Kicked back at his Oakland home, Alvin Youngblood Hart takes the past year or so’s big developments in stride, enjoying the time off from his busy schedule created by the birth of he and his wife Heidi’s first child. Since seeming to appear out of nowhere last year with his debut CD Big Mama’s Door, Alvin has ”gone around the world twice”, won the Handy Award for Best New Artist, and opened gigs for the likes of John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Neil Young.
Having played acoustic blues for twenty years, Alvin is no new arrival on the ”unplugged” bandwagon, but a serious student of early roots music to whom musical trends have (almost) caught up. While his fingerpicking and slide work on the six string show him to be among the best acoustic players around, his fluency and superb tone on the twelve string truly set him apart, as do his vocals, which are strong enough to render convincing versions of Charlie Patton or Tommy Johnson tunes, no small task.
While he draws his material from a wide variety of early blues greats, he is also an accomplished songwriter, penning half of the songs on the album himself, including his award nominated Joe Friday. The album’s title track refers to his grandmother, Big Mama, while childhood pictures of Alvin at her house in the CD booklet are another form of tribute to his familial background in the hill country of central Mississippi.
Mississippi on his mind
Talk to Alvin for any length of time and the conversation quickly turns to Mississippi, whether the topic is music, fishing or family. While he spent his childhood moving around the country, regular family trips to Mississippi, and his parents eventual return there, solidified his attachment to the place.
”My parents could afford to go back every three years or so, that’s when my mom’s mom was still living, she lived way out in the woods, in the hills in Mississippi. About 25 miles east of Greenwood, and about halfway between Memphis and Jackson. So about every three years or so we’d get it together and take a big car trip out to Mississippi for the summer. So I just got really attached to the place. It was better than Christmas when we used to go, and my grandmother and all them old people were still living.
Luckily I was able to have musicians in my family throughout the generations, like my grandma on my dad’s side. She was born leap year ’04. She played the piano, and my uncle who I named my kid after, he played the piano a little bit. He used to play these things like Sunnyland [Slim]. And he also played slide on the guitar a bit, so that was a primer for me.
He used to come over to our house and get my brother’s guitar and tune it to open, and beat around there on some kind of John Lee Hooker thing. And by the time I was sixteen I’d already been messing with the slide, and I was over at my grandma’s house one day and had the slide, and uncle Reubin came over there and started playing the slide, just like he’d been doing it all his life. I used to have a tape of me and him playing together, him playing the piano and me playing the slide, from like 1980 or something.”
While his parents are not musicians, blues, jazz and gospel were staples of the home’s record collection.
”There are certain things I remember hearing when I was real small, I remember hearing Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing This train, she was baad. I got this album of hers, Live at the Hot Club de France, and she’s got this amp so loud, man, you’d swear that it was Hendrix, some of the stuff that she’s playing. And I remember hearing ”Take me right back to track, jack,..” [Louis Jordan’s Choo Choo Ch-Boogie].
”It’s a whole number of things. It was the time my mom got an 8-track player installed in her ’71 Pinto and one of the first tapes she got was The Best of Jimmy Reed.. Boom!! ”Boll weevils wearin’ overalls” Picture that. My dad went in the Army in the 1950s, went to Germany, and [my parents] got more cosmopolitan, they got into jazz, Gene Ammons, Dave Brubeck, Nina Simone, but my parents still had things like BB King Wails. I’ve got that record somewhere, all taped up. Where do you go from there? (laughs). I tried to steal a Louis Jordan record from them, and they stole it back!”
Mississippi ain’t just the Delta
Staples of Alvin’s repertoire include Delta classics by artists such as Charlie Patton, but he views these as representing only one, somewhat over-emphasized, part of Mississippi’s (and the South’s) musical heritage.
”I don’t like to be labelled with what within the blues world is labelled as ’delta blues.’ [My family’s] not in the Delta. If you look on a map it’s pretty close to where Highways 55 and 82 collide, it’s close to a town called Winona. My experience with the Delta is (puts his thumb down). That’s the Mississippi that most of the people who migrated to Chicago, or to Oakland or to Milwaukee, that’s the Mississippi that they wanted to leave. My mom’s family owned their own property, so they didn’t answer to nobody, they didn’t pay rent to nobody. So, the whole thing about Delta blues is something that turns me off.
I think what people nowadays refer to as being ”authentic” Delta blues, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about anyways. When people promote my music as the ’Delta blues’ people kind of expect to hear the same Elmore James or Jimmy Reed rhythms going on, and that’s not what I’m giving them. To tell you the truth, I’m a student of this whole thing, but I think that I play this stuff so close to authentic that peple don’t even know what’s going on. I think a lot of these people, blues fans or whatever you call them these days, never listen to Charlie Patton records.”
Survivalist, not revivalist
Interpret the recent crop of (relatively) young African American acoustic blues players as you will, but Alvin is quick to point out that to him the hype is nothing more than a marketing tool related to the ”unplugged” phenomenon, and partic-ularly for the advancement of the more radio-friendly variety of blues which he derogatorily calls ”Acoustic blues light”.
”You know what that is, that’s nothing but the music business. They just say, ”Let’s give this a try”. You know, I’ve been doing the same thing I’m doing now more or less since ’84. Where’ve they been?”
It’s bad enough for him to see labels who turned him down just several years ago for not being marketable now signing on acoustic acts, but he’s equally dismayed with the lack of support he received from his label Okeh/Sony – the record has not been released yet in England, for instance – even as the record was racking up critical laudits. Unsurprisingly, they have parted ways, and he is currently negotiating with another label.
All was not lost, however. ”It was a good experiment, I mean Okeh! I think we were all excited about that Okeh thing, and the historical aspect. I have a ten-inch record with my name on it with an Okeh label on it. So I’ve got that for posterity.”
Likewise, Alvin is somewhat under-whelmed with all of the talk in blues circles about the social significance of young black artists taking up the blues.
”I don’t feel like I really have to talk about it, cause I didn’t miss out on it. I’m a survivalist. I don’t go into this too much, but why is it that Irish musicians can do tradional Irish music, and it’s like hail this and that and Irish traditional music is alive and well, but as soon as I do some traditional music it’s gotta be put under a microscope and everybody’s gotta wonder why.”
In explaining his own attraction to the music he points more to his interest in the guitar and his personal history than any conscious effort to ”preserve” African-American culture.
”I never thought about it on such a grand scale like that. It’s just all I had going for me, because of what I went through as a kid, moving around all the time. I was a new kid in town a lot, and didn’t have a lot of stuff to do, didn’t know a lot of people, so I had a lot of time to practice music, figure out what music I liked.
Me, I’m a student man. This is like college for me, I learned about the 12-string guitar, I learned about the 6-string guitar, I just learned a whole bunch about guitars, how they should sound in relation to the blues of the Depression era, or whatever, and try to make some music that maybe if those guys back then heard it, they would yeah, he’s allright, and they would glad to to know that it’s still going on.”
Gregory Hart spent his first twelve years in the Oakland area, then moved with his family to Los Angeles, Ohio, and Illinois during his teen years, adopting the nickname Alvin from the cartoon series Alvin and the Chipmunks. He first picked up the guitar when he was 14, and although he excelled at baseball and football, being the new kid in town so often resulted in his feeling more at home with garage bands than on the field or in the locker room.
By the time he finished high school in the Chicago area he was already playing both electric and acoustic blues, but was too young to be an active part of the Chicago scene.
”I was deep into it, but I wasn’t going out and seeing music all the time, I was mostly going out and buying records. I probably got my first Yazoo record when I was 18 or 19. I would be the only one who had it. I had friends with a couple Freddie King records, and you’d be playing it, and they’d be like, ’Turn that shit off!’ It’s the same thing everywhere.”
He did manage to check ouf artists like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Magic Slim at clubs like Buddy’s old Checker-board Lounge, as well visit Maxwell Street, where he got his nickname Youngblood from the older players on the scene such as Lucky Lopez and Maxwell St Jimmy.
Shortly after graduating from high school in Chicago Alvin moved out to Los Angeles, where he played in various bands, and occasionally jammed with established bands such as the Mighty Flyers, whose guitarist, Jr Watson, was an early supporter of Alvin.
”When I got out to LA it was pretty hard to get together with the bands, the communities of musicians that were established . I just didn’t get around in the scene, I wasn’t pushy. I was still doin’ what I’m doin now, but also trying to play electric band kind of music. Whatever bands that I would be in, I would still pretty much be doing the rootsy music, doing some Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf, Albert King, some Hank Williams. Just trying to play. I played some cowboy bars in Pomona, roadhouse type of places where you can get away with all sorts of murder. Still there would be these other people I’d play with, Hendrix, Stones stuff like that.”
Turning toward acoustic
In 1985 Alvin sold off all the electric guitars he had collected and began concentrating solely on acoustic music. Herecalls this as a response to his not quite fitting in with the prevailing blues scene.
”Well it was just all those guys in LA dressed up in the sharkskin suits and the sunglasses and the harmonicas. That’s enough to make anyone want to switch over to something. I’d switch over to classical violin if I knew how to read (music). I just didn’t fit in with that crowd in LA. And plus it’s just my per-sonal experience with the blues and the culture and lifestyle and all that stuff. It just seemed like [solo acoustic] was more the way to go. I’m not a real city guy anyways.
Built for comfort
In explaining his preference for flannel shirts and jeans over sharkskin suits, and more generally for the country over the city, Alvin tells me a story about his great grandfather, the father of Big Mama and a source for Alvin’s song-writing.
”My great grandpa, I’m always hearing things about what he said, and what was said to him. And what’s where the title Rest your saddle came from, in my version of Poor boy, long way from home. First of all, he lived to be 100 years old. He was born in 1873, and I was born in 1963. He didn’t know me from any of the other 110 great grandchildren, but we respected him ’cause he was the elder of the family.
Well he was a horseman, and when my mom was a kid he used to have this red and white pinto, and he used to ride it over to their house, and my grandma used to say to him, ’Come on down and rest your saddle. ’ That’s what my mom told me, so that’s kind of where I got the title from.
Anyways, they used to ask him, ’Pappa you want to go to Memphis?’ And he’d tell them, ’Nahh, I don’t like going to Memphis, ’cause folks up there think you’ve got to dress up all the time!’ So it kind of rubbed off on me….. I am a man of comfort”
After spending a couple years in Los Angeles Alvin moved to Mississippi and joined the Coast Guard for what turned out to be a six year stay, serving initially for three years on a boat that cruised the Mississippi River, based out of Natchez, Mississippi.
”Natchez was crazy. You had the actual town, and then down there by the waterfront you had ’Under the hill’. It was where all the criminal activity and debauchery took place. That’s where I hung out, used to have pick up bands down there.” One of the local bands Alvin got to jam with was Hezekiah and the Houserockers, the funky group with a trombone for a bass recorded by David Evans for his Highwater label.
A main task of Alvin’s unit was to cut down trees along the banks of the river that were blocking navigational lights, and he remembers that when they were working near Lousiana’s infamous Angola prison farm, where both Leadbelly and Robert Pete Williams were discovered, ’the prisoners were laughing at us, ’cause they didn’t have to work as hard as we did”.
After spending three years in Mississippi, Alvin went to New York City to electronics school, managing while there to sit in on Sunday night sessions at Dan Lynch’s, where the Holmes Brothers were the house band. In 1991 he was transferred out to the Bay Area, where he worked as an electrical technician. In his free time he hung out in a guitar store in a Berkely where he worked on his guitars, and it was here that he met his wife Heidi, a Swiss gypsy, who shared his passion for playing, building and repairing guitars.
While Alvin’s technical skills on the guitar are the result of twenty years of practice, he credits his research together with Heidi on older guitars, and particularly 12-strings, with helping him to achievethe same sorts of tones found on recordings from 20s and 30s. While Heidi is not an active musician, she and Alvin often jam around the house on material like the Mississippi Sheiks or on gypsy songs from her village.
During his first years in the Bay Area Alvin established a strong reputation among musicians, but only played the occasional show, such as opening for his friend Joe Louis Walker ’s acoustic gigs.
His real breakthrough came a couple years ago when he got a job opening for Taj Mahal for four nights at Oakland’s Yoshi’s blues and jazz club. Aside from getting to know Taj, who Alvin has since played with many times, and who appears on several tracks on Big Mama’s Door, he met his future management at the gig, and soon had a major record deal.
Being a young, African American multi-instrumentalist – he also plays banjo and piano – Alvin knew that comparisons with Taj were going to be inevitable, and suggests that one reason Taj is featured on the record is precisely to highlight his own distinctive talents.
*That’s kind of funny, I knew it was going to happen anyways, so if figured if I get Taj on the record maybe people will get the picture, you know. So I get him on the record, and still they don’t see the difference!’
Likewise, Alvin wants to make clear that while he has great admiration for Taj, his knowledge of Taj goes way back to before he ever began to think about being an acoustic artist himself.
”I’ve been listening to Taj ever since I was ten. My dad’s mother is the one who actually turned me on Taj, because she liked his name. She’d say ”You hear that man there. His name is Taj Mahal!” She had a few records, she’d get ?em from my uncle or my dad. She had the (Booker T & the MG’s) Green Onions LP in her collection. That’s pretty hip considering my grandmother was born in 1904!”
A new king of the 12 string?
Another source of Alvin’s eclecticism, and an artist he points to as perhaps his greatest influence, is Leadbelly. On his album he covers the Leadbelly-associated tunes Gallows Pole and When I was a cowboy, and in concert recently Alvin has been confounding audiences with Leadbelly’s interpretation of Dancin’ with tears in my eyes, a ’romantic love ballad’ originally sung by Rudy Vallee, with a waltz tempo.
Although he’s now building up a good Leadbelly collection on record, his initial exposure was once again through his family.
”I’ve got this brother who’s six years older than me, and he was just always into these cultural things more or less, and he kind of got me into a lot of different stuff. He got me into Hendrix and all that, and he used to get some books or records from the library. He’d say, ”Hey man check this out, this is Leadbelly. blah..blah..blah” I’m like ten or twelve, and I just want to go play with my erector set or something. So I just got used to hearing the name all the time. And he used to tell me the story, he’d read the book and tell me about Leadbelly’s wild west days, back when he was shooting guys up and all this. So then after I got into the music I said, ’let me give this guy a listen’.
I heard his Library of Congress records, I think that’s what kind of did it for me. Some of my favorite of his LOC records is just a capella, and its just nailing me to the ground. I’m saying that is the blues, I don’t care what anybody says. You can play Robert Johnson all night long, I’ll take it off the turntable, throw it out the window, put on Leadbelly doin’ these hollers. That’s the blues. I’ve heard a few things that nailed me to the floor. Lonnie Chatmon playing that fiddle!”
Leadbelly’s reputation within blues circles has been a rather strange one over the past thirty years, largely because of his association with leftist folk music circles and his status as a ”songster” rather than bluesman, but for Alvin the central appeal was for Leadbelly as a a master of the 12-string.
”Well, it’s just because being in the guitar repair and research business, gettin’ real into twelve strings. Twelve string guitars is a big part of my marriage (laughs). So we sit around and say, ’How did he do that, how did he get that sound?’ And we hear something here or there about the way he strung it, the way he tuned it. And doing more and more research, reading books about old 12 string guitars. More or less that whole style is a Mexican thing. It just came up from Mexico and surprisingly got really popular in Georgia. That’s just the big part of it’
The Mexican 12-string connection is something which Alvin is not only theoretically interested in, as evidenced by a portrait on the wall on his home of Lydia Mendoza, the great Tex-Mex guitarist (cf. Mal Hombre Arhoolie CD 7002). And on the record player his broad tastes are revealed as the music he listen to moves from corridas over to Hammie Nixon and the Carter Family.
”I’ve been into country music for 34 years, all my life. It’s all the same to me, pretty much. Living in the Bay Area in the 60s we had a lot of Okies we had to deal with, and my dad being a laborer, building counter tops, he got to be friends with these guys, go hunting and stuff together, and would be listening to Buck Owens, George Jones, stuff like that. So I got really into George Jones, and let’s not forget Charlie Pride. I’m a big fan of Charley Pride, not just because of the music. Charley Pride is from Mississippi himself, lots of people don’t know that, so he knows the ropes, what’s going on.
I just want to hear it played good, white or black. There’s a lot of blues I don’t even like. I’m to the point of Gatemouth Brown, he says ’I don’t play the blues, I play music.’ I might play the blues here for five minutes, but then I might play something else, a Mexican polka.
I’m just trying to play music, call it songster if you want. Like I’m up there with my wife, working on some gypsy song. I don’t know what it’s about, but it sounds pretty sad and bluesy to me.”
Garage band alter ego
While Alvin’s tastes in roots music are broad he makes to effort to hide his continuing interest in the music of his teenage garage band years, such as Zappa, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, though in performance he doesn’t mix the two. And though his early garage bands never went farther than the garage,he recently opened a New Years Show for Hot Tuna at San Francisco’s Fillmore with a new garage band, and also played with one of his favorite groups from his teen years.
”I became an Allman Brother not too long ago. Dickie Betts didn’t show up for a gig in San Francisco, so Warren Haynes went around and he got every other guitar player in the house to sit in. I sat in at the end of the night. We played One way out. Warren played the slide part. The funny thing was that I told him that if you guys had asked to be do this fifteen years ago I could have done the whole show with you, ’cause I knew all their songs from my garage band days.
I don’t really sit in that much. But if the Allman Brothers ask you to sit in, then what are you going to say, ’I don’t know?’ No, you’re gonna sit in.”
He’s also sat in with number of folks in the studio recently, including an acoustic duet he recorded with Vernon Reid (ex Living Colour) for an upcoming Hound Dog Taylor tribute on Alligator, and he shared two tracks on Junior Wells recent album Come on in this house, which paired the veteran harpman with a series of slide guitarists, including Alvin’s friend Corey Harris, John Mooney, Sonny Landreth, Bob Margolin, and Derek Trucks. And in the near future he hopes to apply his newfound notoriety towards landing some recordings for his alter ego, suggesting he’d like to record Zappa’s Uncle Remus for a Zappa tribute album!
The first day I visited Alvin at home in Oakland last March his wife Heidi was expecting a baby within the next days, but she nevertheless followed along when we went out to a local bar to see Rusty Zinn. When I dropped by again a couple days later they were three, with the arrival of his first child, Ruben August Nighthawk Hart. Also at the house were one of his two brothers – the other is in Japan teaching funk bass! – and his parents, who had driven up from Mississippi to see their new grandchild.
When we retired downstairs to his guitar workshop to talk, Alvin once again turned the conversation back to Mississippi, this time thinking as a family man.
”I was talking to my dad today, I’m thinking of moving to Memphis. I’d like to move to Mississippi, but it’s too far from the airport. Just so my kid when he’s growing up can see some of the things which shaped my whole existence. Maybe he can enjoy some of it before it’s totally gone.
Hopefully he can dig on it a little bit, get to understand a little bit about what it was like for me when I went out there for the first time. I was three years old, my grandma was there living in the 19th century. Everybody now has tv sets and satellite dishes and a couple cars, but back then everybody still had a couple horses and mules and a milkcow and outhouses. My grandma didn’t miss indoor plumbing cause she never had it until 1973, and she never had hot running water. When we were there we did things the way she did it. A nice clean life, clean air, spring water.
Most people, they don’t know about that thing, they don’t know that people lived like that in the latter twentieth century, they don’t know that a kid like me experienced any of that stuff, and that if could affect me in such ways.”
Scott Barretta / Jefferson #114
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