I’ve actually put off writing about this album. It’s not because I don’t like the artist; Eric Bibb is a wonderful and eclectic performer who works in a quiet style that appeals to me very much.
It’s not because I didn’t like the album; I actually enjoyed Migration Blues a lot and found it to be thought provoking while also moving and entertaining.
Honestly, I was so moved by it that I started off writing this pages long dissertation about the use of music as an instrument of social change that just about any grad student would have been proud to turn in. Along about page seven, I realized that that particular essay would most likely never see the light of day as no one in their right mind would ever want to read it.
Bibb has continually used his music as something a little more than mere entertainment. He’s one of those singer-songwriters who is tuned into certain social realities and he uses his talents to shine a light on them and hopefully by calling attention to them, changes can be addressed. Or at least discussed in a civil manner.
Many of the songs on the album deal with displacement. Bibb writes in his liner notes, “I want to encourage us all to keep our minds and hearts wide open to the ongoing plight of refugees everywhere. As history shows, we all come from people who, at one time or another, had to move.”
Bibb is joined by Michael Jerome Browne on guitars, vocals, banjos, mandolin, and triangle; JJ Milteau on harmonica; Olle Linder on drums, percussion, and even bass for one song. Big Daddy Wilson provided vocals on Prayin’ For Shore, and Ulrika Bibb added vocals on Mornin’ Train.
Bibb provided the vocals and played guitars, six-string banjo, and contrabass guitar. Bibb, Milteau, and Browne handled most of the writing chores except for covers of one song from Bob Dylan, another from Woodiy Guthrie, and a traditional number that Bibb arranged for this album.
The opening song, Refugee Moan, sets the mood with its sparse guitar and harp behind some plaintive vocals by Bibb. You’ll find that most of the songs will follow a similar pattern – blues in a folk vein. There are no horn sections blaring and inviting people to dance. This is a sipping whiskey kind of an album, not one that you gulp down without tasting.
He follows up with the low and beautiful Delta Getaway. The lyrics are dark with images of hangings, of having to fight off men with a razor for defense. The singer is just trying to get out of town without being caught and lynched. Damn, this is a powerful song.
The next number, Diego’s Blues, actually has a little bounce to it. It’s the story of a man born between two cultures and what difficulties he has to face as someone not accepted into either culture and always treated with suspicion.
How many stories have we heard about refugees trying to get into the country on makeshift rafts or broken down boats? It’s not just this country, many others have dealt with refugees fleeing war. The next song gives them a voice. Prayin’ For Shore is their prayer. And a beautiful song, due primarily to Bibb’s vocals and Milteau’s harp.
The next song is the title track, Migration Blues. An instrumental, it features the three artists, Bibb, Milteau, and Browne combining on a number that is pure emotion. No words grace the number or detract from the simple beauty of their playing.
The song, Four Years, No Rain, was written by the tandem of B.A. Markus and Michael Jerome Browne especially for Migration Blues. It just emphasizes that not everyone becomes a refugee from war, there are plenty of natural disasters that cause whole populations to move from their homes.
We Had To Move has some of the happiest music on the album with more lyrics of pain. When governments claim land, towns have to pick up and relocate. It’s always the people without the means that have to pay for the whims of the government.
Bob Dylan’s Masters Of War gets covered by Bibb. Dylan is no stranger to the use of music to reflect the goings on of the world. A folk artist who learned from the bluesmen and women from an earlier era, he knows how to tell stories that can change minds. Bibb does a good job interpreting the song.
Using the metaphor of humanity as a ship, Brotherly Love is a fairly optimistic song. Bibb expresses his hope and belief that love for one another can right our ship and get us through the storm.
The instrumental, La Vie C’est Comme Un Oignon, is a look at the displacement of some 14,000 people of French descent from Nova Scotia. Eventually many of them made their way to the Louisiana bayou country where they became known as “Cajuns” and influenced the culture of that great state. Enjoy the music, mes amis…
With A Dolla’ In My Pocket is another powerful story reflected in Bibb’s love of country blues. The story is of a young man who couldn’t take life in the south and had to get away – quickly. With only a dollar to his name, how is he going to make it to the promised land. One nice touch is the use of Highway 61 in the lyrics. A very powerful allusion for any blues fan.
Woody Guthrie’s immortal classic, This Land Is Your Land, is a perfect fit for this album. What can I say about this song that hasn’t been said before by better historians than I can ever hope to be? I learned this song in the fourth grade and it’s stayed with me ever since. Bibb starts out a cappella and brings in the musicians later. Haunting and unforgettable.
Postcard From Booker is a love letter to the great Booker White. Bibb actually plays White’s guitar on this song. It’s a gorgeous instrumental and shows off Bibb’s incredible playing.
One of the purest blues songs on the album, Blacktop is dark and brooding. The simple arrangement belies the power in the strings and Bibb’s voice carries all the emotion of a man caught in a situation that he’ll most likely never be able to escape from.
The traditional song, Mornin’ Train, closes the album. At the end of our lives is hope for something better to come. This African-American folk song bears that out and the optimism that ends the album is our dream of new lives. For the refugees of the world, that dream is ongoing, and in the end, we are all refugees.
Bibb is an artist who could take an easier route to get his music played, but he continues to explore acoustic country blues in an era of blistering guitar solos and pedal effects. I, for one, applaud him for his dedication to keeping this form of music alive.
We need artists who are committed to all aspects of the blues. We also need labels that will support them, and for that I show my respect to Canadian label Stony Plain and the work they have done supporting all the different facets of the blues.
Be sure to check Eric Bibb out whenever you get the chance. I can tell you that if you go in expecting a loud over the top persona, you might be disappointed. Please slow down and listen – really listen to the beauty of his strong voice and simple orchestrations.
You might just find yourself amazed. I know I did.
His website can be found at: http://www.ericbibb.com/ and I hope you will explore his entire body of work.