Thursday, November 26, 2009
Paul Geremia or living of music
By Rick Massimo
(Journal Pop Music Writer)
"Paul Geremia (at left, with sun-glasses, circa 1970), played with Pink Anderson, at Anderson’s home in South Carolina. Geremia coaxed him into some recording sessions and gigs in New England.
Paul Geremia says that his latest recording, a DVD, isn’t an instructional video. Strictly speaking, he’s right. On the other hand, any viewer will learn something important from it — whether they play guitar or not.
For more than 40 years, Geremia has kept the songs, stories and spirit of the country blues alive through recordings and concerts that double as history lessons. Acoustic Guitar magazine has called Geremia “one of the best country blues finger-pickers ever.” The Folk and Music Exchange calls Geremia “a one-of-a-kind artist.”
Guitar Artistry of Paul Geremia: Six & Twelve-String Blues helps preserve the music and the lore, with nearly two hours of the Rhode Island bluesman playing solo acoustic blues by artists such as Blind Willie McTell, The Rev. Gary Davis, Pink Anderson and more, as well as telling the stories of meeting his heroes, and of their influence.
Producer Stefan Grossman says, “Paul has been playing for the past 40, 45 years, and he’s really developed his own sound and his own approach to playing.”
The Guitar Artistry series, which also includes videos by Rory Block, Harry Manx and more, is “a platform and a document to these guitar players who have something to say and are great,” Grossman says. Thanks to the players’ looks into their own history and the history of the music, “you get into the artist’s mind. … And Paul is a great storyteller.”
Grossman says filming, which happened last June, was easy, “Easy. He just took off his shoes and played, one song after the other. I think we ran him into the ground.”
“I hope people can get as much as possible out of it,” Geremia says of the disc. “It’s not an instructional disc per se, but I include a lot of information about my sources when I do a show. That’s part of the history that’s behind the music. I think the fact that I’m interested in history is one of the reasons that I gravitated toward blues, jazz, folk music.”
So before playing Pink Anderson’s “Meet Me in the Bottom,” Geremia tells of finding Anderson living on a dead-end road in Spartanburg, S.C., and setting up some recording sessions and gigs in New England for him, and bringing field folklorist, manager and promoter Dick Waterman along to fetch Anderson. Waterman took some convincing, Geremia remembers on the disc – “I have it on good authority,” Geremia recalls him saying, “that Pink Anderson has been dead for five years.”
Geremia says of Howlin’ Wolf, “He was very tolerant of my enthusiasm,” and displays a chord from Charlie Patton’s “Pony Blues” that Wolf showed him the proper fingering for — a fingering he’d been hunting for for years.
He also tells a bit of his own story – how his first guitar was really bought for his father, in the hopes “he’d be easier to live with,” about how he discovered the music by seeing Mississippi John Hurt at a topical-songs workshop at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival along with Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Peter LaFarge.
And about the arc of his own career: “I left school in 1966 to try to make a living playing music,” Geremia says on the disc, “and I’ve been trying ever since.”
And of course there’s the music — the haunting “Statesboro Blues,” the haunted “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” the crazy tempo shifts in “Leaving Blues.” “I can’t feel welcome no matter where I go,” he sings in “Stocking Feet Blues”; “… I’m a stranger here, just come in on the train.”
There are a few of Geremia’s own tunes as well, in which he makes the connection between personal and political lyricism and traditional blues musicianship: “Rain falls on the mountain, rain falls on the sea,” he sings in “Wonderful Affliction”; “Rain falls where it wants to, and now it’s falling down on me.”
And if it all sounds like the music chronicles the struggles, defeats and triumphs of someone doing battle with the larger forces of the world? Well, yeah.
Geremia’s standard crack is that he grew up “in the Providence River Delta” — not exactly the traditionally fertile blues territory. He lived mostly in Johnston, though he went to high school in Providence, and his family also lived on the West Coast for a while.
Even when living in Rhode Island, he moved a number of times, he says, and so, always being the new kid, he kept mostly to himself. He discovered the library. “I discovered books, and reading, and finding out things about stuff that interested me became my way of occupying time.”
He also discovered music. His first instrument was harmonica, but that almost by definition put him in contact with guitar players, and he started learning the ropes from them.
Then came the Mississippi John Hurt's performance. “It was just a summation of everything I liked,” Geremia says now. “And I remember saying to myself, ‘I don’t know what that is, but that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.’ ”
He started playing the country blues, and in 1966, he moved to Cambridge, drawn by the scene at the legendary Club 47. Even then, he says, it was the traditional performers who attracted him. The new wave of folk singer-songwriters were elitists, he says now, spending a lot of time arguing over who had the right to play the blues. “The dilettantes are the most elitist,” he says, speaking of then but also of now.
“Club 47 was like a free education. Every night of the week they had music from a different part of the country. Dollar-fifty admission. And some of the prettiest waitresses.”
A lot of people who say they don’t like blues music cite the plodding, repetitive, generic nature of the structures. In unskilled hands, that’s true. But one of the things that leaps out about Geremia’s playing is the eccentricities he keeps in the music. The country blues, or for that matter solo piano blues by the likes of Piano Red or Meade Lux Lewis, is full of weird twists: an extra measure here, a rubato passage there, a one-line refrain, a riff jammed into the middle of the form. Geremia keeps those in the music, not just because he’s a natural traditionalist (“these are like classical music pieces,” he says on the disc) but because they add interest.
“In my case, it’s not a conscious effort, I don’t think,” he says of his efforts. And his original “Still Thinking About You” shows that he puts those quirks into his own music.
In many forms of traditional music, debates center on whether performers should keep playing the music the way it is or make their own interpretation. Geremia says he comes down in the middle, though what he calls the middle is a demanding spot: Put your own spin on it if it adds something, not if it takes something away. He’s tired of hearing performers say things such as “I like Robert Johnson’s music, but I like doing it my own way.”
“And you hear the guy,” Geremia says, “and what he’s done is just botch it up. He can’t do it anywhere close to the original. He’s covering up his own inability to live up to the musicianship in the original. It’s not a continuation of the process.”
The bluesmen Geremia grew up idolizing — Anderson, Davis, Yank Rachel, John Jackson, Howard Armstrong – are almost all gone now. Most of the people who saw them play are gone as well. The Chicago Blues Festival wants to celebrate the music of Blind John Davis this summer — so they’ve gotten Geremia. Davis would be 100 if he were alive. The kid has become the elder statesman.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Geremia says. He quickly points out that he’s white, whereas most of his heroes were black, and just as quickly points out that race has no correlation with ability to play the blues. “No one has made that statement that I consider to have any kind of credentials. Certainly none of the musicians.” So Geremia continues the process. And the informality of the network of country blues music is as it always was — another reason why the DVD isn’t a straight instructional video.
“If somebody wants to know something, I show them. Because it means they really want to learn. And for me to go up to Skip James and ask him the tuning that he used took a lot of nerve. I was always a shy kid, and I didn’t want to bother anybody. But they were very friendly people. I was fortunate to be in the right place and the right time, so I was able to take advantage of it thanks to the generosity of those guys.”
Ask Geremia about how his life intersects with his music, and it takes a while to get through. He’s clearly more comfortable talking about the weather.
At age 63, Geremia doesn’t hitchhike to gigs as he did in the ’60s and ’70s, but he tours by himself, in a car, with a couple of guitars and a stool in the back seat. He spends a lot of time on people’s couches and in spare rooms when he’s on the road.
One storm, he explains, can wipe out a whole tour if the gigs are all booked on the same latitude. He’s got stories of tornadoes he’s been through in Michigan and New York state, and how “a mean storm — a heavy wind, like you only get in north Texas” can light up the clouds “like Japanese lanterns.”
The past two years, he went on Midwest tours in January, “and both times it was lucky. No bad weather from Texas up to Minnesota.” This year, he set up Midwest tour in December, thinking another January run was pushing his meterological luck. “Sure enough, I hit a snowstorm.”
“It’s just as important to me as to a sailor on the ocean,” he says of the weather. “It makes all the difference between getting by and not getting by.”
He can talk about why so many old bluesmen’s birthdays are given as July 4, 1900 (their births were undocumented, so they didn’t know their birthdays). Why Salvatore Massaro picked Eddie Lang as his stage name (that was the name of the kid who sold newspapers outside the recording studio). How Geremia visited Blind John Davis in Chicago and found his front door had been taken off the hinges and his apartment picked clean (“They took everything but his piano. A blind musician”). Or how going to school with Native Americans in California “gave me my radicalization” and turned him on to American Indian history, and how King Philip’s War “was the beginning of the genocidal process of destroying the American Indian.”
Eventually, in his apartment in Foster, surrounded by books, guitars, 78s, albums and CDs of downloaded music, he gets to the nub of it: “I’ve spent most of my life living alone.”
Geremia was married once – it lasted three or four years, he says. He’s much more affected by what he describes as a common-law marriage that broke up between two and three years ago. “She wasn’t cut out for New England weather,” he says. Living in an uninsulated converted garage in Newport with someone who was on the road half the time was no life for a native Texan. Geremia ran into that north Texas storm he was talking about while heading to get “the good word” from her.
It’s like 83-year-old bluesman Nat Reese told him a week ago, Geremia says: “You gotta remember — people like you and me, we’re a different breed of people. You’re just gonna have to get used to that.”
“But what I tell myself more than anything,” Geremia says, “is now’s the time when you’ve got to show what you’re made of. If you want to sing the blues, you’ve got to live the blues too. And it’s the [expletive] blues. It’s like Son House says, that’s what the blues is about, mainly — difficulty between men and women.”
Or men and the world, no? “More to the point, sure.”
Tell him that his life sounds like one of the songs he sings, and he pauses and says, “Yeah.” Then there’s a silence until he puts on a 78. Lefty Frizzell singing Jimmie Rodgers’s “Traveling Blues” fills the air.
If he’s coming to terms with that, he seems to have come to terms a long time ago with the level of success he’s had. It’s a living, but it’s not a great living. Yet he backed out of a recording contract with Kicking Mule records (which producer Grossman part-owned) about 20 years ago, he says, because they wanted him to do more singer-songwriter-style material, with keyboards and such.
He went his own way. Seeing and knowing great players and performers such as Patrick Sky, Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin and Dave Van Ronk, who reached for and never quite got the brass ring of the music business, “I realized that a lot of these people, if they made any mistake at all, it was in making concessions to the music business, instead of doing things the way they wanted to do it. So I decided that I’m going to do stuff the way I want to do it. If you’re going to fail, there’s no point in failing in addition to giving up on what your own dream is.”
Better to do what one does.
“The music business and the technology go through a lot of changes, but people like the same thing. I think there’s a sense of honesty when you’re doing something you really like to do, and people pick up on it. I don’t have any regrets. I’ve done the best I could do, and it’s just a question of keeping things going as best as I can."
“You pay the price for your ideals,” Geremia says. “You pay the price for being in love. It’s a risk.”
Thanks to Rick for his above essay.
Paul is, truly, an humble master and a living treasure.
BTW... the Tonk Bros. mighty twelve-strings acoustic shown in the attached pix - later also the property of Todd Cambio - served as a model to my own Blazer & Henke Stella Replica ladder-braced guitar, which was also played by Paul himself, while in Europe, for some gigs (see it in attached pix, with an older, sun-glassesless Paul).
Posted by twogoodears at 11/26/2009 12:54:00 PM