We recently had the opportunity to sit down with San Francisco based singer/songwriter Blind Lemon Pledge. We discussed his eclectic tastes in music, changes in the music industry over the years, and the new record – Evangeline.
Let’s break the ice. Who are you? Where are you from? What style of music do you create?
I am a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and producer located in San Francisco, CA. Although my given name is James Byfield, I have performed under the name Blind Lemon Pledge since 2008 when I was able to devote myself to my music “full-time”. Unlike so many residents of our wonderful state, I am California born and bred.
I currently create a unique brand of Americana/Blues based music with a very eclectic mix of styles. From hardcore “deep” acoustic blues in the style of Son House and Fred McDowell to New Orleans inspired honky tonk to Bar Band rock to sophisticated jazz/blues. One person described it as Muddy Waters meets Hoagy Carmichael meets Bob Dylan meets Randy Newman. I play both original songs and covers.
Where did the name Blind Lemon Pledge come from? What’s the story behind that choice?
The name was lifted from an old routine by the singing comedian Martin Mull on his album “Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture”. When I recorded my first solo album in 2009, I took the name and created a whole fictitious backstory for the character which you can find on one of my websites (blindlemonpledge.james-creative.com). I loved the combination of humor and reference to blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson who is one of my musical idols. Sometimes I wish I had done a little more research, because it turns out several others have also used this name. But having already had some success with the name, I decided to stick with it. Luckily, I think my persistence and track record is winning out over others who are using the name. For instance there was a group in Willmington NC who were using it but finally gave up and started calling themselves BLP after I kept getting Facebook friend requests from their fans!
Who or what influenced you to choose the musical path?
I first began playing guitar at about 14 and quickly discovered the blues. For some reason the library of my High School in Palo Alto had a copy of a Son House record (the only blues record they had) and I used to go in on countless lunch hours and listen to that record over and over, as well as the music of Sleepy John Estes, Fred McDowell (whom I got to meet) , and Blind Lemon Jefferson. However my tastes and my path have been very eclectic. For years I played hard rock music as well as dabbling in folk, country, and jazz American Songbook standards. In 1967, I wrote “Rock Mass” which Time Magazine credited as being the first use of hard rock in a liturgical setting. I toured Northern California with this under the aegis of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. For a 5 year period, I dropped out of all other music and studied Chinese Classical music, learning to play the Er Hu (a two-stringed fiddle) under the tutelage of a local master.
In 2008, I decided to return to my roots and went back to the acoustic blues which had been such a formative part of my early music. And I have been following that path with significant variations ever since.
What music did you listen to when you were younger? How about now? Have your tastes changed?
When I first started playing guitar, folk music was the big fad which was then quickly followed by the great rock of the Sixties – from English Invasion to Motown, etc. I am not one to go back and listen very much to the music of my youth, other than blues. Over the years I have gotten heavily into Reggae and Kaiso (with several trips to Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean), early Punk and New Wave (still have a great record collection of this music including a signed Flipper 45), Jazz, 50s and early 60s Rock ‘n’ Roll (I own about 200 45s), R&B, Rap and Chinese and other Asian classical. And of course all kinds of blues from acoustic to electric, including jug band music. In some ways it’s easier to ask me what kind of music I am NOT into. As I keep saying…very eclectic tastes. Overall, the one binding factor is whatever grabs me in the gut and sounds genuine.
Having been at this for a while, what’s the most significant change you have noticed from the pre-social media music business to the post-social media biz?
The changes have been awesome and inspiring. Under the old construct, an indie eccentric like myself would have never had a chance of getting his music out to the public. But the access that social media provides has given me that chance to have my music heard worldwide. That being said, the downside to the online distribution companies is the poor rates they pay the musicians. Most of us get 1 penny for every singles download on Spotify, which means 100 listens gets you 1 dollar. But, if I was in it for the money, I certainly wouldn’t be playing my offbeat brand of blues and Americana.
Also, YouTube videos allow people who would never experience my music to see and hear me perform. Very cool. I have gotten fan email from Europe, Canada and Australia as well as the US.
Is the Internet helping you connect with fans and grow your fanbase? Are there any challenges you have had to overcome.
Yes, the internet is definitely good for connecting with fans. My biggest challenge is that I am personally not that great at using Facebook, etc. I forget to do it and find myself involved in my creative projects and neglecting the social aspect. I am kind of a one man show and it’s hard to keep up with all of it. Plus, I think I am a bit of a recluse and the “gossipy” aspect of social media doesn’t always fit my personality. I can’t imagine that anyone cares what I just had for dinner!
How has your genre changed over the years (if at all)?
Blues is interesting because it changes and doesn’t change all at the same time. There is always new blood adding interesting new twists to the forms and styles. But the basic I-IV-V pattern still dominates. It is such a basic foundation of all modern American influenced music from Jazz to Pop to Rock. I mean why change it? In my own small way, I think I have contributed by bending the genre in a lot of directions. I hardly ever write a straight ahead blues song and most of my covers have some interesting variation on the patterns.
What’s one of your favorite career moments?
The first time I heard my music played on the radio wins hands down!
What’s in store for Blind Lemon Pledge for the rest of 2014?
With the release of my new album “Evangeline” most of the rest of the year will be devoted to promoting and supporting the record. I have hired Americana Media Promotions in the US and Hemifran in Sweden to handle the US and European promotions. I’ve also gotten quite a lot of interest in Australia. Unfortunately, my current circumstances do not allow me to tour so most of my promotion is on the radio, internet and social media outlets.
Of course I will continue to play locally, usually about 5-7 shows a month. And I am writing the tunes for the next release.
Where can we connect with you online and hear your music? What about show dates?
The most important link for my music is my personal music site: www.james-creative.com. There you will find links to my albums and videos and get a great idea of the various projects I am involved in. I also have three band sites that are worth checking out: www.dustups.james-creative.com for my band The DustUps; www.blues.james-creative.com for my self-named band; and www.jazz.james-creative.com for my American Songbook/Jazz project, As Time Goes By. You can also find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/blind.pledge and on YouTube at: www.youtube.com/user/daddymongoose and www.youtube.com/user/dabluezz.
Any last thoughts? Shout outs?
I am hoping to really reach a lot of people with this new album. It all truly came together for me and I hope that people will understand and enjoy the music.
I would like to shout out to my lovely wife for putting up with living with the grizzled bluesman Blind Lemon Pledge; to my family for their encouragement and support; to my engineer, friend and music fan Arno Hachaduryan for showing me the possibilities of studio recording; and to all the musicians I have played with over the last several years most especially the ones who have appeared on my CDs and videos: Peter Grenell, Huntley Barad and John Freeman – bass; Cal Keaoola – fiddle extraordinaire; Scott Williams and John Pearson – cajon/percussion; Winston Andrews and Keith Mather – harmonica/Mississippi saxophone; Joe Adams, Jim O’Mara and Lucas Gonze – guitar and mandolin; and Susan Sullivan – keyboards.