Blues for America
Air Date: November 14, 2015
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When “I’m the Man” singer Aloe Blacc joined us last year, he revealed to many viewers a public intellectualism of which the industry has become somewhat devoid.
Aloe is indeed a powerful maverick. So too is today’s guest, whose refreshingly real music elicits its own cathartic effect. Son of civil rights icons Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, blues man Guy Davis descends from a proud lineage. Award-winning musician, banjo extraordinaire, and soulful lyricist, Davis recently completed his 10th album, Kokomo Kidd, whose title track arouses a political consciousness. “When liquor got cut down, the government almost shut down. They needed a bag man who looked for a rag man, who better than a black man to come serve the white man,” he sings in the lead track. Zooming further into the contemporary political scene, Davis adds “Washington insiders want drugs and sex, it ain’t about who’s rich but who connects. I’ve calmed all the Washington’s fears, kept the Supreme Court high for years. You’ve got governors, senators, even representatives waiting for my drop-off, medicine for a bad cough. I got a meeting at 3, gotta go bring coke for the GOP.” And I can’t help but first ask Guy, that bad cough, is it a symbol of a far more pernicious disease, an ugly disease in our politics today?
DAVIS: Well, you kind of stilted that question didn’t you, yeah I think it is, that bad cough, see we’re not necessarily only talking about drug use in Washington D.C. but there’s the drug of the lethargy that both sides of the uh, Senate and the House are take, dragging their feet just in getting us a budget. So uh, yeah, somebody needs some coke. [LAUGHS] Ca-Cola.
HEFFNER: Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola. Well it was, what was in Coca-Cola. But to think about your, your own history here – when there was, um, music as a vehicle for change, I wonder when you contemplate the future of blues whether you see blues as having an ultimate goal beyond the sound?
DAVIS: Alexander, blues music more now than ever is part of world music. Now I think when blues music started, it was the news of the day being spread by a man and a guitar maybe you know, playing the slide or something like that, he’s saying what happened when he woke up this morning, couldn’t find corn for the chicken and stuff like that. Well, uh, blues has gone beyond that, it is responsible for so much American music, but now you see people from all over the world playing it, so I’m saying blues is part of world music. Blues will continue to live, though it needs a lot of nurturing and a lot of care, uh, where it is just now in this country.
HEFFNER: Hm. What does that care look like?
DAVIS: That care looks like me, it looks like uh, Corey Harris, Eric Bibb, Alvin Youngblood Hart, uh, a lot of the younger, uh, blues musicians, black blues musicians of this generation. Uh, standing up and saying uh, America may own the blues but uh, we, can’t say it necessarily just belongs to ‘em flat outright, you know, uh, we, the young black blues men are trying to carry a message that this music tells not just our story but tells the story of this whole country. And uh, my job in this is to be sitting on that porch when young men come to learn the blues and young women, I need to be one of those people sitting on the porch. They’re gonna black musicians, they’re gonna be white musicians, they’re gonna be Asian musicians, brown, yellow, all tones of skin of musicians playing the blues. So I gotta make sure that uh, I’m part of that picture.
HEFFNER: Well you most certainly are in that picture, at the forefront. Kokomo Kidd, I was fortunate enough to hear you present this title track, uh, and I was really astonished at the way you injected political satire. What was the inspiration?
DAVIS: Kokomo Kidd inspiration. Well um,
HEFFNER: Because you have the anecdote here for, for your listeners,
DAVIS: Okay yeah,
HEFFNER: Which you might expound on.
DAVIS: Okay. The anecdote is that Kokomo Kidd, K-I-D-D was an old black man who back before the turn of the 19 , into the 1900s, used to bring coal to the White House. He used to deliver it right around the corner from the east wing into a coal chute and then they call on him from time to time to deliver things other than coal under the campus tarp that uh, was on the wagon drawn by horse, uh, as he delivered it. And then, as time went on, he got old, his son took over. And by then of course they’re driving trucks and prohibition comes along so they’re delivering hooch to the White House, they’re delivering women who want marriage to the folks in the White House to the White House, um, and on and on down to this day there’s a Kokomo Kidd tradition where that even involves uh, the internet, so uh, let’s just say that in Washington, things don’t work the way they work for you and me. All those fellas, uh, trying to make the laws, they get free health care already. They get, their program is set. It’s you and me gotta sit and look around, now what’s happening here? So um, Kokomo Kidd, I wanted to tell a story of that corruption, in a way almost celebrating it ‘cause the character, Kokomo Kidd, is kind of bragging what he does. Um, it’s not a matter of condoning it, but I would like for the story to be told so that maybe we can kind of laugh at it a little bit. Laugh at it and recognize it. Now the story as it is may or may not be true, we’re not gonna worry about that. Garrison Keeler doesn’t worry about it and neither did Shakespeare, but it’s meant to tell the truth. So uh, that was my approach on Kokomo Kidd and I just sat on the side of the bed one day and came up with some chords that sounded nice and got a funky little rhythm and I started making up rhymes and letting my son hear it. He told me the quality of rapper that I am not, but uh, I kept working on it and I think we got something good there.
HEFFNER: I’m tempted, Guy, because you’re here, to show us your process.
DAVIS: Okay I’ll try to show you,
HEFFNER: The real, the real guy, the real McCoy.
DAVIS: It’s real pretty much ‘cause I say it’s real. Okay. Suppose I was starting just those first couple of lines of Kokomo Kidd. Remember we got banjos and tubas on the recording here but this is still the sense of it.
“Back when prohibition was the law of the land, politicians knew we didn’t understand that drinking was the way that laws got made, they got laid and bribes were paid, and when the white bootleggers got sent to jail, nobody couldn’t come and go their bail except for Kokomo. Kokomo Kidd. Name was Kokomo. Kokomo Kidd. Liquor got cut down, man, the government almost shut down. They needed a bag man who looked like a rag man, who better than a black man to come serve the white man, His hoochified liquor, a whole lot quicker than the white bootleggers could do, talkin’ ‘bout Kokomo. Kokomo Kidd. Talking ‘bout Kokomo. Kokomo Kidd.”
What I got there going is it’s uh, it’s a rap according to today’s uh, analysis but this kind of speech and talking was going on a while back there before formal rap started. I’ve heard guys with guitars, uh, doing uh, a song back along the times of uh, President, uh, Roosevelt and uh… “Tell me why you like Roosevelt, tell me why you like Roosevelt,” … and now there’d be kind of chorus chanting around, so that tradition is not new. And the tradition of making words bang together with a fun rhythm is definitely not new, so I borrowed that and I kind of set up the uh, the plot and the characters and uh, got a little bit of everything going on. The idea is to have fun, to tell a story.
HEFFNER: How does the Kokomo Kidd phenomenon play out today, with, with our first black president? How does it, has it changed?
HEFFNER: “They needed a black man to come serve the white man” has that changed?
DAVIS: Uh, I would say that the phenomenon of corruption in Washington D.C., uh, is something that continues in its own way on its own level. Uh, I believe the only rules are you’re supposed to not get caught, and if you do get caught, you’re supposed to not implicate anybody else. That’s what I get when I uh, listen to the news and all the things that break and fall apart in Washington D.C. Uh, the song isn’t meant to try to fix that. There are songs meant to fix, uh, things. I would say that the best kind of song would be sung by somebody I called a dear friend, that’s Pete Seeger. He was uh, I gotta change the subject matter a little bit. It was somebody who was known as an enemy at the Washington D.C., that was Paul Robeson.
DAVIS: And in Peekskill, 1949, he came up there to sing. And uh, the John Birch Society, the anti-communist folks, heard about it, uh, in advance, and they were outside that rally with piles of stones so that when the rally ended and folks drove out, those cars had to go through a, a gauntlet of stones being hurled at them, and there were kids in the cars, women in the cars. And at one point I heard that all that some of the people driving could do, they were forced out of their cars, was just hold hands and they sang. And they sang and stones are whizzing through the air. I don’t even remember where I heard that, but if that’s the case, I know it didn’t solve the problem but it showed a spirit, it showed the kind of spirit we need in this country today to make change, sometimes we gotta stand up and say a thing is wrong and you can do it without hurling a stone and you can do it without shooting a gun. Sometimes you gotta get in front of a television camera, hold the hands of the people next to you and raise your voices together. Uh…
HEFFNER: And how do, how do those voices have the staying power that we need?
DAVIS: How do those voices have the staying power? That’s gonna have to be inspiration. How does the president manage to stay in office this long without quitting after all the abuse I believe he’s suffered? I think it goes back to that Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson tradition where you gotta organize, especially can, you gotta fight to see a thing through. And now that’s political, that’s artistic, that’s uh, how we gotta work our lives, you know. The magic is not free, you gotta sweat to make that magic happen. It’ll happen but you got to sweat.
HEFFNER: Are you troubled, I don’t know, recording this today, uh, just days after Kanye West declared his candidacy in 2020, I prefer Guy Davis in 2020 and I’m sure there were folks who were clamoring for Ruby and Ossie. Uh, how, how have celebrity and politics intersected to advantage the cause? Or have they disadvantaged the cause?
DAVIS: Oh, celebrity and politics. Man, you’re catching me on some heavy, high-tone topics today here.
HEFFNER: Nothing a harmonica can’t solve, right?
DAVIS: Okay yeah we’ll see if we can work that out in a minute there. Uh, celebrity is good for bringing attention to a cause, foundation, an issue, a person. Uh,
HEFFNER: We Are the World. We Are the World.
DAVIS: Yeah, We Are the World, it helped to, helped to raise money for uh, political candidates. Uh, Barack Obama for instance, he had a lot of friends and they sang and came out and Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé and folks would uh, you know, lend their talents to raise money for the, for the uh, ridiculously expensive candidacies of some of these folks. Um, celebrity however can, is… It’s almost like sort of a wild shot, it can go either way, it can go positive or you can find yourself in a reality show, uh, filled with uh, sisters, brothers, and parents with no talent whatsoever except for attracting attention. Um, so celebrity, the media, all of these institutions have, the institute, institution of celebrity, whatever, they, they have two faces, there’s two ways they can go. They can go for good, they can go for bad. Television, back in the days of the civil rights era, wasn’t trying to help integration along, yet it did because we started seeing more and more black faces in the news, sometimes in the midst of protestes, protests. I think I’m uh, losing the power over the English language here.
HEFFNER: The Daily Herald-Tribune I thought synopsized your work. “Davis’ folksy and humble stage presence combined with his numerous monologues made one feel that this was not a concert but rather an impromptu performance…” like you said from a, a front porch. You were telling me off-camera that you’re reading about uh, the homeless.
DAVIS: It is not a uh, an easy issue to deal with, because when you say “the homeless” you’re talking about some folks who simply don’t have jobs or a place to stay, sometimes you’re talking about people who have been released from mental institution, institutions for lack of space. Uh, you’re talking about people who have dealt with drug abuse, maybe they’ve gotten off the street long enough to kick the habit but then there’s nowhere else to go but back on the street and start getting high again. So it’s a difficult thing to juggle but I know that a way can be found if the intention is there. That’s what we gotta do with this music and what I hope the mayor continues to do with that money is not to just throw the money at the problem but to let’s work up a comprehensive way to turn things around.
HEFFNER: Well you do highlight in the track the influence of money on our politics, and I wonder if the Kokomo Kidd to you has less of a racial lens and more of a socioeconomic one today. Many people have cited the presidency of Barack Obama as proving something about racial progress. In actuality…
DAVIS: Alexander, my dad before he died made it clear to me that uh, the face of racism now is very much economic. You’re not gonna find folks, um, standing up and using the N word and um, pointing down at groups of people with black skin, no, it, it’s gonna manifest by uh, whole groups of people are gonna like, not have jobs or have educations that are very hard to come by or are inferior, that’s how racism is, manifests more now than before. Uh, Mr. Donald .. a. hem…
DAVIS: Tr—Tr—Trump, I have difficulty saying that, okay. Uh, talks about um, you know, he’s tired of all this uh, using euphemisms and uh, being politically correct, he said we gotta call, you know, stand up and say this is how we feel and this is how things are. Well, if that’s the case then I think instead of this country handing out green cards, I don’t know, maybe the Native Americans are gonna have to stand up, stand up and start handing out red cards. If you don’t have a red card, you gotta go. Now I don’t think that Donald Trump and a lot of the folks he represent are gonna be happy ‘cause they might have to uh, you know… See, you’re getting me all wound up politically here man, [LAUGHS] I’m trying to be an artist.
HEFFNER: Wind up, wind up, well but the artist is a political force of nature.
HEFFNER: That’s how I greeted your song.
DAVIS: And I thank you for that. And you know who I wish was here to have heard that was Pete Seeger. And Pete Seeger is I think a person I look up to when it comes to artistry and politics.
DAVIS: And, and being an even-handed kind of man. Uh, even back when the Tawana Brawley case was a big thing back in the 80s and it turned out just awful, Pete Seeger showed up at a protest early in the process and said something, didn’t have anything to do with the conclusion of the case, but he said something that struck me and it moved me. The reporters asked him why was he there? And there was Al Sharpton and all these other folks there and he said uh, he was here because he thought it was important to see a black family sticking together. That’s what made a difference to me, especially coming out of Pete’s mouth. Um, Pete introduced me… Pete is partly responsible for me being on Broadway here in New York City. The other person responsible for that is Sonny Terry. It was back in 1947, uh, Pete called up the producers of a Broadway musical called Finian’s Rainbow. I think it was gonna be like the first integrated musical on uh, Broadway, fully integrated. And um, Pete calls up and says uh, calls a producer, says there’s this blind fella named Sonny Terry, plays a harmonica like nobody you’ve heard, you gotta, you gotta hear him, see if you can use him in your show, that’s how he talked back then. And uh, so they heard him and they brought him to the audition, he played that harmonica and girls were dancing at the audition, they loved it. They hired him on the spot, they said Sonny, Sonny man, that’s great, is that your tune, he said yeah. Well that’s what we want, that’s exactly what we want. Now the dancers gotta dance to what you do so you gotta play it the same way every night, eight performances a week, uh, six days a week, the same way. And Sonny says uh, same way, well I don’t know if I could play it the same way, I gotta play it like I feel it. And um, one of the producers wrote down on a piece of paper how much they gonna pay Sonny every week to play that and you know, Sonny, he could see like a little so he, he said oh, the same way, yeah, I’ll play it the same way, you know, when he saw that money. Uh, before I demonstrate a little bit of Sonny’s harp technique, Pete, Sonny, and people he associated with, uh, like Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, they used to run together. One time Woody had Sonny and Brownie playing at some kind of union halls and various uh, gigs, and one gig after, after they uh, played the uh, folks putting on the shindig asked that uh, Brownie and Sonny not be allowed to eat in the same area where the white people were, and Woody went to Sonny and Brownie, said go to the car and wait for me, and they went. Woody went over to the table, picked it up, and flipped all that food and drink over right on the folks, grabbed two bottles of scotch and hit the road. So uh…
HEFFNER: Before you do demonstrate, and as we conclude this heartily enjoyable conversation, Guy, how do you explain after integration, after a greater economic empowerment, as you describe there, and after artistic revolutions from Michael Jackson to the Hamilton performance, how do you explain the xenophobia, the, the racism and the, the hatemongering in our discourse? How do you explain it?
DAVIS: I explain it by the folks in power, the folks truly in power, the folks who you don’t see, you see Donald Trump but there’s people higher than him, bigger than him that you do not see. [SIGHS] They can say now to the world and the media, well you got a black president so therefore by definition we’re not racist, certainly we’re not racist. We’re not keeping money from black people, how could we? You got a black president. Um, that is not how reality uh, plays it out. You got people uh, pointing down at the uh, border with Mexico saying uh, these Mexicans are coming up here and taking our jobs. Well, no I think that uh, it’s the people up top who are giving the jobs away over in Europe and Asia who are making that big difference. I think the folks coming up across the border are scrambling for better lives as best they can, just like they’re coming up out of northern Africa right now up into Greece and into Europe and into uh, west, uh, eastern Europe and heading west. It’s uh, it’s about those who are most powerful whose hand are on all these puppets. You can’t see the hands but you see the puppets and that’s what we’re all reacting to, puppets. So doggone it, let me see if I can show you a little puppetry with this. [HARMONICA] Sort of in the style of Sonny Terry, let me do a little ballad … [PLAYS HARMONICA] [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: Scrambling, well, you scramble with that majestically. Thank you for being here and I think you’re more of a fixer-upper in the political process than you let on, because it’s these lyrics that can have transformative power, and I think you know that.
DAVIS: Well thank you for that uh, great honor of what you just said to me uh, sometimes I think I’m so full of smarts I just need a laxative, you know, I’m just full of it, smarts. Um, there’s always room for improvement in my understanding of these situations, but uh, I’m challenging those higher powers. Enlighten me.
HEFFNER: Thank you for your musical activism. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out at Twitter or Facebook @Open MindTV for updates on future programming.