Blues Master
Otis Taylor


Book Reviews

Sight & Sound

CD Reviews
DVD Reviews


- Feature-Molly McQuade
- Book Reviews
- Editor's Pick-Cave Temples of Maogo


The girls next door
Virgin Suicides DVD


folk pop sensation

Tim Easton


Lifetime Wordsmith
& Interviewer
Molly McQuade

From the Getty Trust:
Cave Temples of Maogo


- Monthly Beef
- Write Us
- Letters
- Bios
- Subscribe
- Submit

Search the IRS Archives

Watch for our newly
Archive Section.  
Coming Soon!

Husband, father, teacher...blues master
Otis Taylor is swimming up stream

   I went to see Otis Taylor at the newly minted Knitting Factory in Hollywood at the beginning of February. The Factory has two rooms, the "main" room which is large and has a big stage and no one notices when you go to the bathroom and don't come back. I saw Taylor in the other room, the closet where the bar looks like an after thought and you can hear your neighbors stomach growl. I was amazed at how good he was. He played with a practiced patience and precision, and a sense of compressed emotion slowly released like a breath. I wanted to see him in a larger room with more sound and my wishes were answered. He was asked to come back at the beginning of March and open for John Wesley Harding. The show was very gratifying. I was given the chance to interview Taylor at the March show and while I jumped at the chance to talk to him. I wasn't sure what a white girl from the valley might be able to glean from a black blues man from the south, but I'm always curious about people, and the more different they are from me, the greater my curiosity. Taylor was a gentleman, he gave me all his drink tickets, but in the great southern tradition, his politeness was a shield of sorts and he was a decidedly hard nut to crack on just about any issue I took up.

Walter Trout

Carlye Archibeque: So where have you been, since the last time I saw you in February?

Otis Taylor: I went home since you saw me. I went to Vancouver, back to Colorado, Toronto and then I went to Ottawa, and now I'm back here and then I go up to San Luis Obispo to play the BB King thing.

CA: Very cool.

OT: Yeah, I'm appearing Monday night.

CA: Is that your usual rugged tour schedule?

OT: You never know. I've had worse. I'm know how in Russia musicians would go to Siberia, and then when they got real famous they would go to Moscow...I'll go anywhere.

CA: So you just like to play?

OT: I guess I like to play. Well, I don't know if I like it. People say, "do you enjoy playing," and I say "no, does a line baker enjoy getting hit when he gets a little pass...not a line backer, a receiver. He's three feet up in the air and his feet are off the ground and they take him to the hospital. Does he really like that?

CA: Yeah, but you go back. I'm a writer and it's painful while I'm writing but I always go back.

OT: It's called a salmon.

CA: The salmon swimming up stream?

OT: Yeah, why do you have to swim up stream to die. You can just die where you are.

CA: So why do you swim up stream?

OT: Cause I'm a salmon.

OK then.

OT: Yeah, you gotta watch me, I'm real cute with interviews.

CA: Yeah, yeah. I did a Walter Trout interview and he kept saying he wanted to be a brain surgeon, so you're a salmon.

OT: He's a little too aggressive to be a brain surgeon.

CA: So would you be a good brain surgeon?

OT: No, hospitals make me sick.

CA: Your song "3Days and 3 Nights" about the sick little girl whose father can't afford to take her to the hospital, where did that come from?

OT: Well, my daughter was born with optiatrisha (sic), it's called. She was in the hospital for four and a half months from the day she was born. She had six operations, and we didn't have insurance.

CA: What is it?

OT: Her intestines weren't connected. One part gets real big and the other part's nothing. They have to stretch one part, shrink the other and hook it back together. It's very complicated.

CA: That's horrible.

OT: No, the thing is she's healthy now, she's an athlete. She does gymnastics. She's a very beautiful healthy girl, but for one procedure we only had insurance for eighteen months because my wife was laid off and if we didn't get it done in eighteen months we probably would have lost our house.

CA: So you just thought about what might have happened?

OT: I don't know how much I think about it. It's in my subconscious, I write a lot of things.

CA: That's what's great about your songs that a good blues writer has where it seems like every story happened to you even though you know it didn't.

OT: Well, it's happened to me or to somebody I know, or it's history. Or, it's really, I'm a storyteller. That's what they make movies and soaps about. Soaps are like, where'd they get this material from, it's just life. Life is so full of strange things and depressing things. I'm a little bit better with the depressing stuff I would have to say. There's like endless material.

CA: People like to hear a good depressing story.

OT: I don't know if they do, but it's what I'm good at. It's just endless, I don't even have to go to Europe, I can just stay here.

CA: When did you write your first song?

OT: Probably when I was like seven or eight.

CA: Seven or eight? What was it about?

OT: It was about, "any got a nickel or a dime or a penny will do..."

CA: Did you grow up poor?

OT: Oh yeah, oh yeah, I guess poor...

CA: In Chicago?

OT: Well, I was born in Chicago, raised in Denver. My father worked for the railroad, we were poor because we owned our own house, my friends were on welfare but they had food, sometimes we didn't have food because we had to pay a mortgage. It was a different kind of poor. But poor is different now than it was then. I'm fifty-two so, things are a lot different.

CA: What did you do with that song, did you perform it anywhere?

OT: No, no.

CA: So how did you come to perform for people?

OT: Well, I was a very ambitious little kid. I had a job sweeping floors in a bar.

CA: How old were you?

OT: Maybe ten. So I was sweeping the floor and they were playing a song, "Rockin' Robin," and I started dancing and people started throwing money and I made like ten dollars. It was like, 1959 it was and I was eleven years old, cause it was the Colorado Centennial. So I went to this Centennial fair and bought all this candy and stuff and went home and told my father and I got a whuppin.

CA: For spending all the money?

OT: No, for dancing in the bar.

CA: Was your family religious?

OT: No, it just was not cool. My father couldn't adjust to that. But I think I must have sensed it like a shark. I sensed the blood...

CA: You made the connection.

OT: So it was my first performance and I made a lot of money, that was a lot of money for an eleven year-old kid in the fifties.

CA: That's pretty good, you must have been a good dancer.

OT: noooo.

CA: Cute kid?

OT: I had charisma.

CA: So what does music do for you? Obviously you're drawn to it. Does it make you feel good, make you feel bad?

OT: It makes me feel good when I'm playing at home. It doesn't necessarily feel good when I'm on the stage. When I'm at home I'm doing things. I get in a very hypnotic kind of trance. I don't know if I get high...

CA: So if you like playing at home more than in clubs and you don't like playing for people, then why do you do it?

OT: Cause I'm a salmon, I told you.

CA: The titles of your albums are great, WHEN NEGROES WALKED THE EARTH, WHITE AFRICAN.

OT: I'm a poet.

CA: I'm a poet too.

OT: No, I hate poetry. I'm a poet in the sense of ... I'm just a poet. I like The Black Poets (a poetry group from the 60's.) They were like part of the Black Panther Movement. "Wake up nigger before it's too late, wake up nigger before it's too late, my sister's on the street, my baby's being eaten by rats and whitey's on the move." You know stuff like that. It's real graphic. I love that stuff. It's really graphic...not a lot of words and I like that style. Just bam right there, "whitey's on the move."

CA: Your stuff is a lot like that. You approach a lot of race issues.

OT: Yeah, people like that.

CA: Do you do it because people like it or do you want to make a point?

OT: No, I'm not trying to make a point, It's just easy to write about that. It's like, hungry people has nothing to do with race, but everybody thinks it's a race issue.

CA: It does seem like that.

OT: It has nothing to do with race it has to do with like a bag lady, the bag lady song, could be a white bag lady, a black bag lady...

CA: The first song on your CD?

OT: That's about race. The second song is about death, it has nothing to do with race, it's actually about a friend and his wife, he's not black, but somehow... It's only fifty percent race...but a lot of songs are white, so if I'm at fifty it's a high level.

CA: Your liner notes on the new CD has pictures of black men from the late twenties who were picked up for vagrancy, so it has that air to it.

OT: That's cause I collect photos.

CA: And your CD titles WHEN NEGROES WALKED THE EARTH, which is a great title...

OT: I think WHITE AFRICAN is a great title...

CA: It is, and what a great cover photo. Who did that?

OT: Len Irish, he does all my photos, he's an old friend of mine...he's white.

CA: Do you listen to rap at all?

OT: Not much, my kids do.

CA: I've been asking everyone what their opinion of all the Eminem controversy is. Do you know who he is?

OT: My thought is just that white people get to make all the money when they do what black people do. Before Eminem it was Vanilla Ice, Mick Jagger, and Elvis. That's my thought, you know what I'm saying.

CA: What kind of music do you give to other people when you want them to hear the blues.

OT: I don't cause I don't listen to the blues, I listen to Irish music, I listen to other kinds of music. I take in the other influences and make them part of the blues. The blues are part of my heritage.

CA: So blues music is just a job for you is that what you're telling me.

OT: Hey, I'm just a salmon.

CA: But salmon are swimming upstream to mate, to carry on the species, are you carrying on the blues species? Maybe without even knowing it?

OT: Maybe. I don't know. I try not to think about it.

White African
NorthernBlues Music

White African

   Born in Illinois and raised in Colorado, Otis Taylor fell in love with folk music and wrote his first song before he was ten years old. He made his first money as a performer before he was fifteen, and formed his first blues band in 1964, the year I was born, in his mid twenties. Taylor plays acoustic guitar, harmonica, mandolin, banjo and electric banjo. He plays electric banjo so well that the Blue Star Guitar Company created an electric banjo dubbed "Otis Taylor." People are always citing musicians who were born to play the blues, Otis Taylor seems to play to give birth to the blues. WHITE AFRICAN is a heartfelt, heart-wrenching album full of music that fills your soul, but also fills your mind and your ears with music.

   "My Soul's in Louisiana, the first song on WHITE AFRICAN begins with the low insistent clang of a train crossing that gets louder until it seems that it is right on top of you. Underneath this sound, the slow sure strumming of Otis Taylor's guitar rises until it has replaced the insistence of the warning bells with and insistence of its own. Then come the lyrics:

Well my soul's in Louisiana
But my body lies in Tennessee
I didn't kill, kill no brakeman
I didn't kill no engineer
well the white man
pointed his finger
and he said
what he always says
they didn't bother,
bother to hang me
they just shot me on the spot

   Simple, and direct, the story seeps into your consciousness igniting a natural anger at the tale you are being told and all the while you tap your fingers to the music. It is a tale of injustice, racism and murder told by a dead man, at least it seems so in the hands of a storyteller and blues player like Taylor.

   In both Taylor's telling of the tale and his music, less is more. "My Soul's in Louisiana" has only a guitar, bass (by Kenny Pasarelli) and Taylor singing. Some of the songs might have light backing vocals or an additional guitar. "Round and Round," about how hard it is to make a relationship work, contains only vocals and harmonica, both supplied by Taylor. Most contemporary music is so bloated with big sound, big stars and big production that Taylor's music is comforting in its simplicity. You can hear the delicate and dynamic qualities of the instruments and let them melt into your mind, The lyrics accompanying the music are simple stories powerful in their morality and made more powerful by Taylor's dedicated telling.

   It would seem at first glance, judging from the title, WHITE AFRICAN, the opening song, and the liner notes graced with antique photos of black men arrested for vagrancy in Kansas in the late 20's, that Taylor's music has a decidedly racial agenda. The truth is that most of the songs on the CD are about universal suffering. In reality, even the two songs that speak specifically to black experience, "My Soul's in Louisiana" and "Saint Martha Blues" speak of the universality of suffering and loss. We all like to talk about the suffering we know best, and it happens that Taylor knows what it is to be a black man best. It also happens that his storytelling talent allows him to know what it's like to be a drunk Navajo man ("Lost My Horse") and a homeless woman ("Hungry People").

Carlye Archibeque

White African


White African

Back To The Top