On disconnection & the blues
Today, I am delighted to introduce you to musician David Vest, one of the finest boogie woogie piano players and blues shouters around. The son of an Alabama sharecropper who makes his home on Canada’s west coast, David’s been writing and performing songs for more than 60 years. I am grateful to know him and honoured he agreed to be featured in this issue of Sifting, shifting, and lifting . . . a weekly column in which I ask clever, curious, compassionate people my three favourite questions.
David Vest is a blues artist originally from Alabama. His career dates back to 1957. Since relocating to Canada, he has won the Maple Blues Award for piano player of the year five times. He lives in Victoria, BC, where he plays monthly shows at Hermann's Jazz Club.
Did you know?
On October 1, 2021, Cordova Bay Records is releasing two new live albums by David Vest.
What issue is engaging your head, heart, and hands right now?
I play blues, and I believe John Lee Hooker when he says that blues is the Healer. Nothing about it is supposed to bring you down. It’s purpose is to lift you up. To lift up our common humanity, to reconnect us to ourselves and to each other. So for me, the wicked problem is disconnection.
There are so many incentives to disconnect. Life is full of danger right now, and everybody wants to be safe. The streets are full of angry people who have been disconnected from rationality, and so is the internet; why wouldn’t anybody want to disconnect from that? But when I disconnect from others, whatever the reason, I risk being disconnected from myself. And if there’s nobody home, I’m neither here nor there.
The way most music is made today is a perfect metaphor for what is happening everywhere. These days, most music you hear on the radio or anywhere else is recorded by people who are completely disconnected from each other. Often they never even meet, much less play music together. It’s truly insane. The drummer and the bass player come to the studio on different days. The singer sings to a pre-recorded track, most of it made by synthesizers and drum machines. So the big hit song starts and ends as a karaoke record, with some vocalist “emoting” in an isolation booth. And all the imperfections that make music (and people) charming are eliminated in the process, thanks to auto-tuning and other “corrective” technologies.
Nowadays, with the pandemic, even blues artists are being encouraged to make music this way. I’m supposed to play some piano, then record a vocal part later before I send it off to Dropbox where the guitar player, the cellist, the sax player or whoever can all download it and add their bit. Or I guess I could play all the parts myself and pretend I’m a band or something.
What it all lacks is the sound of people listening to each other, responding to one another, being influenced and changed in the moment. For me, that’s the real test of any recorded music: can I hear them all listening to each other?
It's the same in "real life." I don't hear us listening to each other.
What artist or work of art has had a profound impact on the way you see the world and your place in it?
From music, I'll pick Memphis Slim and his masterpiece, "Mother Earth.”
I don't care how great you are,
And I don't care what you're worth.
When it all ends up, you got to go
Back to Mother Earth.
I could just as easily have picked John Lee Hooker again:
Ain't no heaven.
Ain't no burnin' hell.
When I die,
Where I go,
Don't nobody know,
Can't nobody tell.
Can you imagine touring the segregated Bible Belt in the 1950s, singing that song?
Then there's Alabama's Willie King, who wrote a song called "Terrorized." You can find it online.
From literature, I'd say Marguerite Yourcenar, whose Memoirs of Hadrian is the most astonishing book I've ever come across. She demonstrates that it really is possible to get outside ourselves and to see the world convincingly through the eyes of another. It requires the complete disappearance of the artist into the work. Among artists and creators, the willingness to vanish is rare indeed.
I also admire a writer like Patricia Highsmith, who reveals what it's like when the smartest person in the room "doesn't get it." The brighter we are, the greater our capacity to delude ourselves.
There are so many good organizations working to transform our world through compassionate action. Who would you like to lift up?
The closer to home, the better.
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Thank you my friends.