Baton Rouge Traditions

The Blue Blues: Larry Garner Doing His Own Thing

By Joyce Marie Jackson


You out here singing all of that homemade stuff.

—Tabby Thomas

The genre created by anonymous black musicians from plantations, farms, and small towns came to be called "the blues" and was deeply appreciated for its serious, personal creation of narratives on the human condition. The blues is a relatively new form of folk music developed after Emancipation with few absolute features. The traditional or folk blues is an aural music, intended to take on different shapes and styles many times during performance. Generally, the folk blues reflects the personal response of its creator to a specific situation in his or her life. By singing about it, the blues singer achieves a sense of catharsis, and life becomes bearable again. Generally, blues singers don't need an audience for their singing, but when others do listen, they frequently find that they have shared the blues singers' experiences in one way or another.

Larry Garner. Photo: Courtesy of Larry Garner.

The blues is not a totally African form, although it certainly has some African antecedents. African music is very diversified, of course, but certain musical practices—that are common to the west and central areas of Africa and those are the primary areas from which enslaved Africans were taken—were transported to America. These African musical practices include rhythmic counterpoint, polyrhythms, call and response, and slurred and flatted notes (blue notes). African virtuoso solo performances on instruments very similar to the guitar and harmonica are also strikingly similar to the folk blues, as are the tonal and structural qualities of certain African songs. Other researchers have documented the performance practices that were handed down from Africa to blacks in America, so I will not go into details here.

The Larry Garner Trio performs at the 1992 Louisiana Folklife Festival. Photo: Peter Jones.

The blues originated in the U.S. South and emerged when Americans of African descent drew upon their experiences to create a new musical style built on a multitude of older ones, including folk ballads, work songs, field hollers and cries, and spirituals. The form began to develop after the Civil War as a type of music that did not rely so much on a communal setting, as in the development of spirituals, but on a more personalized setting. The historian Lawrence Levine argues that blues were "the first almost completely personalized music that the Afro-American developed" and therefore "represented a major degree of acculturation to the individualized ethos of the larger society." Many of these musicians became legendary for their solo performances in the early development of the genre because their personal lyrics just happened to speak to the collective whole as they voiced sentiments of pain, injustice, and poverty. However, the blues were not always sad and self-pitying; the form included joyful and lascivious lyrics as well.

Although many bluesmen sang about their life experiences, their rhetorical "I" was a collective projection of the singer and his audience. The musicians also sang to divert, amuse, and provide release for their audiences. Like spirituals, the blues were threefold, providing escape, hope and sacred/secular responses to the conditions of society.

In Louisiana, the blues genre was prevalent in the Florida Parishes, which is a rich region of traditional black culture. After Emancipation, many blacks remained in the area or migrated closer to the city of Baton Rouge and surrounding areas like the Feliciana Parishes. The region is quite isolated, rural, and agricultural. Between the plantation system, the lumber and turpentine camps, and the building of the levees, there was no comparable concentration of segregated labor force anywhere else in the state. So the environment was very conducive to the creation and maintenance of the blues culture.

Baton Rouge is considered a blues city and has prided itself for many years on producing an annual blues festival. It began on Southern University's campus in 1983 and subsequently moved in 1984 to the downtown area, where it was coordinated by Julious "Buddy" Stewart and others. Buddy Stewart was also a performer in the Big Band genre, but had many friends who performed the blues, so he was well aware of the historical and communal importance of the genre. The festival continued for many years, was discontinued for a variety of reasons, and then recently was revived.

The Baton Rouge River City Blues Festival has featured past "front porch" or country blues variety as well as large concert or urban blues bands. Frequent performers included Silas Hogan, Arthur "Guitar" Kelly, Lightnin' Slim, Henry Grey, Raful Neal and his family, and Tabby Thomas and his family. The younger blues generation—including Kenny and Lil' Ray Neal, Chris Thomas King, and Larry Garner—keep the tradition thriving in Baton Rouge and elsewhere.

When I was asked to participate in a symposium in June 2012 at Gaston Berger University in Saint Louis, Senegal, examining the historical and cultural connections between Louisiana and Senegal, and more specifically, New Orleans and Saint Louis, I welcomed the opportunity. I was also asked to recommend a Louisiana musician who I thought would epitomize a counterpart in Senegal. I immediately thought of Larry Garner, the bluesman. I had always liked Garner's performance of blues, and rhythm and blues, as well as his stage presence and overall show.

Demma Dai and Yéro Dai playing xalam instruments. Photo: Courtesy of Joyce Jackson.

I am sure another visit to Senegal two years earlier also helped me to think of Garner. At the end of a research field trip, I had the opportunity to attend the Boukie Blues Festival in the village of Jiloor Jijaak, which turned out to be a very unique and insightful experience. The festival was two days of traditional music groups including Demma Dai and his brother, Yéro Dai, who both played xalams (stringed instruments that are antecedent to the banjo). There were also wrestling matches with professional and local wrestlers, and performances by a Senegalese seven-piece blues band from Dakar. Of course, the blues bandleader and lead guitarist, Vieux Mac Faye, reminded me of some of the blues musicians back home in Baton Rouge. If I closed my eyes, I could not tell that they were Senegalese; I could not even detect the accents in the vocalist's sound. So when I was asked to recommend a musician to come to Senegal to perform alone and with the blues band from Dakar, I knew Garner was the one.

I was also asked to close out the conference by conducting an interview session before the final concert with both performers. This interview was to be broadcasted on Radio France Internationale, so although I had heard Garner perform and had read some articles about him, I had to do my own interview to learn more about this bluesman and to form a rapport for our international interview in Senegal. About a month before leaving for Senegal, Garner and I had several phone conversations. Finally, I visited him at his home and was able to have a face-to-face recorded interview despite his busy travel schedule.

In this article, I have reproduced excerpts of Garner's stories as well as his observations on various parts of his life as a bluesman. I have interspersed parts of his narrative with my interpolations establishing contexts and bridging topics of discussions. However, my intent is for Garner to tell his own story so readers can understand his life as a bluesman who has been based in Baton Rouge for most of his life. As I am directly involved in his culture as an African American researcher and participant, I was interested to know the extent to which his story might parallel other bluesmen whom I have had the privilege to interview, such as Silas Hogan and Tabby Thomas. This essay also illustrates how Garner's experiences with blues culture have intersected with other African American musical genres and other broader blues practices.

Quartets & Traveling Guitar-Playing Preachers: Sacred Influences

The blues guitarist Larry Garner spent the first phase of his life in Oaknolia in East Feliciana Parish, about twenty miles from Baton Rouge. It was here that he heard traveling preachers who played guitars at the church down the street from his house, and he also listened to WLAC radio station from Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday and Saturday nights. This station programmed many blues and gospel musicians, which it broadcast to a large territorial range through the South. Then, when Garner was eight his family moved to Baton Rouge, where he attended Capitol and Glen Oaks High Schools.

Jackson: Did other people in your family play the blues?

Garner: Well, not in my immediate family but in my surrounding family, my uncles. I had one play gospel and one play blues. I had cousins that played R&B and mainly traveling preaches that came from the church, who bought guitars, Charley Jackson, Utah Smith, and worked in gospel groups. So I was around guitars a lot. A lot of my cousins played.

When I inquired as to what type of churches these were and where they were located, he said they were Pentecostal or Holy Churches. One was in Baton Rouge on Billups Street near a bar, but the main one was in the country at St. Paul Apostolic Church. These churches offered regular performances of gospel songs. At his grandmother's Baptist church, there would be quartets—as he added, "quartets so to speak, because no matter how many people were in the group, they called it quartet." At his mother's church, he said, "we are like the evangelist of the Pentecostal ministers who played guitars, they would preach and play guitars."

Jackson: Do you remember the names of some of the quartets?

Garner: Yeah, and I also played with the Southernairs and I mean I knew like Fats and all those guys who played with the Light House Gospel Singers. I still know those guys, Perry and all of them. Perry and Sterling, matter of fact they were at my uncle's funeral. . . . So I come up through gospel and blues on the side. When I went to play blues for real, I had a lot of hell fire [naysayers] people who told me that "You gone die and go to hell doing this, you know." So now it's a little bit different, now all of them are like, "You have a new CD coming out? Man when you going on tour I seen that picture in the paper," so forth and so on.

Garner never sang with the quartets, he only played rhythm guitar and bass, which ever was needed at the time.

Jackson: How many years did you play with the gospel quartets?

Garner: From about 12 years old until about 17 or 18 years old. Then I also played R&B. I started playing R&B when I was 16 years old; I was playing bass with R&B on Friday and Saturday nights but on Sundays I was still going to play gospel so I made the money on Friday and Saturday nights. I'd make ten to twelve bucks. You know, for a 16-year-old, that was pretty good money. I would not make very much playing gospel; matter of fact you very seldom got paid. Sometimes if you got five bucks you were doing very well.

Musically, these sacred and secular traditions draw from a common source and together provide two of the most powerful root forms of American music—blues and gospel. Although quartets function within the religious domain, because of the nature of the repertoire, they are not an essential part of worship service even though some were established in churches. Many quartet members feel that you should sing wherever you can and wherever you have an audience who is receptive to you. The more religious members claim that even in secular settings you can still bring the message of God to the people and it will be heard. They also feel that communicating their spiritual message might "cause someone to come to Christ."

After the mid-1950s, performance activity began to decline for gospel quartets, especially for full-time professional groups. Many professional quartets made drastic stylistic and performance adjustments in order to keep pace with contemporary trends, but touring opportunities still disappeared quickly. As a result, many professional singers and instrumentalists had to find alternate means of support, resorting to part-time singing in local churches, church fellowship halls, and community centers, with maybe an occasional tour.

Quartet veterans offer various reasons for the decline in popularity of quartets in the 1950s and 1960s, but the single most significant factor was probably the crossover phenomenon: Individual singers, instrumentalists, and whole quartets crossed over to the commercially viable blues and rhythm and blues. The rhythm and blues style was directly influenced by the sacred quartet style, which included such characteristics as call-and-response style, lyrical and instrumental ad-libs, melismatic passages, and falsetto leads. Consequently, most quartet singers and instrumentalists did not need to make any adjustments in their performance styles in order to crossover. They just changed their words, continuing to sing and play in the style in which they were accustomed.

Blues Jam Tonight: Secular Influences

The crossover from sacred to secular often came as a result of prompting by record promoters and their recording company personnel. Some promoters continued to suggest and some even insisted that a group make the transition in order to remain with a particular company or label. In addition, there were always the added incentives and attractions of greater financial gain and popularity.

Garner's family did not want him to play the blues. He said, "They thought it was the devil's music. Then I guess the juke joint a quarter-mile down the road was the devil's recruitment office. I never went into the juke except during the day when it was a store."

Jackson: When did you start playing only the blues?

Garner: Yeah, when I stop playing gospel I started going to Tabby's Blues Box, which was in the early '80s. Because in the meantime, when I came back from the military nobody was playing clubs anymore. All the clubs had turned their stages into dance floors.

Garner served his military tenure in Korea and while serving there, he played in military bands. When he finished his three years of duty, he returned to Baton Rouge and began working at Dow Chemical plant, going to school at Southern University and performing music part-time.

I got out of the military in '74. They were doing the disco thing and the blues wasn't making many gigs. In fact, most of the cats were leaving Louisiana anyway. A few of them were playing weddings and the college circuits getting some fraternity gigs but it just wasn't a club scene like the one that I left. So that's when I got me a job. I went to Southern [University] for a couple years, being from the military, of course, I knew more than the teachers did. It was just a boring day for me, so I got me a job and I worked there until 1994. In between on the weekends once I found Tabby's Blues Box, I started going there and playing with Tabby's band and I played with them for a year before I formed my own band.

The disco phenomenon of the 1970s is intimately tied to New York City as a geographic point of reference but soon spread throughout the nation. Disco, the abbreviation of the French word discotèque, is a musical genre that emerged in underground dance venues in New York City and was pioneered by disc jockeys (DJs). Although "disco" initially specified a particular musical setting, it eventually evolved into a stylistic category that included dance steps as well as fashion and hairstyles. In the most general sense, disco was an emergence of African-American cultural forms of music and dance, which at that time were specific to New York Latino, and gay communities. This phenomenon later evolved into dance club music, house music, and hip-hop. Many of the rhythm and blues clubs lost business or even closed after this genre became prevalent, which put a number of rhythm and blues performers out of work.

Also during the 1970s, large numbers of white Americans as well as foreigners began to take an interest in the blues genre, which generated recordings, concerts, festivals, and national and international tours. Predominantly white university concerts and festival gigs opened other options for blues and rhythm and blues performers. These festivals brought some blues musicians brought out of obscurity along with their older blues styles.

This new interest in the blues also led to whites performing the music. Some of the most prominent have been soloists John Hammond, Jr. and Bonnie Raitt, guitarist-singers Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton (British), and harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. Some white performers and audience members also viewed the blues genre as a vehicle for expressing rebelliousness against social and political restraints. So while the blues was expanding its audience from its original epicenter, the African American community, opportunities for performers were expanding and the form was gaining greater global respect.

This was the period—the mid-1980s—when Larry Garner established his band. By the end of that decade, he had started to gain recognition and awards.

Garner: In '85 or '86 something like that is when I started my own band. In '88 is when somebody gave me the paperwork to go to Memphis and compete in the 5th International Blues Challenge. Well, then it was called The Blues Talent Searcher or something like that, and we went and won first place there in 1988. . . . I didn't use all my band; I just used some "jam guys" that I played with because the rules were so stringent about people playing under an album and most of the guys in the band had played on Tanager's Records. And as it turned out, when I got up there we were competing against bands, serious horn sections and all that stuff. . . . Yes, and we still won first place.

Jackson: Do you remember the name of the place?

Garner: Everything was at the New Daisy. We went back and played for the [W.C.] Handy Awards at the Peabody Hotel. By winning first place we won some studio time, [and] we won the B. B. King Lucian Award, and $500. We split that. Now it is a whole lot better, I think they went to like 20 grand and all kinds of endorsements and stuff. Back then it wasn't much.

Jackson: What did you call yourself then?

Garner: Blue Blues Band. . . . And that was in '88 when that happened, you know we were gigging around town playing out at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, just playing at clubs and doing festivals when we could. Baton Rouge was where the festivals were, it [River City Blues Festival] was a big festival then. . . . It used to be something to look forward to, cleared four stages. . . . Back then I don't know where all those people came from but it was serious stuff and I don't know, they lost it somehow.

Jackson: Who were the members of the Blue Blues band?

Garner: Brian Bruce. He has passed now; he worked with Henry Gray a lot. Joe Hunter, he moved to Nashville. Ernest Thomas, Tabby's son, he played drums. That was the original. The ones that went with me to win the award was Terry Docury, played the harmonica; the drummer was Ken May; and the bass player, I called him Shreveport Slim. His name was Bill something. I forget his last name but he was from the Shreveport area. After that, I started to put together a road band. Joe Hunter was in my original road band, Lester Delmar was on drums, and Jimmy Pryor was the keyboard player at that time. Players change over the years; that has been true since 1990s, that's been 20-25 years ago.

Jackson: When you were starting out like that, were you trying to pattern yourself after someone else?

Garner: No, that was the whole thing. Tabby used to give me hell all the time. See, I would open for him and do two to three songs and call him up depending on what the crowd was doing. Tabby would always tell me, "Man, look, you need to learn some songs, you need to learn some songs some Bobby Bland or some B. B. King or something. You out here singing all that homemade stuff. These people don't know them songs." I was writing my own songs back then, and so I would learn a song, a [Otis] Redding song or B. B. King or something to make Tabby happy. I would always throw one of mine in there, so now he would be the first people to know that. "Larry, I got to tell you I have always been proud of you because you have always did your own thing," and I was like, yeah, I wish I had a recording of all those nights you were hollering at me: "Man sing something the people know. Sing something the people know."

Baton Rouge bluesman Ernest Tabby Thomas stands in front of his blues club on North Blvd. Circa 1980. Photo Nicholas R Spitzer.

Earnest Joseph "Tabby "Thomas (1929-2014) was a blues icon who was born and grew up in Baton Rouge. He was also known as "Rockin'" Tabby Thomas, a blues vocalist who also played guitar and keyboards. He was self-taught, but he learned a lot singing in the choir at St. Luke Baptist Church. Tabby specialized in what is referred to in southern Louisiana as the "swamp blues." In 1959, he received his first break winning a talent contest sponsored by KSAN radio station in San Francisco during active duty in the U.S. Air Force. After recording a couple of songs for the Hollywood label, he launched his career, although the records were not very successful. After recording for a few other labels, he finally made a few hits ("Hoodoo Party" 1961) with J.D. Miller and Excello Records in Crowley, Louisiana.

Tabby and his band, Mellow, Mellow Men, became one of the more popular acts in Baton Rouge. Taking ownership of his music, he formed his own recording label in 1960. In 1978, Tabby opened a blues club on North Boulevard and called it the Blues Box and Heritage Hall. It became a citywide institution for lovers of the blues and was also a sought-after venue for international visitors, especially those who could play the blues, because Tabby had weekly "jam sessions," and anybody who thought they could play guitar, harmonica, keyboards or drums was welcomed. The Blues Box was eventually demolished in 2004 to make way for the construction of the North Boulevard overpass. It was moved to Lafayette St. downtown and thrived for a few years until Tabby was involved in a vehicular accident and later a stroke, which finally caused him to close the Blues Box on Lafayette St. for good.

Tabby liked to take younger performers under his wing. Since his sons were not old enough to perform in the 1970s, Larry Garner filled the role of his unofficial blues mentee. Although Tabby allowed Larry to open for him, he wanted to dictate to him what to play. Larry would consent and play a familiar blues song but would also play one of his composed tunes that he wanted his audience to become familiar with.

Blues is Life: Lyrical Inspiration

Jackson: So you do your lyrics and your music? You write out your lyrics and music too?

Garner: No, I do not write out the music because I don't read. I just play it.

Jackson: So, was it hard for you to catch on when you first started playing the guitar, when you played with the gospel groups?

Garner: No, just playing the chords, yeah. Someone would always show you, you know another guitar player would show you. Then after a while you just pick them up because it is just three chords and a little bit in-between.

Rather than telling full stories in a logical fashion, like a ballad, blues lyrics paint scenes by expressing feelings and emotions, and by describing actions, usually in the first person. Topics can range from social commentary, migrations/movement, boasting, depression, confession, optimism, success, and happiness—and that's only a partial list! In essence, the blues covers the range of human feelings and experiences with a poetic sensibility. Some bluesmen compose spontaneously on the spot; others take time to write down the words and music; and some do both, depending on their background and experiences.

The traditional blues format is the twelve-bar AAB form or some variation of it. The first phrase is a line of verse (A), the same line is repeated (A), and the third line (B) may or may not rhyme with the first two. Sometimes the first two ask a question while the third line answers it. However, some blues do not adhere to this traditional form. When I asked Garner about his lyrics and form, he responded:

Jackson: So how are you inspired to write your lyrics; what inspires you?

Garner: Just things going on around me, things I see at work, somebody might say a phrase, somebody might say something I never heard before, and just everyday activities. You can't write about your mule died this morning . . . if you don't know anything about a mule dying. I write about things that are current. Do people know about somebody high jacking your car? Do they know about pickpockets and things like that? Just things that are current until now.

Jackson: Do you like the basic AAB form or the narrative songs more?

Garner: It depends. I mean I look at the audience pretty much and if it's an art center, a cultural center where everybody is sitting and listening well, I would change it up to where I can converse with the audience a little bit to see what they're doing. If it's somebody they want to dance with, I would pick up the pace a little bit and dance them. It just depends on what the audience's feedback, the feedback I get from them.

Some blues singers give an introduction or testimony before they start singing and/or a verbal interlude in the middle of a song. This helps explain to the audience what the song is about. It is reminiscent of the preaching style of some blues performers, especially those who honed their craft in the church.

Jackson: Now, in writing the lyrics, what do you like to do best? Do you like to write the narrative songs or the AAB form?

Garner: Well, the narrative always come back later because you know you go ahead and write the song. And then a lot of times I would tell a bit of a story—where the song came from. Then I would go into the song or either in the middle of the song. I might tell a story about something in the song, it just depends on my testimony. A little of that gospel still works.

Jackson: Now out of some of the songs that you have done, I like the "Juke Joint Woman." What was the inspiration for that?

Garner: Well, the narrative always come back later because you know you go ahead and write the song. And then a lot of times I would tell a bit of a story—where the song came from. Then I would go into the song or either in the middle of the song. I might tell a story about something in the song, it just depends on my testimony. A little of that gospel still works.

Jackson: Now out of some of the songs that you have done, I like the "Juke Joint Woman." What was the inspiration for that?

Garner: I wrote that at Tabby's.

Jackson: Oh, you did.

Garner: Yea, one evening I got off from work and I stopped by Tabby's. I think it was a Wednesday because jam nights are Wednesdays and I just stopped by and was hanging out and these state workers came in, about five or six of them. They said, we came by to see Tabby's Blues Box. Tabby got excited; I got five people coming in, about four or five in the evening. He really didn't have a happy hour so they started drinking, and a song came on the juke box, and this one lady, she jumped up and started shaking and dancing and throwing her hands up. I said now that's a juke joint woman right there in my mind.

Jackson: She didn't need anyone else to dance with?

Garner: Naw, naw she didn't need anybody! So I got me a napkin and went to go sit in the corner and started writing me a song and I wrote it all, right there that day. . . . Yea, then I went home and transported it. I just didn't know what beat I was going to put to it, so I just ended up getting a Jimmy Lee juke joint kind of beat.

"Jook Joint Woman"

She is the woman in the back of the club with her hands up in the air.
She is the woman in the back of the club with her hands up in the air.
What the people think about her or what they got to say,
She is content with the blues because she lives with them everyday.

She is a jook joint woman, a jook joint woman.
She is a jook joint woman and she jooks the joint all night long.

She is a woman who lifts you up when your chips are down.
She is a woman that so-called proper woman can't stand to be around.
She is not ashamed of the friends that she choses.
She is the first one to get there and the last one to leave when the club closes.

She is a jook joint woman, a jook joint woman.
She is a jook joint woman and she jooks the joint all night long.

There is another song that Garner composed and performs that speaks specifically to the youth in the community. He is attempting to illustrate how hip-hop is not a new genre, but it is an adaptation of older song traditions.

Jackson: Now there is another song you wrote that I like. You are giving a little narrative story and talking about how the kids of today think that rapping is such a new thing, then you started sounding like Isaac Hayes and they didn't know who he was.

Garner: Yes, "Let's Keep On Playing the Blues." That happened right there on the corner of Florida Street and Acadian, that Exxon station they have over there. That's where that went down. All that boom, boom, boom. . . . I asked him to turn it down and when he did turn it down I knew the song, it was Tupac, you know and I just blew his mind. I ripped off some Tupac for him and I said man do you know you got all this volume and such and all these CDs, but you don't have no real music in there bro. Then he got offended and said real music? This here this new music. I said, man, ain't no such thing, and I said you don't have no Temptation, and I called all these people off and he said he didn't know who they were. And then I told him about Isaac Hayes, my hip-hop guy. . . although we didn't call it hip-hop, we called it soul music. Everybody back then had soul. Mary Lane and Lou Rawls. Lou Rawls would rap in the middle of a song. Bobby Womack and James Brown all them cats were talked about.

Jackson: Barry White and Al Green!

Garner: Yes, Al Green!

Jackson: They told whole stories.

Garner: People think that is something new but I don't understand why they don't know about what I am talking about. I mean, man!

Garner is speaking about the most celebrated component of the hip-hop world—rap music. Hip-hop is a creative youth movement that developed in New York City in the early 1970s in African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino communities. As this cultural expression evolved in the Bronx, it also spread to Harlem and other sections of the city. This cultural movement also encompasses break dancing, graffiti art, disc jocking (DJ-ing), and MC-ing, which many refer to as rapping.

Some scholars take this term back to the rhetorical form of the West African griot, the community historian and storyteller. However, most view the foundation for rap as Southern-based folk expressions of storytelling, ritualized verbal street lore (i.e., playing the dozens, toasting, and signifyin'), blues songs, and folk preaching.

Another prominent influence on the development of rap is the speech style of the African American radio disc jockeys (DJs). These men were famous rappers in their communities during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. "Diggy Doo" was a radio celebrity in Baton Rouge; in New Orleans, the biggest name was "Dr. Daddy-O."

In the 1960s and 1970s, the term "rap" also applied to verbally seducing a woman. Later "rapping" referred to a verbal engagement for the purpose of persuading or impressing the listener with rhyming. Performance in rap music is based on black folk speech and such rhetorical skills as braggadocio, metaphor, plays on words, mimicry, and black folk expressions. Unlike many other black musical forms where music takes precedence, in the rap genre the main emphasis in performance becomes talking or rapping. Although I might add that the early country blues had an emphasis on the voice and lyrics, and the guitar was subordinate.

During the 1960s rapping took on a political and social role for activists, such as H. "Rap" Brown (later Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin), Nicki Giovanni, and Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, whose most famous performance piece was "The Revolution Will Not be Televised". Popular soul music artists like Isaac Hayes and Barry White introduced their love songs with extended rapped sections as illustrated in Hot Buttered Soul (1969) and The Isaac Hayes Movement (1970); and Stone Gon' (1973) and Can't Get Enough (1974).

Larry Garner was concerned that the youth are so engrossed with rap music that they are not studying or even listening to the blues, so I asked:

Jackson: Is your son musically talented? Are you teaching him how to play the blues?

Garner: He stared off playing a little guitar, piano, organ, and stuff. Henry Grey [blues pianist] matter of fact was teaching him how to play boogie- woogie stuff but as he got older he kind of left it alone. I think he might could kind of play some jamboree. But my other son is the saxophone player, but when he left, he took the saxophone with him and I don't know if he still got it or not. They both did have some inkling of what it was about, they just pursued other things.

Jackson: Now what would you say is the difference in the music that you play, the swamp blues and the Mississippi Delta style?

Garner: Well, see, the problem in what I play really is an identification standpoint, I am not really a swamp blues player, because my coming up was so diversified musically. I mean I came up in the '60s, you know I listened to everything, especially when I left Capital and went to Glen Oaks and started hanging out with the hippie kids. I listened to everything from James Cane to Spooky Tu and everything in between: Grand Funk, Carlos Santana, and Jimi Hendricks. That came on that other side, but before then I was listening to O. V. Wright, Bobby Womack, The Temptations, and The Blind Boys. So, I mean, I have a diverse range of reference area points for when I'm writing my songs. So every song I write is not a 12-bar blues song. I mean, but you know, you have heard my music, but I do know if somebody say, "Larry, I want to hear some 12 bars," I got 12 bars, I can play that all day. I like Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Silas Hogan, Henry Gray, I mean Guitar Kelly, Big Mama Thornton. I mean all that, it's just a wide variety of stuff I got, and I just put it out there because it's all original.

Baton Rouge bluesmen Arthur 'Guitar' Kelley and Silas Hogan (r) at the National Blue Festival in Atlanta. 1984. Photo Nicholas R. Spitzer.

When I interviewed Silas Hogan about his blues style, he was also adamant about claiming a unique blues style:

Jackson: What style of blues do you play?

Hogan: The style I am playing today is the way back, back, yonder blues style. Now B.B. King played a good style, but it is not like what I am playing.

Jackson: What is the difference in B. B. King's style and yours?

Hogan: Well, B.B. King's blues is mixed up with the rock-and-roll style. The style I am playing is nothing but the low-down blues. They call it the country blues, the low-down country blues from way back yonder. So that is what I see. B.B. ain't dragging them blues enough. If you want the blues to be low down, you got to drag it. You can't pick 'em up.

When I asked Silas Hogan to play an illustration for me, he played and sang:

I got rats and roaches in my kitchen
Won't let me go to sleep at night.

I got rats and roaches in my kitchen Won't let me go to sleep at night.

I know darn well them rats and roaches
Eatin' up my welfare beans and rice.

. . . . . . .

Seem Like these roaches go drive me out of my home.

Hogan: That was dragging.

Jackson: What other bluesmen in this area play the country blues?

Hogan: Most of them around in this area, they kind of mix it up. Me and Guitar Kelly are about the only ones in this area of Baton Rouge that play the low-down blues right now. Slim Harpo used to play and Lightnin' Slim used to play, but both of them done gone Muddy Waters was a low-down blues player. It is all right to mix it up, and I mix it up a little bit but not too much. Tomorrow [at the Blues Festival] I might play one song, but all the others gon' be dragging.

When I asked Tabby Thomas to talk about his style of blues, he said he was trying to define it as a Louisiana style.

Thomas: The rural blues was so simple to its complicated. I was trying to make it as modern as I possibly could, but still retaining the raunchy and raw flavor of the music like Muddy Waters. I am trying to define it as a Louisiana style of music. I think Louisiana has a style because you see most of the music of Fats Domino and [Professor] Longhair and all those guys. And by me playing the piano, then I am able to go back and draw from the piano playing and add some of that to the guitar. . . .You understand? I can play the style of Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, and I had to play all of Fats songs. I had to play "Blueberry Hill" and all of that you know. Rock and roll became popular in '68, '69, '70, and '71, and if you did not play Fats, they did not want you in the club. Fats Domino was the hottest black bluesman to come out of Louisiana. He sold 80 some million records. If you played some of his music, you were all right. Now, I don't have to sing anybody's stuff but mine. I have my own album now, so I play my own records.

Tabby played the "mixed up" style as referred to by Silas Hogan or urban blues. However, Tabby put his own Louisiana twist to it by combining the New Orleans rhythm and blues piano style of Longhair, Domino, and Toussaint. Performing works of others or covering other performer's songs is not unusual in the music business. This is what Tabby did until he came into his own style in trying to keep it "raw and raunchy" while incorporating the style of others-the New Orleans rhythm and blues style. He essentially was trying to get Larry Garner to do the same, to at least perform familiar covers of others until he became well known in the region, at which point he could slowly incorporate his own original songs.

Jackson: So how many albums or CDs do you have at this point?

Garner: Ten. Yeah, they are all on CD now, and then I am on also some compilations that are out there.

Jackson: Oh yeah.

Garner: Some of the record companies that I was working with you know, they put several artists on a CD, so I'm on at least four or five of those.

Jackson: That's good. Have you won any awards?

Garner: Oh, well, yeah. I had an award in Paris for their Blues Association three times. . . . I won the Muddy Club Blues Award-that's in Mannheim, Germany. . . . I won Blues Man of the Year for the BBC and Lenin. I won Blues Man of the Year twice in Canada and in Memphis. I was nominated for different [W. C.] Handy awards five or six times.

Jackson: Okay, that is impressive!

Garner: And so I mean I got some stuff [awards and plaques], I got some stuff. I mean if you come to my room of fame, I can show you some stuff.

Jackson: Yes, I'd like to see that.

Garner: Alright.

Jackson: And what's next? What do you have planned as far as going into the studio and recording?

Garner: Oh, well, I haven't been putting songs together like I normally do. I mean, I got some songs already . . . from years ago that I didn't think was good enough. I just worked on them over time. And I write songs every day. Just the other day my cousin was telling me about his son has hooked up with this lady who's really, really possessive and he is scared to leave her and go to work and I said, "Well, man," and he said, "You know a scared man can't gamble and a jealous man can't work." I said, "Whoa!"

Jackson: There it is. {Laughs.}

Garner: There is that hook right there you know. It's just when you hear little stuff like that, especially round the older cats in the old age. You know they say off-the-wall things.

Jackson: Yes, I am sure you get a ton of stuff from them.

Garner: Yeah, yeah. I can't remember it all you know, but that's a good one right there, a scared man can't gamble and a jealous man can't work.

Jackson: (laughs)

Garner: And we just put it to song and the song will pretty much write itself. I mean all the situations that you could have been in, but you just trying to keep your eye on the one with something, you know, and it's just a scared man can't gamble and a jealous man can't work.

Jackson: That's right, so true. Well, so where do you normally record?

Garner: Well, the last two records I did over at Nelson Blanchard's place out on Cal road out there off of Bluebonnet. I did a couple in Memphis. . . . I did a couple over in Maurice, Louisiana, at Dockside Studio. I did a couple in New Orleans before. It just depends on what the budget is—I mean [with] the biggest budget, [you] record in big studios, and [with a] smaller budget, you record in the smaller studios. . . . I mean, the biggest budget I have done or been a part of was . . . recorded in Maurice, Louisiana, when I was on PolyGram for two records. That was high cotton, yeah, doing those but it just depends, it just depends.

Jackson: Have you thought about doing your own label?

Garner: Naw, I really don't want to do a label per se, but I would like to, uh, well I could, you could put something out on any label. You just have to get the legalization of it, and get . . . the exhibition and distribution of it all. But the easiest thing now, you don't really even have to have distribution no more. Just have the PayPal account, and you just sell them from your website, you know, 'cause most people gon' go to your website looking for stuff anyway, and so I mean, it's easier that way. I just haven't had the resources to do the CD. I need to do that because I got bills to pay. . . . If it was just me I probably wouldn't care where I lived. I'd go live in the country in my grandmother's old house before it falls down, but you know, you got to keep things nice. . . . but I just keep plodding alone. I will be sixty, you know, my birthday, so I'm still young as far as blues is concerned. Yeah, blues comes first, the blues comes first.

Two Brothers from the Same Parent: Senegal Connection

Comments from Larry Garner and the Senegalese musicians are useful for illustrating the ties between the two types of music and why it is important that we share and collaborate between the U.S. South and Africa. It was roughly twenty-five years ago when Ibrahima Seck, the Senegalese historian, discovered blues in the honky-tonks around the University of Mississippi in Oxford where he was in temporary residence on a Fulbright Fellowship while he worked on his dissertation. The sound of the blues performers he heard there reminded him of the xalam performers in his birthplace in Matam on the Senegal River east of St. Louis. Hearing this music, Seck said that for the first time he really felt at home. This experience caused him to pursue with renewed vigor his search for the cultural and historical connections between the Senegambia and the Lower Mississippi Delta regions, including Louisiana.

Jackson: What do you think about playing with the Senegalese guy? Have you heard any of his music?

Garner: I listen to some on YouTube, but he was pretty much just playing some popular songs. I mean, he was not playing anything that was different. But I am gonna play with those cats. It's a band; I mean, it's the same thing. I mean I just have to show them what I need, and it shouldn't be any problem. I sent him three or four of my songs via email but they never responded back to me, but maybe he listened to them or maybe not. Whatever they got, though, we will get there with musicians. We will get there . . . and make it work.

Larry Garner (left) plays with Vieux Mac Faye and his blues band. Photo: Courtesy of Joyce Jackson.

Larry Garner and the Senegalese bluesman Vieux Mac Faye performed together at a club in Dakar and were well-liked by the audience, who was used to hearing the blues. The next couple of days they were interviewed by me for Radio France International as the culminating session for the conference. The interview session was simultaneously presented in four languages: Wolof, Fulani, French, and English.

Jackson: Explain your experience in playing alone and with the Senegalese blues band in Dakar and Saint Louis. How was it different than playing in Baton Rouge?

Garner: I played at a Casino in Dakar and at the college [Gaston Berger] in Saint Louis with the Vieux Mac Faye Band. They were not a solid blues band, so to speak. They were a variety band more or less, with very high-quality musicians who adapted very well. They were used to playing rhythm and blues and classic rock. The only blues they played on their own [without me playing] was B. B.'s "The Thrill is Gone." . . . They [the audience] reacted very well to my songs and went crazy for "Mannish Boy," but the blues will do that.

Jackson: : Please comment on the acceptance of a Baton Rouge bluesman and his blues in Senegal. Do you think it is a music genre that is just returning home or do you think it is definitely a genre created in the southern U. S.?

Garner: The blues music—as we know it—is no doubt an American southern music created out of oppression, but struggles are struggles. I enjoyed my visit to Senegal, but if I had to live there, I know I would have to do the blues in between popular songs just like Vieux Mac Faye to hold my audience.

The closing concert of the symposium perfectly illustrated the musical ties uniting the two regions. Two traditional xalam players were present and performed at the event, Demma Dia and Yéro Dia, brothers from Njum Waalo in Senegal's inner delta; along with Senegalese blues guitarist Vieux Mac Faye and his seven-man band, and Larry Garner, the Louisianan blues guitarist.

Jackson: What are your thoughts on the traditional musicians who played the xalem string instrument? How was it playing with them?

Garner: That was really touching and I felt a natural connection with those guys. I actually felt at home.

Although he doesn't strictly speaking, play the blues, the xalam player, Demma Dia, who accompanies Baaba Maal on his international tours, recognizes that his music is close to that of the Mississippi Delta:

Demma Dia: The blues and the music I play are like two brothers from the same parents. There's no conflict when traditional music and the blues get together, only harmony. The blues is a universal language like all the music I play. There are many languages, religions and tastes, but God has given us the capacity to understand each other through our sensitivity and to appreciate things together even when we don't understand each other linguistically. That's why we're keen to take part in musical encounters, particularly when the blues are involved.

Vieux Mac Faye was quick to acknowledge that the blues, and especially the Mississippi Delta blues, have influenced his musical career.

Vieux Mac Faye: We musicians have had outside influences from countries like France and Cuba, and we've played those musical styles. I've also played the blues; in fact I've more or less based my career on them: I'm an African bluesman. But for me, the blues is a borrowed notion, and a notion that comes from the heart. I believe the reason why Larry [Gardner] understands me today is that our hearts have spoken with each other. Instruments are only the arms of our hearts. You can't stick a universal label on the blues; everyone plays their own blues. There are some notes that everyone agrees on, but for others, each asserts his or her own identity.

Musicians travelling back and forth between the two continents has enriched music from both continents. Ibrahima Seck—who is now a historian from Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, founder of the Bouki Blues Festival, and Director of the Whitney Plantation Museum in Edgard, LA, states

Ibrahima Seck: The extraordinary thing is that music has travelled and transformed. But it came back to Africa like a boomerang, and Africans have carried on recognizing and adopting it. That's why there are so many bands playing the blues in Senegal, even though young people today are more interested in rap and hip hop.

The blues is a significant musical genre that is at the heart of not only southern culture, but American musical culture as a whole and Baton Rouge and the surrounding metropolitan area has made a significant contribution. Larry Garner, who is almost an unofficial ambassador, travels internationally quite frequently. So he has definitely placed the name of Baton Rouge on the international blues scene for at least the last fifteen years. It may not be as vibrant as it was twenty-five years ago, but it is still striving as a significant genre in this region and other parts of the world.


Dia, Demma. 2012. Personal Interview. Saint Louis, Senegal and New Orleans, Mirror Cities, June 22.

Faye, Vieux Mac. 2012. Personal Interview. June 22.

Garner, Larry. 2012. Personal Interview. Baton Rouge, May 13.

Hogan, Silas. 1984. Personal Interview, Baton Rouge, April 27.

Jackson, Joyce Marie. 2014. "Quartets: Jubilee to Gospel," in African American Music in Cultural Perspective. Ed. by Portia Maultsby and Mellonee Burnim. New York: Routledge Press.

Keyes, Cheryl L. 2002. Rap Music and Street Consciousness. Urbana and Chicago: Illinois University Press.

Seck, Ibrahima. 2012. Personal Interview. June 22.

Thomas, Earnest Joseph "Tabby." 1984. Personal Interview. Baton Rouge, April 27.

Joyce Marie Jackson, folklorist/ethnomusicologist is a professor in the Department of Geography & Anthropology and the Director of African & African American Studies at Louisiana State University. This article was prepared in 2015 as part of Baton Rouge Folklife Survey.