Bonnie Raitt is a new generation blues singer. White and young, but aware of the debt to an old black generation. With her sixth LP Sweet Forgiveness (8 on HP’s Top 10) the breakthrough seems to have finally begun. Bert Jansen spoke to her in Los Angeles for VARA’s Wonderland. About the committed musician in America and the role of a woman in an “all-male” band.
A spacious flat converted into an office. A sink in the corner reminds of that. Bonnie comes in five minutes later with a hair dryer in her hand. Introducing herself and disappears giggling in another room. “I need to do something about my hair. Already not mother’s most beautiful. Can you please wait? “It is something that with her arrival has blown into the room, so un-American. So unusual and on the other hand very reassuring that we have all the time in the world for her. European flux-de-bouche. Maybe it’s also because she brought her sister with husband and two children. “They’re staying with me and I had promised them we would go into town this afternoon.” A somewhat messy family, one of the children has a runny nose. Bonnie gives them ten dollars and they will return an hour later. Above the murmur of the hair dryer she now and then screams something unintelligible into the room. Fifteen minutes later she comes back inside. “How do I look now?” In the same way as in the past my sister used to show a just purchased dress.
The phenomenon Bonnie Raitt, because that’s what she is, is gradually becoming better known in America. For a long time – she was more popular in the Netherlands than in America. A change has been noticeable for a month and a half. Her latest album, Sweet Forgiveness, is gratefully accepted thanks to a sympathetic bow to commerce. And her version of Del Shannon’s Runaway is featured on a lot of playlists of many radio stations. After six years and the same amount of LP’s. Bonnie Raitt’s music is in the blues idiom, occasionally mixed with a well-lived “listening song” in the genre of Jackson Browne. She plays excellent acoustic and electric guitar and controls the bottle-neck technique better than many male colleagues.
Why are you interested in the blues?
“I grew up in Los Angeles, California. During the period when The Beach Boys and surfing were in. The beach scene that was it back then. But I have red hair and never get tanned, so I stayed at home. Apart from that, I hated the American culture of the time: become tanned, white teeth, surfing, big cars. American Graffiti. I listened to the radio a lot, Muddy Waters and soul records. It was not possible then, to love soul music. “I came into contact with people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement through a summer camp at highschool. One thing led to another: Joan Baez, The Newport Folk Festival. And I wanted to leave the L.A.-scene almost desperately. I went to study in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There were many folk & blues clubs there. Taj Mahal, Paul Butterfield and Kurt Rainclover played there. I hung out in those clubs until late at night and taught myself to play the guitar. And met Dick Waterman, my manager. He also represented interests in Son House, Fred McDowell, Arthur Crudup and Skip James. They are now deceased. But he still books Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, and that’s how I got to know them and often played with them. We are good friends. “
(On this point, the relationship between Waterman – Raitt needs to be explained in more detail. They have lived together for years, seem to have been married, but that cannot be traced. However, it is a fact that Waterman can be seen as the rediscoverer of many long-forgotten blues artists, who had a meager existence as a pump attendant or gardener. He is one of the blues authorities. Owns a large collection of 78rpm records in this field and devotes all his time to one of America’s most important cultural expressions: the blues.)
Did they respect you, all those important and influential rich blues musicians?
“I believe so. They thought it was funny to see an eighteen-year-old girl playing the slide guitar. I mean, I saw them so many times that we were already friends before I started making music professionally. I started with the music because I was fed up with typing. Every night I went to a club and saw people playing there. And I thought: if they earn their money with that, then I can
do it also. “
You’re one of the first Americans who has deliberately started digging into the past of the blues of your country, where people here were already much more involved in Europe. John Mayall, the whole blues boom here. Ten years ago.
“Yes, first of all it is a shame that you don’t have a record shop anywhere in America where you can buy old Chess and Checker records from Howlin’ Wolf. Let alone old Delta blues. Because it has never been commercial in the sense that you supposedly can’t dance to it. While the blues, as Son House told me, actually originated as entertainment, dance music on the plantations and so on. But it developed before the record industry came into being. In 1929 there was a large market for this type of music. The race records. Which made many people famous. But then the depression came and everything collapsed like a house of cards. And after that the blues was forgotten. “After World War II the electric guitars came and the blues was adapted. Chicago blues. Bobby Bland, T-Bone Walker and BB. King. The rhythm & blues was only one step further. Through Arthur Crudup that evolved into soul. I’m talking about the fifties now. And that soul still exists and has been bringing in money for decades. And that seems to be important after all anyway.
Nowadays, the black people here don’t care about the blues. In fact, it reminds them of their past, poverty and the rest. The people on the corner of the street who are my age, twenty seven, just don’t want it. It is the music of their grandparents. And to return to your question: in the sixties you had a generation of middle-class teenagers in Europe, who fought for the blues from a semi-revolutionary point of view and thought that was it. And what happened was that the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton brought the blues back to America. To the country it once came from. Without them, there would never have been a blues-revival here. There had been no support for it, I mean. Apart from the fact that some freak might graduate with a thesis on black culture that casually the blues would be discussed also.
For me, there are few positive sides to the blues-revival socially. I think it’s very sad that on the one hand people from their rather comfortable lives have been put in the spotlight for little money, while on the other hand people like Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter made $ 50,000 a night from their music. Not that I think they get their bread in a handy way, I also play blues. It is very nice to earn your money with it but then you have to help the people too, from whom it came, who you got it from, I think. But most people who used to like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee now prefer to see a young white person imitate them, then. . . the real thing. ”
You’re one of those “young whites”. What do you do about it?
“I try to have old traditional artists in the opening acts of my concerts, with which I play together also at the end of the concert. Even if the audience doesn’t want it. I’m just telling them to shut up. It is necessary that they know where it comes from. And I work together with Sippie Wallace (a blues singer who was already emancipated in the 1920s and shows this in her songs and is gratefully interpreted by Bonnie Raitt) on a film that we want to make. I am convinced that it is very important that that generation is captured. Before all of them being dead.
In the past two years about sixteen major blues artists have died: Jimmy Reed, Mance Lipscomb, you name them. It is also unimaginable how the black history is ignored in the schools in this country. Before they value the blues here in America as an American expression of art, the first generation of musicians has long since died. Hence my plan to raise so much money that I can make movies and TV shows with that people before they are no longer there.
“But as it is in a capitalist society: if there is no profit to be made then there is no interest whatsoever. In my point of view the government needs to establish a fund for the blues. . . as National Art. It is one of the most important parts of our history and people just ignore it!”
Money and commerce. The main driving force in America. It is all the more remarkable that you have been able to make five albums without any profit for the company and without a hit anywhere.
“Only on the first album (Bonnie Raitt 1971) they did earn anything”. Because I recorded it on a ordinary recorder with friends in the garage. But I am certainly not a commercial success. I earn just enough to support myself and my band. By playing a lot and everywhere. That’s okay. I could have recorded songs that would have been more commercially acceptable. It’s just what you want: a white Rolls Royce and a tennis court in your backyard, or make the music you believe in and a limited fan base. I know how to fill small halls and my records sell just enough. “I’m afraid of hits. They are one-off, if you don’t come up with the next one soon, then people quickly forget you. Don McLean had one hit and who knows him now? No, then I am more proud of the group of people who buy my LP’s every time, so that we can just break even. “On the other hand, that money is attractive. I could finally start making that movie that I have been talking too long and too passionate about. And I don’t have to perform every other day. “
You are very close friends with Little Feat. I get the impression that this band is very underestimated here in America.
“It is the best pop group in the world. Perhaps in the entire universe. It is the mixture. Every instrumentalist in that band is my favorite on that instrument. If you split me up, Billy Payne would be the best keyboard player for me and Lowell George the best guitar player. They sound right up my alley. Something from Howlin’ Wolf, something like. . . everything actually. It is unique music. “They’re the reason I came back to LA from Boston at the time. I heard a Little Feat record and I said: I don’t know who or what it is, but I’m going there to get it, you see? Nobody likes it here in America, but I assume they will become very famous in due course. But I like that they are so unknown, that makes me part of it, I can hold them here in my hand and say they are mine. It’s with Little Feat just like Jimi Hendrix, he first had to go to England to become famous. America becomes constantly faced with what it unconsciously or perhaps also consciously missed. It’s the irony of the people who never appreciate what they have in their backyard. And on the other hand a compliment for the good taste of the people in Europe. They were the first also by appreciating the blues…”
I think you do survive well as a woman in that harsh male-dominated world of pop music.
“Like Alice in Wonderland. (A shy smile that just isn’t enough for her to hide honest determination.) I love it. Traveling with ten guys. I like to work at night. Performing an hour and a half every evening is very different from sitting behind a desk for eight hours during the day do other people’s work. Except running my own business is not nice. There are more fun things to do than keep a business going, hire musicians, find songs, write arrangements. If you were to ask the first on the street if he or she can sing and play an instrument and you would give them the choice of making money with that or sitting at a desk, getting married and having children, they would choose first. I’m sure about that.”
But still, as a woman you seem very un-American. No glamor, heavy makeup or a psychiatrist within reach. You don’t correspond to the familiar image at all.
“When I was a kid, my parents were sent a catalog of Frederick’s of Hollywood, the famous firm of sexy lingerie, four times a year. The mannequins had the hair – that blonde cotton candy – and the figure of Dolly Parton. Big tits and a wasp waist. When I got older I didn’t understand why I didn’t
become just like them. “As an adult I once bought clothes there and nothing fit. You can’t look like nature has made you, you have to change yourself, make it more attractive. Artificial, plastic.
“Until recently, as a woman you had to look so dressed up to be able to make it a bit in show business. Fortunately, it is finally here that you no longer need to have the voice of Olivia Newton-John and the figure of Mae West to make it. That did result in the sixties. . . I believe that the young people will soon be in charge here. Half of the population of this country is below twenty five. I long for the time when a band of exclusively women no longer needs to perform in sexy clothes and be exploited by the men in the music industry who only see the money. ”
Like The Runaways?
“Yes. But I don’t like commercialization anyway, be it men or women. And the music business is one of the most commercial and rotten industries in this country. It’s like the TV commercial where they tell you what kind of corn flakes to eat. It is the structure of America. Money creates opportunities. And the music business has made clever use of the post-war baby boom for its share. Now everybody wants a piece of the pie, and the kids in the street their records.”
Many pop artists have been campaigning for presidential candidate campaigns last year.
“I did something for Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda’s husband. They acted together against the Vietnam War at the time. He then ran for election to the Senate. I thought that was quite brave, after Vietnam he could have rested on his laurels but he decided to put on a suit and take the whole trip. With Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Maria Muldaur we did benefits for him. Because I consider myself a “radical” and have more confident in him than the Republicans and those who are in power now. But the funny thing is that when you have brought all those people together and the goal has not been achieved, everything falls apart immediately. Especially for me because I was involved in the university riots and had been throwing stones during Vietnam demonstrations and had connections with the Weathermen.
And nowadays. . . . kids are going to the dogs!. I have the impression that the new generation is hanging around and alone but interested in getting high. We are back at the same point as before the sixties. They don’t care anymore, they prefer to watch TV. Apathy. No activity at all. Just like with musicians. They just hang out in the hotel and their only concern is getting stoned. Not that I’m such a good person myself, I also have my weaknesses. I know that I now speak like my parents when they said, “What should become of this generation?” I see fourteen-year-olds going to bed at high school, and stuff. I mean, I would rather go back to when I was young. When a little went a longer way.”
Politics and pop, can go hand in hand? For example, you once had put on a record sleeve “dedicated to the people of North-Vietnam.”
“In my case I would like to give the context of my concerts a political basis. By returning part of the money I earn with it to the community where it came from. But I have never been able to sing “protest songs”. Of the type “let’s hold hands together”. Those terrible songs they sing at meetings. For me, it boils down to basically wanting to do benefit concerts for every organization in need. In principle, in the sense that I should be able to unite myself with it.”
How do you feel about the content of the lyrics you sing?
“I sing most about love and people getting messed up in a room. That’s also political, you know, the relationship between men and women. It is equally important. It is as political as war. And it is the oldest war in existence. I have experience with it, who doesn’t?”
Translated from Dutch. Apologies for any grammatical errors.
HP 20 – May 21, 1977