The Steve Power Sessions (3): cultural and racial dialogues within blues appropriation
by JOSEP PEDRO
Based in Austin since 2003, Steve Power is a widely experienced musician whose extensive trajectory spans over more than forty years, including intense periods in different states and countries both in the U.S. and in Europe. A thoughtful observer and meticulous storyteller, Steve continues to prove that he is a restless singer-songwriter, harmonica player and band coordinator, who may be broadly identified with roots and blues music. His dedication and attentive character has led to the project Matthew Robinson & The Jelly Kings, where he joins forces with one of the most unique bluesmen in Austin and a select group of backing musicians looking to extend the legacy of Texas blues. Together, while keeping in synch at their residency at Opals Divine’s Penn Field restaurant (South Congress), Steve and Matthew have been working hard on their recently published album Work that Jelly!, whose advance samples showcase impressive performances within convincing, groovy frameworks.
A member of the Austin Music Foundation and the Austin Blues Society, and an endorser of well-known harmonica equipment brands (Seydel Harmonicas, Sonny Jr. Harp Amps, Blows Me Away Harp Mics, 16:23 Custom Harmonicas), Steve Power’s career includes several awards and albums both as sideman and leader –his last solo project was The Austin Chronicles (2013), as well as significant accomplishments like playing harmonica with John Lee Hooker, singing with Joe Cocker and standing as onstage bodyguard to Little Richard. In this third and final interview-session Steve discusses the complex processes of intercultural and racial dialogue in relation to the different appropriations of blues music.
In which ways does blues serve to establish dialogues between people from different races and cultures?
Blues is simply another art form. All art speaks to human emotion on one level or another. Since those emotions are universal we find common ground. Blues in particular speaks to basic human themes that we all have experienced no matter where were from. The question I can’t quite figure out is what is the difference between countries where blues is wildly popular but other countries where it is not? For example Brazil seems to be a hot bed of blues interest but why not Columbia for instance? Why is blues generally more popular in Europe as opposed to say mid-west America?
What makes blues and black music musically and socially attractive to other people –who don’t belong to its community of origin?
Why do white folks from New Hampshire like Mexican food or Russians like hamburgers? Just because it’s good stuff to eat. Blues and any form of art crosses all sorts of cultural and social barriers because art speaks to universal emotions and basic human experience. Getting jacked around by your man/woman or being broke or saying, “Screw it, let’s have a good time,” are all common experiences whether you’re from Southside Chicago or Southside Madrid.
Just one example. B.B. King tells a story about being offered a gig playing guitar that paid $5 and how excited he was because his day job was picking cotton at 25 cents a pound. The Rhondda Valley, where I lived in Wales, was still a coal mining community. Mining was the major industry in the whole of South Wales. There weren’t many options for jobs, especially if you were young with no college education. “Going down the pit” was just about the only option. You could spend eight hours a day down the pit for maybe twenty-five UK pounds or, if you were good, you could play for two hours in a pub for twenty-five pounds. Strange as it may seem today, there was money to be made playing blues.
Do you recall any significant moments or experiences in your life in which your interest for music consciously or unconsciously took you socially closer to other “racial” groups or cultures?
Racially? No, nothing significant socially as such. I mean most of my friends in life have come through music one way or another. So whatever black or brown friends I have made would most likely come through being musicians.
Culturally, yes. I moved to the UK on a sort of musical mission. I grew up musically in South Wales, in Cardiff and the Rhondda primarily. British culture in general and particularly the culture of the mining communities have had a big impact on me and continue to do so. That exposure is a large part of who I am, though I’m also a red blooded American. Music took me to live in Holland where I experienced a very different culture again, and a country where English is not the native language, though most Dutch speak English quite well.
What similarities and differences have you noticed between “the European scene” and the North American scene?
Generally speaking it’s night and day. Well, to me anyway and my personal experience. Others might disagree. When I first got into blues there certainly were people who listened to the originators and had the knowledge but they weren’t the people I was in contact with really. I’d go see a John Lee Hooker or James Cotton but usually could never find anyone who also wanted to see them. I might drag a girlfriend along but that was about it. In L.A. we did have the white blues bands like Canned Heat who were very popular and fair play, they really knew their stuff but they were still doing an interpretation of what had gone before. You had [Paul] Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield out of San Francisco, who also knew their stuff and were popular. San Francisco was much hipper to cats like Muddy and the Kings. Bill Graham I think played a part in that with booking those great shows at the Filmore.
But really it was the British who made things explode. I think the Stones in particular, and there were some great British blues bands like Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer, Savory Brown, the early version of Chicken Shack when Christine Perfect was the singer and had the U.K. hit with “Rather Go Blind”. When I moved over there was when I discovered how British “rock”, for lack of a better word, musicians had really studied this stuff, all the nuances of the music as well as who’s who. Keith Richards for instance could teach a university course on blues and old school rock and roll. Of course it was always going to be an interpretation but the knowledge and the reverence really showed. And in Wales if you didn’t know your shit you would soon be told about it in no uncertain terms.
I think in the States there is not that degree of commitment. That statement is a big generality and there are many exceptions no doubt. Some of that perception could be down to a difference in the size of the region and the population.
How would you describe the relationship between both scenes (touring musicians and opportunities, transatlantic circuit…)?
Certainly night and day. The British and the Europeans have as a culture a vastly greater respect for artists and musicians in general and particularly blues music. They have a long history of support for blues and jazz and there are many U.S. blues and jazz artists who have made their home there which is proof of the point.
The standard of pay is very much better, the perks are better, and the audience response is better. There’s this funny relationship between countries. The UK is better than the U.S. Holland is better than the UK. Germany is better than Holland. Belgium, France and Italy are somewhere in the middle but all are better than the states. I can’t speak to Spain as I’ve never worked there. I did go the Blanes for holiday once and loved it. I describe Spain as California without the guns.
What type of music comes to mind when you think about Spain? What knowledge do you have about blues musicians in Spain? Are any Spanish artists “famous” in the U.S.?
I guess the obvious is flamenco. I really don’t have any knowledge of blues in Spain other than some youtube videos I’ve come across. On that score I’ve seen some really good Spanish blues acts but I couldn’t tell you their names. Recently met a really excellent blues duo out of Barcelona, The Suitcase Brothers. They play primarily Piedmont blues but are no slouches at other electric forms.
I don’t believe there are any Spanish blues artists who are famous in the states. Having said that Spanish language music is really exploding and there may well be people I’ve not heard of that are huge. But then I don’t speak Spanish, wish I did.
What importance has the idea of “blackness” had in your trajectory as a blues musician?
The idea of “blackness” never entered my mind until you asked this question. At least not to me personally. Whatever I thought of or influence I took from a musician had nothing to do with blackness or whiteness or purpleness. If I dug it I dug it. I love Charlie Musselwhite as much as Little Walter. Jerry Portnoy as much as Walter Horton. As far as being a white guy playing black music, generally that doesn’t enter into it. It would be like trying to say [that] a black concert pianist doesn’t really understand Rachmaninoff. Rubbish.
Having said that I’ve been in situations where at first I thought, “Oh crap, shouldn’t have walked through that door.” I remember playing in a band in L.A. that was primarily a blues band but also played covers of popular hits of the day. It was required if you were playing four sets a night in some N. Hollywood bar. […] It was an eight piece band with only the lead singer, a nutcase if there ever was one, and myself being white. One night we got a gig in Compton, which is ghetto with a capitol G. I am blissfully unaware of where the club is really until I drive down there from Hollywood. I walk in and I am the only white guy in the place. The band is still setting up and the singer, who was also band leader, if that word can be used, had not yet arrived. As I walk towards the bandstand I could feel every eye in the place following me. Perhaps it was my own white boy paranoia but I swear you could cut the hostility with a knife and I suspect there were more than a few knives in the joint.
The thing was as soon as I walked up on the stage and they saw I was with the band the whole atmosphere did a 180 turn. Being just the harp player it didn’t take long to carve out my little piece of stage turf and I was immediately invited over to a table in the corner and handed a beer. I’d never been in an all black bar and really didn’t know what I might have gotten myself into but I settled down pretty quick and really dug being there. It was like all the places I’d read about and wondered what that must be like. I may or may not have played my best but I sure as hell tried. I did not have a spot of trouble all night but I did have some really great comments made and enjoyed the whole thing tremendously.
In the UK there was a large influx of immigrants from Jamaica and other Caribbean countries in the 50s. Consequently, [it was] a very different black culture than that of black America. My experience of that culture was restricted to Cardiff, which has a good size black community. But again the black people I knew in Cardiff were all part of the music scene in one way or another and music people tend to not really give a shit about race.
Austin has sometimes been criticized for being a very “white city”, where racial segregation still remains important. What is your opinion about race relations in town and how different is it from the relationships created in the blues scene?
I’m not sure what you mean by segregation remaining important. If you mean in the sense that there is de facto segregation due to economics and other factors I would agree but I don’t think there is so much in the way of social segregation other than for a myriad of reasons black and white tend to not hang together in groups. To be honest, even though in some communities there were little in the way of racial barriers, I’ve seen more overt racism in the UK and Europe than I have in Austin. But then as I was once told, Austin ain’t like the rest of Texas.
As far as the blues scene, in general all the local black blues artists are quite revered. You must remember Pinetop Perkins lived here and was out jamming all over town well into his 90s. James Cotton lives just outside of town. Hosea Hargrove, Matthew Robinson, W. C. Clark, LaVelle White are all Austinites just to name a few. Clifford Antone really set the tone and on the quiet it’s lived on.
Do you think blues should still be considered black music?
Should jazz be considered black music? What the hell is “black music” anyway? Hip Hop and Rap are generally considered to be black music but there are successful white artists in the genre and they are accepted by the black community. Paul Oscher ain’t black but he sure as hell can play the blues.
I was talking with Matt[hew] Robinson and the other guys at rehearsal today about a conversation I had with a talent buyer in town. Matt had played this small festival in east Austin with a sort of All-Star band at a bar called The White Horse, so I thought I’d try and get us in there. Now there’s a band called The Little Elmore Reed Band which consists of guys from the current Fabulous Thunderbirds line up and the harp player from Canned Heat. In the course of conversation with the bar the guy tells me that blues doesn’t go down very well there. He then says, “Besides, we had the Little Elmore Reed band here and the owner thought they were too white boy blues.”
When I told this story Matt just rocked back and said, “What is “white boy blues” anyway?” I don’t even know what that’s supposed to be. I’m black and there are plenty of white boys can play rings around me.” Our bass player, Jeff Hayes, told about bringing a 13 year old Jonny Lang into his band in Fargo and being asked how a bunch of white kids could be playing blues. Jeff said, “We used to just tell them,’ Look were just playing this music with respect and the best we can.”
You know thinking about it, how can you apply any racial label in the definition of an art form. What racial color is ballet, or painting, or poetry or any artistic form you can name? Yes it has a black heritage no doubt. And most of the innovators of country blues and electric blues in their early history were black but it was the adaptation of the form by white British artists that brought blues to the attention of the general public. It was white audiences and record buyers that brought it serious economic success. It is primarily whites who are the main practitioners of the form. Why should one race own an art form anyway? I don’t really care if blues is or isn’t “black” music. I’m going to play it the best I can and I’m going to love it when someone else plays it and moves me in some way.