Interview: In Approbation of Ben Prestage
You come from a musical family – both sides of the coin. Can you share some info about that background? What would young Ben listen to as a child, and then when you started to develop your ‘own’ sensibilities where did they take you?
BP: My great grand mother she was a touring Vaudeville musician, they toured as the Sophie Cherokee Girls they would dress in Native American Costumes and do dancing gigs, I actually have an old business card from her. Their biggest tours (name wise) was performing with Al Jolson.
BP: My grand-ma played ‘boogie-woogie’ piano, my mom played some piano but she worked so it was limited though I did hear her play occasionally.
Now my dad’s side of the family is how I got the Blues side. My Grand-dad was a share cropper in Mississippi, mostly growing sweet potatoes. Played a little guitar as did my dad. When I was thirteen or fourteen I started picking up some guitar chords.
Was that your first instrument, the guitar?
BP: No actually when I was in school, maybe ten years old in music class they made me play the trumpet. Then started teaching myself guitar based on what my dad had shown me, and being from Mississippi we listened to the blues in the house so it progressed from there.
I am experiencing my own ‘Jug Band’ renaissance of late, on your latest release “One Crow Murder” you feature songs by Jesse Fuller, and Dewey Corley two artists who seem linked to your musical journey.
BP: Dewey played with the Memphis Jug Band with Will Shade, then started his own jug band, The Beale Street Jug Band. They played together almost thirty years, strange fact is that Dewey was the last surviving member of both of these bands, unfortunately there is not a lot of recorded material from either of them.
What would you consider your major musical influences?
BP: While the jug bands had some influence as did one man bands, like Jesse Fuller, it was more the Mississippi Blues that was my main influence. Such Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Bukka White. On one of my earlier releases I did some jug music and we even did gigs as such, but I have a lot of influences, mostly any kind of American Roots Music.
I must say I enjoyed your linear notes on the release. Where you gave the history of some of the artists that went before us that you chose to cover. It seems that we are getting back into that type of thing – like when we used to have albums – information that is both informative and intriguing.
BP: I think that is a really important part of this music, the history. Without that history we lose where we came from. Blues is the history of Rock & Roll, Hip-Hop, Jug Band music. I want to inform people on the history but at the same time I don’t want the music to sound historical – I want I to be relative to today’s listeners, and relate it to their modern day lives.
I want to have my own voice, but want to draw younger people into it. I’ve done shows with punk-rock and heavy metal bands playing the same music and the basic difference is that I turn my amps up. My between song dialogue changes from type of show. But it’s great to bringing newer audiences into the fold, and have them digging it.
So you don’t do covers of Zep’s ‘Black Dog’ for them ?
BP: Well I play a diddly bow – and I will do Primus covers on that and then roll into one man band straight blues songs. It all depends on the venue and show crowd. But as we said it’s great for bringing the young kids into the Blues, they love it. The deal is that if they like heavy metal and they hear some of what I am doing they will dig it and then we can have a dialogue about the music. They might say their bands are so hard core and I show them that R.L. Burnside and Howlin’ Wolf was way more hard core than any of these bands.
That’ so cool, and so very important – to have that available for the new generation, otherwise we grow old and die as a viable art form. I see the non-acceptance of hip-hop or rap as a missed opportunity to educate and involve a whole generation in American Roots Music.
BP: I feel the same way. I think hip-hop is a great art form, now I’m from the country so I never got into it so much – but I do appreciate the talent that goes into it. I think sometimes the ‘establishment’ feels someone is too country or too rock, but it’s the audience that matters. I, personally, am happy with where I am musically, and the same ‘establishment’ has been very helpful through the years. I may be thought of as not being enough of a traditional blues artist, but that’s OK, I do some but not all traditional blues. I have been to some blues shows where hardcore fans are yawning after four hours of straight traditional blues, even the people who love it.
One thing I like to bring up to the ‘traditionalists’ is to look at Muddy Waters who is basically the epitome of the blues, and listen to how he changed in his own lifetime from acoustic to electric. Howlin’ Wolf is the same thing. We aren’t even taking into account the difference between Wolf and Muddy’s predecessors Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, the music is so different. One might say it’s not even the same music but it is. We need to apply that same linear thinking to my music in relation to Howlin’ Wolf etc.
OK so I gotta ask ya, 100 years of Robert Johnson he is everywhere, I think if Frank Sinatra was alive he’d be releasing his tribute album of RJ covers. Not even a mention on yours….talk to me about that.
BP: I’ve done Robert Johnson covers before, and I do some in my shows. I don’t cover a guy because they are popular, but nor do I cover them because they are unpopular. I have to like the song to cover it. I have had people mention that I should cover this song or that song, but when I listen to it if it doesn’t connect with me I won’t cover it. I may include it in my repertoire but I only record songs that I have a strong feeling for.
So what led you to ‘One Crow Murder’ the title. That caught my eye immediately. There is a book called ‘An Exaltation of Larks’ by James Lipton wherein he provides us with a reference to all of these ‘nouns of multitudes’. How did you come up with the title?
BP: I had always heard that a group of crows is called a murder. That is such a strong word and for it to have another meaning just intrigued me. Now the title of the album came from the song I wrote. A group of crows is a murder and I do everything by myself so I am that group – originally I was thinking of a one wolf pack – it all evolved from there.
To pursue ‘One Crow Murder’ the release, it is a wonderful audio painting of all facets of American life. But it is also, to me, a chapter in the life of Ben Prestage as he stands before us today. Where you have been, how you got there and in all – I must tell ya – the title song is a wonderful self-descriptive song that ends with you thanking all of us (fan’s and I believe everyone whom you have contacted) because without us there would not be Ben as he is today. Please continue with the story if you will.
BP: When people see my show they say how I do everything by myself, but there are so many other people behind me involved at many levels. Nobody goes through life without somebody that influences them.
Absolutely, it’s the old adage of American culture ‘being a self-made man’ but metaphysically it is impossible to be such.
BP: That’s what the last line of the song is about, both me personally thanking everybody, and in the abstract way, about people in general how no mater where you think you are in life – whether good or bad – you got there because of other people decisions or actions we are all connected and all influence each other.
Man this is getting deep, sort of like your songwriting, if I might just touch upon One Crow Murder, the song, again. More specifically the line where you rhyme autonomous with synonymous…dude come on!
BP: It’s almost like a hip-hop phrasing. There are guys who use that kind of intelligent writing, you wont hear them on the radio but it’s out there. That works ! You can say a lot more with that type of writing than if you write just another damn love song. That’s one thing you won’t find on my releases is a love song – unless it’s got a murder or something involved.
Yes like the Ballad of Ray and Ruby, which we won’t get into here, The existing coterie knows about it and we need other people to find out these things so this will serve as their carrot.
Now your song ‘Amsterdam Rag’ is a song of lost love, but not to another man but because of the antiquated laws of this country.
BP: It’s kind of a political song, but I try not to write heavy political songs, but I don’t want to write sappy love songs. But it is ‘my baby left me’, yet has a more hidden meaning that I never thought of until we had this conversation. If you research Harry Anslinger you can find out how marijuana became illegal, he was in the know concerning the end of prohibition so he had to secure his job, and set about setting up this law. Well the curious people will look it up may just enjoy the music.
Well I don’t look at these songs as political, but I would be more apt to call them ‘socially conscious’ songs.
BP: Exactly, I like it. It’s not political it’s social commentary.
How did you ‘evolve’ or is it ‘de-evolve’ into a ‘one-man band’?
BP: I have had my own bands and never could find the right guys to get the sound I really wanted. I think what changed it was when I lived in Memphis and was a street performer. I played with Richard Johnson play and he let me sit in on the drums and decided it was cool. So one night I was hitting the drum kit and was lovin’ it. So he swapped out but what I was playing was so different from the ‘tat-toom, tat-toom’ that one man bands kinda fall into I realized that I could take this art form to another level. I realized that you are not as limited as one would think in a one man band situation and just wanted to go there to take it farther. It’s like being an artist, you might be a painter and discover metal work or sculptures and decide that’s where I want to go. This is where I ant to be into, the possibilities are endless. I can switch from fiddle, to violin and then go acoustic and finger style for some songs. I can do this with the drum kit that I play with my feet. On the song “Wish I Was In New Orleans’ there is a strong second line feel to it with the drum pattern and that’s just me using my feet and my drum kit.
Do you make your own instruments?
BP: No I don’t make them I just play them. I did rig up my own drum kit because I couldn’t find what I needed anywhere else, but that is mostly store bought. I would like to maybe one day, but right now my art is in the music.
You have toured throughout the world playing your music, how is it different over there from over here?
BP: I’ve played in Western Europe, the UK, Belgium, Switzerland and have been received very well. The people there seem to be very knowledgeable – they seem to know their music and the history of the songs. Yet they sit in their chairs and listen over there, while here they wanna dance and hoot and holler. They pay more over there, but it does cost more to travel. Each is a little different not better or worse.
To learn more about Ben please visit his web site http://www.benprestagemusic.com/home.aspx .
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease,
photos: courtesy of Ben Prestage
*appprobaton – an expression of approval, praise, validation.