Old Blues

by Phil Drum

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Phil Drum is a guitarist, songwriter, and  student of the blues, particularly the acoustic blues of the 1920s and 30s. He lives  in Saratoga Springs, NY, and plays acoustic and electric blues music around town. He is co-founder and leader of the Saratoga Acoustic Blues Society. Phil received a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University at Albany, NY, and has a full-time Psychological practice in the Saratoga/Albany area. — Zachary Greenberg

Greenberg: How is “Old Blues” a tribute to early twentieth-century blues?

Drum: It started out with that kind of tribute as a vague intention, and took shape literally verse by verse. My mind wandered from the unknown blues singers, both male and female, on the road or singing in juke joints and such, to the more famous ones, singling out  Robert Johnson and Charley Patton and real or imagined vignettes from their lives. I tried to imagine the lives they lived as implied in their music, as best I could see them from my own historical and cultural vantage point. I meant it as a tribute to the people these performers were as much as to the blues they sang and played.

Greenberg: Can you talk about why Robert Johnson still remains a mythic figure today?

Drum: His story is the stuff of myths certainly, especially his alleged deal with the Devil and the mysterious circumstances of his murder. Also his music is in some ways both a culmination of the older folk blues tradition, and a door opening into the more urban and eventually electric blues that followed and led to rock & roll and R&B and much of popular music from the fifties on.  He wasn’t the only one, of course—there were many great players—though his story has come to embody much of what the blues was and is. Robert Johnson took the blues from Charley Patton and Son House and Lonnie Johnson and made it his own and then handed it off to Muddy Waters, who handed it to Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. That in itself is a beautiful story.

Greenberg: How do you utilize the narrative potential of blues in your work?

Drum: I, of course, could never hope to adequately understand or describe or present the African-American experience at the heart of the blues, but much of the narrative elements of those old songs are universal and as purely human as Shakespeare. I try to tell my own stories in my own songs.

When I think about it, every blues song tells a story—some are more complete narratives, like “Frankie and Johnny,” or “Betty and Dupree,” though most are fragments of a story, but there is always a story in there, usually of love, sometimes of death, or sin, or salvation, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, though always transcendent in some way, often transcending something hard or painful and making something joyful out of it, if nothing else, in the dancing to it. Whoever you are, the blues cure the blues, or at least ease them.

Greenberg: Is there a correlation between blues songs and folk literature?

Drum: I can’t say I know much about folk literature. I do believe the blues came out of and spoke to the shared experiences of the performers and their audience, and I think that’s what folk music is all about, even when the music in question achieves a degree of commercial success, as the blues did in the 1920’s and again in the 1960’s.

Greenberg: When we think of blues in many ways we think of it as an art form of the past. Where do you perceive the blues to be as a genre today?

Drum: There are great musicians playing the blues todayPaul Geremia and Roy Bookbinder playing acoustic blues, BB King and Buddy Guy and a bunch of younger guys playing electric blues. Bob Dylan writes a lot of blues these days.  It still is one of the cornerstones of American music. It doesn’t have to top the charts. And listening to and learning about the blues is one way as Americans we can treasure our past, which I think we need to do in more authentic ways than we tend to these days.

Greenberg: I’m surprised there are not more (at least to my knowledge) blues tracks related to war. And now I’m thinking of “Country Joe McDonald” and some others dating back to the 1960’s. What are your thoughts on utilizing the blues as a means of commentary on war?

Drum: There were a few early blues that referred to war, mostly WWI in the 1920’s. The focus was not so much political, as on the human experience. Listen to “Last Kind Words” by Geechie Wiley, and it will rip your heart out.


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