Dave Madeloni Interview, 2004
Scott Ainslie: The Feral Crow
An Interview with Dave Madeloni, The Brattleboro Reformer
Dave Madeloni: You not only play the blues, but you study its history and are an educator. Can you talk about how the playing and the teaching interface, in your performances, in your approach to choosing songs to interpret and in writing your originals, etc.
My passion for playing came initially from John Jackson, a grave digger from Northern Virginia, playing in front of me back in 1967. In my experience, when a tradition is transferred, it’s always personal. Seeing it on TV, even hearing it on record doesn’t quite do it. Being with someone does.
Having a passion for something qualifies you as a fan, playing, and singing especially, require some sort of apprenticeship to the tradition. My field work with older musicians and the scholarship both inform my choices: what and how I play. But it’s always dangerous to mention the scholarship, people figure you can’t play. The expression that some people are fond of using about reading music and music theory may apply here, too: “I know about music theory and reading music, but not enough to hurt my playing.”
On stage, I choose to use some facts, some stories with history to navigate between songs and to set them up. This helps open the music up to audiences who aren’t necessarily ‘blues’ audiences, letting it breathe and come a little more alive. I find truth, as my friend Sam Broussard once observed, to be “the highest form of entertainment.” Left to my own devices, I’d rather guide the audience’s attention with a good historical fact. I’m reading and looking for them all the time.
DM: I’m struck by the power of “Don’t Obey”. What was the inspiration for that song? It is so overtly political, yet it seems to me that much of the blues idiom is so much more, I don’t know, “subtle” in its politics. It is as if the political content is in the vibe, not the lyrics-your thoughts?
Thank you for saying so. I began writing this song last spring, after reading one of Howard Zinn’s books, “Declarations of Independence,” in which he cited a quotation from British scientist and novelist/essayist C. P. Snow. Snow wrote:
“When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.”
You know how sometimes the right way of phrasing something will stop you right in your tracks, cause you to close a book suddenly and think? Then reread it a couple times?
This little observation did it for me. It summed up more than three and a half decades of my life. And I wondered how to get the felt sense of the this message to more people. I’m a musician. The only weapons I care to use are the words I write, the music I make. “Don’t Obey” came out of that moment.
As for it being a ‘political’ song, I used to characterize it that way, too. And almost apologize for it, but one night I realized that it is simply a very powerful song of conscience which traces trajectories of mass violence, repression, and of nonviolence from the great scale of Hitler, Stalin, and Hiroshima-Nagasaki right down through the verses into the families of both the victims and the perpetrators, who can also be seen as victims even though they are doing the violence.
In some sense, the guilty are the people who set up the wars. The people who fight and die in them can be seen to share a certain victimhood.
After all, more Vietnam Vets committed suicide than died in the war itself, by a factor of at least two. So, I prefer to characterize it as a song of conscience. In this sense, I didn’t make it a political issue, a political song, in the simplest sense, Bush, Cheney, Feith, Rice, Rumsfelt, Powell and Wolfowitz did that. Why should a song about refraining from taking up weapons against your kind feel so frightening to the body politic: something is way out of whack.
DM: I’m curious about your approach to playing live-you once said “this is not about self-expression-it is only self-expression to the extent that you can express the community around you”….can you expand on that?
My sense of the role of the artist in society is based on traditions that predate mass-market commercialism. In traditional societies, the musician and the poet are more like the griot, or the shaman. They serve the community, and to the extent that they express the community and steer the community well, the community responds. It becomes stronger, better defined, and healthier.
As a performer, for me there is a difference between impressing someone and moving them. Without raising the bar so high that I won’t be able to get over it next time I go out on stage; I have to admit that I came to a point in my performing life where I realized that I couldn’t serve these two masters: I had to choose. And in choosing I simultaneously wound up offering the audience a choice, too.
I’d rather you leave a performance feeling quietly (or deeply and profoundly) moved, than to have you walk away saying, “Wow, can he (play/sing/etc.).”
In my estimation, the ego is part of the gasoline that drives every human endeavor and we ignore it at our own peril. But it’s the gas! Give it the steering wheel, and you’re in the ditch. [To be fair, it is probably only the ego-driven who get to be rich and famous, but there could be another way to succeed, or perhaps another measure of success.]
Music is not a foot race, it’s a form of communication—hopefully an entertaining one.
And the role of the musician and the performer, as I see it, is to assemble from a group of strangers—who don’t know each other, and may not care about each other, or even feel comfortable with each other—a small, perhaps temporary community of agreement and hope.
I endeavor to use my knowledge of music, of history, of human beings, and of performing to do simply that, every time I find myself facing an audience no matter how big or how small. We all have professional responsibilities. I view this as part of mine, and perhaps the most important part.
In a certain kind of performance, people applaud a performer very personally and specifically. In other kinds of performances, people applaud when they recognize themselves suddenly in the work in which they are taking part. To have a dialogue, someone has to go first.
When I’m behind the mics, it’s me. But the success of the conversation isn’t one-sided. The feeling of community isn’t my doing. We do that together. When my audience applauds; I hear them applauding us—all of us.
DM: I take it you have been in this community for a couple of years-has being here changed you and your way of dealing with music? I imagine you had built a network in NC and came here without one. How is your approach to playing in front of neighbors different than playing on the road?
I have been here two years, come this Thanksgiving. I do have a network and a reputation that makes finding work and audiences easier in a certain way in North Carolina and that region. I lived in the area for almost twenty years and raised my sons there (Jesse, almost 22 at the New School living in Brooklyn; Gabe, 18, in Florida making his rent and planning on going to community college for two years then transferring to FSU to finish his degree).
I kept my touring to small chunks–usually no more than a week or ten days—so I could come home and be a dad. Almost all of my work is east of the Mississippi, between Wisconsin and Louisiana—but east. I am working on building an audience here in the Northeast, aiming to play festivals, community concert series, and present the educational concerts on the African roots of American music. These things don’t happen overnight.
I suppose you could say that I’m in transition. I’m happy to be here and grateful to have the work elsewhere, too.
As for playing in front of your neighbors, as opposed to playing on the road: it would be nice and easy to say there’s no difference, but there is.
I’m always a little nervous playing at home in my own neighborhood, and I’m almost never nervous on the road, no matter what the circumstance. I could make up some reason why I think that’s so, as you could, but I’m not sure I understand it that well.
Once I get started on stage, I rarely notice it, but there’s always a little more edge when I play the neighborhood. I suppose if I fail somewhere else, I can just get in the car. Here: I’d have to move. That would be a drag.
As I noted, just because they’re my feelings doesn’t mean that I’m an authority on this. I’m not at all sure that I get it.
DM: “You Better Lie Down” is my intro to your music and it sounds great – can you talk about what you wanted to communicate with that record and where you see your music going next?
“You Better Lie Down” is a very stripped down record. I play all the instruments—acoustic and National resonator guitars, fretless bass, mandolin—and all the parts. I recorded it in my living room. It was a solo project in every way. And as my third solo recording, I think I was aiming to hold to a certain emotional level while remaining inside the genre of gospel, blues and worksongs. I find the tracks still very moving, which is good, because usually after a recording is done, musicians are sick of it. I like the arrangements and the musicality of it, the songs, and the emotional feel in the tracks.
As for where I see my work going next, I can be pretty specific, in terms of recordings because I’m just finishing one now, “The Feral Crow,” which has been produced and recorded by Scott Petito over at NRS Recording Studio in Catskill, NY.
“The Feral Crow” is a collection of songs that haven’t fit on a blues recording, written over the past ten years of so. “Don’t Obey” is on it, along with some dark (or is ‘complicated’ a better word?) love songs, and some other songs of conscience.
“Confession” is a song written after the five men who killed Stephen Biko, who we might get away with describing as South Africa’s Malcolm X with no disrespect meant to either man.
It is written from the point of view of the torturers who go home and kiss their wives at the end of the day, and commit atrocities and war crimes as part of their job. This has unfortunately suddenly become more pertinent than I would have liked.
There is also “Rice Grows Again in Vietnam”–a healing song from a child’s point of view about the war there and its aftermath in our lives, and “It’s My World, Too” which sprang out of a NY Times article on the closing of US Steel back in the early 1980’s and was unearthed and finished for this record, again because of job losses, so-called ‘globalization’, and what’s going on in our communities today.
This is a record whose time has come. In many ways it’s a record I felt born to make.
On the other hand, the temptation to characterize this as a ‘change of direction’ seems misplaced. I’m not changing direction; I’m adding territory.
Of all the professional musicians I know, there are very, very few whose private musical lives are as limited as their professional identities. Everyone has music they love and are good at making and vitally interested in, that may not suit the marketplace that we have that is so rigidly stratified into genres.
These songs, and other musics have always been a part of my music life. It seems quite natural to bring them out into the open, especially now, when the themes have become so current, and when the songs might actually do the community some good by amplifying the issues emotionally and opening dialogue around the trouble we face and the trouble we’re making in the world.
DM: What do you hope to accomplish over the course of the rest of your career?
I’m sort of hoping to die flush, not too deep in the hole. (I’m laughing, but with that wry sort of chuckle that would let you know I just might be serious…).
My hope, as you might expect, is to continue to grow, to do pertinent and useful work from the stage and as a writer/performer. These are nearly platitudes, but they are that for a reason.
Replying to a question like this from Keith Murphy the other night – a great musician who lives across the street from us here in Brattleboro (Keith plays with Popcorn Behavior, Nightingale, and other ensembles) – I said something that we decided might be a good candidate for a musician’s aphorism:
“Get the record out and be happy.”
My hope is to continue to develop a wider audience, to be well enough known and thought of to sell a few tickets when I come to town, and to be home more than enough to have my friends and family still love me and recognize me!
DM: Lastly, I got the sense from your last email that you married your high school sweetheart after 35 years of friendship. Did I get that right? Is that what brought you to Brattleboro (VT)?
Yeah. Barb Ackemann (born: Schreck) and I have known each other nearly as long as I’ve played guitar. We went to different high schools together, spending the last two years of high school going out.
I succumbed—depending on who you talk to—to either temporary insanity or the lure of an unencumbered new life at college, and broke off our relationship in August of 1970.
By around Christmas, we’d each made our peace with that and have maintained our friendship ever since. Barb has always been in that class of friends that you might not see for a couple years, and when you suddenly do, it’s like no time has gone by—there’s no alienation, no distance, no awkwardness. She has always been a real gift in my life.
Not since 1970, have we thought that there’d be any way we might be married, but we’ve always loved, respected and trusted each other. At the risk of speaking for us both (something that any sane person would resist), I think we’re equally bemused and pleased to be able to spend these years of our lives together as husband and wife.
I really am delighted to be in Vermont, and in the Brattleboro community on its own merits; but she’s the reason I’m here. Beside being inaccurate, it would be foolish and preposterous to suggest anything else.
You know, most folks marry, enthralled with their love for each other, and then, if they’re lucky, they become good, old friends over the course of their marriage.
It isn’t news to anyone in my family that I’ve done this backwards.