Buddy Guy is the blues, and he's our connection to a genre that's embedded in the history of America. But it's a sound the guitarist fears is fading.
Born and raised in Louisiana without running water or electricity, Guy tells NPR's David Greene, "They got some mosquitoes in Louisiana that can almost lift you out of your bed," which made his parents a little upset when he started tearing the metal wire off the screen door. He was trying to build a guitar.
Finally, his dad got him a real guitar and the family got electricity. Guy became obsessed with the exciting blues music coming from Chicago masters like Muddy Waters. He landed there in 1957 and quickly developed a reputation as a showman. Guy played guitar behind his back, picked strings with his teeth and made grand entrances by starting on the street and walking through the crowd to the stage.
At 79, Guy still plays like a wild man. You can hear it on Born to Play Guitar, his new album, which celebrates his six decades playing the blues. But the scene has changed. When he started, his audiences were all black — except, he tells NPR, for the occasional cop. In the '60s, the blues fell out of fashion with middle-class blacks and the music found a new audience when artists like Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones started playing it. Buddy Guy gives them credit for making the blues more mainstream while also acknowledging pioneers such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters and himself.
Today, however, Guy worries that far too few people are hearing the blues from anyone. Before B.B. King died, it was something both musicians spoke about at length, he says, and here with Greene, Guy describes the mission passed down from Muddy Waters.
I wonder if there aren't as many young black musicians devoting themselves to the blues. Do you worry about the future of blues music?
I worry about the future of blues music whether you are black or white. If they don't hear it like I did and listen to it and don't know about it — you ever been to Louisiana where they cook all this gumbo?
I have. I love it.
I do, too. [Laughs.] So if you never tasted it, you wouldn't love it. That's what's happening with the blues. Now, the young people don't know nothing about it unless — I know satellite [radio] do play blues, but we need more than that. I tell everybody I would love to hear Muddy Waters twice a week. I'm not telling you to play him all day, all night; just play him. Let the young people know where it all started.
This album strikes me as a love letter to the blues. Is that the approach you took?
A love letter, a text letter, whatever kind of letter you wanna call it, I hope you're right so someone can say, "Well, maybe this music isn't as bad as I thought it was." It's worth listening to. A lot of people look at blues and think it's a sad music. If you listen to the lyrics of the blues, if it don't hit you, it hits someone you know. And we sang about the good and bad times, so you can't say it's all bad.
What made Muddy Waters so important to you?
Not me — he was important to everybody. That's why The Rolling Stones called themselves The Rolling Stones. That was one of his records. Maybe some young people just coming up don't know because they don't play his records anymore, but Clapton, all of the British guys know about him. Of course, you know, I grew up on it.
You had a conversation with Muddy Waters about the blues when he was pretty sick, shortly before he died. Tell me what happened, what you guys said to each other.
We heard he was sick and he was hiding. He didn't let us know he had cancer. We rang him and he said, "Aw, man, I'm fine." He was profane, I can't say what he said. [Laughs.] He said, "Y'all just keep playing that em-effing blues and don't let that blues die. I'm fine." The next couple days, that's when I got the call from the media and asked me how did I feel — he had passed.
And have you taken that as your mission?
Well, coming from him, I had to listen to him. I was listening to him before I met him, so why quit listening to him when he was passed and gone?
For the younger people who don't know much about the blues, what's the case that you would make to go buy a Muddy Waters album as soon as they can?
If you don't have the blues and don't know about the blues, just keep livin'.
What do you mean by that?
[Laughs.] At least, you're gonna see a better time or a worser time in life. Just listen to what I'm sayin': Just keep livin'. Even if you get in the middle of the expressway and your car quit runnin', you got blues.
It's something everybody can relate to.
You better believe. Like I said, the blues comes in all denominations, man. It comes with your family, with your lover, with your friend. And I had some good friends until I loaned them a lot of money; then I lost them. [Laughs.] I've got a piece of paper in my club, "You loan your friend your money, you finna lose your money and your friend."
And that's the blues.
And that's the blues, sir.
Buddy Guy, this has been a true honor and a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you so, so much.
Well, thank you very much, and I appreciate whatever you can do to help the blues stay alive.