Eric Bibb,
Migration Blues
(Stony Plain, 2017)

"Refugees are not 'problems,'" Eric Bibb observes. "They are courageous fellow human beings escaping dire circumstances." Such sentiments will not win him admission into some circles, including the highest one in the whitest house in 2017 America, but his unfashionably decent outlook permeates Migration Blues, a themed collection of songs -- originals, covers and traditionals -- on the subject of movement, as often as not forced, from one place to another.

As prolific as any recording artist on the current roots scene, Bibb is a more than ordinarily able guitarist and vocalist in a folk-blues vein. I am not always taken, however, with his songwriting, which on occasion is sweet, smooth and edgeless. I'm sure that speaks to his personal serenity, and it gives the listener the impression of a genuinely nice man, but it does not necessarily encourage repeated listening. On the other side, more interestingly over the long haul, Bibb has a keen political perspective that recalls 1960s folk-revival singers (including his father, the late Leon Bibb) whose example generally shapes Bibb's persona.

Migration Blues, among Bibb's most compelling albums, tells the stories of sympathetic characters on the run in search of a better life or of continued life itself. He keeps the arrangements stark and to the point, his guitar and occasional banjo backed on all but one cut only by French harmonica player JJ Milteau (adept at both downhome and jazz styles) and Canadian guitarist/mandolinist Michael Jerome Browne. The perspective in the various cuts ranges geographically from the Deep South to modern-day Syria to Depression-era America and elsewhere. It's not hard to think of this as a conscious reexamination, decades later, of the kinds of hardships Woody Guthrie wrote about in his classic Dust Bowl songs.

Indeed, Guthrie's ghost appears here in a reading of "This Land is Your Land" with all of the so-called radical verses inserted. It is the first and only such that actually makes esthetic and emotional sense, and it is the context that makes that possible. In the past I have expressed annoyance at the fetishization of the radical verses. As I wrote in this space of 9 February 2013: "The power of 'This Land' is in its inconclusiveness, in its almost mystical vision of an American nation of all of us. It transcends the Depression troubles recalled in the Popular Front-derived alternative verses. These verses, which feel as if dropped from two other songs (a comic one about trespassing, another, more sober one about starving people on relief), also date the narrative." To his credit Bibb renders these disparate elements into a uniquely coherent and moving tale, perfectly evoking the conflicting feelings of dread and hope visited upon those who are, for now anyway, strangers in a strange land, gazing in from the outside and craving admittance.

Besides envisioning the gravest of circumstances, Bibb demonstrates a light touch in his original "Diego's Blues," an imagined romance in Jim Crow 1922 Mississippi between a Mexican migrant and a local black man. He draws in the real-life Delta bluesman Robert Petway (best known for "Catfish Blues" and an influence on Muddy Waters) as a secondary character. Though his liner notes don't mention it -- possibly he's unaware of it -- Bibb's song "We Had to Move" is the second on an arcane historical episode, the destruction of Ellenton, South Carolina, in 1945 so that the federal government could secure land in which to develop the hydrogen bomb. Bibb (who plays banjo here) doesn't mention the bomb, only the authorities' insistence that all residents abandon the town. The other song, well worth looking up, is the Johnson Family Singers' "The Death of Ellenton," which sometimes shows up in the repertoires of oldtime musicians (most recently recorded, as far as I know, by Jim Watson on This World Would Be All Sunshine).

Bibb returns to the banjo to conclude Migration Blues with the grand old spiritual "Morning Train," concerning the final migration, the one that carries us from Earth to Heaven. A fitting end to a recording that conjures up human beings in transit between lost homes and found ones.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 April 2017

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