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Friday, March 3, 2006

Blues from the Delta Crossing


Special to The Japan Times

On the Tokyo blues scene, the gut power of Delta blues has had few finer exponents than Steve Gardner. A Mississippi native who has made Tokyo his home, Gardner learned the blues at its source in the Mississippi Delta. While visiting the bluesmen and blueswomen in their homes there as a photojournalist, Gardner liked to hang around and blow a little harmonica after the photo shoots.

News photo
Tokyo-based musician Steve Gardner

Gardner got more than just photos, though. The results can be heard on his two albums, the recently released "Big Delta Crossing," and 2002's "Rambling on My Mind." He took time to talk not on a dusty country porch over a jar of moonshine, but over coffee in a crowded Tokyo cafe.

You were originally a photographer.

I had a job working for a local paper and the wire services when I was in college. In those days, the idea that you could be a photojournalist was still kind of alive. I covered [Ku Klux] Klan activities, got beat up by the Klan. You had to look around at your surroundings and see how to tell stories about them: a death row story, prison story, bikers, whatever. Just like the blues.

How did your photography lead to the blues?

When I went out to photograph people in the Delta, I'd bring my harmonica. We always ate and drank and played a little music. After going back for a while, if I didn't take their picture or blow the harp, they thought something was wrong. The bikers were the same. I went to photograph the Hell's Angels in the '70s and '80s. When they had a party playing a little guitar and I blew harmonica, they wanted me to join their club. Music has always been like that for me.

So, you were split between photos and music.

In the photojournalism world, the diseases were pretty bad. Malaria was pretty bad. I survived some explosions on the Burmese border. I was put in jail there for a week. That cleared my thoughts up real good. So I got out of that and started to work on my blues [photo] book more earnestly, put my own band together and played a lot. [I'm] always learning -- every time you think you got the cat by the tail, the cat's got you.

Can the blues be learned?

The thing that separates the blues is the fact that pure technical excellence on your instrument will not let you play the blues. You can play "a" blues that way, but you can't play "the" blues that way. With the blues, you have to bare out some of your emotions. It doesn't have to be all this sad, porcupine-in-my-pants kind of feeling. If someone sings a song about having a worse time than you, then it really can be quite funny.

How do you write the lyrics?

On "Got Love If You Want It," I bring up several people I wanted to say thank you to in a song. The song opens up with Margaret who owns the Double Headed Eagle Grocery in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Margaret is 92 years old and is amazingly positive. Her place is right on the river, and the last time I was there, I asked her about how she was doing for money and things, and she said, "You never see a U-Haul following a hearse."

How do you fit words with the music?

There are hot tamales all up and down the Delta, so we say: "When there's no hot tamale, the music's dead."

"Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" is divided into three parts: the voice, guitar and harmonica. The voice is whatever we are; the harmonica is the echo of whatever comes back to us; the great slide work is the confusion generated by the world around us. A lot of times we forget to be in the world. "Tokyo Two-Step" reminds me of rush hour here. I've never seen so many people and I'm always stepping in the wrong spot.

What's the "Big Delta Crossing" mean?

Any crossing is always a place to go from here to there. There's always a big one and a little one. There's a Big Yazoo River and a Little Yazoo River. So, this is the Big Delta Crossing, which is the main one that goes from here to wherever you want to go. I'm still rambling, and that's part of the delta crossing. The blues is a living thing. All real music is alive, and is a doorway into another world. It's always what happens, that unexpected thing, when you're on a journey.

Steve Gardner plays solo most Tuesdays at Bourbon Street, Roppongi; every second Wednesday with Shinjiro Mori and every last Friday with the Bottleneck Blues Band at The Fiddler, Takadanobaba; March 18 with the Bottleneck Blues Band at What the Dickens, Ebisu. For more info, visit www.stevegardner.info

Michael Pronko can be reached at: jazznicity@yahoo.com


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