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John Campbell: �The Blues is a Victory� His Bumpy Road from Shreveport to Studio

Interviewed by Bob Chapman

Blues Access, Number 11, Fall 1992, p 6-10,18-19
Originally published in Blueprint, Issue 39, May 1992 p 24-26

The last year has been a good one for John Campbell. His first major record, One Believer, produced by Dennis Walker and Peter Lubin, contained a striking, often disturbing and ultimately uplifting collection of songs, mostly co-written with Walker. Campbell and his band toured the U.S. and Europe on their own and as support to Buddy Guy. Bob Chapman talked to John before his gig at London�s Mean Fiddler, and began by taking him back to his roots in Shreveport, Louisiana.

J.C. � I have been around the blues my whole life, but I didn�t really understand the blues in the beginning. My grandmother played Hawaiian steel guitar and I started playing her guitar when I was about three years old. In my town they made records of John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly, Lightnin� Hopkins, Lowell Fulson. Leadbelly was from my home town. In fact, we have the same birthday. It�s just a blues town. Leadbelly records were in my house, and stuff like that, and I was playing around with the music, but as a guitar interest. I didn�t really understand, but I liked the sound of the guitar, and you know that�s the way I gravitated.

Was this acoustic guitar?

J.C. � I was playing all kinds of guitars. The first guitar I had I got from Max�s loan shop on Fannon Street, which is the notorious red light district where Leadbelly played. When I was sixteen, I got into this really bad car accident, and I got really messed up and had to stay home a lot. I was heavily medicated and couldn�t go out, couldn�t have company. I was bandaged, I had thousands of stitches in my face, my right eye was gone, I didn�t really have much strength, you know. I couldn�t go to school, so then I really started listening and playing the guitar all the time.

And the songs that I started learning were, like, Howlin� Wolf and Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker. Man, when I grabbed hold of that note, and played it, and sung the words, suddenly I felt better physically. It�s like, you know I could cry when I was playing the guitar, or I could get mad, or I would feel good. It was at that point that I realized that that�s when I met the blues, and that�s what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I knew that, and that was the way I could express myself. I quit school at sixteen, caught a bus and left home.

Where did you go?

J.C. � I went to Nacodoches, Texas, and there was a house, a black church which had been converted to a house, and I moved into the back room of that, and I started playing on the streets, in pool halls, bus stations, and stuff, and from then on I just played anywhere I could, and didn�t have an apartment or car, and rode buses. I could work a day, what they call manpower, sweeping up at the fairgrounds, or even sell a pint of blood, if you were that hard up. For ten bucks you could buy a set of guitar strings, catch a bus ticket and make ten more dollars when you got somewhere. I did that every day, every day I was in a different place.

Was this a happy existence? In some respects, it�s a very insecure existence, isn�t it, not having a house, family, all those kinds of things?

J.C. � Well, it�s like for me it was freeing, and I was on the road, I had one foot out the door at all times, and I was real comfortable with that. As far as happiness goes, that was not really a primary concern to tell you the truth. I was in a lot of pain. I hurt every day, recovering from the accident. You know, I still have really bad headaches, but to go around and make the gig was a victory for me, and I just had to go.

Were you playing solo all the time, or did you have a band?

J.C. � I was playing solo.

And were you playing acoustic or electric?

J.C. � No, just acoustic. Same kind of thing as I�ve got now. I�d just go places, and meet guys and hang around for a couple of weeks.

How long did this peripatetic existence go on?

J.C. � I was driftin� for about five, six, or seven years, and then I got married, and that lasted a couple of years, then I went back to it. I tried renting a house in Texas about ten years ago, and I slept there about four nights, and I just couldn�t stay there. I kept the house, even when I was traveling around. I got an apartment in New York and settled down about six years ago. I�ve kind of settled in now.

When did you first get a band together?

J.C. � Well, I�d experimented with bands, but it was never really the way to go for me, �cause I�m a real specific player. I come from the old school and the tunings are strange. You see, in those days, the guys would just tune to where the guitar felt right, or sounded right. That�s why you can�t figure out the keys that Robert Johnson played in. So I tune that way.

I met Sander Kennedy in New York, and I found a guitar player I could work with. He was interested in what I was doing, he met me at a place I was comfortable with, rather than �this is G� and �let�s do the city thing.� I�m not into city music really, not structurally. So I met him, and he also had this energy, this New York guy, and I thought, �this is cool,� maybe from Louisiana we could meet somewhere in the middle.

So I got into a band from there, and we kind of eased into it. We got a guy on harmonica, and we did a sit-down thing, and that evolved into a regular unit with bass and drums. So I finally got to where I was comfortable doing that, without feeling I was being taken out of my bag, �cause playing acoustic guitars, it�s tough to get into that groove.

When did the plan for doing the record come about?

J.C. � I wasn�t looking for a record deal. I�ve never sent a tape to a record company in my whole life. I�ve thought about recording a lot, but where I come from, it�s not part of it. I was opening for Albert King at the Lone Star Caf� in New York, and Peter Lubin from Elektra records was there to hear Albert, and after the show he walked up to the stage and said, �Are you signed?� And I said, �No.�

How much of the stuff that appears on the record existed in embryonic form in those days? Were you playing early versions of those songs?

J.C. � I was playing early versions of a lot of them. The record did take a different turn from what I was doing at the time I got signed. When I realized I was going to make a record, it had an inverse effect on me. I sat in a little apartment in New York, and man I stayed in there for a long time. And it was like, that stuff I had been chasing around for 25 years, I had to come to terms with now, on that record. There was something that was kind of a responsibility to myself. I�m not saying there was something musically which was going to be earth shattering, but I had to deal with issues that had been building up, and I had to be concerned with what I was going to say. So there�s an emphasis on the songs. When I met Dennis Walker, then it really became that.

I was going to ask about that, because most people would know Dennis Walker as the Cray band producer, and they think of the sound that the Cray band produces, and then they hear your album and think, �Hang on a minute!� Did you start with, �What will this guy do for me?�

J.C. � Well to tell you the truth. I�m a fan of Robert Cray, but when the idea first came up, I was opposed to it, because I don�t write with anybody. I�ve never written with anybody, I�ve always traveled alone and I didn�t know Dennis. I thought that personally there would have to be something there between us for it to make sense.

Then I listened to the stuff and I pulled the Dennis Walker tunes off the records and made them back to back on a little tape, and listened to what he was about, and I talked to him. You know that played bass for Lowell Fulson on the road for a long time? He plays bass on �Wild Streak� on the record, under a false name [Antoine Salley]. He�s a lying dog!

We hit it off, and we never wrote away from each other. He�d hear, like my vocabulary on the instrument, and what was trying to say and we worked as mirrors for each other, and just collaborated. He really helped me to find the voice I needed to say lyrically what I wanted to say. I don�t think I could�ve done it without him.

So when you heard the record for the first time, was it kind of a shock, really, to think, �Hey, that�s me?�

J.C. � Yeah, it was, and it was like I had purged myself of something, too. To tell you the truth, it was like this empty room, and we could�ve painted ten paintings of any colors and sizes we wanted, and that�s what we did, and it was conceptualized as a body of work. These songs were meant to go with those songs. I�d never made a record like that. I don�t presume that anybody is gonna like it, I don�t presume that it�s better than anything else, but for what I wanted to do, and what we set out to do, I wouldn�t do anything different.

I think it�s got a coherence, the lyrics, the playing, the singing. How long did it take to record it?

J.C. � It was nine months in the actual process, from the time we started writing together until the time it was through. And what we were trying to get was a thread or a focus that ran through it.

Perhaps we can talk about that a little bit. The imagery is quite startling. One or two first lines of songs, obviously the stuff about the �devil in my closet,� that�s a very striking image, the �tiny coffin� for the six year old, that�s another striking image, the voodoo stuff as well. There�s a lot of images here that come out of the rural South and out of your background. Yet, at the same time, the songs don�t all deal with the threat and dangers of the city. Do you think that what you�re expressing as the record of a Southern boy, is any different from the experiences that would have been expressed by Afro-Americans living in the same area, or would similar things be coming through?

J.C. � Well, there�s a lot of common denominators there. There�s a lot of shared experiences there. I think that with the blues, dealing with human issues like this, that they�re common to all races. And the thing you�re talking about is being from a town of 5000 people, that I was living in before moving to Brooklyn, and walking down the streets and having gangs of guys take your guitars from you and suddenly a subway going by your window so loud that you can�t hear your guitar, and I had to start playing through an amp. I mean, I think that�s similar to the experience that maybe a lot of the guys from Mississippi had when they moved to Chicago.

It was something that I set out to do, but I found myself in this city that was trying to chew me up and spit me out! You gotta stand up against it in a way. At the same time, I lived in the South for 35 years, and we talk about things like mojos, and what you�re talking about, the voodoo song, there are images and talismans and things that are part of my real life. There�s a lot of cultural things that people have held on to, that maybe people in the cities are not still embracing.

Chris Whitley said that he�s been around you and other guys when you�re talking about voodoo, and for him its kind of a scary thing to see how much a part of your lives it is, part of that Southern culture.

J.C. � To say, �voodoo,� that conjures up images of Hollywood. You know, it�s like, for example, the crossroads. The crossroads is a place and it is a real place, but it�s not a specific place, on a specific highway, on a specific map. You can have the crossroads here: it�s a place of decision, it�s a place of change, of confrontation, it exists. There�s a nomadic tribe of people that erects a totem pole in their village and it represents the center of the world, but they�re nomadic, so the center of the world is moving the whole time, or are they chasing it, or taking it with them? You know all these questions come up. I have mojos that I carry with me. I have John the Conqueror roots and stuff.

Do they work?

J.C. � I think that there�s a certain arcane power.

And what about the city images? There are things in the lyrics of the songs. How much are these really personal experiences in the sense you that you have been physically present in situations like this, and how much are they stories which you are creating, observations and so on? For example, �Tiny Coffin,� is that a real situation?

J.C. � Yes, it�s a real situation. I have a six-year old daughter. People are really getting blown away, just like that every day, and you can really be on the streets of New York and be standing on the corner and walk to the next corner and there can be somebody lying on the street with blood coming out of their ears. It really happens and you really see it.

When I went through the songs, and just looked at what kinds of emotions and experiences are coming through, I got lust, betrayal, revenge, violence, hatred, anger, loneliness, death, and then at the same time, if you listen to the music its very uplifting. And there�s dance music in there, I see people dancing to it.

J.C. � I appreciate your saying that man, it makes me feel good, because you see, the blues song to me is a victory, and it always has been. The blues music originally came from a very hard time of suffering, of all these things, of anger and betrayal, but the song exorcised the thing, the song grabbed the thing by the neck and threw it to the ground and danced on it. If you�re awake and your eyes are open, and you�re living in this life, if you feel something you have to sing about it, and if you do not, then you�re not really telling the truth.

You wrote in the sleeve notes that you wanted to play as close to the bone as possible. Has that been a kind of philosophy all the way through?

J.C. � Yeah, you have to be prepared to go to the point of death. I mean literally. When I started playing blues, I was literally at a point of death, and it was physically very hard for me, and there was a price to be paid physically. When I reached for a note, or when I was trying to play the music and do a thing, and you�re living that life, physically it hurts. But, you gotta push through that, you gotta go, and I�ve realized for me that to go to that place of full confrontation, you know, it�s like you�re almost going to a place where it�s instinctual. I�ve seen some of the shamans when they�re doing their thing, and their moving and chanting rhythmically, I don�t think that�s a place of abandon, but it also requires a physical commitment.

And my guitars are hard to play, on purpose. I use real big strings, there has to be a lot of resistance for me. It shakes your whole body. One of my low strings is bigger than my bass player�s small string! I learnt how to play on really cheap guitars, and when went for a note, man ow! It hurt! I just stayed with that style, I tried to use these fancy guitars, but I can�t play them. It�s just like there�s no feeling there.

What reaction have you got to the album?

J.C. � The reaction has been good. People have responded to the album. It makes me feel good, because when I made the record, there�s not really any covers on there, except for Elmore James. There�s something about making this record with me. It�s like I think about guys, like the vibe and the feeling I got from being around Hubert Sumlin and Gatemouth Brown. When you�re hanging out with them and playing with them, and they would take that breath, and play that note, you know, they could have played ten notes in the time it took to take that breath. I tired to hold that in the record, and I hope that I got close. When you do your own songs on an album, then you kind of roll the dice and them fall how you will.

It�s interesting that you mention the Elmore James song, the only cover, and in a way it could be said that it breaks the mood because, there�s a series of very intense things going on, and then suddenly, it�s �Hey, come on over babe, get off the telephone and come over.� Was that intended, to try and break up the mood in the middle?

J.C. � Well, we put it there. That was the first song that I played when the guys from Elektra heard me, and it was a thing I really connected with, that song, and at the time it was the one that really freed me on the slide guitar, and it�s still a that song for me. Elmore�s been a big influence, but I don�t think there are any accidents. I think that it was put on there for a reason right where it belonged. And it does do that, it says �hey babe come on over,� and that�s life, too, you know. Even though I�m �Mr. Sunshine,� you know, we�ve all gotta have our fun!

Got to make sure the John the Conqueror root actually works?

J.C. � That�s right, man. Can�t let it get rusty.

A bit about the singing style, as well, because it�s something that is very distinctive when you hear the record for the first time. Is it something that has naturally evolved? Clearly what you�re doing is telling a story, was that something that has always been there?

J.C. � It�s something that just evolved. I used to say that I only sang in self-defense! I�m like an eighteen or nineteen year old kid playing blues clubs, and I learned my trade on the streets, on the band stand, but I�ve always been a little reserved about singing, and now I�m more comfortable talking it, because I used to say I�ve got a range of about three notes! The blues for me, the music I studied and the music that I became a disciple of, I looked at these men and listened to what they were doing and I realized that I was not gonna have this when I was 21, nor 30, and I may no have it when I�m 60, and it was going to require a lot of being close to it for a long time and getting something personal and then really making it close to the bone. That was the way that I approached it, and played and sang, and the singing was almost defining the vocabulary in a way, it was just pinpointing certain points of the story. Working with Dennis really gave me a focus to bring it out a little bit more. He helped me to find that.

If the album is essentially cathartic, it�s dealing with the last 20 years, where does that put you now in terms of thinking about there being another record sometime?

J.C. � I�ve started thinking about it. The next record, I think I would like it to be a little more assertive musically with the band. The band�s got some road muscle on it now, and the songs are really flexing.

Have you still got the guys who came over with you last time, the guys from Joe Ely�s band?

J.C. � That�s right, they�re killers! They�re top notch. For the next album I would to get the material work it out really hard with the band before recording it. This album was a song album and I want the next one to be a song album, but I want the band to be really toned up.

So, it�s a permanent band?

J.C. � Well their allegiance is with Joe, and they�ve got their career with Joe, but I would like to balance my recording schedule with Joe�s and work like that. He�s a great guy, he�s been really super. I would like to use them and we�re already talking about it, and working on times. In fact, we�ve worked up some stuff which we�re planning to record.

Omitted in Blues Access version: What's the schedule at the moment?

J.C. � We got to Belgium from here, then Holland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, we're over here for about a month, then we go back to New York. The night we get back, we work with Albert Collins at the Lone Star, then I'm gonna take a week or so off and then get together with Dennis Walker and start working.

Do you get the felling that the blues in the States is in a healthy condition?

J.C. � I think it is. I mean Robert Johnson�s in the Top 100, and when I was a kid, if you met anybody who even knew about him, unless you went to Mississippi � I believe that the blues addresses human issues that people are feeling a lot right now. The synthesized stuff doesn�t touch that place in people. I think it�s an osmosis thing, and I think that the old timers like me and you are just glad to be here and see it. In the pop music I see the whole texture of the stuff becoming more earthy, and it�s more band music, it�s more human music, whether you like the song or not the whole vibe is making people more together and talking about things they feel.

One last thing. The lyrics to the last song on the album, �One Believer,� do you actually feel at this moment that believers are opening the door?

J.C. � You know what I feel about that song, about what it would communicate and what it did for me? If people know they�re wanting one believer to open doors, to improve their quality of life, I think that when you realize the notion of the one believer, then you realize that to be a believer is the thing. Maybe if you believe in somebody, then everybody would have one believer, and that�s what I�m hoping is happening to the world. I had to focus on an individual, but it doesn�t matter what this guy does, it�s not just about somebody opening a door for me, it�s one believer that we�re all looking for, and the realization of the one believer is what�s important. It�s a mean world, but I see people looking us square in the eye. This is it, man, this is the only game in town. I just wanna be in it.

Dr. Bob Chapman is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Reading, England. He also likes to hang around in bars listening to raucous music. In his spare time, he is co-editor, with Scott and Sue Duncan, of BLUEPRINT � THE NEWSMAGAZINE OF THE BRITISH BLUES CONNECTION, whose pages this interview first graced.

Copyright � 2003, Thomas Geiger
Revised: May 10, 2003