Blues singer-songwriter-guitarist and historian Scott Ainslie is an innate musician and a true gentleman. After listening to John Jackson play at a high school assembly while in his teens, Ainslie found his way to music and never looked back. Over the years, he’s played with John Jackson, Ernie Hawkins, Etta Baker, Mike Seeger and the Fly By Night String Band, among others. He’s a gifted storyteller and an exceptional musician whose musical journey has enriched his life (and others) beyond his wildest dreams. We talked at length one winter day and he explained how he came to choose music as his calling….
Recently, one of the list correspondents commented:
“I’ve gotten the impression from reading about early Delta blues and country blues that the white A & R men who lugged “portable” recording devices into the South starting around 1926 and on into Robert Johnson’s time were looking for two things. 1) marketable vocal & instrumental skills, and, perhaps more important 2) original lyrics…It seems to me that these two skills reached a flowering in the person of Robert Johnson.
No other blues performers I’ve heard from the ’20s & ’30s come close to Johnson’s lyric breadth and depth.”
While Johnson’s work represents a kind of genius at once communal and individual, drawing as it did from the rich work of earlier performers and his contemporaries; I believe there is another reason that Johnson’s work really stands apart from the recordings of earlier performers: Johnson understood just how long a 78 r.p.m. side was. Continue Reading
Full text of Scott’s notes about the song:
The song “Don’t Obey” began developing after a reading of Howard Zinn’s marvelous Declarations of Independence: Cross Examining American Ideology in the spring of 2003. It is a song in the Gandhian tradition of nonviolent engagement and finds some of its inspiration more recently from the Israeli military men and women–now numbering over 1,000—who have refused to serve or bomb in the occupied territories.
In the book, Zinn quotes British scientist and essayist C. P. Snow. In 1961, 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. The German Officer Corps were brought up in the most rigorous code of obedience…in the name of obedience they were party to, and assisted in, the most wicked large scale actions in the history of the world.”
—Quoted in Milgram, Obedience to Authority, (Harper & Row, 1974)
Examining the historical context of the Blues is tricky for anyone, though perhaps doubly so for Whites. The music was built, freely played and enjoyed by people of color whose lives, livelihoods–and, sometimes, deaths–were shaped by forces on the loose in the American landscape that are unexamined and unfamiliar to many listeners. I do not believe this is out of callousness generally, but is more due to the fact that this dark history is glossed over or entirely absent in our schools. Continue Reading
Here’s BluesNotes for April, 2004 – I hope this finds you well, curious, and happy. This issue of BluesNotes presents excerpts of an article on three books in the NY Review of Books (March 25, 2004) by George M. Fredrickson entitled, America’s Original Sin.
In his article, Fredrickson notes that each of these books offer its own perspective on “the enslavement and brutal exploitation of millions of people of African descent over a period of almost 250 years,” and goes on:
“From whatever angle it is examined … slavery left deep scars that have not yet healed. Its legacy persists to this day in the failure to extend full equality to African-Americans. Slavery and its consequences, these books tell us, were not incidental or secondary aspects of American history but constitute its central theme. Rather than being an exception to the grander themes of liberty and democracy, slavery and the racism it engendered have exposed the shallowness and narrowness of the national commitment to these ideals.”
- Shelley Ritter, Executive Director, DBM
- Scott Ainslie, CEO, Cattail Music, Ltd.
Blues Guitarists and Singers Give Back:
New Delta Blues Museum Media Archive established to pass the music to a new generation
[Clarksdale, MS – May 11, 2011] Delta Blues legend Robert Johnson was born in Mississippi on May 8, 1911. Following closely on the centennial celebrations of Johnson’s birth, a new Delta Blues Museum Media Archive has been established at the Delta Blues Museum as a way of assuring that the legacy of original performers of this great American musical tradition will live for another hundred years. Filled with hundreds of hours of Blues instructional DVDs for guitarists, singers and keyboard players – as well as archival footage of senior performers like Son House, Skip James, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters – the archive promises to be a windfall for the life of the museum.
Photographs by Scott Ainslie
Exhibited In Lafayette & Lake Charles Galleries
[DATELINE: LOUISIANA, Spring & Summer 2011]
Scott Ainslie, blues musician, songwriter and scholar, was traveling through the Mississippi Delta in the Spring of 2010, when he shot the photographs that make up his “Delta Blues Pilgrimage,” currently on exhibit through August 20, 2011 at The Historic City Hall Arts & Cultural Center in Lake Charles, LA. The show was first exhibited at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, LA. These are the first exhibits of Ainslie’s images and constitute his debut as a visual artist.
See photos of the show, and a slide show of the images
with captions at the Delta Blues Pilgrimage website.
Here we find the Tutwiler railroad tracks where W.C. Handy – the man billed as “The Father of the Blues” – first heard a slide guitarist in 1902. And then there’s Dockery’s Plantation where Charley Patton influenced three generations of bluesmen, the black river town of Friars Point, and the towns of Robert Johnson’s birth and death.
Ainslie first came to Louisiana more than a decade ago under the auspices of the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette where his work helped inspire the development of the Louisiana Crossroads concert series.
The Louisiana Crossroads season 11 series poster and program guide contain many of Ainslie’s images as well as his essay “The Walkin’ Blues: Tracing Robert Johnson.” 2011 marks the centennial of Johnson’s birth.
Ainslie appeared on stage in a live broadcast at Central School Theatre in Lake Charles in January 2011 with noted Louisiana songwriters/musicians David Egan and Sam Broussard as they retraced the life and music of blues legend Robert Johnson.
Ainslie is also the author of “Robert Johnson: At The Crossroads,” a book of transcriptions of Johnson’s recordings with annotated lyrics, an overview of Johnson’s biography, and historical notes.
Ainslie has released five solo recordings and produced “Care For All,” a benefit CD for the ‘Healthcare Is A Human Right’ campaign in Vermont. His latest CD, “Thunder’s Mouth,” features Lafayette’s own Sam Broussard on guitar.
A Benefit for the NC Symphony
After the ball was over: (L-R) NC Symphony VP for Artistic Operations Scott Freck and Conductor/Musical Director Grant Llewellyn; Musicians Joe Newberry, Branford Marsalis, Scott Ainslie and Phil Wiggins enjoy each other’s company at the reception following the Branford Marsalis & Friends Benefit for the NC Symphony. (photo: Michael Zirkle)
Marsalis Benefit for the NC Symphony raises $143,000
About a year ago, my friend Joe Newberry, began taking part in a series of conversations with the NC Symphony about broadening the symphony’s musical focus as a way of developing new fundraising opportunities. In addition to being a sturdy and brilliant old-time musician and songwriter, Joe also happens to be the Public Information Officer for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
Facing $8 million in budget cuts this year, the North Carolina Symphony enlisted Branford Marsalis and his longtime collaborator, pianist and composer Joey Calderazzo to help them out with a ‘Branford & Friends’ sort of concert. A lot of the pieces were in place, but the artistic staff at the symphony thought that something else was needed to round out the program.
In late April, I got a message on my answering machine from Joe. He was apparently sitting with conductor Grant Llewellyn puzzling over what the last piece of the musical puzzle might be, when he thought of me.
“Scott: this is Joe, buddy. Listen, I’ve got a proposition for you – and I want you to say ‘Yes’ without thinking about it. Just say ‘Yes,’…..” and Joe briefly laid out the date, the players, and the cause.
Yes, was the word.
So, we emailed mp3 files and song ideas back and forth and came up with a program. When asked, I wrote that in a perfect world, I would love to hear Joey and Branford play “It’s Gonna Rain” with me, a song off my latest release, “Thunder’s Mouth,”– a paean to New Orleans. Branford’s a Breaux Bridge boy. I got friends – actually more family than friends – on Bayou Teche. It’s a song I hoped we could meet in.
We all assembled at Meymandi Concert Hall in downtown Raleigh at around 2:30 on the day of the show. And we rehearsed all afternoon. Really. Until almost 6:00.
These guys are good.
So, on the evening of June 8th, a sold out crowd of 1700 enjoyed a varied program featuring Marsalis playing original jazz pieces with Calderazzo, Mozart with the symphony’s string quartet, an old-time string band, a female gospel soprano, a blues singer-guitarist, and a harmonica virtuoso. The evening raised more than $140,000 as the symphony closed in on narrowing the budget gap with sacrifices from the musicians, donations from the corporate world, and the sustaining support of musicians, patrons and the community.
Under the title, “Jubilant Success for Marsalis Fundraiser,” on June 10th, NC Symphony President and CEO David Worters, wrote:
“From the first minutes of our June 8 benefit concert, I think everyone in that sold-out concert hall suspected they were in for a musical adventure like none other. Some three hours later, the audience knew that to be true, having heard an amazing array of music performed by some of the most brilliant artists in the world.
“I don’t know how to really do justice to what took place, so let me just start by saying thanks to everyone who played a role on stage: our leader Branford Marsalis and his stupefyingly talented pianist Joey Calderazzo, Joe Newberry and his incomparable string band Big Medicine, our NCS string quartet of Rebekah Binford, Karen Strittmatter Galvin, David Marschall and Bonnie Thron that played so beautifully, the unstoppable Phil Wiggins on harmonica, Tina Morris-Anderson and her heart-stopping vocals, our new best friend Scott Ainslie – and of course our own Grant Llewellyn: emcee, host, pianist (!), and guest vocalist.
“It’s truly impossible to cite just a few moments as the highlights of what took place on stage at Meymandi Concert Hall…the evening was a spell-binding musical journey and made for a remarkable tribute to an orchestra – the North Carolina Symphony – that these artists all share as a common passion.”
Worters went on to thank the corporate sponsors and community leadership for their support of the symphony and this particular concert.
Late in the second set, Branford, Joey Calderazzo and I (all with heartfelt connections to Louisiana) did play “It’s Gonna Rain”– my song about lost love in New Orleans and south Louisiana that morphed into a requiem for the city after Katrina. The poignancy of the piece has been amplified by the oil continuing to pour into the Gulf of Mexico and the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire. The performance was greeted with sustained applause.
At the end of the evening, I had the privilege of leading off with the first verse in an encore of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” with the full string quartet, Calderazzo on piano and Marsalis on sax, the string quartet and all hands on deck. Even Grant Llewellyn took a verse. The show closed in a torrent of applause.
We are all hoping to be able to work together again. There is already some talk of a Blues program with the full symphony down the road. And I’ll drive or fly anywhere to play with Joey and Branford again. Many new friends made on-stage and off. Musical meetings and friendships are rarely so easy, so quick, and so deep. So much good came of the evening, it’s hard to know where to start counting.
Acoustic Guitar Magazine, June, 2010
Examples online at http://acousticguitar.com
Profile: Scott Ainslie
By Doug Young
Like his music, Scott Ainslie is a study in contrasts.
A soft-spoken gentleman offstage, his performances use an aggressive, bluesy playing style to support his powerful voice. Both a music historian and modern-day bluesman, Ainslie can channel Robert Johnson with the best, and his own compositions seem to convey a deep appreciation of tradition and a sense of cultural roots.
His songs can be hauntingly beautiful or gritty and brash, but they are always thought provoking, whether he’s interpreting traditional tunes or contemplating current social and political issues through his compositions.
A thoughtful scholar and schooled musician, Ainslie has recorded five albums including his latest, Thunder’s Mouth, which features originals and songs by Son House, J.B. Lenoir, and others. He is also the author of a book, Robert Johnson: At the Crossroads, and a DVD lesson about Robert Johnson’s guitar techniques.
I talked to Ainslie about his approach to arranging, including the use of tension and contrast, while exploring his version of the traditional tune “Wayfaring Stranger,” which he arranged for his first album, Jealous of the Moon. Continue Reading
Scott Ainslie: FolkAtFestival.com Interview
Kerrville Folk Festival, 2008
The Land That I Love: Social Activism and Music
Scott had been instructing in the Blues Guitar Workshop for several days, but in his first appearance at Kerrville’s Kennedy Theater, he showed his other side, that of activist songwriter.
FAF: You have a new song, which you performed for your encore.
SCOTT: This was the first performance of the song.
FAF: And you haven’t decided on the title for this song?
SCOTT: I haven’t quite decided yet. It’s a song that begins with the NAFTA Treaty and its impact on Mexicans. And what NAFTA has done, there were deals cut under the table that weren’t advertised, and that lowered the tariffs on American corn getting into Mexico.
And so great big huge corporate farms are competing with little tiny, hand [tilled] farms – family farms – in Mexico. And of course they are undercutting the sale of corn that’s grown an acre away from the market.
And people can’t stay on their farms and so they’re walking through the Sonoran Desert out in Arizona and crossing the border to try and make some kind of a living while the corporations are raking the cream off the market in Mexico. So this song, the working title for me is, “The Land That I Love,” which, it really is written from a migrant’s point of view. And it felt good to sing it tonight. I think it’s a song that works. Continue Reading