Blues Behind Bars
Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Chronogram Magazine 7/05
Ear Whacks by Sharon Nichols
Blues Behind Bars
While sifting through all the Viagra ads, porno offers, jokes, and teddy bear hugs that deluge your mailbox on a daily basis, you may have seen this one–the widely circulated, villainous e-mail explaining the fundamental rules of blues music. One of these rules involves location. For example, you cannot write about or sing the blues in an office or shopping mall because the lighting is wrong; you should go out to the parking lot and sit by the trash bin. You also cannot sing the blues at an ashram, golf course, or gallery opening. A good place for the blues would be a highway, a jailhouse, an empty bed, or the bottom of a whisky glass. If this is true, the Delmark Goldfarb certainly qualifies as a bluesman, for he once sang the blues in a fitting place–a jailhouse. And even more fitting, it was in Memphis.
“The actual charge was attempt to commit a felony,” he says. “I was with a whole bunch of Marines. We were crazy, we were always getting messed up, doing stupid things, if you can imagine that. Can you imagine that? I’m just saying that it’s not that tough.”
Goldfarb was 22 when they locked him up for a year. He’d been drafted in 1971, but instead of being sent to Vietnam, he was sent from his hometown Buffalo to a base just outside of Memphis. Once he landed in prison, he found himself in danger, the only white man in a predominantly black Memphis jail.
It was Goldfarb’s musical background that saved him. He’d started on the banjo at age 13–he bought it with his bar mitzvah money. He loved that Beverly Hillbillies sound, but found he couldn’t express himself fully on banjo. He started playing guitar and got heavily into bluegrass, jug band, and folk. So, when he heard that someone was looking for a piano player in the slammer, he jumped on it.
“It was O.V. Wright,” says Goldfarb. “I’d never heard of him before, but when he came into jail, everybody was hollering. I thought they were joking, but he turned out to be this famous guy who was a big influence on guys like Robert Cray, a big soul writer like Otis Redding. One day he said, “I wish I had a piano player,” and there was a piano out there for [church] services, and I said , ‘I can play the piano.’ So, I sat down and started playing, and O.V. started singing, and these guys all started dancing. Because I was with O.V., I was okay with everybody. I was they guy! It saved my life.”
Goldfarb looks back at his short prison term as a rebirth, a chance to start over. “One thing I always wonder . . . as you get older and you achieve a voice, what is it you have to say? I’ve listened to a lot of albums and it’s ‘woman done me wrong, woman done me wrong, bad luck blues, woman done me wrong.’ I hear that over and over again, thematically. Well, once you’ve been locked up and you get your freedom back, all you really wanna do is walk on the sidewalk, go to the grocery store, pick out something, but it, and take it home. You just don’t understand the pleasures of that and how good that feels. Well, that’s in my music a lot. It’s the basic stuff, little bitty things.”
These simple freedoms are expressed on Goldfarb’s new CD, Up to My Neck. He’s joined by a handful of musicians, including Woodstock’s John Sebastian on harmonica and jug band master Fritz Richmond on jug and washtub bass. Goldfarb provides acoustic guitar and a growling vox with nuances sometimes of gravelly Tom Waits. On the infectiously upbeat “Got Something Good With Her,” he expressed the simple joy of having someone fix him a meal, in this case “my baby.” He explains: “It’s not rainbows or pots of gold, but when I need a snack, she fixes me one, you know? What a nice thing.”
“Somebody’s Got The Blues” is a pensive tune about the pain and agony of boredom. “Portable Man,” which has already been covered by soul singer Curtis Salgado, is about homelessness. Goldfarb explains his own past as a portable man: “My daughter asked me about these guys sleeping in the park, and I said there’s nothing wrong with sleeping in the park. It’s only bad if you can’t stop when you wanna stop. Sleeping in the park itself is not that bad., I’ve done it. But instead of calling them homeless, which is sorta negative, they’re portable. I’ve been there, it’s real easy to become that way.”
The calypso-blues “Shoot the Angels Down” which is currently receiving airplay on both folk and blues stations, is about the human cost of the arms race. (“Build a rocket to the heavens/ wonder what this modern magic is going to do to the neighborhood?”) Goldfarb’s latest project is sending copies of this single to political leaders. “I’ve always been really pissed about Star Wars ever since it came down. In the ’60s, I saw the creation of a lot of good things, like medical clinics and arts programs, and then to see all the good stuff of our culture, the stuff we’re really proud of, getting cut left and right, for weapons, it really pissed me off.”
Goldfarb admits that blues music has always been political. “They’ve always been writing about the man, they’ve always been writing about the sheriff. It’s been music based on racism, but it’s a good way to get your anger out. If you’ve got kids and they don’t have a music program anymore . . . no music programs in the schools? I wasn’t self-taught . . .I had music classes! I took chorus! I’s hard for us to imagine what schools are like these days without all the arts and cultural stuff that we had. All for weapons! All for weapons!”
The photo on the cover of Up to My Neck is a disturbing play on the album title. It’s the back of a man’s neck, and climbing up the spins is a huge scar with black stitches. What isn’t apparent is who the man is. It’s the musician, who was struck with stenosis–an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal–right in the middle of recording two years ago. It was another prison for Goldfarb, and another chance to be reborn.
“My hands stopped working, I became paralyzed in my hands and legs and couldn’t make music at all. It became worse and worse. I had a constriction in my neck and spine. Mine was congenital, but you can cause yourself the same sort of problem by scrunching yourself up to play guitar or violin. It can come from sitting with bad posture. ” Goldfarb used pre-illness recordings–some of them going back 20 years–to create the nine-song, 26-minute CD. Two years after the operation and a great deal of physical therapy, he’s taught himself to play again. And he says he plays even better than before.
“Just like the jailhouse, it was a rebirth. To appreciate having your hands, putting on your shoes. I had as close a call at being a wheelchair person as you can get. A little bit of jail is good for everybody. The point I learned was that music, any type of music, makes the bad times better. No matter how bad they are, music can make it better. I feel really fortunate that every day I can just get outside. The sun feels so good, you know?”
Over the years, and between prisons, Goldfarb explored various music collaborations, taught music classes, and even created exhibits at the Memphis Blues Museum and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Today he’s living in Oregon, where he became a major force in fundraising after funding the mammoth Waterfront Blues Festival in 1987, which has raised millions of dollars and collected tons of food for the Oregon Food Bank. Now he’s headed back East for a few shows, one at the Rosendale Café, 434 Main Street, on Saturday, July 16, at 9 pm ($10). And he promises much more than 26 minutesof music.
Though John Sebastian dubbed Delmark Goldfarb “the best new writer of good-time music,” we know through the artist’s voice that sometimes the good must rise from the bad. “It’s all good stuff,” he says.