The still, small voice sounding against the roar
Review: Eric Bibb, Ridin’, Repute Records
The legendary Eric Bibb grew up in New York and is a long-time resident of Sweden, but his roots are in delta blues. With his finger-picked acoustic guitar and smooth voice, his gospel-inflected blues is gentle and melodic, a little more like Lyle Lovett and John Mayer than Lightnin’ Hopkins (though he can dig a deep groove live). Sometimes it’s a little like jazz. Rindin’ contains elements of the world music that has popped up on other albums, most noticeably his 2012 album Brothers in Bamako, made with Habib Koite, who appears here. Even so, there’s a slow, rocking force, a gentle relentlessness, which parallels his view of the world.
It’s the opposite of much pop – less about seizing the moment and more about taking a longer view, cultivating gratitude and perspective. This is not to say that Bibb only dwells on the bright side. Much of his music is preoccupied with the long legacy of American racism, soaked with the history and mythology of the Deep South.
Despite the photograph of a horse on the album cover, the title track takes its inspiration more from the train metaphors of black America – freedom trains and underground railroads. Musically, it’s like his songs ‘With My Maker I am One’ and ‘In My Father’s House’, forceful blues stomps. ‘Hold the Line’ has a metaphor that might sit against journeying metaphors, and he sings of the unhelpfulness of military metaphors (whether we are ‘fighting’ racism or climate change) but it responds to recent feelings of a world on edge. The bittersweet ‘500 Miles’, with slow banjo and raspy violin, is about the weariness involved in journeying and the longing to be home, much like the most famous speeches of King.
‘The Ballad of John Howard Griffin’ is the extraordinary story of the white Texan journalist and friend of Thomas Merton, who with a doctor’s help darkened his skin to pass off as black and travelled through the Deep South to experience and report on racism, a ‘crazy’ but brave idea, according to Bibb.
‘Tulsa Town’ is about the Tulsa race riots of 1921, when more than a hundred black people were killed and hundreds of homes and businesses were burned down, and which, typically, was deliberately left out of American history books. This, of course, is a more prominent example of many incidents building on the great American stain of slavery and racism, on which Bibb has written before. ‘Call Me by My Name’ addresses the sad, demeaning tradition of calling a black man ‘boy’. Overall, there is a sense of ongoing struggle underpinned by the extraordinary message of Martin Luther King.
‘Family’ and ‘People You Love’ tend towards the territory of 2021’s lovely, affirming ‘Along the Way’. ‘People You Love’ may seem a bit sentimental, but it fits an overall perspective of individuals sitting within family and community history, carrying forward love against the odds and being thankful for good things. In the song ‘Joybells’, the lyrics ‘Joybells keep ringing in my head’ make a recurring refrain while other lyrics dwell on the history of lynchings. It’s the still, small voice somehow sounding against the roar of a chaotic, fractured, hateful world.