ERIC BIBB, TALKING LONG distance from his home in Sweden, pauses. "Pardon me for a minute," he says as he takes time to kiss his daughter and wish her a good night.
Bibb is a blues man and a family man. The son of Broadway singer Leon Bibb, he comes by both naturally. His uncle is John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. His godfather was actor and singer Paul Robeson.
Bibb's music recalls the eclectic good-timey blues of Ry Cooder, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, or Bibb's idol, Taj Mahal, who guested on Bibb's most recent album, Home to Me. It's a relaxed, engaging, backyard style that isn't afraid to include touches of traditional gospel, show tunes, soul or even Euro-folk when it fits. Bibb calls himself simply "an acoustical folk bard" and "a songster."
"I consider myself a musician with folk music sensibilities. That's the music that touches me the most," he explains.
Eric Bibb's music makes sense, given his upbringing. He grew up in Greenwich Village, with the burgeoning folk scene of the late '50s and early '60s in one ear and his father's more sophisticated tunes in the other. Growing up, adults like Pete Seeger and Spike Lee's dad, Bill Lee, hung out at the Bibb household. He met a young Bob Dylan, just in from Minnesota.
"Richie Havens was a huge influence," Bibb says. "Before him was Odetta and before her was my dad and all the people that he introduced me to. It would be impossible for that not to be there because that was so much a part of my upbringing. I was exposed to everyone from Judy Collins to Josh White, Mahalia Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Folk music at the time when I was growing up was really world music; they just didn't have that name for it. It was really quite inclusive. A lot of jazz and classical music was part of my music too, thanks to my uncle. I just never thought there was any point in shaving away any of that nutrition."
Fresh out of Harlem's High School for the Performing Arts, Bibb headed for Europe, loved it and has lived the expatriate life there for most of the past 30 years.
"It's been good," he notes. "It's been a very supportive and musical community. I've had every opportunity to meet wonderful musicians from Scandinavia and even farther afield, so in terms of being inspired as a creative musician, it's been a really good time."
Over his career, he has tried out pop stylings but eventually returned to his roots. He credits that decision to his time in Europe.
"I have a feeling that had I stayed in the States, my musical interests would have predominated, but I would have made more of what people would call 'a clever career move' and I would probably not have stayed with folk music. Being in Europe gave me a very practical way of staying with it. I was away from the infrastructure of the music business, so I didn't have people whispering in my ear."
Being in Europe didn't hurt his access to musicians who understood the idiom, he claims. "It's a place that's been very aware of American jazz and blues and has spawned many homegrown players," Bibb points out. "The care and reverence with which some European musicians have embraced this African-American tradition of jazz and blues is even sharper than their American counterparts, because they don't take it for granted. It's been harder to come by in terms of collecting, so the interest has to have been keener to sustain it. I've found some absolutely wicked players and singers here."
Bibb learned to be self-sufficient out of economic necessity. His current tour is a solo flight featuring his strong singing and outstanding finger picking skills.
Of his guitar playing, he admits, "Most of my studying was self-study, except for a couple of fine classical guitar players who at least imparted a love and an awareness of how terrific an instrument it is. I was never a great student so I couldn't rattle off (classical composer Fernando) Sor pieces, but it did give me a feeling what it's like to actually play the guitar with your fingers. I don't use a plectrum. I just use my bare fingers."
He credits his appreciation of the power of a singer to his father.
"For all my dad's achievements, I can say that his greatest gift was his natural voice," Bibb says. "After all was said and done, whatever the stylings were, whether it was folk music or repertoire things or Broadway things, Kurt Weill, whatever, it was always the voice. Mostly he was just a wonderful singer who liked a good melody.
"As much as I love guitar playing and as much as I've worked on honing my song writing," Bibb continues, "I'm amazed that after concerts, people always come back and talk about my singing, which is something I always felt reticent about and less sure of. I mean when you grow up with people like Odetta and Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, you get a feeling about what a great voice sounds like. But in the end I realize, unless you're an initiate yourself and into all that finger picking madness, people hear it but they don't hear it above and beyond the voice. The voice reigns."
Eric Bibb, with opening performer Lisa Otey, performs on Saturday, January 20, at 8 p.m. in the sanctuary of St. Michaels and All Angels, 602 N. Wilmot Road (Wilmot and Fifth Street). Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at the door and are available at Antigone Books, Brew & Vine, the Folk Shop, Enchanted Earthworks and Hear's Music. Tickets are also available by phone at 297-9133. For more information, call Jonathan Holden Productions at 297-9133.