Blue Ridge Now: Musician Caught by the Blues

By Robin Tolleson, Times-News Online, Hendersonville NC

July 22, 2011

Scott Ainslie has a high calling. He’s a blues and traditional roots musician, a bluesvhistorian, storyteller, teacher, record producer and ethnomusicologist. He’s developed a strong voice and conscience to match.

“Folk music has always been a vehicle for commenting on what’s going on,” he says. “It’s not surprising to find musicians invested in social justice causes. I’m just one of those guys.”

“We hold a mirror up for the community to remind them of their history, and ask them if they’re happy with what they see.”

Ainslie, 58, grew up just outside of Washington and was touched by both the civil rights and anti-war movements. When he was 16, he heard local bluesman John Jackson and immediately began teaching himself guitar.

“I walked in curious about folk music, and walked out a guitar player,” he says. “John just sank the hook so deep.”

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Buffy Saint-Marie, Richie Havens and others joined in awakening Ainslie’s conscience.

“My allegiance is with working people and folks that tend to be written off. But first and foremost, I’m a musician,” he says. “I love the noises we make and the people who have shared their musical lives with me.”

Ainslie has made a point of studying the culture and history of the blues musicians whose songs he sings.

“Knowing the background of what a song meant when it was initially played, who played it and how they lived, that deepens the emotional experience,” he says.

“I’ve always had a delight in African and African-American culture and people,” he says.

“We learn what we love. That’s the stuff that sticks. But it’s the price of admission — when you’re crossing cultural boundaries and racial boundaries, you really need to have a deep respect and love for what it is and how it’s come to you.”

Ainslie sings Lonnie Johnson’s “Broken Levee Blues,” Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen,” Jackson’s “Rocks and Gravel,” and illuminates the civil rights/gospel classic “Wade in the Water.”

“I’ve amassed a certain amount of historical information to get a sense of the context. It’s due diligence if you’re going to play the music.”

He wrote the song “Don’t Obey” about Israeli soldiers refusing to serve in occupied Palestinian lands. He wrote “Confession” about the torture of Steven Biko and other political prisoners. He wrote “It’s Gonna Rain” about losing love in New Orleans and then losing New Orleans. His latest composition, “The Land That I Love,” tells the story of a Mexican immigrant who died in the Arizona desert in 2007.

“I write a song when something feels like it has to be said that I don’t find being said,” Ainslie says. “What I write has to measure up against music that might be 70 or 80 years old, songs that have survived the test of time and hundreds of tongues singing them.”

Ainslie gained confidence in his own voice while singing in the production “Cotton Patch Gospel” at Lamb’s Theatre in New York in 1981.

“There was no sound reinforcement for the show, so you either got the words to the back wall or they got somebody else to do your job. For eight months, eight shows a week, I sang loudly and clearly.”

Since then, Ainslie has lent that voice to peace and justice issues whenever possible, recalling, “As Gandhi said, there’s very little one person can do to affect the state of the world, but it’s very important that they do it.”

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