Michael Witthaus Interview, The Eagle Times 2004

Scott Ainslie at the Windham Tonight
by Michael Witthaus, The Eagle Times

It’s common knowledge that the vast majority of popular music owes a debt to American blues, but few have set about repaying it with Scott Ainslie’s sense of purpose.  He brings his musical teach-in to the Windham on the Square in Bellows Falls tonight at 8.

Ainslie, whose live shows channel the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and other icons of the blues canon, explains that it’s “about redressing our musical history,” and acknowledging that he’s made a career in “a musical culture I wasn’t born in – I played my way in.  Presenting blues to non-blues audiences is 90 percent of the work I do,” and  he tries to “introduce songs in ways that open them up to audiences both emotionally and historically.”

It’s not charity that’s kept him in business, however.  He’s played professionally for 20 years, and has a natural touch on his 1931 National Steel guitar with standards near and far.   B.B. King’s “Losing Faith In You”  gets an acoustic makeover, but loses none of the soulful luster of the original.   His gravelly voice has the authority of the masters he so admires.  One of the show’s highlights is a reworking of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me”, which wasn’t born a blues tune, but grows nicely into the role.

But Ainslie’s sets at the Windham will be as much about exposing the roots, or African Retentions, of the music as the songs themselves.  He views role of the artist in society as  the role of the “shaman or griot”, a traditional keeper of the stories.  Between songs, “I’d rather share facts than tell jokes,” he says.   Spend a little time talking with him, and you’re going to learn something.

During his set, he brings out a cigar box contraption with a broomstick jutting out, a single string from the stick’s end to the box’s gut.  It’s called a “diddley bow”, and in the late 19th century, it was often a sharecropper’s ‘cigarbox’ guitar. It’s also what gave blues legend Bo Diddley his name and his signature custom-made rectangular guitar.

He’s also written a biography,  “Robert Johnson/At The Crossroads” about one of the blues’ greatest players.   Johnson’s life is the stuff of legend and mystery.  He supposedly traded his soul to the devil for his guitar skills, and his final resting place is shrouded in mystery.  Ainslie’s research told a different story:  the bargain with the devil was likely a gambit to scare off attempts at retribution.

Johnson was a famous philanderer, and his death was the consequence of such hijinks – he was fed strychnine-laced whiskey by a jealous husband.   His grave’s  exact location  is still unknown.  “Eye-witnesses have put it in at least three locations,” he says, but as far as Ainslie’s concerned, “what we need to know about Robert  Johnson is contained in the recordings he made—astonishing documents of American music.”

When he can, he brings the music into schools – he’s taught the subject everywhere from kindergarten to graduate school.   He shows not only how the music feels now, but how it felt then, hoping to convey each song’s “throw weight – how hard it would have hit someone the 1930s when it was sung.”   Ainslie’s goal is to give “a song a place to live [so it’s] not just another 12-bar blues.” He calls his work in the schools “a teaching concert.” He shies away from the “L-word”:  lecture.

He’s been living in Brattleboro since moving from North Carolina two years ago.  However, apart from a recent program at Colby-Sawyer College in New London,.he hasn’t had an opportunity to do much teaching in the area.  It’s an issue of critical mass:  “there’s very little money, even with Arts Council subsidies [so] most of the work falls in places where there are more people.”

As a result, these days he performs mostly outside the classroom, not that it stifles his passion for teaching.  “I’ll even tell the stories in some of the loud, rowdy bars I play,” he says.  At the Windham, he’ll play the blues, of course, but also covers from Van Morrison to Steven Foster.

He’ll also do selections from “Feral Crow”, an upcoming “non-blues” record.  It reflects Ainslie’s contemporary influences – Dylan, Sting and Phil Ochs, among others. One of the new songs,  “Don’t Obey” is reminiscient of Bruce Cockburn, or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s response to the Kent State killings in 1970, “Ohio”.   Written in response to a C.P. Snow quote concerning  “the hideous crimes … committed in the name of obedience”, it adds Ainslie’s name to the growing list of artists using music to make clear their beliefs.

He says, “it’s not a political song, although the recent past may have made it into one, but rather a statement of conscience.”  It’s  available as a free download on his website (www.cattailmusic.com).

Ainslie’s sense of social justice goes back to his childhood in Washington, D.C, where he witnessed John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession and watched Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech live on local television.  What was at stake shapes him now.

“It’s profoundly hard to address race in this country without setting off everyone’s alarms. As a white man who plays blues, everything I do is racially charged, whether I want to address it or not.  The issue is evident and in place the moment you walk on stage and you’re not African American and you want to play the blues.  When I was 15 you had to decide whether you were gonna be in front of the police dogs or behind them, because there was no grey area when it came to civil rights.  These people either have a right to live like we do or they don’t.”

In that spirit, forty years later Scott Ainslie attempts to, in sharecropper parlance, “settle accounts.”

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