Conversations with Birdlegg (2): The Blues Tornado Strikes Back
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, as well as through his more recent tours in Spain (2016) –where he recorded the album The Blues Tornado Live (Solo Blues, 2016)–, and Brazil (2017).
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. After the success of last year’s tour, Birdlegg is coming back to Spain on early June 2017. He will be visiting new cities and venues (Santander, Sala Niágara; Bilbao, Azkena; Valladolid, Sala Porta Caeli; Madrid, Sala Clamores), undoubtedly prepared to offer audiences an intense blues experience marked by his unique delivery, hard work and performing audacity.
Coming to Austin has been like a revival for you. How welcoming has the scene and the musicians been to you?
That has been the greatest thing that has ever happened to me since I’ve been playing. They have done nothing but help me. Not just helped me, ‘cause I know how to help myself. They’ve encouraged me, turned me on to things, showed me how the scene works down here… But before I give them credit, I have to give it to my wife first. She’s the one that got me off drugs –she didn’t get me off drugs, I decided I wanted to be off, but she provided an avenue for me to escape to, to get my shit together. So I come down here. It all begins with her. Then I meet everybody else, and everybody has been really good to me. And those who haven’t been good, I haven’t counted them anyway. I don’t have any time for negative bullshit.
You have been primarily involved in the downtown sub-scene, centered around 6th Street, and in the East Austin sub-scene, which have been historically separated.
Well, they still are. Tell you what, next time you go to Antone’s take a look around the audience. Next time you go to Skylark take a look around the audience. There are more black people at the Skylark. That doesn’t mean that the Skylark is mostly black people because it ain’t. But see, basically speaking, you cannot succeed in America unless you have white people. You just can’t do it. You can sit down and moan and groan about the shit being unfair, but you got to get some white people on your side. I was lucky enough to get Eddie Stout. Eddie Stout, next to my wife, is the best thing that ever happened to me. ‘Cause you probably would have never heard of me if it wasn’t for Eddie Stout. He came to me right in this very place [Maggie Mae’s], that table over there –I’ll never forget it–, and he said: “I’d like to sign you.” So me and my arrogant self: “You wanna sign me…?” But I’d be damned to talk myself out of it.
[Before that] Bruce Iglauer, one of biggies in Alligator Records, he comes up to me in Oakland and he tells me that he would sign me if I would learn to do some different material. Although I was very polite about it, I told to him: “You see all these people in this place where you couldn’t get in because they’re too many people in here, and I had to come down and do some talking to get you in…? What do you think they came here to see Birdlegg play? They wanna see Tyrone Davis? No! Apparently they wanna see me, I’m gonna give him what they came here for, ‘cause that’s what I do.” I said: “I made it this long without a contract from you guys all these many years. I don’t really need it. I don’t want anybody that’s gonna tell me what music to play.”
And it was different with Eddie Stout…
Oh yeah! I mean, sometimes Eddie goes: “well, you should do this song…” But I don’t do anything I can’t feel. Suggestions –yeah, but sometimes you can suggest and it has nothing to do. The song has to do with the person. I don’t give a damn how cool the song is. Everybody likes doing “Down Home Blues” –I don’t do that song. Not because I don’t like it, I like the shit out of it, and every now and then I’ll pop up and do “Down Home Blues”. But it’s not the real Birdlegg. I mean, I can internalize it a little bit. But when I do shit like “Meet Me on the Corner”, that’s me. When I do “Baby, I’m Gone”, that’s me. Those are songs written for me. When I do something like “Eyesight to the Blind”, it wasn’t written by me, but I know, I’ve seen women like that, make dudes go crazy.
Here’s the difference between the old man and the young man, the old boy and the young boy. The young man tells the old man what he’s going through, but the old man already knows it ‘cause he once was young. But the young man doesn’t know what the old man is going through ‘cause he’s never been old. So you got a thing here. That’s why I don’t take any shit from any of these younger guys. How many black men are there, that are younger than me, and that are leading their own band?
I wanted to tell you the difference between something like Skylark and Antone’s. The difference is that Skylark has more real music. They have some great bands at Antone’s, but they’re only great in the eyes of white people. And then there’s all these black people –some of them play [at Antone’s] but as far as I know they don’t get for high night. Now, Miss Lavelle White is starting to get top billing in Antone’s and that’s great.
Soul Man Sam has also played there, even Jabo I think.
Yeah. But, as far as I know, they won’t let me play there. They say that I play on 6th Street. So Monday I’m looking at the paper and Erin James, who plays here at Friend’s, is playing Monday night at Antone’s. So I said, Eddie, what do you mean they wouldn’t let me play at Antone’s because I play on 6th Street? I think they need to give you a better reason than that. ‘Cause none of those people can do a show like I do.
I feel like Antone’s has the history but no so much the moment, and that kind of familiar feeling. You said the Skylark was family. How do you get a club to be family?
I think it starts with Johnny, and what he wanted about the bands to play. He just chose the people, because I’ve never asked Johnny for a job. As far as I know, I never asked him for a job. I think he asked me: “I have these dates open”, so and so, and I said OK. Bill Bushey, who was part of the blues society, I think he had something to do with me getting into the Skylark. But when I went there I tore that sumbitch up [chuckles]. Because, see, there’s only one thing to be on any show, it’s the best. Not second best, not third best, the best. A lot of people may think I’m arrogant but you got to jack yourself up. Most musicians just go onstage and play. They’re not giving you what they can give you because they don’t know, they have no idea. I know what I can give you. So I jack myself up and when I come up there, I’m kicking some ass. I ain’t bullshiting.
Unlike other musicians who perform blues, you identify yourself with the blues. You say: “I’m a blues musician…”
I’m a bluesman, period. I am the blues. Ain’t nothing separate between me and the blues. We’re together. I’ve allowed it to become part of it and it’s allowed it to become part of it, so we’re just one. If I had the choice of suddenly not being able to play but live forever with riches, and I could do either one –I could either be able to play and be like I am now, which is treading waters as far as finances are concerned, or I could have all these money and all these women and not be able to play the blues. Nah, I’d take the blues. Every time I’d take the blues. And I love me some pussy, and I love me some money but I’d take the blues ‘cause I know the blues will never ever leave me. Never. The women will leave, the dog will go up and die, but blues ain’t leaving. It ain’t going nowhere. As long as I’m around it’s gonna be around.
Margaret Wright, Matthew [Robinson], Jabo… all these guys are so important for Texas blues. Because they’re the real thing. The rest of them are not playing no real blues, they’re trying. Lavelle and them, they play, they don’t trash it. They don’t try it. You ever seen Margaret Wright play her piano? She ain’t trying to play piano, she’s playing piano! And she plays everything! She plays whatever the fuck she wants, and it’s all good ‘cause her and the piano are one. Me and the harmonica are one. Sometimes I’m shocked by the shit I do with the harmonica, but I don’t care!
You identify with the blues yet you play different kinds of blues…
It’s mostly happy blues, ‘cause I’m not a sad motherfucker. I mean, I can be sad like anybody else but I like the joy of life. When I see a bunch of people moving up and down I’m as happy as a person in San Francisco. [The sad part] exists, and it has its place. There’s sad music, happy music. I choose happy music. I choose music that is kind of risqué. I choose that kind of music. I wanna get right there, but don’t wanna say “fuck”, I’m gonna say “Stoop down baby,” which is the same goddamn thing. “Stoop down baby… let your daddy see, ‘cause you’ve got something down there that worries the hell out of me” [Birdlegg is quoting Chick Willis’ song “Stoop Down Baby”]. Yeah, I wanna say that shit. But the rapper would say: “Bend over bitch, give me some pussy. My dick is hard and I ain’t kidding”. I’d say the same thing in the blues but I don’t say that way, you know.
How is the Austin Blues Society working?
Far too white, far too alienated from the black community, which I don’t like. That’s one of the reasons I went there in 2010-2011 myself, ‘cause I actually joined them for a while. But then they would have these things where they send the bands to Memphis [International Blues Challenge]. Mostly white people, mostly people who couldn’t even play the goddam blues. They did OK with Matthew Robinson, but Matthew Robinson didn’t win. And there’s no reason why he shouldn’t win. But that’s ‘cause all the voters are white, okay? I mean, not all the voters are white, but the controlling voters are white.
At first I thought: how are you gonna send a guy like Matthew Robinson to a blues contest and he’s not gonna win?
I would have won the shit, but you know what, I would have only won the shit in spirit. They wouldn’t have given it to me. I’d tell ‘em: “I’m winning this shit”. I’m serious, I’d tell the motherfuckers to their face. Like I told Lazy Lester: “Lazy Lester, I love you, I’ve listened to you all my life, I’m kicking your ass tonight” [laughs]. That’s what I said! I don’t know whether I did, but that was my purpose. I wasn’t gonna be second best! That was up in a saloon in Kansas.
What do you think about Austin’s tag as “live music capital of the world”?
I have lots of friends in Austin, and I’ll tell you what: No place is as good as its reputation, no place is as bad as its reputation. It’s all I gotta say on that. You know, you go to New York City, and it can be a real pain in the ass. I have learnt that the hard way. I went to Oakland and had a great time, still was a pain in the ass. I’m in Texas, it hasn’t been a pain in the ass yet, although I wanna play more around the world.
Is that part of your future goals?
I want to start teaching music in Europe, I wanna teach black music in Europe. Most of the people that are teaching in Europe, you know what they are? they’re white Americans. They don’t even respect us. So how you’re gonna take their…? It’s not like they can’t play, a lot of them can play. But they’re only the leaves on the tree, we’re the root. So it’s about time that I get off my little dark ass and talk some real shit. I am not teaching people the notes and all that stuff in the books. I’m teaching you how to play what you know. That’s the way I work with my students. Forget about all that shit you read about, this music was played by people who didn’t know how to write, you know. So you gotta get back into that. I get back into that.
I have one successful student, this guy up in the Bay area, Dave Matthews. Sumbitch is 50 years old now. When I met him he was just out of high school and basically I’ve been his teacher ever since, and this kid has learnt a lot. He’s carried things. And, of course, he’s doing it in a white person’s way, but he’s actually turning people on to it. I don’t wanna turn off white people, but I want them to understand that I’m giving you the real shit. They know it. I don’t really have to tell ‘em that I’m real. I don’t have to tell ‘em. What I tell ‘em all the time: “you can go all around this street [6th Street], see whoever you wanna see, you’re gonna end up back in here ‘cause this is the real shit”. I’ve been playing here [at Maggie Mae’s] for 4 years –it’s a steady gig. The people in Maggie’s are great, and even the bands helped me get in here. Mike Milligan helped me get into Maggie Mae’s and his friend Leland Parks. They helped me ‘cause I wanted to play here. The first time I walked here I wanted to play here. So now I’m playing here.
Mike Milligan has been playing here for over 10 years, I think…
Yeah, he’s been playing here since Jesus was born! That motherfucker has been playing here… [laughs] Jesus ain’t got shit on Mike Milligan, I’m telling you… [laughs]. Another thing too, people are so busy trying to play, they lack a sense of humor. I have to be the focal point of the humor, ‘cause they won’t do it one their own. Watch my band tonight. Sonny Wolf is a helluva player but he won’t do it, most of the times. And you gotta come down on that shit too –I’m not trying to outsing a guitar, you know. I’m gonna get with him and show him how to sing. Here’s the way you sing, from down here, not up here. I got taught that by jazz musicians. So it’s not like I can only play the blues, I can play anything. There ain’t nothing I can’t play, unless of course it doesn’t have a groove. I have a serious time with shit that doesn’t have a groove.
How do you feel about your experiences in Europe? I believe you did the first tour in 1984 with Joe Louis Walker.
I travelled for three years with the Mississippi Delta Blues Band. Before I was their harmonica player, the great Sam Meyers was their harmonica player so I basically succeeded him. And it was a really fucked up band until Joe Louis Walker… In 1985 I met Joe Louis Walker –we couldn’t stand each other at the time. I mean, you know, sometimes it’s like that. But we learnt something about each other. We learnt that we were the hardest working motherfuckers in that band, and that’s how we got to like each other because if you’re doing something and you got some help, and ain’t nobody else doing their share, you tend to gravitate to the person you have most in common with. Whatever we thought of each other at the time, because the band was so bad and lazy me and Joe actually ended up working out parts with each other. Now we’re really good friends. I have a lot of respect for him and he does for me too.
How would you describe the experiences with the audiences? How different are white Europeans to white Americans?
European audiences recognize us as being experts, immediately. America doesn’t recognize that, in most cases. I don’t care how much money Buddy Guy makes, Bonnie Rait makes more money. You know where she learnt how to play? Buddy Guy. Okay? Alright? Chuck Berry, who literally taught… I mean, you cannot play rock ‘n’ roll or rock without having Chuck Berry. But they pick out all these great white guitar players… I’m not saying they’re not good, but you never as good as the master, especially if you imitate them. That’s what made The Beatles and the Stones different. They learned from the bluesmen but then they did their own thing. That’s what you’re supposed to do. I like the Stones, I’m not crazy about The Beatles. I don’t like people who can’t keep a groove [chuckles]. I don’t give a damn who you are, I don’t give a damn how big you are, that groove is constant, that bass is constant. It’s like a girl’s butt [laughs].
It’s not easy to explain, but being in Austin I feel like I have a different identity… My perception is that you –like other people– don’t think of me as white, but I’m pretty white. I’m Spanish, I’m European… who am I?
Well, you’re not sitting here trying to be more intelligent than me. Most of the interviews that I’ve had, the guys wouldn’t ask me nothing academic, nothing about my world perspective, nothing about why I’m playing the blues, nothing about my purpose. It’s almost like they were afraid of having me appear to be intelligent. I don’t like that. Until you learn to respect me as a human being and as a man, you don’t get no interviews from me. I don’t need anybody trying to be smarter than me, you know.
Travel is a big topic in the blues.
That’s one of the rewards for it. What better way of travelling is there other than having somebody buy you a plane ticket? And you go over there and have of the best fun you ever had in your life.
It’s very different than being forced to travel, or than the kind of travelling associated to hobos…
Yeah, that’s another route. I didn’t come to the South until I came to Texas. Not because I was scared of it but because all of my business was in the north and then in the west. But there’s a great migration going on right now. They’re moving black people out of the cities and they’re moving back to the countries again. Now they’re seeing the value of the land in the cities so they don’t want black people to have that. They’re either forcing them to sell their land for less the market value of course, or they actually take it and force them out. They’re doing it. I’m so glad to live in the country because if they come up there trying to take my land… say goodbye to Birdlegg ‘cause I’m serious, I’m shooting up somebody. I’ve never had any land in my life until I came to Texas. I ain’t givin’ it up. I ain’t giving up my family, I ain’t giving up my land.