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Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton plays Blues

Eve Jeffery

Blind Boy Paxton is another must-see Bluesfest debutant in 2016. Paxton may only be in his 20s but get ready to be transported back to the 1920s by this young gun, who may be one of the greatest multi-instrumentalists that you have not heard of. Yet.

Paxton has an eerie ability to transform traditional jazz, blues, folk, and country into the here and now, and make it real. In addition, he mesmerises audiences with his humour and storytelling.

I caught up with Jerron while he was eating a late lunch in LA.

Where are you and what time is it?

I’m in Los Angeles and it’s 3.30 in the afternoon. Good afternoon!

Busy afternoon?

No, I’m just taking it easy, enjoying being around home and being round my mum and that.

Wikipedia says you are from LA but your grandparents moved from Louisiana and that was possibly an influence on you. Is that accurate?

My grandmother’s from Louisiana, my grandfather’s from Arkansas. That’s the demographic usually around here, around south Los Angeles. Lots of Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas around here. The music they listened to back home, that’s the music they listened to out here, so that’s all I ever heard.

The style of music you play dates back almost 100 years. Does it still feel fresh to you? Are you still able to find new energy in it?

Certain types of music I play go back three or four hundred years! People dig it and people love it; I’m very happy that they do.

Do you feel that by playing nostalgic styles of music you are helping to keep them alive?

Well yes, that’s how it works!

It has been said that you are the only musician of your generation to truly understand the music of that time in history – do you agree and does that put a lot of pressure on you?

No, there’re many people I believe of all different ages – even my age too and my generation – who understand the old music. You just don’t hear it from them too much.

You play the banjo, fiddle, piano, harmonica, squeezebox, ukulele, guitar, and the bones. Do you feel that you picked up instruments the way children of your age would have picked up playing sports, driving and watching TV?

The poor people where I lived didn’t have the internet until it was about time for me to graduate from college, so a lot of folks didn’t have computers. A lot of us grew up playing a lot of sports, basketball and football, around here, but just as many people grew up in traditions with their grandparents. My grandma used to pull me out of school to go fishing! She was cool! [laughs]. You don’t see too many grandparents like that.

Was it because you couldn’t see that you played music rather than chasing footballs?

Well I could see in my younger days. I could see real well. As a matter of fact, I was a good shot. I still am a good shot! I can’t see most of the things I’m aiming at. If I could find it I could shoot it you know. Yeah, don’t wear no white pants around me if I don’t like you [laughing].

Which instrument do you enjoy playing the most?

They’re all about the same. Music is music.

Thoughts about the banjo? It’s heavy emotionally and historically. Do you feel the weight of that on any levels?

There’s a relationship because it’s an adaptation of an African instrument. Most of the black people in America were not allowed to retain any of their African culture. They had to create their own culture here. So I’d say it’s pretty American what happened to the banjo, and I feel it’s a good representation of my culture. I try to sing songs that are representative of it.

I don’t play a heavy instrument, I play the original instrument, or as close to the original as I can get. I play a model of banjo from 1848, which is much closer in sound to what the banjo sounded like before emancipation.

Where did you get that 1848 banjo?

I had a friend build it for me. I found a banjomaker who made those kind of instruments, and I asked him for one! It’s hard to get original versions of those. Not a lot of them survived. They’re really organic instruments, they decay real easily and they’re fragile. That’s why I travel with a replica. The airlines broke two of them in 2014. I’m very glad they’re not originally from 1848!

Ever had the chance to play an original one?

Yes, at my friend’s house.

Is your audience a lot of older people or are young people getting into it?

A lot of the people who listened to the music I play are about gone. The last generation of those people were dying off when I was born, so there’s only a few of them from that generation. But it’s a good mix sometimes; there’re some older people there but a lot of times it’s younger people who get introduced to the music for the first time, and there’s something about it they really enjoy.

How has Recorded Music for Entertainment been received?

People seem to be enjoying it every place they listen to it.

Is there a new record on the way soon?

Always!

You’ll be in Byron Bay, which is famous for surfing. Would you want to try that?

I’ve got to learn how to swim first!

What have you got for the Bluesfest audience?

More good music of course!

What are you eating?

Tuna cheese fry!

It is said that you’re influenced by the music of Fats Waller and ‘Blind’ Lemon Jefferson?

Yes.

What is it about those artists you like?

The way they move harmony around.

Do you think blues can be a challenge for modern music, or modern musicians?

Yes, it’s easy to get wrong.

Is it dangerous territory?

It depends. It all depends on your education. The desert is dangerous territory if you ain’t used to it. I bet ya’ll call that the outback down there! If you ain’t educated on the ways of the desert or the ways of the country, any place is dangerous territory, and the same is true musically. You know, you can’t play Beethoven unless you’ve got an idea on what you’re educated about Beethoven.

Your videos and photos show you love that old-fashioned style. Do you live that style? Is it part of who you are or a costume you put on when you perform?

I like wearing good clothes and I like having a good sense of style.

Thanks for your time. Hope to catch up when you’re at Bluesfest!

You too. Bye bye.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday at the Juke Joint

See the special edition Bluesfest 2016 liftout here.


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