Fruteland Jackson is practically unstoppable, and that’s a good thing. Because not only is he a font of wisdom regarding the depth and history of the American Blues, he also writes and plays a pretty good ragtime riff, too.
“Pete Seeger popularized “We Shall Overcome,” but he didn’t write it,” Fruteland told some blues enthusiasts lingering after his Wednesday-noon show for the ProArts Society.
“It was written by Charles Albert Tindley, as ‘I Will Overcome,’ and the civil-rights movement borrowed it and tweaked on the words,” and then after a few minutes of praise for Seeger’s work, responds to a listener's request for a ragtime riff with a beautiful musical excerpt of his own:
“I read the newspapers/Every morning
To see if I have won/The lottery,
I put my birthdate as a 7/Hoping Lady Luck/would smile on me.
My heart was pumping/My right eye jumping.
If I hit the Pro-Bowl/Wouldn’t that be something?
This son would be a winner/You’re a sinner,
Till you’ve lost/All you’ve won. . . .”,
Later, Fruteland expanded on his earlier history lesson: “Charles Tindley . . . was truly one of the founding fathers of gospel music.Thomas Dorsey gets all of the credit because he lived so long, but he gives credit to Charles Albert Tindley. (Tindley) was born in 1885. After the Civil War, blacks were finally able to write songs, and publish them, and he began to write songs. He was a self-educated person: he went to night school and worked at a church as a janitor, and took a correspondence course. Later, when he graduated, he came back to that same church and became the official pastor. At the time of his death, in 1933, the church had 12,500 members (and) he wrote a collection of songs that were very popular.”
Responding to a question, Fruteland sings a sample of a slow religious hymnal, “Faith of Our Fathers”, demonstrating the rhythmic difference that happens when it’s converted to gospel by someone like Tommy Dorsey.
It’s the Midwinter Blues Festival, organized by the Calgary International Blues Festival, which has brought Mr. Jackson out from Chicago to play, and talk about, blues music’s history and timelines. And he’s done it a lot. Not only has Fruteland been playing the blues for years, he’s been teaching people about it for nearly as long, and he’s gathered awards on both accounts.
“People like to hear the history because they don’t know, and there’s so many timelines. They know they like blues, so the history provides a little DNA to where this stuff comes from, and why it’s so rich and powerful.
“About 20 years ago, I was performing in Charleston, N.C., and a woman walked up to me and said ‘Would you talk to my kids about blues?’ And I bristled: I said ‘Ma’am, they don’t have the whereabouts to understand the blues. I sing whiskey-drinking and cheating songs. Let them learn their own lesson.’ “ She convinced him, however, and now Fruteland has presented all over theU.S., throughout Europe and Canada, and has even devised child-friendly curricula for his “Blues in the Schools” program: His presentations, as his website points out, have “1 Million Served”.
And, he plays a pretty damn sweet acoustic blues.
In a recent radio interview, Fruteland admitted that he felt the acoustic blues retained the ‘healing’ aspect of the blues missing from other, more electrified styles, of blues. So, though he started with an electric guitar, and demonstrated a bit of its stylings on Wednesday’s performance, his strength and love comes through in his acoustic creation of old-style blues with modern themes, like the ragtime above.
Not the least of which, as he says with a laugh about some of his college musicology presentations, is The Emergence and Involvement of Blues Music Culture in America.
“A lot of people only know electric blues, so I take them back there (to acoustic blues). They’ve seen bits and pieces in movies and stuff, and I just try to put it together in a way so that it makes sense and it’s easy.”
That sounds like the blues: music about hard times that’s easy on the soul. You can quote me.