen to some country – Jerry Reed is still one of my favorites. And I listen to Jerry Butler, I could listen to him all day long, I love his sound. Of course, Albert and BB.

AC: You mentioned last night that the blues has got a lot of humor and that most people don’t associate the blues with humor.

DM: A lot of people don’t. They think it’s cry-in-your-beer music. Again, I saw musicians, these people, overcome adversity by their sense of humor. They never lose that.

AC: You satirized it by saying that only with the blues can you sit around being sorry for yourself for four or five minutes and then get a round of applause. I loved that. You kind of turned it on its head.

DM: (laughing) That’s part of the humor. It’s part of life.

Stay tuned for Part II in which Doug recounts his relationships with such blues performers as Big Mama Thornton and George Harmonica Smith in Los Angeles and gives advice to today’s aspiring blues performers.

Audrey Coleman is a journalist and ethnomusicologist who explores traditional and world musics in Southern California and beyond.


All Columns by Audrey Coleman