By Aaron Porter
There are few musicians that you can decidedly say need no introduction. Billy Branch is one of them. Branch is a 42 year veteran of the Blues, and one of the longest standing members of the Blues in Schools program. Branch also has a healthy collection of other accolades that adorn his already impressive mantle. He has appeared on over 150 recordings, 12 under his own name (impressive for someone twice his age), received 3 grammy nominations, multiple W.C. Handy award winnings, the list goes on. So, without further ado, the not so elder, elder Blues statesmen…
Bluesletter: You have a degree in political science – has that degree ever had an influence on your music?
Billy Branch: That’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t say the degree itself, but I’m heavily interested in politics, and I follow politics fairly closely. My goal is to release a recording with what you might call some politically themed songs.
BL: I understand. Thoughtful?
[pullquote]Yeah, and I’m in no sense a purist trying to tell people what to play or not play, but at some point the integrity of the music needs to be kept intact on some level.[/pullquote]
BB: Right, kind of a social commentary.
BL: When you see the kids of BITS – Blues In The Schools perform, what kind of thoughts or feelings does that give you?
BB: It’s a very warm, inspirational feeling to watch the children that you’ve taught. I’ve still got former children from my very first residency (in 1978) that have managed to reach out and stay in touch with me. At times, it’s actually almost moved me to tears, because in many incidences those kids have overcome so many obstacles from their home and school environment. They weren’t all necessarily scholastically the best kids or the most disciplined, and in many incidences we had exactly the opposite. Some were deemed the worst students in school by their teachers, but they became my best students, and some of the best examples of young musicians.
BL: A lot of those interviews focused on the Blues music aspect of the Blues in the Schools, which is obvious, but it seems to me that with you and the other artists that are participating, it’s also a tremendous personal opportunity for these kids to learn life lessons.
BB: It definitely is. Like I said, I don’t know how many kids I’ve had the opportunity to teach, but it’s been quite a few thousand. I’m one of the first people to do this and probably the one who’s been doing it the longest. I’ve done it all over the world, and I’m pretty sure we’re kind of unique in the sense that we’re the only ones that have done it with a whole band traveling to remote locations for as long as 5 weeks. We’ve done this numerous times.
BL: Speaking of the whole band, you’re speaking of the Sons of Blues, correct?
BL: You guys have been together for so long now…it’s been 35 years?
BB: Well the original Sons of Blues was formed in 1977, so you’re right!
BL: How important was having the Sons of Blues, professionally and personally speaking, staying together and working together throughout these years?
BB: Looking back, it was probably more important than we realized. In the beginning we just wanted to play, which we still do. We look around and you can see somewhat of an historical significance in what we did. In other words, we always played the traditional Chicago blues with an eye on the future – with a contemporary edge, and we still do that. It could possibly be deemed more important now because as I talk with different musicians around town, the consensus is that there are really not a lot of bands playing what we’d call traditional blues anymore.
BL: Right. I remember hearing you say that there was a certain amount of commercialism that had come into the industry that may or may not have been good for it.
BB: Right, there’s a trend and you can’t stop trends. Part of that is because…look at the age of the players and look at where they’re coming from. Some of it is good. I’m pretty open minded, but sometimes bands calling themselves blues bands – they’re so far from what we used to call blues that it’s almost like a misnomer.
BL: Sure, I know what you mean. A lot of stuff is being passed off as blues.
BB: Yeah, and I’m in no sense a purist trying to tell people what to play or not play, but at some point the integrity of the music needs to be kept intact on some level.
BL: Absolutely. It’s definitely important to remember where it came from and pay tribute to those people.
BL: I think I remember reading that even though you weren’t playing the harmonica when you were younger, you had one?
BB: I was playing it, but I didn’t play blues.
BL: Do you still have that harmonica?
BB: That particular one, no man. Heck no! Even then I would play a harmonica until it would wear out then I’d just buy another one. It was a folk style harmonica, I think. It cost about a dollar.
BL: Very cool! Would you say that today’s talent is equal to, less than, better than or just kind of different from the past?
BB: Man, that’s an thoughtful question. I was kind of raised – at least music-wise, with the opportunity to be around so many greats like Big Walter, Junior, Cotton, Sunnyland, Floyd Jones, Johnny Little John and Eddie Taylor – hundreds and hundreds of guys. In that respect, I’d have to say no, that they’re not (better than). These guys were second generation, they were the real deal. They had such incredible, unique style and they were so accomplished. Even if you talk about people like Son House who was one of the fathers of Mississippi Delta (Blues), he was still around. Unfortunately, I never got to see him perform live; and people like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee…I mean, there are guys that musically may be able to play more scales. Again, not to diminish what anyone else is doing, and if you want to take it to the ultimate, like Little Walter or Sonny Boy Williamson, those guys were the cream of the crop. It just didn’t get any better than that. They were a product of an era that I don’t believe we’ll ever see again.
BL: I have to mention about your birthday – I remember you saying that you don’t like to give away your age because you like to keep a little mystery.
BL: The thing about blues musicians I’ve noticed is that they age slower than other people, because you’re only 26, right?
BB: Haha – yeah you’ve got some of the guys like Jimmy Johnson or Eddie C. Campbell – you know, you wonder how they do it.
[pullquote] It’s one thing to get up and jam, but when it’s really happening is when there’s that spontaneous magic, and you’re going places that you couldn’t map out..[/pullquote]
BL: It’s just incredible to me – just the constant touring…I’m amazed by all of you guys. The way that you’re able to take something that you love and just keep going with it, and how you bring the music to a lot of people who honestly, really need it.
BB: Yeah, I don’t know if they need it, but you’re right. A lot of times we kind of underestimate what we do, because people certainly do get a lot of joy out of it. It’s really amazing, given the underground status of the blues, that we’re actually able to reach so many people. The blues exists without any mainstream exposure whatsoever. It’s rarely seen on television. But now you’ve got internet radio stations and you’ve got satellite. So, the blues does have some regular format, but nothing like most of the music that you hear.
BL: Which is unfortunate to me because I am a fan of the blues. I enjoy the music, and I see a lot of possibilities for it in the future. Strangely enough, technology is definitely an outlet for it that I think can help.
BL: With the loss of so many really wonderful and important players over the last few years, does it ever give you pause as to your own career or role in the blues?
BB: Well, a lot of times people will say things like, “you’ve got to keep it going, because all these guys are gone.” Like when Junior Wells passed and Carey Bell it was like, “hey man, now it’s on you.”
BL: Yes, I must have seen at least 5 or 6 times where people referred to you as an “Elder Statesman.”
BB: Yeah, check it out – haha.
BL: I’m not sure how complimentary that is…
BB: I went from the “New Generation” to the “Elder Statesman” in the blink of an eye.
BL: I think it’s really quite incredible. Talent-wise, I absolutely agree, but as far as what springs to mind when that kind of moniker is used, I guess…
[pullquote] The (blues) is arguably Chicago’s greatest gift to the world. [/pullquote]
BB: Right, but I understand it. I don’t take offense with it. In some sense, like you said, the blues guys seem to age slower; but in another sense, a lot of times their lives are cut short. It happened to quite a few. Look at Junior Wells, Lefty Dizz or Big Walter. But people like Pinetop certainly led a very full life. A lot of these guys pass away in their 50’s or 60’s which is still relatively young.
BL: It’s just heartbreaking, honestly.
BB: Oh, it is man. You know when we all started out we were getting out of our teenage years and in our early 20’s. We were just reflecting and had a conversation about how fortunate we were to have had all that time around these great guys that are all gone. At the time, you don’t think of it as really studying, but we were studying. You’re soaking it in. I listen to my recordings and I could tell who I was hanging around with the most during that time, depending on who I sounded like.
BL: Right, cool. What is the best blues moment you’ve experienced in the last year?
BB: Hmm…one of them was Mavis Staples coming up and singing, “I’ll Take
You There” with the band on my birthday.
BL: That is pretty great.
BB: Haha, yeah that’s pretty great. A lot of times when Ronnie Brooks comes down we have some incredible, spontaneous, magical things happen. I’ll say as recent as last Saturday at The Mines when I was playing, Carlos Johnson came over and you know, there are certain guys you can play with and there’s a certain kind of magic that happens. You can’t rehearse for it, it’s just…I dare say, mesmerizing. Sometimes I can’t believe it. I’m like, are we actually playing this? So those are several moments that come to mind. It’s one thing to get up and jam, but when it’s really happening is when there’s that spontaneous magic, and you’re going places that you couldn’t map out and you couldn’t rehearse for – it just happens.
BL: Yes, and that’s kind of the feeling of why you got into playing the blues – for that feeling, that magic.
BB: Yeah, I guess you could put it like that. There were a variety of reasons I got into blues but ultimately, that’s one of the true rewards of doing it.
BL: What do you feel is one of the biggest obstacles facing the blues community today?
BB: The number one (obstacle) is what everyone’s facing of course, the economics – the money. You know, that’s the biggest one. It’s a struggle in many instances just to keep afloat and survive. A lot of guys I know who are professional musicians also have to maintain full-time jobs. One of the other ones is that the blues is still relegated to somewhat of an underground status, so it’s harder to compete in the big music picture.
[pullquote]When you go down to New Orleans, it’s the food and the music. The city (Chicago) should be taking that approach with the blues. I think it would benefit everyone immensely[/pullquote]
BL: Yeah, no matter how hard people seem to try, there just doesn’t seem to be that much exposure of the blues to new audiences. Whether that be because of the larger corporations not believing in it or what have you.
BB: Yeah, and I think on some level, like you say with technology, the blues is enjoying more exposure through Youtube and internet downloading. The (blues) is arguably Chicago’s greatest gift to the world.
BB: And it [Chicago] has yet, in an official capacity, to embrace it and promote it as such. I mean, this is the music that caused the creation of groups like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley. I mean, the “King of Rock-n-Roll” whose name is known globally. Just to celebrate that this is the roots of American music, and the biggest explosion took place right here in Chicago. This is where it (the blues) exploded. Of course it came from the south, but this is where it came together. This is where it gave birth to all these other great groups. They all came from here. You know, as soon as you get off the plane here, there needs to be a blues band or blues posters or something.
BB: Like in Memphis, they talk about Elvis Presley at Sun Records and B.B. King. When you go down to New Orleans, it’s the food and the music. The city (Chicago) should be taking that approach with the blues. I think it would benefit everyone immensely – the musicians, the fans, and it would be great for tourism.
BL: I think there is a tremendous amount of untapped potential for the city promoting the blues.
BB: Yeah, the Chicago Blues Fest draws more people than any of the fests.
BL: You once said that you felt it was your destiny to play the blues. Was there more to it than that? Did you feel that not just to play the blues but also to teach and inspire others to play the blues as well?
BB: Looking back, that’s what it seems like now. I came into the blues in an unorthodox way, which is what folks from my generation did as well. I think I unconsciously felt that this needed to be shared with as many people and on as many levels as possible – hence, the Blues in the Schools. Again, I’ve got dozens and dozens of stories that would bring tears to your eyes. People are under the impression that younger folks don’t really like the blues, but they don’t like it because they don’t know it, but if you show them a way to relate it, if they understand that the blues is just a fact of life – I can even have the homework blues.
BL: Exactly, and that’s one of the things that I like about the blues is that besides being that universal music style, it is so relatable.
BB: Yes, it is the most universal music. That’s another case for why it deserves more exposure. You know, not everyone can relate to heavy metal or hard rock or even jazz, classical or country. But, you’ve got people who are fans of all those different genres. The blues is a common denominator because everybody has it.
BL: Absolutely. There is comfort in knowing there are people out there who share that.
BB: Yeah, knowing that you’re not alone.