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Transcript - Interview with John Campbell

Shcoking Milano - TV special - Originally broadcast March 31, 1993
Interviewed by Mirko Negri

Hello John, how are you?

J.C. - I am fine, thank you.

Let's talk about your new album, Howlin Mercy. Can you tell me somtehing about the realization of it?

J.C. - Yes. For me the record is one that was developed on the road. Last year we played about 250 cities around the world. For me, the record was very much reflective of that experience. I've been on the road as a musician many years. I started playing guitar when I was 3 or 4 years old. My grandmother played steel guitar. I started professionally when I was 13. At 16, I left home to play guitar - to be a blues guitar player.

You went on the road quite young?

J.C. - Yeah. And so, to me this record is very much just an extension of the way I started playing music. We recorded it like a live record in New York City at the Power Station. Just playing and singing at the same time. We did the basic tracks in like four days. So it was a record that was a "road" record.

What was the point of Howlin Mercy, when you started working to it. What was your goal that you wanted to reach out for?

J.C. - I think music has to reflect real life. It has to be an extension of the way you feel at the momemt. Essentially, the record that I made before Howlin Mercy is a record that reflected that point in my life and what I was going for and what I was trying to reach in this record was one that would reflect the celebration of performance. So we treated it like that, just play it, because I was drawn to the music by classic blues recordings that made me feel like the person making the record was communicating with me, that I was hearing them sing a song of the way they felt that day. If they'd made it another day, it would have been different. So, for me, I wanted the record to be spontaneous in that sense.

You've got an amazing guitar. I have never seen anything quite like it. Does that guitar have a story?

J.C. - Oh, yeah. This guitar has a story. This is a National Steel guitar. It was made in 1934. The great Lightnin Hopkins used to play this guitar and Dr. John told me a story of seeing this guitar in Houston, Texas where I got it. There was a street where the blues musicians would gather and swap this guitar around and play songs on it and pass it up and down the street. I got this thing and it was. It was very unusual how I got it. I was going to get a guitar made for me and I ended up at this music store and I got another guitar, but I saw this one in the corner. I drove back to where I lived 160 miles in the country but the whole way back I was thinking of that old guitar. And I got home and I said, You know I think I made a mistake. I think that I got the wrong guitar. And they said, we thought you'd say that driving back. So, the next morning I drove back and they told me the story of Lightnin Hopkins and this guitar. And so I took the guitar and it's got some stories inside of that thing.

Can we listen to the sound of it?

J.C. - Of course.
John begins playing and discusses how he developed his style ..

J.C. - You see where I come from in Shreveport, I got my first guitar on Flannon Street, and Leadbelly used to play down there in the piano houses and he played in a piano style.

J.C. - In Mississippi, they play

John demonstrates the delta slide and then demonstrates the three central styles of his play: Leadbelly piano style, Texas banjo style picking, and Mississippi delta slide.

J.C. - And I figured if your gonna do the slide guitar you had to do it with the beat. So you had to mix a little piano, with a little banjo. Add some Mississippi and put them all together. That's how I got my sound.

What is the definition of the blues?

J.C. - You know, I picked up, well its been a few years, a dictionary and looked up blues; and the definition of blues was a lesser developed form of jazz that sings of sad songs and melancholy times. And I went, What! (laughs) You know, its not a lesser developed form of anything. It's an independent art form and its not just related to melancholia. It deals with the song itself. It's always been a victory to me. One of the great powers of it is that it will address a nightmare as well as a dream.

With all the different styles of blues, what is your style of blues?

J.C. - Well, for me, blues is a song of life and I think one of the great powers of it is that it is different in the hands of everyone who plays it. It reflects their life experience. Everyone has a different way of walking and talking and I think everyone has a different way of expressing themselves. I think that I was a student - a disciple of the classic blues. When I started listening to the music of the great Son House, Fred McDowell, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, men that created this great music, I realized that if I was going to attempt to do this that this was going to be a lifetime of work - It's not something that I would understand in a year, that I had to live. So I studied the music of the classic blues masters and along the way I met many great musicians and had the opportunity to play with them and it was a wonderful experience for me. I think you have to ultimately develop to a point where you can sing your song from the heart honestly and then just do it the best you can and that's the way I've treated it over the years. I have no choice about it really, you know.

Since last time, there has been a coming back of blues, soul, rock and and roll, yet no later than two years ago there was still this invasion of techno, acid house, whatever music. How do you relate to this?

J.C. - Well, I think that the blues never really - its something that doesn't go away. It's something that addresses very human issues that are shared in all people. I think the blues will break all barriers. One of its great powers is that it will address both a dream and a nightmare. It looks at the reality of life and addresses things that all people feel fundamentally inside. There's issues of the heart - human things and I think that maybe today people are thinking more about human issues and the blues talks in this language, you know, iits the song of people and about feelings.

You still think in the future theres going to be a music like blues and rock and roll leading and that styles like rap, techno, acid... These are phonomena of a special time?

J.C. - Well, I don't know. Thats a hard - difficult question. You know, I think there are many - What I see today - What I hear today. I hear a lot of good music. You know, I think that I see a lot of musical forms merging, too and coming together. I think that people are sometimes more a aware of tradition and sometimes that gives you a sense of the future, too. So, I think the blues is something that will never die, but it will constantly be interpreted by individuals. There's alot of shared feelings there.

John, can you tell me the story of the photo on your album. Its got a guitar with skull or something. Do you want to tell me about it?

J.C. - Yeah, that is a medicine stick. It's an American Indian medicine stick and it's a stick with the skull of a coyote and from its teeth are bones and beads in bags and bells and feathers on the stick. On one of the songs on the album, I used the stick as a percussive instrument on Down in the Hole. For me, its brought it to a very tribal level. So its something that is a very special object and evokes a certain feeling.

In Louisiana - stories - theres a lot of spiritual ...

J.C. - Well, I think there's a lot of spirituality in music. You know, I try to actualize that in my music. Music has been very intertwined with the spiritual for me. I think that element is something that I'm very aware of and very involved with for some reason.

[Question not heard]

J.C. - Well, all the things you mention are not good. I think there's a lot going on in the world today. You just have to keep your eyes open and I think that people. For me, that's a constant struggle that I see. But, there are also people that are willing to look at situations and that was one of the things that blues always did for me. To look at a situation and speak of it is sometimes the first step to overcoming it.

Copyright 2003, Thomas Geiger
Revised: May 10, 2003