I used to be really into the blues. Like really, really into it. If you remember Ralph Macchio’s character in Crossroads, I was very much like that when I was fifteen, right down to the mullet haircut and cheap fedora. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson. I couldn’t get enough of that stuff. But then, somewhere along the way, I did have enough.
It was probably partly because the more I learned as a musician, the more the potential of blues became limited for me. It was also because I was never comfortable with the idea that privileged white people like myself had what it takes to really play the blues. I got tired of trying to fit into that mold, and I got extremely tired of watching and listening to other middle class white musicians playing Clapton-like solos over a 12-bar blues progression and singing about how hard life is, then going back to their day jobs as attorneys. The blues for my white suburban experience became garage and punk rock, and I left the blues far behind.
You see, the old blues masters earned it. These were blue collar guys, or often even lower on the socioeconomic scale than that—itinerant farm hands who were just barely not homeless. Life for them actually was hard. But on a Saturday night, they could put their resources together, get some cheap whisky and some old guitars, and they’d let loose.
Gip Gipson is that kind of a blues man.
At Gip’s Place in Bessemer, ten miles down County Road 18 from my neighborhood in Birmingham, on any given Saturday night, there is an old style blues party going on—working class people drinking cheap beer or hooch and living it up because it’s Saturday night, and that’s just what folks do around here. I felt a little like a tourist or a voyeur at times, but there were a lot of other tourists there like me too. Many of the performers there are the same white baby boomers that drove me away from blues music in the first place. They are, most of them, well trained, expert, and experienced musicians. I can appreciate watching them play for sure, and I was having a good time. It was pretty much what I expected.
What I didn’t expect was what happened after the headlining act was done. Gip himself comes out, helped onto the stage by an assistant. Gip is 90 if he’s a day. His Facebook page says he’s a gravedigger by profession. They have to help him into his chair, hand him his guitar, adjust the microphone for him. He has a little paper shot glass, and the assistant pours something from a mason jar into it. Gip downs it, and then launches into his first song.
He plays a very old style of blues guitar, a straight off the farm kind of finger picking where he drones a simple bass pattern with his thumb while plucking out a rough melody on the higher strings. The melody of his vocal line matches the melody he’s playing on the guitar. There’s no “blues scale” or “12 bar blues chord progression” for Gip. He plays one chord until he feels like moving to the next one, and I’d bet he doesn’t know or care what that chord is called by studied musicians. He has at least two strings out of tune, and he’s foggy from drink, inconsistent with his tempo, but it’s still somehow amazingly listenable. It’s because he has earned it.
And because he is there, still alive despite everything, against all odds, he represents so much that is today extremely rare to find. And it’s Saturday night, and that’s just what he does on Saturday night. He is selling transcendence at $10 a head. It’s a bargain. I’ll never be a blues man, but I’ve rediscovered what I initially loved about this music.
After a couple of songs, he looks longingly at his empty shot glass. My friend Ian goes up the stage with his flask, pours a little whisky in the cup, and now Gip is his best friend.
Ian asked Mr. Gip how he learned to play the blues. He said that he had been travelling with Robert Johnson (yes, that Robert Johnson), and they were in New York. He was talking to a woman and said he was from Perry County, Alabama. At that, the women slapped him. “That was the moment,” Gip said, “when I decided to become a blues musician.” It’s possible that none of this is true. It doesn’t matter much.
At two in the morning, all the other musicians have packed up and gone home. Gip is back on the stage, and there are five of us still sitting there in awe. He’s still doing shots of whisky. He’s selling us on Jesus between songs. He will make it to church on Sunday morning. He never misses it.
This should be a once in a lifetime experience, but somehow it happens every Saturday night. For now. The way Gip looks, this might not last much longer. And it’s just one more thing about Alabama that is full of mysteries and wonders.