Joe Louis Walker is talking to me on the phone, and I find myself a little starstruck and stumbling over my words. His voice reminds me of ice cream melting on a hot summer day—a transient, comforting thing that calls back to my barefoot childhood. There is a timelessness and a sturdiness in him that I find grounding. If any of my professors in college had sounded such or taught me as much as Joe did in 40 minutes, I might have done better in their classes.
I have a list of questions in front me of and two computers and a cellphone and an iPad; this is my digital fort against losing any of the words I am about to hear. I find throughout the interview that I am drawn to a pad of paper and pen—the tactile sensation of pen to paper feels right in the moment, and does not interrupt my rapt attention like the aggressive butterfly keys on my MacBook.
“You’ve been in the blues pretty much…forever,” I start, adding a laugh. “What have you noticed has changed from your, um, early career to now? What’s….different?”
I imagined he’d tell me stories about a time in the past when he’d played as a young man in strange bars and traveled in broken down cars. Maybe he sang something different. Maybe he never changed.
Joe pauses, and asks “Can I quantify that? Do you mean the music scene, or me personally?”
“Honestly, I’d love the hear about both.” I’m gripped by excitement—my musical safe zone is electronic, industrial, dance. Joe has a captive audience in this riverthead wannabe raver.
“For me personally,” he starts, then laughs. “Just to give you an idea—for some reason my bios says I started at 14. I joined the UNION at 14. I been playing professionally since I was about 12. We were in a band or on the drum corp—I been playing music all my life.”
I think back to my father; guitar in hand teaching my the words to Grateful Dead songs and Christmas carols for as long as I can remember and I smile, I feel a kinship with the 12 year old I imagine he was.
Joe continues. “When I was young, just for instance.” He pauses to laugh again; a common punctuation in his speech. “You’d go to a show, Jenny, and you’ve seen monitors. We didn’t have monitors then!We’d plug two of us into one amplifier and we’d use another amp for another instrument—that’d be the microphone.”
He’s right—I can’t think of a single show I’ve seen that didn’t have monitors. Maybe a bluegrass trio out on someone’s lawn, but even then, I can’t envision the scene without the ever present devices.
“So, number one: we didn’t have monitors!” This time we both laugh; his is infectious and genuine. “There was no pedals. You know you see them them with giant pedal boards. There were no pedals! And I didn’t know nobody riding around in a tourbus—maybe King or somebody. There was none of that. Everything was really, really organic.”
He continues, telling me how they practiced in garages in the projects, and that he’d practiced in his aunt’s until she got ‘totally sick of us!’ After that, they practiced in his dad’s basement where his father laid down cement to give them a practice space. He and his cousins joined the union at 14, all on the same day. They found themselves the mascots of a motorcycle club called the Rattlers; going to all their meets and playing from 4pm to 4am some days. “This was our coming of age,” he told me. No somber tones, no wistful lingering. This was the life he chose and he is proud of it to the minute. I admire him; and I admire the 14 year old he describes.
“Things have changes in that you have kids coming up these days with $15,000 worth of musical equipment and tour vans. It’s none of the things you sort of come to the ranks with.” He describes The Beatles sleeping in their cars, driving around in terrible weather. “You wonder why they sound so good. Why they so tight. Well, they eat, sleep, breathe the music. That’s sorta like what it was when I was coming up. And, Jenny, you’d see everybody sorta going through the same thing. You learn how to perform in all types of situations. When you’re hungry. When your dog died. When there’s a death in the family. You learn how to focus on music.”
I’ve seen artists refuse to play when the monitors aren’t working, or the right kind of beer isn’t on stage and I wonder if Joe would look at them and say ‘Boy, just play the song.’ I hope he would.
“It gives you a purpose. A real purpose for playing. We have a saying some of us. Some people play the blues; some of us live the blues. Well, I’ve lived em.” His statement is simple, and deeply powerful. It’s not a boost. There’s no bragging or bravado in his voice. It’s a statement of fact and one that cannot be argued with. He continues. “Every English guy I know when he came over to the United States could not believe how uptight it was. With women’s rights. With racial rights. With civil rights. With people. A segregated audience? What’s that? We play for everybody! But in America, we just sorta got used to that. It makes you proud that people like that were at the top of scene. That was part of my growing up.”
His words give me a bit of a chill as he continues. “You had those guys coming along, shedding that light. It wasn’t just the music. It was a purpose behind it. So I think that to me is a big difference. A lot of young acts now, they look at American Idol and you want to be a musician? No, they say, I want to be famous. If you walked into a room and you said to us that you wanted to be famous, we’d laugh you out of the room. We really would.”
He pauses for a moment, and gains momentum. “You want me to talk about autotune and work my way down?” We both laugh. “Or a show where you copy somebody’s singing and you win the show? And automatically you got a contract? And the you go on tour—and everything on stage got to be absolutely perfect or you can’t sing. Or you sing to a track. ” There’s no distain in his voice, but I think I catch a hint of sadness. “I’ll leave it at this. Could you see Bob Dylan on American Idol?”
I laugh hard enough that I miss his next comment.
“Can you see The Beatles on American Idol? Can you see Jimi Hendrix on American Idol?”
I laugh again.
“Anything to do with individuality or real artistry. Innovators. One thing you can say about the generation I came out of is The Grateful Dead didn’t sound like Jefferson Airplane. Jimi Hendrix did not sound like Led Zepplin. Everybody was looking for their own individuality. Now it’s like—if you have some success you’ll get 900 that sounds like that person. To me that’s a big change. You ask me what I feel is the big difference and that’s two that I know of.”
In ten minutes, I feel that I’ve learned so much about how things have changed in music; things I’d not even realized were different. I feel limited; as if I’ve not seen enough of the world. Certainly, I haven’t seen the world Joe has described to me.
He describes singing the national anthem at the White Sox game and the delay on the monitor of a few seconds—“You have to stomp you feet; keep time,” he tells me. “Iff you don’t, you have no idea where the beat is at. You can play under all circumstances. When something goes wrong, you just have to make the best of it. It’s classic cause everyone played together in a room. Number two, there was no autotune. Number three, there was no sampling. Number four, when the tape breaks and you can just sing it to the beat.” He pauses to let that sink in and I laugh.
“That’s awesome,” I say, acutely aware of how many times I’ve said ‘awesome’ recently. “I feel like I’m learning so much already!”
He laughs. “It’s what musicians talk about. We talk about WHY. You kids…WHY!” It’s punctuated with another kind laugh. He’s not making fun of anyone; he’s examining what he sees and reporting back. I’m not surprised to learn later that he has several college degrees. He has a questioning spirit to him and I treasure it.
I ask him what about modern music inspires him or interests him—“Individuality. The rebels. When somebody comes on like a Kurt Cobain or you know, a Tupac. They play against the system!” He starts to laugh and describes how much he loves the individuality of these acts. “We’re just gonna turn it up and turn it out. You have some of these guys, they slip through. It’s usually fighting the system.”
“Are there still hubs of good, organic music like the ones you grew up around? Does that still exist?”
“Yeah!” There’s an earnest enthusiasm in his voice. “People without recording contracts, just playing honest music all over the world.” This wistful tone creeps in, and I wonder for a moment if he envies them; all the possibilities ahead, all the music they have to put forth. “No one hears them, but they’re out there.”
Joe pauses. “I don’t mean to sound negative—like you can’t use technology—you have to use it some of the times. But there’s the music, then there’s the MUSIC. “ His emphasis is clear. “The music is one thing, okay? The business of creating a musician or an actor, there’s always been that. There’s always been theatrics. There’s always been a show. But…”. He pauses again.
“The music should be able to stand on its own.”
We both pause this time, the words swinging between California and North Carolina like a pendulum. They are heavy and swaying; creating an echoing rhythm in the silence.
“What the biggest impact,” I ask, “on the types of music you play or types of music you want to play?”
“There’s no one easy answer. I guess the best thing that happen to me is that my mother and father both loved music and there were very supportive. My dad playing records for me. My mom playing records for me. Just being in an environment where music and artistic endeavors were encouraged.”
I think I’d love to walk through an art museum with Joe Louis Walker and ask him what he sees in the paintings and sculptures.
“And to be honest—it was one way for us to get out of the projects.”
I’m grounded again by this statement and it takes a moment before I recover to ask “You said music and art—what kind of art?”
He laughs a little. “Writing, painting, things that are connect to the arts and humanities. I have friends who are painters and writers—the same thing that infuses their art, infuses mine. It’s not like any body is a one trick pony. When we all get into a room, we don’t just talk about records. We talk about music and painting and art.. Higher education passes on more than just being a star. More than just being on TV. The power of music is that you can transform people. Music can retain people. The arts can too with he statements you can make.” His earnestness comes across almost like a wave—washing over our conversation with his desire to promote the arts and music. The mixing of the mediums pleases me and I smile.
“It’s all connected, you know?”
And he’s right—the connection is so strong between all the humanities.
“Why are the blues such a constant? Blues and Gosple are just always there.”
I can almost hear the smile before he speaks. “Well, the blues will never go out of style. Just like Shakespeare will never go out of style for the simple reason that as long as people have the human condition. As long as people love each other, people have issues. As long as people have to pay their bills. As long as people have tribulations.” His voice becomes a sing song and I am mesmerized. “Then you can listen to a song—a blues song—and you can say ‘man, that song speaks to me.’ But it doesn’t just speak to you. It speaks to me and to other people. You don’t need a thesaurus to understand a blues song. You might need one to understand a Paul Simon song.—But you don’t need it for a blues song.The same emotions you get in North Carolina are the same emotions someone gets in Belfast, Ireland. In Senegal. In Paris. So if someone speaks that emotion, you’re gonna be speaking to people all round the world. That thing….it reaches everybody. Just like when you come of age and you read Shakespeare. It speaks to the human condition.”
“That’s powerful, real powerful,” I say. “You’re giving me emotions.”
“Everyone will say—if it weren’t for music I’d be….” He hums a few bars. “Dadada, I’d be dead. I wouldn’t have a purpose. So now you got to narrow it down—if it weren’t for WHAT music?”
Another dramatic pause before he continues. “Well, just about to a man or a woman, it’s like this: well, if it wasn’t for blues, I wouldn’t have found rock and roll. If it wasn’t for rock and roll, I wouldn’t have found the Rolling Stones. If it wasn’t for the Rolling Stones, I wouldn’t have found Aerosmith. If it wasn’t for Aerosmith, I wouldn’t have found John Meyers. You know, on and on and on. It crosses every category. Racial, sexual preference, economic, political party…it crosses countries. It just crosses everything. It’s the number one expert that we’ve given the world. It’s music. All these styles of music—rock and roll, jazz, blues—they’re synonymous with freedom. With being able to say what you want to say.. And that’s what it’s about. But you know—freedom ain’t free.
“But this music was vilified,” he continues. “It was made by people who were inconsequential. They said our music didn’t have any social or musical value. That’s the history behind it. We started with nothing—‘don’t let the sun go down on you in this town, boy’. And now we’re here.”
“What’s next for you next? Musically?” I try to find something to follow the powerful statements he’s made to me today and the future seems to be the best place to go.
He tells me he has an acoustic album coming out on Alligator Records and a collection of all his friends next year. He says it’s taken a few years to collect all his friends when they aren’t on tour for the album. Joe describes his tour schedule and I am impressed, but not surprised that he’s in such high demand.
A side note catches my ear—he mentions a memoir and I crave it as much as I crave the show on August 23rd at the Blue Note. He is a man who is full os stories that are ripe to be shared and I tell him I’d buy at least two copies of his book—already imagining perfect Christmas presents.
We end the interview, and I take a deep breath. The emotion of our chat weighs heavily on me and I think yes—this is what he meant when he said the blues are the human condition.