By BRUCE DENNILL
Doc MacLean is touring South Africa again with his N’ganga Blues Tour, and the bluesman is living up to his touring slogan: “No venue too large, too small, too grand or too humble,” playing everywhere Kaapsehoop to Umkomaas.
“Influence” is a loaded, often misunderstood concept. An artist may sound similar to another but have no knowledge of them, or be a super-fan of someone whose output is completely different to their own. Who or what was the artist, album, song, era or scene that initially mapped out the road to you becoming a musician?
My initial influence was late-night American AM radio: a large, highly unregulated place where all things were possible. It’s hard, in the present time, to grasp the excitement of slowly scanning the radio dial from one end to the other; ear pressed against a tiny speaker at low volume so your parents wouldn’t know you were staying up all night! You could hear anything. My dad was a civil rights and labour organiser, so I had a natural affinity to protest songs – many, if not most of these in the black American gospel tradition. I loved mid-’60s R&B, so I rather carelessly fancied myself to be a blues fan. And there were hundreds of weird little stations drifting in across the night. I loved the music and the excitement of the music, but it was not until I heard Big Joe Williams that I rushed out to buy a guitar.
Big Joe and Sonny Boy Williamson – a mind-blowing sonic combination. It wasn’t what they sang, but the way it sounded: Big Joe in open G tuning on a homemade nine-string guitar. Sonny Boy pouring notes into the air with urgency, with a free heart, from his inner being. These guys have been my sonic background for my entire artistic career; always in the back of my head, always a touchstone. It wasn’t what they sang and played as much as the texture and feel of it in my mind. A shout: reaching from the dark past and rippling into the future; it’s contents way beyond simple words, notes, chord positions. I never played with Big Joe, but I sat and drank with him in his car one afternoon, long ago. Son House was another early influence. He carried the ability to reach a trance-like state, to escape the world of the body, to travel beyond music and words and performance. These were only mediums for the spirit to grasp and fly from. It’s an unbroken story from one mouth and one ear to another. Now I sing stories and tell songs. Gifts I’ve been given, or have come to find, and I scatter these as I move through the world. Storytellers of all genres speak to the universal sufferings, explore these, and bring healing, resolve, comfort and strength to themselves and to others on this mysterious journey.
Has that changed over the years? If so, how and why, and what are you currently exploring?
I no longer look at blues as a genre, but rather as a state of mind, or sometimes a state of grace. The elements that are most important to me are often coincidental to the structure, packaging, and even the musical medium itself. The freedom to tell one’s own stories in one’s own voice is so important a freedom to learn. And now, I explore the world, and how to best harvest and collect the stories: how to find meaning in all of this.
Name one song you wish you’d written. What makes that song so important?
Ha! There’s too many! Usually I have that “I wish I’d written that” feeling while I’m hearing a song! Today’s pick: Looking For The Heart Of Saturday Night, a Tom Waits composition. It’s the melancholy of no longer being young, but still remembering, clearly, the thrill and the beauty of “cruising with a six, looking for the Heart of Saturday night.” Makes me cry now…
Which aspects of your music do you prioritise? For you, would you rather have that your lyrics, your melodies, or your vocals or instrumental work are the are the most memorable parts of your songs?
I’m a storyteller, so the words are more important now than ever.
The music industry is no longer a single-narrative operation. For you, what is the best way to get your music from your head to potential listeners? Please comment on digital means (from social media to full streaming and download distribution), playing live (how often; where; to whom), being a cottage industry (selling CDs from a box in your car or similar) and any other creative channels you’ve explored.
The more successful I am at what I do, the less I have to do with the music industry. I could be selling real estate by day to finance “born to sing the blues” recordings; sending these off to little, niche radio shows; getting “charted” by a station or a broadcaster/streamer with a few hundred listeners; get hired by the same four festivals every year; play covers when I get there; pick up the nomination as “blues dude of the year;” attend the ceremonies and then lose out to the other guy who also sells real estate but invested in a better publicist… You could spend all your time and all your money playing that game. And for what? I play a couple of hundred live shows a year. I’m not successful enough that I can operate a dental clinic on the side! I’ve built a worldwide audience, one bum at a time, live performance. Songs that can be played by one guy and a guitar, on a sound system one guy can carry in and operate.
In terms of the above, is there a gap between what you envisioned and what you are experiencing now? Does it matter, and if so, how do you close that gap?
The business of music changes quickly; how music is bought, sold, delivered, consumed, and how it is valued. Really, the important thing is to envision the inevitability of change. You need to find the wave and ride it. When it peaks, you need to have the next one in your sights. The music business does not get better or worse. Different people are more or less successful at it in different times and places. You can’t get upset at how something is now, as opposed to what it used to be. If you want to be in the game, you need to grab the bull and ride it. In every time, knowledge is power. Now more than ever. Yes, we used to play six nights in a row in each venue. With a full band. And a sound guy. Now it’s a one- or two-person act, playing six shows in six different towns, carrying in and operating their own production.
It’s a different game, but still a game that works, that can be played. All aspects of the music industry are like this. Adapt, or enjoy being a serious amateur. Nothing wrong with that. The people at the top of the ladder have their own subsets of how it is now, how it used to be – people who provide services, equipment, distribute product, broadcast or stream it. Enjoy what you do, or as much of it as you can.
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