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Interview: Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton Talks With Delaney Davidson

Interview: Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton Talks With Delaney Davidson

Delaney Davidson / Wednesday 29th January, 2020 1:15PM

Part man and part myth, Tui award-winning Lyttelton songwriter Delaney Davidson plays throughout Aotearoa in February. He generously leant his time to catch up with internationally acclaimed US bluesman Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton, who returns to our shores next week for an extensive nationwide tour.

Being asked to speak to Jerron “Blind Boy“ Paxton for UTR, I was really excited to have the chance to ask him some questions. As with everything in my life it always goes somewhere I don’t expect it to, so the following transcript is from the half hour conversation we had. He was generous, eloquent, and friendly. We spoke on the nature of music and the ideas of culture in music, Stephen Foster’s musical legacy, as well as a small bit about Jerron’s growing up and time with his grandmother.

Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton - New Zealand Tour 2020

Wednesday 5th February – Hollywood Avondale, Auckland*
Thursday 6th February – Totara Street, Tauranga*
Friday 7th February – The Urban Winery, Ahuriri, Hawke’s Bay*  
Saturday 8th February – St Peter’s on Willis, Wellington*
Monday 10th February – Theatre Royal, Nelson
Tuesday 11th February – The Cook, Dunedin*
Wednesday 12th February – Sherwood, Queenstown*
Friday 14th February – The Piano, Christchurch*
Sunday 16th February 
– St Peter's Hall, Paekakariki*

Tickets available HERE via UTR*


Delaney Davidson

Thursday 6th February - Mission Winery, Napier (w/ Elton John)
Saturday 15th February - Nostalgia Festival, Christchurch (w/ Barry Saunders)
Wednesday 19th February - Globe Theatre, Palmerston North (Ship Of Dreams film show)
Thursday 20th February - St Peter's Hall, Paekakariki* 
Sunday 23rd February - Meow, Wellington*
Wednesday 26th February - Gardens Festival, Hamilton (w/ Barry Saunders)
Thursday 27th February - Gardens Festival, Hamilton (Ship Of Dreams film show)

Tickets available HERE via UTR*


Delaney Davidson: Hey Jerron how are you doing?

Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton: Hanging in there.

I read that you grew up in Watts, an inner city suburb of LA.

I wouldn’t call it a suburb, it’s in the city. It is sho’ nuff in the city of Los Angeles.

How would you describe it?

Same as any other place I’d reckon. Same nice little black neighborhood full of people from the black belt purveying their culture in a place with a lot more freedom then it was when they grew up in. Speaking for my elders of course, who raised me, so you know I grew up in environment conducive to the music I play and culture I represent.

You say your grandmother sang to you, tell us about your grandmother.

She played the role of a grandmother, you know what grandmothers do, they give you the thing that your parents aren’t at a point in their life to give you. They give you wisdom and tradition and things like that and also being a bit beyond your parents, they can direct you in a way that your parents might not. You know, my grandma was the first one to give me some good dirty jokes things like that, beautiful parts of culture that don’t get notated in books and things.

And she sang you songs?

You know she couldn’t help it, it’s how she went about her day.

What sort of songs did she sing you?

You know the standard stuff, lots of blues, there’s a few religious songs now and then some pop songs from the generation of her mother and father which would be the latter part of the 19 century, ongoing to nearly the present day if there was a melody that came out in early 2000 and she liked it she wouldn’t be ashamed to sing it. Ahh unfortunately not too many of those came out at that damn time…


Can you tell us a couple of names of songs she’d sing you from those old latter 19th century days?

She’d sing all the pop songs, all the stuff that I guess in a broad sense of American culture was supposed to represent her culture. You know, ahh the music of Stephen Foster who was a man from Pennsylvania was supposed to represent the music from the south, so much so that the propaganda behind him was so powerful that a person who had never.. ahh ha ha.. actually I don’t think he had ever been to the south in his life, came to represent so much of southern culture and black culture in his music.

Do you think there is sometimes a benefit to having a distance from a subject, that you can see it and present it in a way that is easier for people to understand? Jimmie Rodgers for example was a poor guy trying to sing about the high life. People are always after what they don’t have. Somehow they see that as desirable or because it's not inherently theirs they can fall in love with it somehow. What do you think of that?

I don’t get quite what you are asking me buddy.

I guess Stephen Foster being a white man and singing about the southern thing and in a way becoming a voice for that life. I guess I am asking that because like you say he wasn’t from the south or even went there. Do you think perhaps that people who come from one place can see another place and because they have that distance from it they can present it in a way that people who were from there might never do or might never try. I’m sorry it’s not really a clear question. Is it?

[Laughs] ha ha no I still don’t get what yer asking me...

What do you think music is here to do in the world?

Music is as natural as anything else you know, things in nature make music. If humans are supposed to be the grand elevated parts of this planet that hold the reins to everything and you create and destroy an s on, if were so much far beyond the animals, you’d think our music would be of a similar ilk, and I do find that to be true. You know, while the birds have their songs and the whales have their songs and they are all beautiful, the music that comes out of human nature is so powerful that it could affect other humans of other languages and cultures and bring em to any emotion that a composer with ability can bring out of music. People can feel it across all sorts of barriers, so I think continuing that and playing music with that in mind will help me create, will help folks in general create some good music.


Would you say music is about connection in that way, about overcoming barriers and reaching out to join people up together somehow

No no no that’s the by-product, the purpose of music makin' music is natural. That’s like asking what the purpose of nature is...

Ahh ok. I mean in nature we see its used as a warning, its used as a seduction or its made as some kind of a territorial drawing out of the space somehow, we see this a lot with animals, whether they are growling whether they are singing whether whether they go to make noise in music that’s kind of what they are doing.

Mmm.. What you saying..?

Oh I’m talking about if you are asking “What is Nature” it reduces down to those things. Reproduction of the life force, and for that you need seduction and you need defence of territory.

Well it seems in this animalistic nature, music functions as a way to communicate. That is true for what humans do with music, but we are supposedly far and beyond above animals, so we do more than just communicate, we speak in terms of language compared to an animal. An animal might see us as using language as music, but what we call music has a much bigger force than that warning seduction or anything like that. I play music sometimes that’s seductive, but seductive is just a by-product of that music, the music that wants to be labelled as seductive reaches all sorts of different parts of a persons emotions and innermost desires. It's not just about I’m the strongest male in town blah blah blah, it’s like, yeah I’m a strong virile man but I can sing and I can play the guitar. Without saying a word about these other two things, I can non-verbally communicate these things and attract you to me...


We also use music for communication of historical stuff, singing blood lines through songs, or having an oral history that we would build into a song so that we can remember it and pass that information as time goes on.

No I wouldn’t quite say that, I would say it functions to the same nature as the animals song but it goes beyond that, animals don’t connect to each other so much emotionally through as humans do, you know? A human can listen to Beethoven and cry, several humans can do that...


Do you think there are any examples of animals using music for soothing the soul? Or do you think it’s mainly a natural thing they use for functional reasons. Do you think that’s what separates humans, that we try to pull the spirit of our culture into our music? And we have it just for beauty reasons or artistic reasons.

I think that pulling culture into music on purpose is a modern problem that corresponds from lack of much musical education nowadays, back when musical literacy was up and it was pretty inconceivable to make bad music in a public place.

How do I say this… you didn’t have to draw culture into music, your culture came out of your music, which is why the music of Stephen Foster, and there are other examples of songs that come from lets say the north, and come to be sung by people from the south, and so convincingly, that people believe it.. you forget, if you’re not up on your history, you forget that it’s not actually part of this culture, but people’s natural culture tends to come out in whatever they sing. When I play Celtic music, I don’t try to make it sound black. Me making it sound like a black man playing it is actually an accident, it's actually something if I get deep into the music I have to try to correct. Because unconsciously I am adding bits of my culture in there and I can't but help that and it’s a natural process. I don’t try to add things, but nowadays you see people who force things like that into their music, saying “I want to make some Irish that sounds black” say. But you’re French and you’re from Missouri, you probably shouldn’t do that.

Yeah, there are some big questions and there are a lot of cultural appropriation questions. I see music like a liquid, it flows around and you don’t know where it's going to go so its hard to control it in that way.

On another tack what was your process with learning music?

Same as anyone, you sit down and you practice.

Well not a lot of people do that... a lot of people watch YouTube tutorials.

Well not a lot of people use wash cloths but that don’t make no difference to me does it?

So describing your own personal process with music what was the first instrument you picked up?

Violin.

Okay violin, how old were you when you picked up the violin?

12.

Okay what did you start after that?

Banjo.

How old were you when you started the banjo?

About 13 or 14.

Ok what age did the guitar make it into your hands?

About 16.

Piano?

18.

Was singing something you’d always done as a child? Did it feel like a natural thing?

I you know like I said I grew up in the black community in Watts, in South Central, so singing is a part of your culture. You do it all the time, you know we did it in school. We’d have to sing every morning in school, the American national anthem, the black national anthem, some old camp meeting songs and some of the pop songs that was popular songs for kids in those days.


What are your thoughts on New Zealand, how does it feel to come over to New Zealand and play?

Kind of fun, it’s a beautiful place. I find a lot of places you go the audiences vary ever so slightly, you get the audience that’s real open or you get an audience that’s real conservative and strict and that varies from country to country. I think that the thing that the New Zealand audience has is this natural warmth and appreciation for music, and I honestly don’t know where that comes from. I just know every time I go over there and I play in front of people and they really appreciate it and really make you feel welcome, you know they thank you for coming out... I don’t know what, I almost get the feeling you don’t get much music down there, because people make me feel like I’m doing something so special. Maybe it's because I’m used to it, I grew up like this I grew up listening and playing this music, it's an everyday process. I think the only difference between me on stage and me at my house is the addition of subtraction of pants, so it's not a performance... It’s not a very different world for me, and playing these songs, but some folks have never heard ‘em, they have never heard the culture that goes behind them, it’s a little bit out of reference for ‘em. People... I don’t know... I can’t quite describe it but your audience really appreciates what I’m putting down for some reason…


I am over the word count so I’ll cut the conversation short here. We spoke also of the 1980’s and touring in Alabama with Chubby Checker, we revisited the question of Stephen Foster that I hadn’t managed earlier in the conversation and the idea of music as propaganda, we spoke of puppet shows with the song that never ends, and also touched on the way music from a speaker affects you cannot compare to the energetic and spiritual presence of music played on “the vibration of strings comin out of well built instruments”.

If you haven’t seen Blind Boy Paxton before I recommend you run walk crawl and claw your way to getting yourself a ticket. Open a doorway to a different world. See the real thing. DELANEY DAVIDSON

Links
blindboypaxton.net/
delaneydavidson.com/

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Thu 20th Feb
St Peter's Hall, Paekakariki
Sun 23rd Feb
Meow, Wellington







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