In the subsequent century, the blues became the seminal form of American music, more elemental than jazz, more pervasively influential than country, and the uncontested musical father of rock 'n' roll. As the music has matured as an art form, its practitioners have faced an unyielding challenge to be artistically original within the constraints of the tradition.
One artist who has a refreshing grasp on this dilemma is guitarist/singer/songwriter Eric Bibb, a member of the W.C. Handy Blues All Stars, who performs Sunday at the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech. Also scheduled to appear are John Hammond, Otis Taylor and local performers the Breeze Kings. Hammond and Taylor are Handy Award winners, the highest honor bestowed on purveyors of the blues, while Bibb was nominated for "Best Acoustic Artist" in 2002.
Give a spin to Bibb's latest release, Natural Light, and bear witness to the finesse with which he seasons his mostly acoustic blues: with folk, jazz and funk influences while avoiding the pitfall of cliches endemic to those genres. The man has solved the riddle of putting a fresh spin on convention.
Central to his work, says Bibb, 52, is "a conscious decision not to recreate the past, but to remind people of a glorious legacy and at the same time kind of titillate my own songwriting urges. Part of my personal quest has to do with letting people know that everything comes from somewhere. We're so fixated with the next big thing as a culture that we tend to have short memories."
It's a mission that succeeds on multiple levels. Bibb writes songs that reflect various forms of American roots music, but address contemporary themes. The result sounds like an honest portrayal of one man's life, told in three- to four-minute vignettes. He reminds listeners, often with humor, how easily one can be diverted from his or her objectives. The culprit may be materialism -- as on the funky "Too Much Stuff" (with blues icon Hubert Sumlin on guitar) -- alcohol ("Water Works Fine") or ego ("Champagne Habits").
Bibb also uses his songwriting skills to express his appreciation for his place in the continuum of musical Americana. "Tell Riley," a clever reference to B.B. King (whose given name is Riley), is written in the voice of King's uncle, Memphis bluesman Bukka White. In "Lucky Man Rag," Bibb creates the persona of a lesser-known contemporary of folk icon Leadbelly. The detail is what makes it work: "They sent a Yankee down to see me from the Victor Company/Said 'I can make me famous,' but sadly we could not agree ... on my fee."
"Everything comes from a context," Bibb says, "and it's nice to remind yourself and have fun recreating the people who you admire, in context, to try to really imagine their lives."
All of his references are not imagined, however. "Water Works Fine" was inspired by a conversation he had with blind harmonica player Sonny Terry, while "Right On Time" was taken from a comment by Piedmont blues guitarist John Cephas. "At a live gig in Nashville," Bibb says, Cephas "looked out on the audience and said, 'This music is an older music. It's not going to die out with my generation, because there are some younger people out there who are carrying it on, and I'm looking at one now. I'm talking about Eric Bibb,' and he pointed at me and said, 'He's right on time,' and I felt like I'd just been blessed by the Pope or something."
Note: A portion of the proceeds from tour will go to The Handys Artists Relief Trust (The HART Fund), designed to aid blues artists in need.