The Fisher King Retires (poem)

Kane Creek pool 1 lo-res copyThe Fisher King Retires

—for Robin Williams, Keith Emerson, and all the wounded men

 

The decades wear down on us, not even

water on stone but water on clay—

flexible as muscle, yet weak outside the kiln,

our love-hate dance with fire and ash.

 

The damaged Fisher King in his cryptic realm,

casting hooks through water’s portal

to the otherworld, the salmon of knowledge

elusive as mist, the healing boon unreachable.

 

Thought swims finned in its viscous element,

unaware of its ocean. Poison the well

and you poison the kingdom. Stab a man’s

thigh and slaughter his heart, abandon utterly

 

his future. Excalibur’s lake a mirror image

of courage—the sinew to slash or caress,

the gut’s viscera keeping soul and body united.

Send no soldier to war we won’t welcome home.

 

Some eyes can’t bear the gradual starvation

of light, the body’s dismantling, limb by limb,

ache by ache. Time’s milk sour, clouding the pool,

the half-self drifting away in tatters.

 

Align the mind’s lance with the heart’s cup

and crack the conundrum. Pour the Grail’s wine

over an open wound. Let the green wave

fill the land with blossoms.

 

NOTES

At a time when women’s issues completely dominate media headlines, I wanted to shine a light on the seldom-discussed issue of male suicides. Comedian Robin Williams and musician Keith Emerson are only the tip of the iceberg, their fame making their suicides more noticeable than most. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men die by suicide 3.5 times more than women. Robin Williams died August 11, 2014 of suicide. His wife Susan Schneider attributed his suicide to his struggle with Lewy body dementia. Keith Emerson, composer and keyboardist for the progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer, committed suicide March 11, 2016. Emerson suffered from depression, and in his later years developed nerve damage that hampered his playing, making him anxious about upcoming performances.

By now the Fisher King or Wounded King story needs little explanation. And although the use of archetypal myths in contemporary poetry is considered something of a Romantic throwback, I fall in with Carl Jung’s school of thought, which sees archetypes as endlessly self-renewing in the psyche. In this case the metaphor—employed for two creative geniuses who committed suicide—felt entirely apt, since the Fisher King’s wound is typically in his thigh, a medieval metaphor for the male genitals. The loss of male procreative power is thus a fundamental blow to the male psyche, analogous to an artist losing (or perceiving the loss of) his creative powers. Men tend to define themselves by their work and accomplishments. For Williams and Emerson, the impending loss of their creative work was enough to precipitate suicide.

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Replanting the Lungs of the World

I hate to have to say this to some of my neighbours, but logging as we know it has to end. We are cutting out the lungs of the world. According to the National Resources Defense Council, forest clearcutting is responsible for an estimated 26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually—an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of 5.5 million vehicles. When you consider the tons of carbon dioxide that a single tree takes out of the atmosphere in a year, it’s cutting our own throats to cut them down at the current rate. All these clearcut forests need to be our 21st century Kennedy moonshot. We need to monetize planting trees the way we monetized turning them into lumber. Pay treeplanters excellent wages, with bonuses. Stream former loggers and forestry workers straight into it. With the coming wave of AI and robotics eliminating millions of jobs, we’ll be desperate to find work for people. This would at least not be a total rupture with a logger’s outdoor mode of work and recreation. He or she would still be working in beautiful country, close to good fishing streams and lakes, clean water and huckleberry patches—an enviable lifestyle.

Evergreen fog lo-res copyAlthough it’s conceivable an AI/robotics hybrid could be built to navigate the treacherous mountain terrain of places like British Columbia, that could still be a long way off, if it’s achievable. Obviously treeplanting jobs would have to be primarily for the young or exceptionally fit. But who knows? With so many jobs, from manual labour to basic data processing soon to be taken over by AI, a sheen of glamour may well accrue to a wilderness job like treeplanting. Just as we once romanticized logging with the myth of Paul Bunyan and his sidekick Blue the Ox, we could do now with treeplanters. Call them the Green Rangers and give them official badges and uniforms. Make them our heroes, planting the foliage that rebuilds, an acre at a time, the lungs of the planet just when we need it most. These ‘Green Rangers’ could be designated as ‘essential services’ similar to our firefighters, paramedics, nurses and emergency services. And there’s no reason they can’t make a perfectly good living doing it.

The new IPCC report gives us a miniscule timeline for action: 12 years. The last time I blinked it was 12 years ago. Scientists say we have the technology to put on the brakes and start reducing our carbon load. We only lack the political and economic will. But by planting trees, cannabis and bamboo we can solve the world’s carbon needs at the same time as we fill the need for fibre, clothing, rope, personal care products, and almost anything else. We already have millions of hectares globally of cleared forests. At least a portion of these could be used for hemp, cannabis or bamboo cultivation. And unlike a forest, cannabis, hemp and bamboo give you a hearty new crop to harvest every year. Already hemp and bamboo are used for construction, clothing, soaps and oils, with new applications every year. Bamboo has a higher compressive strength than wood, brick or concrete and a tensile strength that rivals steel. In the construction industry, explains the Hemp Industries Association, “the parts of the hemp plant currently used for construction are woody inner core (for hempcrete), the outer fibrous skin (for hemp fiber batt insulation) and hemp seed oil (for hemp oil wood finish and deck stain).” And with cannabis now legalized in Canada, the stigma is off for those wanting to make a business out of growing the plant for various commercial and industrial applications. This should also encourage research and development of new products.

We could set new goals annually to replace a higher percentage of woodframe construction with these alternative materials. We could also promote building alternatives such as light clay construction, 3D-printed ‘tiny houses,’ and even a return to traditional brick and stone structures. With plastic clogging our oceans and even entering the food chain in micro-particles, we could be reclaiming that as raw material for construction. According to Green Building Solutions, “recycled plastics are used to make polymeric timbers for use in everything from picnic tables to fences, thus helping to save trees. Plastic from two-liter bottles is even being spun into fibre for the production of carpet—another recycled product solution for our homes.” Although the initial uptake of these materials into the construction market would be expensive, as the numbers go up the costs will come down. This could also solve a growing problem facing Western nations: the crisis in housing affordability. And if we can subsidize fossil fuel companies—some of the most profitable corporations on Earth—we can certainly subsidize the eco-materials market in its early stages. After all, this is a climate emergency, so emergency measures are needed.

Already national NGOs such as Tree Canada and the international NGO One Tree Planted have support structures in place—including grants or corporate funding partnerships—to further large-scale reforestation programs. One Tree Planted plants trees in North America, Latin America, Asia and Africa and has a campaign to plant a million trees in California alone to help the state recover from devastating wildfires and bark beetle infestations. After experiencing the worst wildfire season in BC history last year, our own province could benefit by such a campaign.

Some will argue that by creating cannabis, hemp and bamboo plantations we’ll still be altering the environment. True. But at virtually no time during humanity’s existence on this planet have we not done so. Read Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Or Yuval Noah Harrari’s Sapiens. It just so happens through an accident of blind biological and historical evolution we developed the capacity to alter the global environment drastically. And this just happens to be an emergency. If a percentage of clearcut forests and rainforests are used both to plant more native trees and provide some fibre cultivation, we can at least begin the healing process.

Then, as the carbon load comes down and ecosystems recover, we can allow more cultivated areas to return to their natural state. By that time our technology will have leapt forward again by orders of magnitude, making fibre production ever more efficient. As for example the recent exponential improvements in solar panel efficiency. In theory, that will gradually reduce our footprint for fibre production, allowing a greater percentage of wild forests to return. And with forests—with trees—comes life. Once trees are gone from a landscape, not even your water is safe anymore. Trees are as vital to life as water. As the National Geographic explains, trees “perpetuate the water cycle by returning water vapour to the atmosphere. Without trees to fill these roles, many former forest lands can quickly become barren deserts.”

Once the trees are gone, an eerie silence settles on the land: where are all the birds? Imagine instead great wheeling flocks of them flashing in late afternoon sun above the forest canopy, lush and teeming with life.

Because, after all, why would you cut out your own lungs just for a dollar?

LINKS:

One Tree Planted: https://onetreeplanted.org

Tree Canada: https://treecanada.ca

Hemp Industries Association: https://www.thehia.org/Building-Materials

Bamboo for use in construction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamboo_construction

Green Building Solutions: https://www.greenbuildingsolutions.org/life-cycle-assessment/recycling-plastics/

National Resources Defense Council (NRDC): https://www.nrdc.org/experts/josh-axelrod/canadas-boreal-clearcutting-climate-threat

National Geographic on deforestation and global warming: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/deforestation/

Live Science: Deforestation Facts, Causes & Effects: https://www.livescience.com/27692-deforestation.html

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Jammin’ the Blues: Interview with JW Jones

JW Jones @ Finley's 1 lo-res copy

JW-Jones at Finley’s Bar and Grill, Nelson, BC, October 26, 2018, hosted by Kootenay Blues Society.

JOYCE: So we’re here at Finley’s Bar and Grill in Nelson, BC with JW Jones, upcoming blues star on the Canadian blues scene. I’m assuming Canadian—

JONES: Yes, Ottawa.

JOYCE: Oh, so you’re from the same city as Sue Foley then.

JONES: She was our guest on the Legendary Blues Cruise back in 2007.

JOYCE: So talk about how you came up into the blues and where that all got started for you.

JONES: Well I was initially a drummer listening to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and stuff like that. And then I realized they got everything from the old blues guys, Chess Records, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and all that stuff. And I had some friends that were really, really into hardcore blues and they got me into all the right stuff. So I ended up switching from drums to guitar in around ’95 when I saw B.B. King for the first time; I was 15 years old. Since then it’s been ten records and I’ve played in 23 countries and just keep going.

JOYCE: You’ve been on some very famous blues labels, like Blind Pig. Can you mention a couple that you were on?

JONES: Yeah, I started out on Northern Blues Music, a Canadian label out of Toronto and we were the first artists signed to their label in 2000. And then after that—we did I think the first six records with them—and I did a couple on my own. I’ve worked with Ruf Records and then Blind Pig for our Belmont Boulevard CD, which was nominated for a Juno Award a couple years ago. And then I’ve done the last couple releases myself on my own label, Solid Blues.

JOYCE: Any particular reason for that?

JONES: Well, the whole landscape has changed. Blind Pig ended up selling the label to Sony, so it’s not really an operating label anymore in terms of signing new artists, it’s just a catalogue. It depends on your perspective, because you can release the record yourself and hire the publicist and do the advertising yourself and then you keep the lion’s share of the sales. Or you can go the other way, and the label keeps the lion’s share of the sales and puts all that money into it for you. I mean, there are pros and cons to both. But honestly for the live record, because I wasn’t expecting it to be a huge seller, I just wanted to do it on my own label. Live records don’t tend to sell as well as studio records.

JOYCE: Alright, let’s talk about influences. My guitarist friend Jon Burden tells me he hears a strong British blues revival sound to your music. Would you say that’s characteristic of your music or just one thing you do?

JW Jones @ Finley's 4 lo-res copyJONES: I’ve never studied any British blues. I think what he’s hearing there is that all those guys listen to the same guys I listen to. They all studied B.B. King, Albert King, Albert Collins, T-Bone Walker, all the great guitar players, and I’ve done the same thing. My biggest influences are B.B.—number one—Jimmie Vaughan is up there, Hubert Sumlin, Anson Funderberg, Little Charlie Baty, all the Texas guys and all the West Coast guys, Junior Watson. And I’ve worked with all of them in some shape or form so I’ve been very fortunate.

JOYCE: Really? Even Hubert Sumlin?

JONES: Yeah, he’s on one of my records with Charlie Musselwhite, they’re both on Midnight Memphis Sun. We recorded that at Sun Studios in Memphis.

JOYCE: And you mentioned a couple other people you worked with…

JONES: We recorded with Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds; he was on my second album, he produced my third one. Colin James was a guest on that one. I’ve worked with David ‘Fathead’ Newman from the Ray Charles Band, great sax player. Charlie Musselwhite, Little Charlie Baty, Junior Watson, Richard Anson, Larry Taylor—the best rhythm section in history if you ask me. Who am I missing? Colin Linden produced my last record and he was on it of course.

JOYCE: And you played with Buddy Guy?

JONES: I’ve played with Buddy Guy six times—four times with his band and twice with my band.

JOYCE: So how did you meet him? How did that happen?

JONES: We played at Legends in his club in Chicago and he saw me play and said some nice things to me about my playing. So he asked me to join his band for a couple shows in Ottawa. There’s some great YouTube footage of that. And then whenever we’re at Legends, he sits in with us and sings if he’s there.

JOYCE: I read a quote of him saying, “This young man is one of the people that’s going to keep the blues alive,” so I bet that makes you feel good.

JONES: Pretty cool, yeah. I’ve been seeing him since I was 15 years old.

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JW-Jones with Maple Blues Award-winning bassist Laura Greenberg at Finley’s.

JOYCE: So with your albums—and forgive me, because I’m not familiar with your catalogue of work—would you say there’s a diversity of sound, from Delta to Chicago to what you might call British, is there a style or a sound that you’re aiming to keep?

JONES: In the early days I was definitely emulating the Chicago, Texas, West Coast kind of sounds. I had a harmonica player who was on the first couple records, Steve Mariner. He was great and that was the sound we were going for at the time. And then as the years went on, I did a couple albums with huge horn sections with stuff kind of like Ray Charles, that jump blues sound. The last couple records have been a little more guitar-driven.

The music’s changed for a lot of reasons, number one because my writing’s changed. In the beginning I was just trying to write blues songs that sounded authentic to a certain style. Now when I write songs, the life it takes on is what it takes on. I’m not trying to fit into a box and that makes it sound—first of all, more original. Second of all, there are a lot more choruses that aren’t like the old blues records where it’s the old AAB thing—sing the line then sing it again and then rhyme the third one. And that’s just a personal preference. I mean, there are a lot of great songwriters who can totally kick butt doing that, but I feel that I need a little more space and different chord changes to make me feel like it’s fitting the song.

JOYCE: So do you feel like that’s part of the natural evolution of 21st century blues? Do you see that happening more?

JONES: You know, I think it just depends on the artist. Everyone has their own way of doing things. You look at Joe Bonamassa and he does everything from 12-bar blues to stuff that’s a lot more poppy. And that’s a good example of someone who’s at the top of the food chain right now, other than Buddy Guy. There are a lot of guys who are just sticking close to the tradition, and then there are other guys who are just going totally away from it into R&B and stuff.

JOYCE: Well, each artist has to forge their own path. I guess the important thing is, it keeps the blues alive in some form.

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JW-Jones with bassist Laura Greenberg and drummer Will Laurin.

JONES: Absolutely, yeah. Any time people are playing the blues or talking about the blues is a good thing. I mean, there’s a terrible stigma, that the blues are sad and slow. And that’s something we need to fix. And the way to do that is to keep getting it out there. I mean, we play shows all the time where young people are going nuts for the show. And they go, “I didn’t know this was the blues.” And they don’t know because they’re not exposed to it. We play high energy stuff, so if it wasn’t for that, I don’t know how we would do. That makes a really big difference for young people, because they feel that energy.

JOYCE: And in fairness to slow blues, some of the best blues is slow blues.

JONES: That’s right, and we do that too, we mix it all together. It’s all about getting the right balance.

JOYCE: I think of Ten Years After with their Slow Blues in C, that’s just an incredible slow blues shuffle. The notes just get wrung right out of that guitar. In closing, any thoughts about next steps for you?

JONES: Well, we just released the live record and we charted in the Top 10 Billboard chart for blues albums, so that’s pretty cool, first week out it’s number 8. So we’re promoting that album with the tour, that’s the plan for now. And then a studio album in the next two years. I release an album every two years on the dot. The next album will be all originals.

JOYCE: Well thank you very much for taking the time JW.

JONES: Thank you.

Special thanks to the Kootenay Blues Society, Richard Metzner and Jon Burden for inviting me to interview JW and hear his dynamic live show.

WEBSITE: https://jw-jones.com

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Nascent Poet or Hotheaded Murderer?

Review of Big Ledge by Brian D’Eon

Big Ledge by Brian D’Eon is that rarity in historical fiction—a story that combines historical veracity with narrative fluency and a deep poetic sensibility. D’Eon starts the tale from its endpoint, with its protagonist Robert Sproule sitting in a jail cell telling his story to a priest on the eve of his execution in 1886. Sproule is well-known to readers of Kootenay history for having been convicted of the murder of Thomas Hamill, with whom he had a dispute over ownership of the Bluebell mining claim on the east shore of Kootenay Lake.

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Brian D’Eon introduces his novel ‘Big Ledge’ next to an 1890s map of the West Kootenay, drafted during the mining boom that led to the book’s central conflict. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The author captures well the colloquialisms of late 19th century speech, adding to the tale’s believability. As any skilled writer knows, dialogue is a prime vehicle for storytelling, not just for revealing plot points but quirks of speech and character. D’Eon effortlessly masters the technique, easily drawing us into the tale. He also appreciates the value of including other sensory information in the narrative. Sproule’s confession to the priest is laced with his memories of the “pristine” Kootenay country—not just its visual grandeur but its smells: “…the firs and cedar, the black earth, the wild strawberries, even the smell of the lake—each has its own smell you know—that’s how salmon know where they’re going.”

The poetic dimension enters with a secondary set of characters, the Archangel Michael and Hindu goddess Parvati, heavenly eavesdroppers whose wry asides add a funny, philosophical dimension. Poetic quotes from Blake, Shakespeare, the Bible and others are woven seamlessly throughout Sproule’s narrative, though it’s uncertain what level of education he possessed, or whether he would have had quite the broad vocabulary D’Eon imagines. The dialogue between Archangel Michael and Parvati is often laced with humour, as when Michael wonders what it is that attracts mortals to tobacco. “Ah,” Parvati answered, happy to explain: “A native custom, and a most clever means of revenge against European invaders.” The celestial pair function as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting from the wings as they debate whether Sproule is an unjustly accused prospector with a poetic nature or simply a hotheaded murderer. In so doing, D’Eon skillfully engages one of Canadian history’s great mysteries, one that—given the contradictory historical accounts—may never be solved.

Adding to this narrative of multiple perspectives is C.J. Woodbury, a reporter who wrote several accounts of the Sproule-Hamill trial. Speaking to his fiancée Kate Buchanan, Woodbury makes an observation that could serve as the book’s basic premise: “It was striking the way people could so quickly judge these things. As if there could be no doubt about the matter. Label someone and you no longer had to think about him as a person.” With explorations of Woodbury as well as William Baillie-Grohman, D’Eon sidesteps the trap of investing too heavily in his protagonist’s point of view.

D’Eon successfully applies the techniques of the novelist to flesh out what would otherwise be—at best, given what we know of Sproule and Hamill—a very short story. One of the writer’s primary tools is a sense of empathy for a story’s characters, even those with an unsavoury nature. D’Eon clearly identifies strongly with the version of Sproule he has created, and his characterization is highly appealing. For many readers, it will raise serious questions about Sproule’s guilt and the “justice” meted out to him.

You can almost smell the smoke of a miner’s campfire, curling up into a night sky not yet crowded with satellites and air pollution, lake waters lapping meditatively as the tale unwinds. D’Eon has written a historical novel that ranks with the best of them.

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D’Eon’s decades of theatre experience served him well at the book launch. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

D’Eon’s launch at the Nelson Public Library October 18—once again thanks to the good graces of the aptly named Anne DeGrace, the library’s Adult Services Coordinator—brought out the full theatrical potential of the novel. D’Eon is well-known to West Kootenay audiences for his decades of acting and theatre productions, including a recent production of Big Ledge as a radio play, soon to be broadcast on Kootenay Co-op Radio. So it was no surprise that rather than simply reading from the novel, he acted out the parts in full character voice. D’Eon’s rich baritone and capacity to project to the back of a hall made the characters leap to life from the pages. This is just the kind of approach I favour in my own book launches. Nothing turns an audience off faster than listening to poets mumbling in their soup. Read it like you mean it!

D’Eon told the audience that the Robert Sproule story and the murder of Thomas Hamill has fascinated him for years. So long, in fact, that he recalls staging a much shorter version of the tale 20 years ago in Nelson with fellow actor Michael Graham. So the publication of Big Ledge is a deserved culmination of a decades-old labour of love, proving once again that history does not have to be a dry, boring recital of facts. It can be as gripping as the latest Netflix mini-series when done properly. And gods know, we could use a lot more historical context in this era.

Big Ledge is available from Otter Books, your fine independent bookseller in Nelson, BC, or from Home Star Press, 1019 Park St., Nelson, BC V1L 2H4. D’Eon’s first book, the novella Eta Carina, was published by Vagabondage Press in 2013, which will publish his second novel, The Draper Catalogue, in 2019.

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Kaslo Jazzfest scores another successful year

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Grand opening parade for Kaslo Jazzfest 2018 on Kaslo’s main street.

The Festival

From the swirl of colour and rhythm at the grand opening parade on Friday evening to the last sweet sounds trailing off into Sunday night, Kaslo Jazzfest once again made a lot of people happy. Over 2,600 of them, in fact – peak ticket sales reached 2,618 on Saturday. The local rumour mill claimed that 3,000 tickets had been sold, causing concern about overcrowded campsites in the village. But according to festival director Paul Hinrichs, it’s not true.

“We actually sold more tickets on the Friday in 2016 with Michael Franti. That day we sold 2,670 tickets. That was a record, the biggest day Kaslo Jazz has ever had.”

At meetings prior to each festival the board decides on a maximum capacity that will work that year given infrastructure, volunteer numbers, weather, etc. That number often falls far short of 3,000. “We’ve never sold that high because it would take a lot more resources. We sell to the capacity we’re comfortable managing,” says Hinrichs. “Even at 2,600 it feels full, it’s the sweet spot. This year Sunday only had 2,300 on site, so we didn’t quite get there for the whole festival.” This in part is what has earned the festival its reputation as one of the top outdoor festivals in North America—its family atmosphere and sense of intimacy.

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Kids find plenty to do at Jazzfest including learning the hula hoop.

Festival patrons noticed another change on-site this year – the floating stage rode higher in the water and has a new lighting rig. The stage was raised by 28 inches, partly in response to complaints in recent years about sightlines. In the past, dancers were relegated to zones on either side of the floating stage, keeping sightlines open to those sitting down. When the new management reversed this policy, allowing dancers up front, the view was blocked. To remedy the situation, the festival successfully applied for funding to renovate the stage, receiving funds from Creative BC, CKCA/CBT, and the Province of BC. This paid for a complete replacement of the superstructure, adding 50,000 pounds to its weight. The project is ongoing; next year the canvas arch above the stage will be replaced with trusses capable of suspending lighting and sound equipment.

Others noticed a new LED lighting system onstage. It’s also the first year the stage has used a smoke machine for effects. Hinrichs says many bands now stipulate in their contract the lighting needs for their show and come with their own lighting director. There were some issues with lights pointing into patrons’ eyes, but Hinrichs says by Sunday this was remedied. “Personally I expect a certain production value when I pay a couple hundred bucks for a festival ticket. We’re going to continue to grow the light show. Was it perfect this year? No, of course, we’re still learning.”

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Jazzfest floating stage in Kaslo Bay Park, 2016.

Although the festival has had to change its roster of performers to reflect a more eclectic music market and younger audiences, Hinrichs says he’s not really interested in tracking age-related demographics. He sees Jazzfest as an all-ages event featuring improved kids’ events and wheelchair access. “I worry that by tracking age you can end up with an ‘us and them’ factor. I just feel like music lovers can be any age. I’m much more interested if somebody’s a repeat customer as well as where they come from. I just want the best live music experience people can have.”

Visually the festival was a treat as always, kicked off by the delightful spectacle of the grand opening parade on mainstreet making its way to Kaslo Bay Park. It was Kaslo’s own Mardi Gras Day, with the dazzling costumes and stilt-walkers of the Circus Act Insomniacs, the pulsing rhythms of the Moving Mosaic Samba Band, and kids’ dancing choreographed by Glynis Waring.

The Music

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Mavis Staples: still vital at 79.

The content of the festival was sonically impressive, from the ‘newgrass’ of Greensky Bluegrass, to the new take on singer-songwriters manifest in Shakey Graves’ wildly popular show, to jumpin’ grooves by Shred Kelly, to the avant-garde ‘brass house’ horns of Too Many Zooz, to major stars like Mavis Staples and Buffy Sainte-Marie. These two women are icons of both popular music and social justice history, still performing into their late 70s. Mavis spoke of being part of the historic march with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965. Her new album, If All I Was Was Black, is her soulful R&B message to a 21st century America ripped apart by racial tensions. She performed several of the album tracks, including Build a Bridge, Little Bit, We Go High along with classic R&B numbers. Her between-song banter was relaxed, as if chatting with us in her living room. Her band was unstoppable in their cover of Talking HeadsSlippery People, oddly enough an ideal song for Mavis. She said in a music career spanning six decades it was the first time she’d performed on a floating stage. “They tell me this festival has been going for 27 years now. What I want to know is, why you didn’t invite me before now!”

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Buffy Sainte-Marie, 77, delivered a powerful show at Jazzfest 2018.

Buffy Sainte Marie is one of the most decorated artists in music, with 12 honorary doctorates, an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, and five Juno Awards, to name only a few. She spoke eloquently about the history of racial oppression but made it clear her activism wasn’t limited to racial issues, but to the cause of peace generally. As if to underline the point, she performed her 2015 song The War Racket, whose lyrics are unambiguous in exposing one of the most evil, profitable industries in the world. The crowd raised the roof with applause when she sang favourites like Universal Soldier, Starwalker and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. She also led the crowd in a singalong of the old solidarity hymn We Are Community. Like Mavis, Buffy is touring a new album that sees no diminishment of her powers, Medicine Songs. It was incredible to see enthusiastic fans as young as their early teens singing along to her songs right alongside fans old enough to be their grandparents. The stage-shaking cheers Mavis and Buffy received during their shows proves both their popularity and their message remains strong.

“I wasn’t around in the sixties when their message was fresh but I think it’s just as important now,” says Hinrichs. “If you look through our lineup a lot of the bands had a message in their music. Mavis and Buffy both seemed to have a fantastic time, so it meant a lot to have them go away feeling that.”

None of this is to give short shrift to the younger, newer artists who graced the stages at Kaslo Jazzfest this year. I betray my age when I confess how surprised I was to see how big a star Shakey Graves is with his audience, many of whom knew the lyrics to every song.

LINKS: Mavis Staples’ story and new album: https://www.mavisstaples.com/about/

https://kaslojazzfest.com

http://buffysainte-marie.com

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An Interview with Blues ‘Ice Queen’ Sue Foley

INTRODUCTION

As a lifelong devotee of music—and especially of blues and rock music—I’ve been privileged to see some amazing performances. The kind of performances that galvanize the eyes of several thousand people on the stage, as if mesmerized. In my life, that has included several life-altering moments: James Cotton in Mary Hall, Nelson, BC, 1975. The Pogues at Expo ’86, Vancouver—even hobbled by a pathetically drunken Shane Macgowan. The discovery of the mighty voice of Ruthie Foster at Salmon Arm Roots and Blues in 2007. Seeing Chris Squire—who along with Who bassist John Entwistle rewrote the book on how to play bass in a rock band—in Kelowna, BC on his final tour with Yes in 2013. Stumbling on the greased lightning of Aussie slide guitarist Jeff Lang at Kaslo Jazz Etc. in 2014. And that’s not even considering all the legendary moments in music history I had the misfortune of birth or timing to miss—Ten Years After and Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, 1969. The Who, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Jethro Tull at the Isle of Wight, 1970. To name only a few. These kinds of performances seem to align with the cosmos—and the performer’s 10,000-plus hours of experience—to burn themselves indelibly into the synapses. If you’d seen Jesus walk on the water you couldn’t have been more impressed.

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Sue Foley at Finley’s, Nelson, BC, July 26, 2018.

Now I have another such legendary performance to add to my sensory apparatus: Sue Foley live at Finley’s Bar & Grill, Nelson, BC, July 26, 2018, hosted by the Kootenay Blues Society. It takes incredible skill and talent to invest a genre as old as blues with an original approach, but she surely did it that sultry, smoky Thursday evening. Her first set was all electric, with blistering solos on her signature pink paisley Telecaster. Then, as if we weren’t gobsmacked enough, she pulled off another coup. Her second set was entirely acoustic, displaying a dexterity and command of stylings that ranged from Texas and Delta blues to flamenco. The set included songs by her original blues heroine, Memphis Minnie, and one of the few non-original songs from Foley’s new album, The Ice QueenSend Me to the Electric Chair, by Bessie Smith. Foley’s eloquent playing walked us through a history of the blues that cried, sang and moaned with grace and power.

Her technique is nothing short of stunning. The thumb pick/fingerpicking combo favoured by so many blues greats gives her incredible right-hand dexterity. (In the book It Came From Memphis, author Robert Gordon relates the story of when Hubert Sumlin joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band. Seeing that Sumlin used a flatpick, the Wolf told him to get rid of it.) According to guitarist and Kootenay Blues Society director Jon Burden, Foley uses almost no effects pedals—incredible given her many subtle tonal variations. And her current band is something of a blues power trio: Tom Bona is the most interesting blues drummer I’ve seen in years, using brushes, tom-toms and an array of cymbals to add tonal nuances to the songs instead of just keeping time. Leo Valvasori plays bass.

In my interview with her before the show, she talked wistfully of her younger years playing in clubs and how much she misses that scene. Finley’s is as close to a live music club scene as exists now in the Kootenays. The intimacy of the venue must have struck a deep chord with her, because she pulled out all the stops for this show. People either danced right to the end of the night or stood mesmerized near the stage. I’m guessing she won’t forget her night at Finley’s anytime soon. Now if we can just entice her back to the Kootenays….

INTERVIEW July 26, 2018

I notice from your Bio that you started playing guitar at age 13 while living in Ottawa. Did you grow up in a musical family? I did. My father played guitar and my three older brothers played guitar. I was the youngest girl and kind of just followed in their footsteps.

Was there an active blues scene in Ottawa at that time? There was; there was a good blues scene at the time. A lot of those guys are still there, like Drew Nelson. Back Alley John was there at the time, and Terry Gillespie who’s still out touring, he’s great, one of my favourites. He has that band Heaven’s Radio and I used to follow them around. All those guys taught me—and Tony D. of course, who’s now with Monkey Junk—he had a band called Saints and Sinners. So I go way back with all those guys. Tony gave me my first blues guitar lessons. And the other thing that was cool about Ottawa at the time was that a lot of Chicago bands and bands from the States came up there and toured. My first real blues shows were—and this was before I really saw anybody else—I saw James Cotton live at age 15. And that’s what really put me on the trail of wanting to play blues music.

Sue Foley @ Finley's 3 lo-res copyAs far as training goes, did you do a lot of formal study, or was it more a case of listening to records and learning to play the songs? Or just sitting in with musicians and learning that way? Yeah, all of the above. No formal training. I took some lessons from Tony D. and he basically taught me the most important lesson is how to teach yourself. He taught me how to pick up stuff off records and teach myself. And the rest of it was just from playing with other musicians. Playing with other players is how you learn the most. And if you can play with players that are better than you, even better, because that’s how you really start to rise above your own limitations.

So what about mentors in the blues, whether it’s people you were personally taught by or mentors among the great blues artists? Early on, Ronnie Earl reached out to me. He’s one of my very favourite guitar players of all time. I met him when I was about 20 on our first tour across Canada as the Sue Foley Band. And he really has been a mentor my whole career as far as being like a big brother figure, somebody I could always look up to and always admire his playing and count on for advice if I needed it. And then there’s people even now—to this day, I hang out with Lou Ann Barton in Austin, who I consider a mentor. And Jimmie Vaughan—I consider him a mentor figure as well.

And what about your attraction to the Texas blues? From what I remember reading online, your early forays into the blues were more Chicago blues, but more recently you’ve been leaning toward Texas blues. Well I think since I started my recording career I’ve really leaned toward Texas blues, it’s more where my specialty lies. When I first started learning blues guitar, I studied what I consider Chicago 101, all the Chess Records catalogue, from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmie Rodgers, Little Walter—all that stuff. But then when I went to Austin I really started to study people like Jimmie Vaughan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, and all the Texas blues musicians and guitar players. And I think Clifford Antone was really a mentor, because he signed me to my first record deal in Austin, he taught me a lot about Texas blues, even the stuff from Louisiana—all that really influenced us.

What would you say distinguishes the Texas blues from Chicago? Well, the interesting thing about the way Texas blues has evolved is that Chicago blues and Texas blues evolved together at Antone’s because all those Chicago blues artists were coming down to Austin. Muddy Waters was coming down, Jimmy Reed was coming down, Eddie Taylor was coming down, Buddy Guy. And so I think that Chicago style infiltrated the way Texas blues guitar is played now. Earlier on, before that happened—before the 1970s—a lot of Texas guitar players were influenced by horn players. Clarence Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker and guys like that were really influenced by playing in a band with horns. And then Lightnin’ Hopkins, that’s country blues that comes directly from Blind Lemon Jefferson.

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Sonny Rhodes at Finley’s, July 21, 2018

I was talking to Sonny Rhodes about how, blues in the earliest days was a form of protest music, how the earliest lyrics were written in a kind of code about how the ‘man’ was oppressing them, because they were slaves. And then you get some of the early preacher musicians like the Reverend Gary Davis who were both ministers and blues players, so they were concerned about what was going on in the world. I don’t know if Sonny mentioned him but Bill Campbell, who lives outside of Austin, was one of the most important figures in blues guitar. He came up at the same time as the Vaughan brothers, but he’s pretty obscure. So he and Sonny were like, buddies, at the time when blacks and whites were still not allowed to hang out together.

How did you meet and end up working with Peter Karp? We had a good run; we met at the Ottawa Blues Festival and recorded two albums together that was more singer-songwriter stuff, or mixing singer-songwriter with blues. So I think that was a good experience as far as developing my songwriting. I was doing some other collaborations too; that’s why I haven’t done a solo album in ten years because I got involved in those projects. But it was good, yeah. It was a different kind of project but I was happy to return to what I do best, my own stuff.

Do you think the blues in North America is in a good state or a bad state right now? I always focus on the positive; you can always find negative things to talk about that you don’t like. But I’d rather focus on the people that are still playing and doing great work, like Jimmie Vaughan who I go see all the time, and Lou Ann Barton. Gary Clark Jr. is really super cool, doing some great things for the blues. I just saw a great kid called Kingfish, a Mississippi black guy that’s tremendous—wow, what an amazing guitar player. There’s a lot of interesting young people out there right now.

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Sue with drummer Tom Bona.

So much of the music industry right now seems to be skewed toward demographics, where it’s targeted toward specific age groups. We’ve had that experience in the Kootenays with the Kaslo Jazz festival where, in the past two or three years they had to change it up to suit a younger audience, with only a handful of blues and jazz acts. Salmon Arm Roots and Blues was another one that had to modify their approach a little bit. Well they do, because all those guys have died off, and the blues demographic has become older. That’s not to say that it can’t be young. I think a lot of the bands that do blur the lines a little more, like say Tedeschi-Trucks, are more successful with a younger audience. Obviously they’re also fantastic blues musicians. But it’s not just blues, and they’re wildly popular. And I mean you look at Gary Clark Jr., the same thing, he does a lot of blues style, but he’s not just a blues musician and he wouldn’t call himself that. I don’t think blues has ever been commercially viable music. It’s always been somewhat underground.

So hopefully we can attract a younger audience to the blues. I think it’s about inclusiveness and mixing other styles with blues. I mean, even Jack White and people like that love blues and they play it and talk about it and turn a lot of people onto it.

Do you think that can happen in a culture where the reality of poverty is very different, compared to a hundred years ago? When I interviewed Sonny Rhodes he said: “The blues is about pain and suffering and how to overcome that.” So if you have a culture of people that were raised with a certain amount of privilege, then how do they sing the blues? But there’s no less pain and suffering now, and I think there might even be more, in spite of having all this material wealth. Just look around—I don’t think there’s any less pain and suffering in the world than there ever was. That’s why our work is never done.

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Foley’s new album has a stellar guest cast.

Let’s talk about your new album, The Ice Queen. What has you excited about this recording? It was recorded live, so we’re able to pull it all off at the show, and that really excites me because I’m able to play all the songs from the album and represent them live accurately. I love all the concepts of the songs, I’m really proud of it. Of course, I’m tickled to death about all the special guests that have been on the album. It was such a shot to my system. I was talking to somebody today saying, this is what we do this for, because we look up to these heroes, these mythological figures and we try to step into their shoes. So when any of them even acknowledge that you exist it’s one thing, but if they actually play music with you, wow, it’s something else. I’m really proud of it; I stand behind it one hundred percent.

So your special guests were—Jimmie Vaughan—name some of the others. Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Chris Layton from Double Trouble, Charlie Sexton, Mike Flanagin the great (Hammond) B3 player, and he’s our producer; George Bigby Rains, one of the greatest Texas blues drummers ever, and the Texas Horns. It’s a great line-up of musicians but it’s also a great mixture of songs and styles. And it’s fun to play.

And the concept of the Ice Queen, where does that come from? Well it’s a threefold concept, there’s the song The Ice Queen, because I was thinking about the idea of the Ice Queen and what people think about her and would say about her, what’s really going on inside. And I think a lot of women can relate to it. Anybody that puts a shell around themselves relates to that song, but I think women in particular relate to it. But it’s tongue-in-cheek too, it’s got a little humour in it. And the Ice Queen is also representative of me being Canadian—my Canadian roots—where I’m from. I’m a northerner from the land of ice and snow. And then it’s a tip of the hat to Albert Collins, the ‘Ice Man,’ fellow Telecaster player and one of my very favourite guitar players of all time. Watching him play changed my life, changed the way I approached the instrument, changed my conception of what blues was, what guitar playing is, how powerful it can be. It’s a tip of the hat to him.

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The author with Sue Foley, who generously offered autographs and selfies between sets and even after her show.

Closing thoughts: what would you like to see for the future of the blues? Welll… I just wish there were more venues that we could play at on a regular basis, so we could just be out playing all the time and people would be coming out. I think it’s changed a lot, so you kind of have to play more festivals or listening rooms, and there aren’t as many clubs as there once was. It’s not really a club culture anymore. And I really enjoyed my youth, being able to play clubs, I feel very lucky to have done that. I just wish we could keep doing it forever. It would be great to see things like that again—people going out again, getting off their phones, listening to live music.

Thanks very much for taking time out before your show. Well, thank you, it was a great interview, great questions.

FOR MORE INFORMATION VISIT: http://suefoley.com / https://www.kootenaybluessociety.com

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Sonny Rhodes: Gentleman of the Blues

Over the years the West Kootenay has seen some first-rate blues acts, especially in the mid-2000s when Nelson’s Royal Hotel was styling itself a blues pub. It was there I got to see living legends like John Mayall and Leon Russell in a venue that could barely cram in 100 people. It was a glorious taste of what it must have been like to be in Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Club in 1983 when the Stones played with Muddy Waters. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, it used to be you had to travel to Calgary or Vancouver to see a big act. But in recent decades that has changed for the better. In large part this was due to Nelson’s sudden international fame when Steve Martin filmed Roxanne there in 1986. A wave of urban migrants soon followed, attracted by the slower, saner pace of life and the sheer beauty of the mountain landscape. The Kootenays now attracts artists from all over the world, thanks in part to the many music festivals that have thrived here over the past 20 years or so: Starbelly Jam, Kaslo Jazz Etc., Tiny Lights, and Unity Festival. At Kaslo’s Jazzfest during the past decade, we’ve seen Richie Havens, Ruthie Foster, The Blind Boys of Alabama, the late great Jeff Healey, and so many others. Trail’s Charles Bailey Theatre attracted the late great Johnny Winter on one of his final tours and continues to bring in top blues, rock, folk and pop acts.

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Sonny Rhodes: blues legend and snazzy dresser.

I was privileged to be able to interview Sonny Rhodes, one of the last of the great blues originals, at Finley’s Bar and Grill in Nelson, BC, on July 21. I am indebted to the recently formed Kootenay Blues Society and in particular to Jon Burden, a fine guitarist, great friend and blues enthusiast. Sonny at 78 years old still performs 200 shows a year, slowing down only slightly despite his increasing frailty. He arrived at Finley’s the best-dressed man in the house, wearing a custom tailored pink suit, black shirt and hat, and what looked like Italian-made shoes. On his career retrospective disk The Essential Sonny Rhodes, he talks about how he once wore a turban onstage until confronted after one show by three thugs with guns. But he never stopped being a snappy dresser. (The album weaves Sonny’s storytelling about his long career between his signature songs—only 20 out of the over 200 he has recorded since 1958.)

Sonny Rhodes was born Clarence Smith on November 3, 1940 in Smithville, Texas. The son of Emma Mauldin, Rhodes was orphaned as a baby and adopted by Leroy and Julia Smith, black sharecroppers barely eking out a living. He received his first guitar at the age of eight as a Christmas present, but it had only one string. When a family friend told his foster parents how good he was becoming on guitar, he said: “Wait ‘til I get the other five strings!” He became serious about playing the blues at age 12 and while still in his teens began performing around Smithville and nearby Austin in the late 1950s. It was not an easy time for a young black musician. Migrating from Texas to California in the early ’60s, he met producer Saul Zaentz, who told him he’d never make it with a name like Clarence. He’d already settled on ‘Sonny’—Zaentz suggested ‘Rhodes’ and a blues legend was born. In part he has Canada to thank for his start in the blues—some of his earliest gigs were performed at Calgary’s legendary blues bar, the King Edward Hotel, a.k.a. the ‘King Eddy.’

For more on Sonny Rhodes’ bio visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonny_Rhodes or https://www.allmusic.com/artist/sonny-rhodes-mn0000045823/biography

JOYCE: What was it like growing up as a black person in Texas in the 1940s and ’50s?

SONNY RHODES: Well it was bad. Coming from the south like I did, if I turned around every time I heard the word ‘nigger’ I’d be walkin’ backwards. If someone called me a nigger I didn’t care. Why should I care? You look up above and you say, God forgive them, for they know not what they do. They called me a mule and all those terms and I grew up with that, you know.

I took it until I graduated from high school because there weren’t too many black people who graduated back in the ’40s. If you were going to get something out of life you had to graduate, at least I got that. I graduated from high school in 1957 and I wanted to see California but I didn’t have a job that could take me out there. If you didn’t have the knowledge to work in a factory, you had to pick cotton or grow corn. So what I did, I joined the navy. And they didn’t have that many black people in the navy at that time.

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Sonny onstage at Finley’s Bar & Grill, Nelson, BC

JOYCE: It must have been quite difficult for a black person break into the music market back in those times.

RHODES: Yes. But you know, I had my mind on that, and I had to ask God to help me be what I wanted to be.

JOYCE: So was it in 1958 you made your first recording?

RHODES: Yes. I had just come out of the navy. Three ladies in Austin, Texas owned a company called Domino Records and they were looking for musicians to record. My first single was I’ll Never Let You Go and the other side was All Night Long I Play the Blues.

JOYCE: What was it like playing bass for Freddie King and Albert Collins?

RHODES: I always looked up to them. Freddie King, he was the big man. Albert King, he was kinda hard to get along with but if you kissed his ass, gave him a big smile, fine. If you messed up a note while you was playin’ he’d be ready to kick your ass, so best to get out of his way.

JOYCE: So you felt like you learned a lot from T-Bone Walker, King and Collins?

Yes I do. I learned everything I could get from them except their personality. I had my own personality. I don’t want to be T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and all those. I just want to be the best I can be, as good as Sonny Rhodes can be, because that makes my own legacy. I got started on lap steel with LC Good Rockin’ Robinson, from the south. I met him in Oakland when I lived there—he was playing one of those. He said you can play but you’ll never be as good as me, you’ll never beat me, and that pissed me off, so I decided to get good on it. I also play guitar but I had both of my hips replaced a couple years ago so I have to sit down to play now.

JOYCE: Do you think they influenced your sound at all?

RHODES: When you’re learning for the first time, you gotta find someone you can play like without makin’ a lot of mistakes. So this is what I was able to do, play like the people I liked to listen to, and kind of put them all together. So whether it’s Albert King, or B.B. King, or Albert Collins, you put them all together and you might hear a note here and a note there, but it’s not anybody’s, it’s my own.

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Sonny’s band warms up the crowd at Finley’s on a hot summer evening: Greg Smith, guitar; Steve Wilson, drums; Rob Van der Laan, bass; Jon Burden, guitar (right); Clint Swanson, saxophones.

JOYCE: I can’t say I envy musicians their lifestyle, because you guys really have to work very hard for your money. And there’s good things and bad things about the road.

RHODES: Well, you know, you’re never thinkin’ about that. When you’re doing what you love to do, and enjoy that while you’re doin’ it, there’s nothin’ out there bad enough to discourage you from doin’ that. What you do, you smile and think of all the people that enjoy what you’re doin’.

JOYCE: But then there’s the hazards of the road, too, like drugs and alcohol. Have you lost friends to the lifestyle of the road?

RHODES: I have tried these things but I had bad experiences with them. They made me sick, they made me feel like, I don’t wanna do this again, this is stupid. And I have so many people that I cared for that died behind using drugs. There’s nothin’ I can do about that—you have your own life, so if you do this, I try to stay away from you. I don’t put up with that in my band.

JOYCE: Any particular friends that have passed that you really miss?

RHODES: Well all the good people like Albert Collins, Freddie King. I was always a person that cares for people. And I still do. But of all the people that have gone on, I have learned something from them, either good or bad. The good things I try to keep from them.

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Sonny Rhodes: Gentleman of the Blues, with Sean Arthur Joyce, at Finley’s Bar & Grill, July 21, 2018.

JOYCE: If you could offer young musicians these days any advice about starting a career in the blues, what would it be?

RHODES: What I would honestly say, go and do what you wanna do but always have the good Lord in mind, because he is your creator. If you can learn how to say, the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, I truly believe in that.

JOYCE: In other words, have a form of spirituality.

RHODES: Exactly. There’s nothin’ better than that. That has helped keep this body together.

JOYCE: Do you think blues has changed?

RHODES: Well, yes, but it’s a changed blues because it’s different people playing it. And there’s different things happening in the world today that people have to write about. The blues is about heartache and pain and how to overcome all that. But even if it’s a different style, it’s still blues.

JOYCE: What future would you like to see for the blues?

RHODES: Well I would like to see more of it. I would like to have the profanity taken out of it; not talking about sex so much, but about what is wrong with the world today and what we have to do to protect it, what we can do about it to make it better.

JOYCE: Because really, the blues started out as protest music, didn’t it? The cotton field workers singing in code, ‘the man, he be oppressin’ us.’

RHODES: That’s right.

JOYCE: And so that tradition has to carry on.

RHODES: It does. Because the world has not gotten better, more people are dyin’. And we got these millionaires who ain’t gonna let it stop.

JOYCE: That’s interesting, because Son House had a different idea; he always said it was all about a man and a woman. But if you go back further, say to people like the Reverend Gary Davis, they were very much concerned about what was happening in the world.

RHODES: It’s about life—what’s happening in life, you can make it better or make it worse, depending on what kind of person you are.

JOYCE: I appreciate you taking your time for the interview, thank you. It’s been a great honour to meet you.

RHODES: Thank you.

For more information on upcoming shows sponsored by the Kootenay Blues Society visit: https://www.kootenaybluessociety.com/

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