History is best preserved through stories about the people who lived or made it. Dates and locations just don’t stick in the mind the way characters do. And as Holger Petersen shows in his new book, Talking Music, perhaps nothing better illuminates the past than when those characters themselves tell those stories, in their own words.
With more than 40 years of experience as a music journalist, radio personality (on CKUA, CBC and a programmer for Galaxie), record executive and simply a lover of music, Petersen has collected 19 interviews that offer a rare look at the bands of the British Invasion and the American roots and blues artists who influenced them.
Add in conversations with artists from his own label, Stony Plain Records, and you have an extraordinary – and highly entertaining – record of pop culture, direct from the mouths of Long John Baldry, Ry Cooder, Bill Wyman and Mavis Staples, to name but a few.
The book captures more than just the history of music: it throws to Petersen’s own past by virtue of bringing him full circle as a journalist. Back in the late 1960s as a NAIT student (Radio and Television Arts ’70, Top 50 Alumni), Petersen covered music for The Nugget student newspaper, interviewing musicians like Gordon Lightfoot (1.32 MB pdf, see p. 3), who played in the NAIT gymnasium.
Here’s why Petersen decided to revisit those roots in print, how the new book came together and what he’s really talking about when he’s talking about music.
Techlifetoday.ca: What did you hope to capture with the book and why do it now?
Holger Petersen: I had gone down this road a couple of times [in the past] and it hadn’t worked out. But then Insomniac Press in London, Ontario gave me the opportunity and I certainly wanted to pursue it.
Initially, I was approached by an agent in Vancouver who said, “I know you’ve got this library of material … and I think it would be a fascinating book.”
Why did it work this time while it didn’t work before?
I think I was more prepared – the focus was a lot clearer to me.
I wanted the flow of the book to [follow] my own interest in music, starting with the British blues revival and the British Invasion bands in the mid ’60s, when all these great British bands had rhythm and blues influence in their music.
That really excited the world, I think, and pointed back to what was happening in the American south, specifically. The Rolling Stones recorded all kinds of [songs by] Chicago blues artists and so did the Yardbirds and the Animals, but those Chicago blues artists were really from Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. So the first five interviews in the book are British artists who came out of that era.
After those, it goes back to Memphis and the Delta and some really key interviews, [including] Alan Lomax who was going down into the Delta in 1933 with his father and recording Lead Belly and Muddy Waters and Son House and Honeyboy Edwards, who was an itinerant musician back in 1929.
What is it about this kind of music that appeals to you?
For me, blues and roots music has always been music from the heart, and really honest expression and very individual expression. Also, there’s a regional expression that comes out of all this.
Roots music comes from different regions … and I think it’s endlessly fascinating to find out about where this stuff came from. There are many forms of Louisiana music, for example, and they’re totally different from the music of Texas or Oklahoma or Mississippi. I think that the great thing about this music is the historical and the cultural parts of it.
Do you have a favourite conversation in this book?
There are certain ones that I was absolutely thrilled with afterwards. For example, talking to Bill Wyman – who was a member of the Rolling Stones for 31 years – about blues, which was his passion, and then having him turn the conversation to why he left the Stones.
What did he say?
In the latter days of the Stones he said everyone would be at the beck and call of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards]. It didn't matter what you were doing or where you were, if they said there was a meeting on Monday morning in Switzerland, you had to drop absolutely everything and be there. On [one] occasion he had spent months preparing to do a solo record and he was in the studio with all these incredible musicians in Miami and had to drop everything and go back to this meeting in Switzerland. Everybody got there and Keith Richards, who lived just a couple miles from where the meeting was, didn't even show up.
So he left the Rolling Stones because he had so many other interests in life. You probably wouldn't know – I know I didn't – that he's he's one of England's leading metal detectorists. He's also published I don't know how many books of photography and his own writings, his studies on blues. When I interviewed him he was about to start a tour the next day with his band, there was a photo exhibit [of his] opening up in Holland and he's got a young family. He's accomplished so much since he left the Stones.
It sounds like he opened up to you rather unexpectedly.
I would say yes, and those are always great opportunities and it’s a blessing when that happens.
I’m guessing that interviewing has taught you something about conversations in general.
For me, I feel most comfortable doing the interviews when I’m exceptionally well prepared. And then there’s always the matter of going with the flow, because you certainly can’t direct people and get the best interviews. You have to go with what they want to reveal and share with you at the time.
I think there is some crossover [with conversations in general]. A lot of it just has to do with having respect for people. Also listening.
Is the book also forward looking?
I think that it’s important to capture these people and their stories for the future so I think in that sense it is. Look at some of these people who are no longer around, like Jeff Healey and Long John Baldry and Jay McShann and Rosco Gordon. They’re wonderful people and dear friends of mine and I think it’s important that their legacies are carried on.
These were all amazing artists. They did amazing things. Sure their music is available, but it’s also nice to hear them talking about that and giving you some insight into that. That would be something for the future: the fact that we shouldn’t forget these great people.
Is there anything more you’d like to add about the book?
We’ve been talking about the fact that these are all conversations about music, but it’s really beyond that. It’s about the bigger cultural picture.
Think about somebody like Sam Phillips, who started Sun Records in 1950, recording all these great blues artists in Memphis like B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner and Little Milton, and discovering Elvis Presley and recording Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash and the list goes on and on.
The contribution that somebody like Sam Phillips made was way beyond music. The music he created broke down political barriers around the world – racial barriers.
[Also included in the book is] Mavis Staples, talking about the Staples Sisters accompanying Martin Luther King to the rallies. Many of their most successful songs were created for these marches in the American south in the ’60s. So there are a lot of cultural, bigger-picture things that music is only a part of.
I wonder if these days music is still bound up with that kind of depth of culture.
Hard to know. It’s not as identifiable. I don’t think you’ve got many people creating political music these days. Ry Cooder’s last record is very political. And Dylan continues to do that.
But as far as contemporary music goes, you probably know better than I do if that depth is there. There’s this homogenized pop sound that you hear on radio stations now; there’s not a lot of diversity there. I think that people who grew up in the ’60s were lucky to have the eclectic radio that we had.