Full circle: Festival headliner first heard the blues in Germany
For Big Daddy Wilson, his performance as the headliner for the Bull Durham Blues Festival is like a return home – in ways both geographical and musical.
“I’m very happy ... to be coming back to Carolina,” Wilson said in a phone interview. “For me, it’s a full circle to come back to North Carolina.”
Wilson is doing a United States tour, which next week will take him back to Edenton, his hometown on the North Carolina coast, where he will perform at the Taste of Edenton festival. After the United States tour, he returns to Europe, where he will continue touring from his home base near Bremen, Germany.
That’s where Wilson first heard the blues. During his Army days, he was stationed in Germany, where he met Anna, his wife. In the mid-1980s, she took him to his first blues concert, where he said he heard musicians from the Netherlands, Germany and other European countries performing American blues. “It just blew me away. … I knew when I first heard that sound, ‘This is you,’” Wilson said. “I was extremely shy. It took awhile before I convinced myself that this was my calling.”
He answered an advertisement from a band that needed a singer. “I had written a lot of poems. I went and tried out for this band because I thought this was a way to get my song done by a band,” Wilson said.
He got the job, and his discovery of the blues began. “I started learning about all the great blues musicians,” he said. Among the makers of the tradition that he discovered were Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller and other Piedmont blues artist. He learned about Davis from guitarist and songwriter Eric Bibb, and wrote a tribute to Davis titled “I Heard the Angels Singin.’ ” Before he heard Bibb sing one of Davis’ tunes, “I never knew that Carolina was so rich. …. I didn’t know nothing about that. Our folks kept us from the blues. Blues was considered bad music. I don’t know why.”
Wilson has several recordings under his name, among them “Get on Your Knees and Pray,” recorded with the Mississippi Grave Diggers, “Love Is the Key,” “I’m Your Man,” and several recordings with blues musician Doc Fozz.
His preferred style in performance is acoustic blues, but on his recordings he will mix in electric blues. (He mentions guitarists Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Buddy Guy among the electric guitarist he admires.) Wilson sings, plays guitar and drums.
Bibb remains a strong influence on his music. “When we talk about acoustic blues, one of my heroes is Eric Bibb, who is in my mind one of the best acoustic blues musicians,” Wilson said. “He goes back to the roots, but at the same time, it’s modern.”
Growing up in Edenton, Wilson heard gospel music in church, and country music on the radio. Although the church at times frowned on the blues, the music “is spiritual to me. You can be spiritual without being associated with the church,” he said. Country musicians “had a brilliant way of making these short stories.” Now, when he writes songs, stories are an important element. “That’s what I got from listening to country,” he said.
“I consider myself a storyteller. Acoustic guitars and instruments are the best platforms, so the voice can stand out” and the stories can be heard.
At the blues festival Saturday, Wilson will be performing in a trio, with Italian musicians Paolo Legramandi on bass and Roberto Morbioli on guitar. The trio is a reflection of the strong following the blues has in Europe. “The people who listen to the blues [in Europe] are great supporters of the blues. They really love this music. … They really respect this music and are dedicated to it,” Wilson said.
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: 26th Bull Durham Blues Festival
WHEN: Saturday. Doors open at 5 p.m., music begins at 6.
WHERE: Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville St.
ADMISSION: Tickets are $25 in advance, $35 at the door. To purchase, call 919-683-1709 or visit www.hayti.org.
ALSO: Several lots near Hayti Heritage Center will have parking available. For information, visit www.hayti.org.