From Bradford to the Bayou - Serious Sam Barrett
Roots singer-songwriter ‘Serious’ Sam Barrett shows how a solid base ensures; the music he makes retains authenticity when built a little at a time. Unlike most acts drawn to traditional music Barrett isn’t content in walking similar paths but he adds an exciting edge to the music, brings it into 21st century with a classy turn too. As heard on his latest record, Sometimes You’ve Got To Lose (Ya Dig? Records).
Travelling folk blues musician Sam Barrett may come from Yorkshire up in the North of England, but the songs and music he writes and performs is far reaching and rich in depth. Not only has Barrett tagged himself into the base of music that’s criss-crossed the Atlantic, but also, in his own simple way added to it. Touring the States with the Pine Hill Haints has given him a feel, first hand, of how people live in the American South, and experienced the pride of the likes of those of Cajun extraction. Not only is Louisiana the State where the Mississippi rolls into the ocean plus spicy food, hot humid summers and floods but has a huge wealth of music and art, visual and written culture.
Louisiana has jazz, blues, big band swing and Cajun among its greatest flavours, and that is before you head up into the Appalachian Mountains and its heritage of folk country and old time mountain music. And there is Barrett’s attraction to the melodies and story-telling of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and blues masters from Texas and up through Alabama and Mississippi and how to capture the mood and the working people through a sound primarily sourced from acoustic guitar (12 and 6-string) and banjo.
What sort of musical upbringing did you have, Sam.
My parents were folkies. My dad and uncle both played folk music when I was growing up. They used to do all the folk clubs in West Yorkshire, and were into Bert Jansch, the Incredible String Band and also into folk rock, people like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. So that is what I was brought up on, and my dad was also a huge Dick Gaughan fan, and I went to see him a lot when I was a kid. Plus there was Davy Graham and Irish music via the likes of The Dubliners.
How did you become interested in the American side of folk music?
My dad was also into blues, and I listened a lot to Robert Johnson when as a kid. I watched the Crossroads film with Ralph Macchio, this is where he meets Willie Brown in an old folk’s prison and they go off looking for a lost Robert Johnson song. When I first started gigging aged around twenty four it was all blues, and then through the folky stuff my father got me into I developed an interest in the very old form of country music. Appalachian mountain music, and the Carter Family, that was the time I really started to get into country music.
You say getting into country I imagine people like Lefty Frizzell and George Jones would also be among them.
Not really, initially it was The Carter Family. My mum was a Woody Guthrie fan so it was their music mainly. I didn’t get into seventies country till I was in my twenties. I guess after playing around three years in a lot of blues in bars I got into old country of The Carter Family, and Wood Guthrie. I also listened a lot to Johnny Cash, which links you to blues and rock’n’roll.
Going back to Robert Johnson, what an amazing influence he’s had on the blues, incredible when you think he only recorded twenty-seven songs.
He only did two sessions. Musicologists have argued over the years what he did, but he played really well. He combined influences from different blues players like Tampa Red, Son House and, more jazzy players like Blind Blake and kind of moulded them into this disparate style, and possibly made them into something more saleable than everything that had come before.
What is really unique about the rebirth of those old blues guys British pop and rock acts of the early 1960s had a great to do with it.
Yes, there is a lot of truth to that. I think generally, it was shared between what happened in Ireland, America and in England. It never ends this dynamic music history.
Its like music of the Appalachians and the influence of old English folk ballads and tunes from Ireland and Scotland, to try and follow the journeys of some songs is enough to set your head in a spin.
It is never ending. Country music itself you could argue comes from African folk and traditional music, and then in the 1960s you had got that back and forth across the Atlantic with the blues. You even have the Rolling Stones who did songs of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and sell them back to white America. To people that previously wouldn’t have dreamed of listening to those who had written those songs, because they were black. The whole thing is fascinating, and it never stops. It never will. Some things you will never know, it is part of ‘will the circle be unbroken’.
Only the other day I was listening to the incredible Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher.
Yes, he was playing music influenced by African folk music, and playing it in Ireland in the sixties!
It is great that your influences have taken you on this journey where you are now reinventing these forms of roots music.
Man, I love it all. I am also a huge fan of Cajun music. It has a fascinating history; to me it is a simpler music, as simple as it can possibly be. Most of it is only three, and sometimes just two chords, it takes away the decoration. It gets down to the raw bones.
Before we started the interview you mentioned the wonderful Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette, Louisiana that’s right at the heart of Cajun music. Where the music is as fresh sounding and alive as it has ever been.
Have you seen the Lost Bayou Ramblers? I was lucky enough to play with them this year at the Lafayette Mardi Gras. I am a great believer in bands that don’t just dress up in clothes of the past and treat traditional music as some kind of museum piece. They make it believable today. That is what I am really passionate about. That is what the Pine Hill Haints do, in the same way the Pogues did in the 1980s with Irish music. They weren’t dressing something up and making it a museum piece. It was very much alive and relevant, and there is a band from Lafayette, which is the heart of Cajun music of west Louisiana and they do for Cajun music what the Pogues did for Irish music.
There are a number of small towns around there steeped in Cajun tradition; one place of course is Breaux Bridge (Crawfish Capitol of the World).
Around that area it is in their blood, they are brought up with it and the people of that area are really passionate about keeping the culture alive; it is a really deep heritage they have there. Seeing young people playing the music is pretty mind-blowing.
People who were originally from Canada, and only ended up there after being forced from the land of their birth back in the early 1700s. I was lucky enough to go to a Cajun supper/dance there, and the music played was terrific, full of passion.
So it should be, because it is so unique.
Touring with the Pine Hill Haints and getting to play these let say quaint venues and areas will have given you a greater insight, and understanding of the origin of a number of different kinds of music. Absorb the musical heritage at source.
I am so lucky. Touring with the Haints hasn’t only been amazing, and get my music out to different people but more important than that this has been the inspiration for so many songs and for me to keep going. Keep writing, recording and performing music. I have also travelled all through the Deep South, Alabama and Tennessee, and seen ground zero where these greats have played and lived. It has been so inspirational in keeping my songwriting fresh. Everything we do with the Haints is on a shoestring; there is no manager or pluggers helping us. We organise the shows ourselves. Like when I book shows for them over here. We do it all ourselves, and Jamie who writes most of their songs he is very much into where American music comes from so he is also into English and Irish music. So for him coming over here it is just as mind-blowing, if not more so than me going over there, because over here everything is so much older
How did you first hook up with the Pine Hill Haints.
The first time I played with them was in an anarchist punk club over ten years ago in Bradford, it was at the 1 in 12 Club. The Haints have got a history of punk; Jamie (Barrier) the singer was in lots of punk bands beforehand. It could be argued the Haints are a punk band, the same way as the Pogues were. They are very much influenced by that scene, but they are playing traditional music. I was booked as their support act, and with Jamie having an interest in skateboarding as well as traditional music we got on really well. We have toured together pretty much ever since, and have also made two or three records together. It is great doing what I do. You meet a lot of people who are coming at this music from a different angle, but when I met the Haints it was the same. We were all brought up with traditional music, and had a passion for it. As a result a special bond was formed.
Skateboarding I understand is a big passion of yours.
Yes, it’s a huge part of my life. For better or for worse laughs Sam.
With inspiration for your songs coming from playing in these out of the way places and other sources could you share a little behind some of the songs on Sometimes You Got To Lose. Like such songs as “From Shoals To Montana” an “New Bird, Needle And The Dustbowl (The Ballad Of). ”
“From The Shoals To Montana” is about touring the States, and of thinking about your sweetheart at home. I often write songs like that, they remind me of the old seafaring ballads where you are travelling from one port town to another thinking about the one you have left at home. It’s a long tradition of your old sensitive type of song. I’ve long had a soft spot for those types of songs. “New Bird, Needle And The Dustbowl” it is all about the culture of DIY skateboard park building. A lot of the people I grew up with skateboarding have gone to industrial waste ground in the North of England, where they have got to together to buy concrete to build themselves their own skateboard parks. Without getting permission from anybody, it is fascinating bit of adventure by these people. If there was anything I wanted to write a song about it was ideal. I do not want to make too much of it, and blow it out of proportion but to me there is something really fascinating about it all. The culture of manufacturing in the North of England is now dead, but pretty much all these people I skateboard with their parents and grandparents. More especially their grandparents they built stuff. We still have it in us. It is something you can’t kill, and is what I am trying to say in the song, the culture of us clubbing together with little or no money. Building stuff for us to use, it goes hand in hand with the culture of the north of England.
It is very much a workingman, blue-collar thing, engineers and creative people who are able to think on their feet.
Absolutely, no one has told them to do it. No teacher or boss has told them to do it. Build a wall, a ramp out of concrete. It is something they really want to do. I am a great believer there is something specific about the culture of the north of England and why this has taken off here. We have a history of building and creating stuff, but no longer have a great deal here anymore which I will no go into and become political about.
You have this great love of exploring traditional music from other places it is like this great adventure to you.
It never ends, the story just keep on going. I am not the best guitar player, technically. I learnt everything by ear. I am not some virtuoso, but someone who has heard and been inspired by some great records and meet some amazing people. Is from what I hear I have gained inspiration to write.
What kind of record do you plan to make next, and with whom.
For my next record I would like it to be with Lewis Pugh. He plays in his dad’s bluegrass band called the Backyard Burners, and would really like to make a record with him. I might make one with David Broad, a great blues guitar player that I have played with for over ten years, or maybe I could make a record with them both. We all come from the same place, musically and politically. It makes sense to make a solo album followed by a record with someone else.
Apart from guitar you also play banjo.
Mainly, I play guitar but love to play banjo but don’t play it out (live) too much because I don’t want to be one of those musicians who always swops instruments on stage. I feel like the audience have to wait and don’t like that too much. Plus the banjo has a habit of going out of tune easily.
Who were the banjo players you listened to.
I really like a lot of the banjo players, but Doc Boggs and Uncle Dave Macon were the early ones.
Players of a more rustic approach, people who had a lot of drive to their music.
Yeah, I think they are probably the main ones. Of course a lot of their influences came from them in a lot of 1960s British bands, the first Steeleye Span records had that banjo style on them, and even some of the Pentangle records that I was brought up with that. It was why I wanted to look deeper into the music of the banjo after hearing my dad’s records.
When are you back over touring in the States.
It’s probably going to be November with a Chicago banjo player called Al Scorch. I played some dates in the New Mexico desert (Albuquerque and Santa Fe among others) in January this year with him. He is coming over in September, hopefully I’ll be back over playing with him in November. I usually go over for Mardi Gras in February, hopefully I will get to go over and play there every year.
- Artist Website http://www.serioussambarrett.bandcamp.com/
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