Although blues music predates rocks, rap, hip-hop and other genres, it often takes a backseat when it comes to awards shows, record label deals and audience recognition. Take the recent Grammy telecast as many of the blues artists received their awards prior to the glitzy prime time gala with its many millennial performers.
That’s why with the passing of so many blues pioneers, it becomes increasingly important to keep the music alive for future generations. Blues history and hallowed traditions need to be preserved and protected via scholarship, research and artist recordings.
With over 50 LPS and CDS to his credit, Dr. David H. Evans, Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Memphis has worked with a veritable who’s who of the blues. The artists that he has recorded and/or toured with include Jack Owens, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Roosevelt Holts and others. One of his first musical collaborations was with Al Wilson, who later gained fame with the band, Canned Heat.
Evans continues to tour as both a solo artist, mostly in Europe, and as part of the “Last Chance Jug Band.” He founded this band in 1989 as homage to the jug bands that were prevalent in Memphis in the twenties and thirties. He said that, “We’ve had shifting personnel and four deaths of band members, but we still get out to play about 2 or 3 times locally.”
As might be expected from someone who holds degrees from Harvard and the University of California and has received a Fulbright award, Dr. Evans has also made his mark as a writer. He has penned many seminal books on the blues including “Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues” and is the author of NPR’s “Curious Listeners’ Guide to the Blues.”
Evans also received a Grammy in 2003 for “Best Album Notes” for the CD “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The World of Charley Patton.”
Beginning in the mid-60s, Evans made many field trips to the south to record and research musicians like Jack Owens, of Bentonia, Mississippi. He said that, “I first recorded Jack Owens in 1966 and continued to record him off and on until his death about thirty years later.” Evans also accompanied Owens on two European tours and nominated him for a National Heritage Award, which he won.
One Chicago-based musician, Mississippi Gabe Carter, caught wind of Evans’ work with Owens and contacted the professor via e-mail after Owens had passed. Evans said that, “I encouraged him, but frankly I was skeptical that he would get very far in the music field by basing his music on someone as obscure as Jack. Thankfully I was wrong.”
Evans added that, “I only actually met Gabe about three or four years ago. We were both booked for a show on a boat in the River Seine in Paris. I was very impressed with his charismatic affect on the audience, especially young people. “
Although Evans is no longer doing fieldwork in the southern states, he has found a dynamic music scene in far-flung places like Malawi and Ethiopia. He said that, “I’ve probably got enough Ethiopian material for about 10 CDS.” There will be a single CD release of Ethiopian local and traditional music via the University of Memphis’ High Water record label.
Evans noted that, “I have encountered many very good blues artists in my travels as they’re found all over the world as part of the blues revival movement. “ He added that, “Gabe would be an example of one of the younger “revival” artists, though he’s gone in a gospel direction now – a revival in another sense! Some blues singer-guitarists did that in the old days, like Roebuck Staples, Reverend Gary Davis, Reverend Robert Wilkins” and others.
Evans observed that, “Gabe has a very original style and sound, even more so now that he’s performing largely or exclusively gospel music. His songs are almost all his own creations. The influences are obvious, especially Jack Owens, Robert Pete Williams, Junior Kimbrough, and Cecil Barfield, all of whom were very idiosyncratic as well as great artists. With the exception of Kimbrough, who has many imitators and followers these days, the others are some pretty obscure sources, and I don’t know of any other performers who have been influenced by them and can perform convincingly in their styles. I’ve heard one of two of their pieces done well by recent performers, but none who have actually absorbed their whole approach to music. Gabe has been able to do this. The amazing thing is that he never met or saw any of them. I knew, recorded and interviewed three of the above-mentioned sources of Gabe’s style, so that made me even more enthusiastic to record him.”
The recording session recently came to fruition as Carter made the trip down to Memphis. Evans served as co-producer and advisor alongside producer/engineer/colleague Ben Yonas. The recording will be made available later this year.