Which brings us to Migration Blues, Bibb’s new album. Fifteen tracks steeped in the traditions of the pre-war blues elders that Bibb honors, even as he brings their legacy to bear on our current times. Today’s struggle may appear different on the surface, but at its core it is still the story of people yearning to be respected and allowed to live in peace.
Migration Blues is often discomforting. It does not offer easy answers or cardboard characters we can quickly dismiss. The album grew out of Bibb’s study of the Great Migration, a time in American history when millions of blacks moved from the rural south to northern cities like Chicago, seeking shelter and gainful employment. Driving this migration was poverty and starvation, and the desire to escape the domestic terrorism of the Jim Crow south. What Bibb does is place that historical moment at the center of the album and then draw connecting points to our current sociological seismic shift.
Where Bibb dealt with racial discrimination on Blues People, here he expands the scope of his vision to include war and displacement. In this way, Bibb emulates his spiritual mentor Dr. Martin Luther King, who tackled segregation and the Vietnam War. As with Blues People, Bibb uses the sequencing of the tracks to create a story arc that serves his larger purposes. That arc is all about connecting current events to the recent and distant past, reminding us we have seen this all before.
“Refugee Moan” starts off the record. It is an unusual track for a number of reasons. The melody, which is sparse and starkly arranged, along with Bibb’s tentative vocal delivery, paints a portrait of uncertainty. Bibb is not singing in full voice here, but in a more restrained, locked down manner. The song is a prayer for safety and deliverance. The joyous preacher Bibb is not present, this is the sound of a desperate soul seeking protection. The song represents a prayer that has not been answered, at least not yet. The crisis is not resolved by the end of the song. The central character of the piece finds some comfort in praying not only for his own journey, but also for others who share his fate.
Saw a man hangin’
From a cypress tree
I seen the ones who done it
Now they’re comin’ after me
“Praying’ for Shore” puts us in a boat, fleeing war. As before, the future is unclear, arrival is not guaranteed, and, if achieved, neither is the reception awaiting these refugees. Hungry and thirsty, time is running out. Though they may have escaped certain death in the war, they are nearly out of food and water. Bibb, long known for a joyful, even playful, take on the blues is travelling a trail of tears here. Leaning more on tension than release, his take on the refugee road is centered on life, and the very real chance of losing it.
Wisely choosing people over policy Bibb reminds us that, at the center of this global crisis, there are human stories and lives at stake. The songs on Migration Blues humanize an issue that has become hijacked by rhetoric and politics, not to mention fear. While the record does not address legitimate questions about security and assimilation, it doesn’t have to. Bibb leaves those matters to others because he knows his part in the play. His role is to remind us to care for our fellow man, and, if it is necessary to err at all, to err on the side of compassion.
What Bibb seeks is to balance the scales in a climate that parades images of immigrants as rapists, gang members and murderers. Bibb knows all too well that it is easy to portray people as a monolithic group, and that to do so is to depersonalize them. It then becomes natural to speak of them in a dissociative, abstract manner, like so many gumballs. The further you travel down that road the more you begin to notice the scenery is dotted with internment camps.
This is not to say the album is all gloom and doom because it isn’t. Bibb looks at a world in tribulation, and brings a steamer trunk full of hope and faith with him. That resilience underpins the whole affair and keeps it from sinking into despair. On “Brotherly Love” Bibb declares in quiet defiance that he doesn’t “agree with the doomsayers who have no hope.” In this instant, he stands determined, like those who boycotted bus lines and marched at Selma. But Bibb does not walk alone. Michael Jerome Browne and JJ Milteau bring their considerable talents to the fore and provide layers of emotion to the compositions with intuitive and subtle turns. Together they buoy and challenge Bibb in his effort to tackle a complex issue in song.
While this album is birthed out of Bibb’s singular vision, it is also one of his most collaborative works to date. Three of the fifteen tracks find Bibb sharing writing credits with Browne and Milteau. There are covers of two songs by Browne, and one track, a delightfully giddy Cajun number, written by Browne and Milteau. The liner notes give producer credits to all three men. Sitting in the lounge of the General Lewis Inn after his recent West Virginia gig, Bibb expressed his excitement for this project. “I’ve recorded with JJ before, but I’ve never done a whole album with Michael, and I was glad we got to do this. It was time.”
Bibb lightens the mood of the subject matter, again by sticking to the personal stories. “Diego’s Blues” tells the story of a child who is a product of migration. Born to a Mexican woman who journeyed to the Delta, and to a hard-working black man, Diego lives in a world of two cultures. “I was raised on tamales, collard greens, and blues,” sings the young Diego. The picture is one of blending cultures through mutual assimilation.
The three instrumentals on the album are as good as it gets. The haunting “Migration Blues” would make a perfect theme song for a documentary on the Great Migration. Bibb says the song has “some serious juice,” and he is right, it is perfect for the repeat button. The Cajun number, “La Vie C’est Comme un Oignon,” is penned by Milteau and Browne. Browne, an American who has lived most of his life in Canada, and Milteau, who is French, celebrate the cultural gifts that the Acadians brought to America and the world. Expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in the mid-1700s, many migrated to Louisiana, enriching their new homeland in the process. This exuberant tune shows the resolve of a people and way of life in the midst of forced change. The Band classic, “Acadian Driftwood” speaks of the same event. All I know is Browne and Milteau seem to be having a hell of a good time.
The trio also covers Dylan’s “Masters of War” and Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” The Dylan number addresses the profiteers of conflict, and Guthrie’s anthem asks us if our values still hold true. If the album is lacking anything it might be a cover of Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Crash at Los Gatos).”
Browne, who has accompanied Bibb on the road for a number of years, is a true virtuoso on anything with strings. Guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and Dobro, you name, he plays it, with finesse. His notes and fills are always impeccably placed and suited to the song. He duets with Bibb on “Blacktop,” a Browne original.
Milteau is a unique harp player. He doesn’t stick to what you might expect a blues player to do, but instead finds original and interesting ways to accompany Bibb. He doesn’t draw attention to himself, which makes him indispensable. His ability to serve the song, to know when to come in and when to bow out, is the sign of a seasoned pro with an innate sense of what is needed.
All in all, Bibb manages to keep the subject matter engaging while presenting it to the listener in a way that raises questions. Faced with the reality of the human stories behind this great population shift, it becomes impossible to accept the broad strokes painted by so many in the news media.
The album closes with the promise of the forgiveness. Bibb’s gospel is muscular enough to tackle the tough questions, without losing sight of the prize. His heart may be set on heaven, but his feet are dug in here on earth. In this way, he identifies with us while calling us up to something higher.
Certain artists have a way of capturing our attention, Bibb is one. This is a result of Bibb’s quest to revere a musical tradition while striving to keep it relevant. “The trick is to be honest in the writing, while moving the blues forward so that it is relatable,” he says. With Migration Blues, Bibb has more than accomplished his mission.