Q&A with Eric Bibb: Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music (Part 1)

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The following is a transcription of an interview with Eric Bibb about his participation in Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music. 

What did it mean to you to encounter Berry’s writing for the first time?

ERIC: What I realized after diving into A Timbered Choir was that Wendell was a kindred soul—someone who approached his reverence for life, the Creator, and all created things, in a similar way, with a similar joy and comfort from the natural world, from things done well in a mundane and everyday type of context, finding the divine in those type of moments.

His impatience with the downsides of modernity is something I really resonated with—having in general a tendency to lean towards another era when things were slower and things were made well, by hand. All of that really resonated with me—the wonder of discovering stillness once in a while in the midst of a modern hectic life.

Berry was someone that I not only admired for his stance, but I also felt a kinship with him.

How would you describe your process of adapting Berry’s poetry to music?

ERIC: I realized happily that, to a large extent, I was going to be able to use sections from his verses verbatim, and not need to adjust them to be sing-able—and that was a huge bonus, if you will, because it meant that I could go directly to feeling what kind of music the verse evoked, without having to go through that intermediary step of altering his syntax and so forth. Sometimes I would pick and choose lines, and wouldn’t necessarily use everything sequentially, but in some cases it was verbatim.

One of the first songs I actually wrote was “The Flock,” and that was wonderful to actually come across a whole section of a poem that I could just lift out and set to music. And, basically, I just let the lyrics sing themselves; I didn’t have any pre-set agenda. I really just “word-painted,” and that worked for many of the songs.

For another song, “Plow and Hoe,” I had a tiny little guitar-lele (which is a kind of guitar-like instrument in the shape of a ukulele, tuned up high, but still played like a guitar) and I was able to play that while being a passenger in the front seat of a car while on the road on tour. (I love writing songs while I’m moving! Trains really work great, but cars are a little bit more challenging.) I remember discovering sections of a poem or two that were clearly lyrics in themselves, and just gleefully strumming around and knowing that such a meat-and-potatoes, down-to-earth story would lead to a really simple melody. And to sit in the front of the car, playing simple, major chords was a gleeful experience.

In other words, very early on, the song told me what direction to go musically, so I didn’t have to spend a lot of time pulling out my hair, trying to decide how it would fit. Very clearly, I was given indications about what kind of song it would be, about how simple the melody might be, or whether I would use more sophisticated harmonies. The songs themselves, the lyrics themselves, the poems themselves, actually pointed me in the direction I needed to go. A lot of the difficulty in songwriting, I find, is actually committing to a certain direction. Once that’s established, songs—if they’re inspiring enough as a lyric, as an idea—clarify themselves, and you just have to connect the dots, and I found that was often the case.


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