David Bromberg on his career and studying with Reverend Gary Davis
David Bromberg's eclectic musical expertise is rooted in the sounds of America. Since the 1960s, the singer and guitarist has drawn from a palette of influences, from bluegrass to ragtime, from country blues to New Orleans jazz. Taking lessons from the legendary Reverend Gary Davis as a Columbia student in the 1960s, Bromberg, due tonight at the L2 Arts & Culture Center, went on to create a sound that was both distinctive and familiar. On recordings released during the 1970s, Bromberg combined the familiar elements of roots music with his own fresh take on the genres.
We caught up with Bromberg to talk about his tutelage with Davis, his subsequent career and disappearance from the music biz. Bromberg also spoke about his return to the guitar after a hiatus as the proprietor of a violin shop in Delaware, as well as his newest album Use Me , which features collaborations with Keb' Mo', Vince Gill, Los Lobos and other friends in the music business
Westword: I want to start by talking a bit about your guitar studies with the Reverend Gary Davis in New York in the 1960s. How did that partnership come about?
David Bromberg: I had discovered the Reverend from some records. I was walking along Bleecker Street and I was passing a little coffee house there, it was called the Dragon Skin. I won't ever forget this -- it was a long time ago -- there was a little sandwich board outside that said "The Reverend Gary Davis tonight." So I went in and heard the set, which was totally amazing, and afterwards I asked the Reverend if he would give me lessons, and to my amazement, he said, "Sure. Five dollars, bring the money, honey." So I started taking lessons from him and after a length of time, he asked me if instead of paying him for lessons, I'd lead him, because he was blind. The lessons were all day, so I'd spend all day and some of the evening leading him around.
What was his teaching style like?
He'd play something, and you would try and get it, and if you didn't get it, he'd play it over. He was very patient. He couldn't see what you were doing wrong, but he could hear it. He'd mess with you, too. I remember one time he was teaching me a song called "I'll Be All Right," which is the song that "We Shall Overcome" was taken from. He played one chord and I said, "Rev, what's that chord?" He said, "It's an E9." I said, "What's an E9?" He said, "This is an E9." I said, "Okay," and I looked at his fingers and learned how to do it.
I came back the next week and I played it for him. He said, "What's that chord you played?" I said, "That's an E9." He said, "No, it's a B minor," and he played it for me with a B minor. Of course, either one will work, because they're very similar chords. There's basically one note that's different. But that confused me for a long time.
How do you think that early work with a country blues legend informed your style, both in performance and composition?
That's a tough one for me. For one thing, I learned that you could make the guitar talk, but there was something else I learned. It wasn't directly from him, but it was because of him. I would lead him to church, and he was not necessarily the only preacher. I learned something from the phrasing of the church. When I started listening to B.B. King and Freddie King and Albert King, I realized that they played completely different from any of the white players who played blues. The difference was that B.B. and Albert and Freddie all phrased as if they were preachers; the rock-and-roll style of blues is a continuous stream of notes, but preachers don't preach that way. They'll do long pauses until you can't wait to hear the next word. The phrasing is extraordinary, and I learned a lot from hearing preaching.
How do you think that impacted the wider folk movement of the time?
The Reverend was from the Piedmont, from the Carolinas. His playing was typical of the Carolinas. He was just unbelievable. He did not or would very rarely sing blues, not in his own house; his wife wouldn't have it. There's a blues element there, but there's something else. The Reverend, in his guitar playing, was always trying to sound like the piano. So there was a whole group of us kicking around Greenwich Village in those days who started playing piano rags and transcribing a lot to guitar. But the whole idea that you could play different lines in the bass and the treble, that all comes from the Reverend.
For you, how have those styles evolved over time? That is to say, how has your approach to folk music seeped in history from hundreds of years ago changed since those days when you were studying with the Reverend?
Everybody makes them their own. We all start by copying others. From a combination of our own insufficiencies and our own unconscious and conscious creativities, we make stuff our own. That's what everybody's done.
Do you ever listen to your old recordings and hear how you've developed as a player?
Never (laughs). The biggest difference between my old recordings and my current stuff is that I sing a whole lot better these days. Mostly, I don't want to listen to the old ones.
I stopped playing for 22 years; I stopped completely. That's a long time. During the 22 years, I occasionally picked up a guitar, but it was pretty rare. I started trying out some of the things that people like Phoebe Snow had told me. To my amazement, it worked. I also would do occasional gigs with a quartet. The other guys in the quartet were great singers, and it kind of forced me to get better.
What were some of the tips you got from singers like Phoebe Snow?
It was to sing without constricting your throat. People strain and constrict their throat, which makes it harder. I didn't know how to loosen my throat, and she told me, 'It feels like a yawn.' If you try and yawn and try to sing, that's how your throat gets open.
How did you incorporate storytelling elements into your vocals?
It evolved. When I first started, my singing was not very good at all. I wanted to get a song across, because I never sang lyrics that didn't mean something to me. I wanted to invest the lyrics like I believed them, so I developed a kind of way of doing that. Even though I might not have had a good tone in my voice, I was getting the song across. These days, I can still get the song across and get a much more pleasant sound.
What brought you back to the guitar?
I was living in Chicago, where I was studying violins. In 2002, I moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where I opened up my own violin shop. I had lunch a few times with the mayor, who said that the street on which I live used to have live music on it all the time, and that he'd love to see that again. So I figured that the one thing I could do that might be able to help that would be to start a couple of jam sessions. So I started an acoustic jam session and a Chicago blues-style electric session. To my surprise, some really great musicians started showing up almost immediately -- some of them traveled quite a distance. I really enjoyed playing with them, and I gradually got some chops back. I felt my singing was getting better, and I just decided to see if I enjoyed getting up in front of people again.
These days, I have much more control over it. The reason I stopped playing for 22 years was that I got burned out. At one point, I was on the road for two years without being home for two weeks. It's nuts. I didn't realize that I could actually control this.
Now I realize this. I won't work so much that I'll get burnt out and I won't do gigs where I don't think I'm going to enjoy it. Ideally, I work maybe two weekends a month, between three and four days at a time. Sometimes, it turns out to be more than that if I have to travel a great distance.
Your latest album, Use Me, features songs written by well-known musicians from all genres. How did you come up with the structure of this record?
Two years ago, I came out with an album that was just me and the guitar called Try Me One More Time that was nominated for a Grammy. This one is very different.
I've been in music for a very long time, so I called up a bunch of people and asked each of them to write a song for me and then produce me doing it, which takes a lot of guts. Pretty much everybody said yes, so they're writing the songs, they're producing them. I decided to call the album Use Me.
Who was at the top of your list?
John Hyatt, Tim O'Brien, Vince Gill, Mac Rebennack -- or Dr. John -- Levon Helm, Los Lobos, Widespread Panic, Linda Rondstadt, Keb' Mo'. Some of them I'd known for a long time. I'd never met Widespread Panic, but they were doing a song of mine, and I liked the way they did it, so I asked if they'd do one. Keb Mo was another one. Keb' and I had worked together way back when, and Dr. John and I had worked together way back when. These were people I thought were good and who I enjoyed, who I thought might enjoy what I do well enough that I could convince them to do it.
There were a couple of cases where I was presented with a tune that I didn't think I could sing, and I asked for something different and I got it. All of these guys knew how to use me, and that's the most remarkable thing. I said, "Use me," and they said, "Okay," and they knew how to do it. They knew what they could get out of me that meshed with what they were doing.
What was a song that you got that really fit you well, that stood out for its resonance with your own style?
Everything on the record. It's all different styles, but it's all stuff I have an affinity for. Many people have told me that it holds together better than some of my old records do, where I wrote all of them and produced them myself. This record was ten different producers. Keb' Mo' wrote a song for me with a guy named Gary Nicholson called "Digging in the Deep Blue Sea." He sent me a tape of it and I loved it. It has to do with pumping oil in the Gulf of Mexico. On the tape, it was pretty slow, and when we got into the studio, we made it even slower. The groove on it is ominous. It's actually scary. Keb' said, "Are you sure you want to do it this slow?" All of us said, "Yes," and he said, "You're a brave man." He said that because radio stations usually don't like to play really slow things, but that's how that tune should be done. We got a great take. I think it does suit the lyrics.
In contrast to that, what kind of tune did you get from Vince Gill?
Vince gave me a song that he wrote with Guy Clarke called "Lookout Mountain Girl," about a bar on Lookout Mountain on the Tennessee border. It was kind of a country-Western bluegrass tune. We did it more country-Western than bluegrass. It was a gas to do. Vince is incredible. He is an extraordinary talent. As talented as he is, he may be nicer as a human than he is talented, and that's pretty hard.
As someone who has been seeped in these styles for decades, you've seen their popularity rise and fall with shifts in the musical landscape. Do you think the interest in this kind of music is cyclical? Do you think it's bound to ebb and flow in America as the decades pass?
I have no idea. That's an overview question, and I never have an overview. I don't want to have an overview. I want to be involved.