Conversations with Birdlegg (1): the Hardest Working Man in the Blues
Gene Pittman aka “Birdlegg” is an experienced bluesman who stands out for his energetic and passionate approach to live music performance. Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1947 and musically raised in the Oakland blues scene, Birdlegg moved to Austin, Texas in 2010 looking for a new twist in his career that would revitalize him personally and artistically. Since then, he has performed innumerable heartfelt shows, earning deep appreciation from fellow musicians and audiences, and establishing himself as a mainstay of the “live music capital of the world”. Birdlegg has also developed his discographic trajectory and international projection through his association with Eddie Stout, who produced his album Birdlegg (Dialtone Records, 2013), and with whom he has repeatedly toured Sweden.
A dedicated singer and harp player, Birdlegg is, above all, an old-school entertainer in the African-American tradition. Inspired by the work and life of influential musicians such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sonny Terry, B.B. King, Sonny Rhodes and James Brown, among others, his unique style ranges from country blues to urban blues, funk and rock ‘n’ roll. Yet the key to Birdlegg’s musical act and artistic persona is to be found in his captivating personality, confidence and determination. An outspoken, humorous and loving bluesman, Birdlegg believes in the power of his own musical voice, and always tries his best to make audiences happy by keeping them involved. In a couple of weeks, audiences in Spain will have the opportunity of seeing Birdlegg live for the first time. On August 2, he will perform at Estudio 27 in Burgos, and the following day he will be at the historic Sala Clamores in Madrid. Let these words be an opportunity to find out more about this smart and hardworking bluesman.
Working in the blues scene
How do you feel about being a blues performer?
It’s like when you dream something when you’re a kid, and then you’re living it. Every time I get on stage it’s my dream come true, every fucking time. And it’s been 39 years since I’ve been playing professionally, and 42 since I’ve been playing harmonica. I started in 1974, became professional in 1977, and have been playing ever since. I always knew, I knew that someday I’d be on stage. It wasn’t like an intelligent thing, it was like a premonition. To see yourself and all the shit I’ve done… I probably should be dead by now; I should be in prison. I never did anything to get my total life in order. But you can do life on the installment plan in America.
When people tell me: “Oh, no, you can’t just play the blues, you gotta play other shit,” I say: “No, I’m staying right here.” Because sooner or later, they’re gonna come to me. I’m gonna tell you something. These harmonica players down here, they don’t got shit on me, and a lot of them are good. All they got is technique. I got more than that, I got me. You can talk about yourself all you want but it ain’t about that, it’s about what you can really do. You know, I like to consider myself the Muhammad Ali of blues players. I’m not gonna tell you nothing I can’t do. I fuck with everybody, and people don’t get mad at me. They just say I’m crazy. That’s a good thing ‘cause then they let you do any fucking thing you want. Once somebody says you’re nuts, you got it. So I got this reputation of being half crazy. But I’d tell you what; none of these motherfuckers will tell you that I don’t play some good music.
What has music given to you?
Music is my woman. No matter how fucked up I get, music will always be there. ‘Cause music has given me strength, inner strength as a person. I always thought I was a weak guy but I’m a strong little motherfucker inside. I didn’t know that when I was young so music gave me the strength to get over. I was a monster when I was young; you’re much nicer than I was.
How do you feel about your responsibilities as a frontman?
My first job is to get the audience on our side immediately –not half way through the set, in the first song. If you’re a frontman and you’re doing a concert you only have about thirty seconds, even less than that, to put that audience of your side. So you come out slamming. See, what people have to learn down here is that when you’re playing it has to be real. I don’t care what kind of music you’re playing, the genres –whatever. You play with all you got; no matter what you’re playing, you’re playing with every ounce of your being. Then, you have to make friends with the people. If there was a crowd here, I wouldn’t be sitting here [in the patio]. I’d be in there talking to every motherfucker I could be talking to, you know. I’d psyche them up, and at the same time I’d psyche myself up too. So by the time I get on that stage I’m ready to go. I always think of things to say to people, and if you’re a frontman you better be able to always say something.
As a little black kid, talking to a bunch of white people was not an easy thing to do. I had to train myself and learn how to present myself. I had to sit down and consciously say that if you want to explore the whole world, then the first thing you have to do is make yourself comfortable in the whole world. No matter where you are, you be comfortable. That worked out tremendously because when I go out there I can do shit that none of these white musicians around here can do. I can entertain, I hump their legs… Yeah, that’s the way I do my show. See, people think I sit on people’s lap because I’m trying to fuck somebody. It ain’t even about that. I’m sitting on people’s lap and I’m talking to them. Here’s the thing, on an average stage the audience is here and the music is there. But when I play I bring the music to the people, I bring it to them. And I always say “welcome,” always, because that’s my house. If I come in your house and you don’t say “welcome,” I don’t think I’ll come back again. You gotta get close to your people as soon as possible, it doesn’t matter how silly or stupid you have to act. I always say to myself: “oh, that was really dumb” but it was really smart because I get the people on my side. You get the people on your side; you can do any fucking thing you wanna do. But first you gotta get them on your side.
That’s Rich [Bauer], by the way. Everybody in the band tonight is not my band. I keep it together ‘cause I’m a frontman, it’s my job! Being a frontman or frontwoman –a frontperson– is like this. All of a sudden you take it on your shoulders to say “we’re gonna make it work, and I’m gonna show you all how!” You have to be able to do it because nobody has a reason to play with Birdlegg, unless I pay them, and unless they have a pretty decent time, and get respect from me. So with all these people running around you have to learn how to put people together. I like putting people together that like to work together, but I don’t like to put brother and sister together or husband and wife –shit don’t work, usually. I’ve had enough experiences with that. Once you become the frontman you have to understand the whole show. You have to understand how the drummer is drumming, you have to understand the bass player, you have to understand the guitar player, you have to understand the harmonica, you have to understand the audience, and you have to understand the repertoire that you do. So it’s not an easy job, but it’s a thrilling job. It’s really thrilling that you put it all together to where you know that you can make this work.
Most people aren’t really interested in making the audience a part of the show. Even when they say “come on, put your hands together”, still not; that’s being ordered around. I never tell people to put their hands together. I’m not there to order my audience around; I’m there to get you involved. So I may be out there talking some crazy shit, you know, things that I’d never talk in front of my mother. But I talk common stuff that we all understand. Every man knows what it’s like to get hard; I talk about that. Every woman knows what it’s like to get her thing wet. I talk about that shit, but I do it in such a way that it’s funny. I don’t lecture anybody on sex, that’s not my job, but I play with it. And I play with it like other people would like to play with it –maybe in a bar they might get a little loose with a little alcohol. I don’t need any alcohol or drugs to do it, I just figured out that if you make friends with the people you’re making friends for the whole band.
Musical appropriation context
You make a transition from playing music to being music. It depends on how long it takes you to become totally comfortable with what you’re doing and what you are; who you are, and the music you wanna play.
How would you describe Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to someone who doesn’t know the place?
What can I say? It was okay, I had an okay childhood. We were kids, we didn’t know we were poor. We didn’t know that we were poor until we grew up. It still didn’t matter. It was not a place for any intellectual, or any growth-by experience. You had to kind of move away. As I grew older I realized I had to leave to do the things that I wanted to do. Not what I was told to do, but what I wanted to do. I couldn’t do them there. And it’s really hard for people in their own hometowns to kind of make it, anyway. You got to reach out. But it took me like… almost 28 [years] –when I left for good. First time I left I was like 19. I had just got out of high school. I wanted to travel, I didn’t have any money, so I took a bus to New York. I ended up staying in New York for about 2 years.
Why did you feel like you had to travel?
Well, because the things that I wanted to do… I wanted to see the big stars, and I always wanted to do a record, even though I wasn’t playing anything then. I just thought it would be the neatest thing. We had some records, but we didn’t have tapes or CD’s, nothing like that. We had 45s and 78s when I was a kid. Then they got the 33s. That was way back in the day. I was told to go to college and all these things, which I did do. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I went to college, seriously, to have some down time, and find out just what the hell I wanted to do with my life.
In an interview for Living Blues magazine you said that you were born with the blues, and that this wasn’t just a music you liked. Could you explain this a little bit more?
Well, when the first music you’ve listened to in your life is the blues… that’s what I mean. There was no other kind of music. Back then we had race records so you very seldom heard like people on the radio, anywhere. It was always a pleasant surprise. Being in Harrisburg, you didn’t know many musicians but I was lucky enough to have my grandfather. My paternal grandfather played music, and he was good. So he was always playing. They lived right outside of Harrisburg, I used to spend my summers out there.
It was no farm, it was like a homestead. They made you work all fucking time. They worked the hell out of you. Flat. In the evening, after the work was done, all these old, over the hill guys [played music]… They would be nothing nowadays, but they could play, they could play! I used to sit down and marvel with them. No matter what I was doing, if they were playing I stopped. I had to hear and see it. I’d go there and I was just intrigued of how easy they played. See, it’s not like musicians today; it’s really different because it was easy for them to do what they did. They weren’t making faces. They were like talking, and they’d just started playing. These guys knew music, and that was my first taste in live music. It wasn’t like people trying to play and people practicing. It was my grandfather and his party. I was a little kid. I remember they were doing it when I was in the fourth grade for sure. So that’s what I heard.
I mean, I was around before rock ‘n’ roll was around, as the world knows it. I was listening to “Lucille” when I was 8 years old. Chuck Berry too, I listened to all them guys. But the thing is that listening to all that kind of music I still hadn’t figured out what kind of musician I was gonna be. I knew that I wanted to be musician, I was pretty sure that I was going to be, but I didn’t have any direction. Nobody said “well, you play harmonica” or “you play guitar.” I had a harmonica as a kid, and I always felt like I could play it. It’s something about the harmonica and me. When I picked it up when I was growing –when I was leaving college–, the first thing I knew was that I could play it. I said: “This is me!” And that’s when I promised myself, “the first instrument that I pick up that I am comfortable with, that’s the one I gonna keep.”
Did you sing with your grandfather?
No, I didn’t do any singing. I just soaked in the shit. Music got my attention and it made something to my spirit. But I forgot about it for years, at least twenty years I forgot about it. I had a professor in Shippensburg that was a real blues enthusiast. This is like 1972. He turned me on to Taj Mahal. He’s another guy that a lot of people don’t realize what it takes… You make a transition from playing music to being music. Now, it depends on how long it takes you to become totally comfortable with what you’re doing and what you are; who you are, and the music you wanna play. When I was in college I was sitting there one night doing what you’re supposed to be doing, my college work, and I said: “you know what, just what do I really want to be?” Let me think of all the jobs that I’ve done, and all the jobs that I can possible do, and let me pick out anyone that makes me so goddamn happy I can jack off. [Looks at the recorder] I don’t know if I want people to hear that. But I don’t give a shit, life is life, okay?
So anyway, I thought about everything that I could think of at the time, and said: “You know, I always wanted to play music. That’s it.” I went by this music store and, without thinking, I bought a harmonica. That’s when I knew.
How important is this difference between “being born with” and “liking this music” when discussing blues within the African-American tradition and the so-called white blues?
White blues? That’s ‘cause white people have taken it over, like they do with all our music. I mean, they got fucking Eminem for rap and hip hop. They had Elvis Presley in the beginning. They always do this in America. We have some genius but they won’t let us. I mean, it’s not like they won’t let us, they do except certain people. Hopefully, they’ll accept my black ass. But I’m telling you, the real shit, real black music turns women on, that’s what the hell it’s about. It ain’t about the money; it’s about making a woman feel good. I’m speaking from a man’s point of view. You’ll have to talk to a black woman to get her perspective.
There’s a certain way you learn as you grow up. The old men had style, and they always dressed up. You’d never see a black musician onstage, in regards of the genre of music, in jeans and t-shirt. White boys started that shit. Now, down in Mississippi, and places like that, people didn’t have suits so they’d play with what they were wearing. But when you hit that stage “up South” you’d dress up –I call it up South because it ain’t no better for black people in Pennsylvania than in Arkansas, trust me on that, no better at all. The North likes to say that the South is bad, but the North will kill you and smile at you. In Texas they’ll just go ahead and kill you. I don’t want nobody bullshit me: if you wanna kill me, kill me. Don’t smile at me, pretend you’re my friend, and then kill me.
But there wasn’t Jim Crow segregation in the North…
There wasn’t Jim Crow up there but if you got into a white neighborhood the cops would stop you. I’ve been stopped by cops just for being where I didn’t belong, and I got real smart with them. But I was too young for them to shoot me. They’d had to have a hell of an excuse to shoot me.
How different are the approaches and values that black and white musicians have towards playing blues music?
Take somebody that’s important to white culture, as far as the blues in concerned, like John Mayall, Eric Clapton, even Elvis Presley, all these bands are playing black music but they’re not playing it like black people because they don’t have the mindset. They have the ability, but in order to play any kind of music you have to humble yourself to the music and you have to understand the intelligence of the music, and white people don’t want to admit that we’re intelligent. So they play it mindlessly thinking that they’re playing it better than us. It’s not about that. I’m thankful that I can play at all. I don’t know how much I know, and I don’t know how little I know. I just know I belong to this earth as a musician.
How do you feel about the opposition between rhythm and technique, dynamics and flashy licks?
Black music has a black rhythm to it. You can tell whether a musician is really a good musician by the way he moves on the dancefloor. That’s the kind of flow you have to have. I’m not talking about this jumping up and down, I’m talking about dancing. Dancing is smooth; you don’t fight yourself, you don’t fight your body, you don’t fight centripetal force, you don’t fight gravity. Dancing is like a celebration, a physical celebration of life. I’m trying to put this in a way that my audience will understand it. You have to have a reverence for the music, just like you have a reverence for God. That’s the way you gotta be if you really wanna play it. If you wanna imitate and bang around on your guitar, drums and all that, that’s another thing. But the blues –you notice when I play that I break it down. They wouldn’t do that without me because they don’t know that anymore. So when they get to play with me I break ‘em down. I want them down so low that you can hear a rat piss on cotton. But I still want them playing.
What I show them is that the biggest hand you’re gonna get from your audience playing this music is when you break that shit down: you stop it momentarily, make a pause and let the music soak into them. Girls will scream every goddamn time, I don’t give a damn what country they’re from, or what so-called race –I only believe in one race– or ethnic group they’re from; it’s gonna get ya.
In Spain discussions about race are not so common, and people in certain contexts prefer to talk about ethnicity. Is everything about race over here?
Well, America is a very racist country. The dumbest white person walking in the streets right here, right now, thinks he’s more intelligent than I am. Not because he is, but because he is white. And that’s the way America is, that’s the real America. We’re basically the conquered people so we’re not making the laws. I don’t care how many black presidents we have, we’re not making the goddamn laws. Right now, the government is not even making the laws; the corporations are making the goddamn laws now. The government’s lost its way, you know.
I think you could ask a black athlete the same thing. The white athlete is not content with being good, he’s got to be better than the black athlete, which is really stupid because basically you can never be better than the next man; you can be different but you can’t be better. As long as you have that attitude where you gotta be better than the next person, you’re not gonna be as good as you can be. Now, I fuck with people sometimes and say: “I’m gonna kick your ass”. That’s because I know I can, because they have no idea of what I know as a black musician. I play physically but I also play all the time in my head. So there are things I’ve learnt along the way. I’ve learnt how to approach things, I’ve learnt how to work a crowd, and you only learn by doing that and by having respect for the people that come to see you.
Songwriting and repertoire
How important is your own songwriting for you to develop your own voice in the blues?
You know what, I don’t give a shit about songwriting. There’s so much music out there, and I’m not a songwriter. I’m doing it now because it’s necessary, but I’m an instrumentalist, a frontman, a vocalist. I do write songs because I want to contribute to the legacy of the blues but I’m not really a songwriter. I’ll never be a Willie Dixon, a Smokey Robinson or any of those guys because I’m not trying to be. I don’t even like it. I don’t like the studio. You know what I like? I like to be in the midst of ten thousand people. That’s what I like! I’m no good in the studio. I suck in the studio ‘cause it ain’t all me. I work off that audience.
How do you choose the songs you play?
Well, actually I got it from people like B.B. King, Jimmy McCracklin, John Lee [Hooker]. When I went to the west coast I had picked up the harmonica but I really couldn’t play that well. They told me that I didn’t know how to play, and I should get myself a day job. But some of the old guys at the time –guys like my age now– they told me: “you know what kid, don’t worry about what they’re saying ‘cause the reason why they’re saying what they’re saying is they never heard anybody like you! They don’t know how to take you, man.” “The things you do”, Sonny Rhodes told me, “keep doing it!” B.B. King told me the same thing! And Albert Collins, Albert King… I mean, I can drop some serious names. When both the Alberts got on stage it was on –as much as when James Brown got on stage. Nobody here has this “on” kind of thing. Go ‘round and look at all these bands. They come out, they play, and at least three quarters of them will not even say hi to their audience. How do you expect somebody to like you if you even speak to him?! Goddamn!
I really love that you play “Why I Sing The Blues” by B.B. King ‘cause it’s like a political song or a piece of social history…
Oh yeah! It’s history, man! It’s got slavery, education, inner city living, ghettoes… “I went to a meeting down at the city hall / I heard the man say he gonna build some apartments for y’all / And everybody wanna know why I’m sing the blues.” Basically that’s like answering a question. Here’s why I sing a blues: “I’ve laid in a ghetto flat / I was cold and numb / I heard the rats tell the bedbugs / To give the roaches some / And everybody wanna know why I sing the blues?” It’s like, who wants to live around that shit? Every time I do a show I educate ‘cause it’s my job, it’s my passion; it’s my duty to educate people.
It’s my job ethnically to show the intelligence of the blues, the passion of the blues, and also the accomplishments of the blues. So that’s why in my show you might hear me say “who’s the king of rock ‘n’ roll?” I know what I’m saying and I know what they’re gonna say, most often. They’re never gonna say Chuck Berry, they’re always gonna say Elvis Presley or whoever they can think of. If you say the queen they do a little better ‘cause they’ll mention Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner, and that’s getting close. But they never have been rock ‘n’ roll. Tina Turner was a blueswoman, I tell you that. While Ike was kicking her ass she was a blueswoman. When she gets out of that, and gets with some other people I don’t even recognize that music any more. I’ve seen the real Tina Turner when she was getting her ass kicked every night –we didn’t know it, of course. I saw Tina Turner in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania when I was sixteen. There wasn’t a soft dick in the house –excuse me! [laughs]. She was one of the most sexiest women I’ve ever seen in my life!
So who was the queen of rock ‘n’ roll in your opinion? Sister Rossetta Tharpe?
The queen of rock ‘n’ roll was not a woman, never has been a woman…
…Little Richard! [laughs]
That’s right! Little Richard may kick my ass for saying this but, if there ever was anybody deserving to be “queen of rock ‘n’ roll”, I got Little Richard!
TO BE CONTINUED…