As Ringo Starr once opined, “You got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues.”
Hokay, so he’s hardly an authority being a white dude from Liverpool, but the sentiment is well taken. The blues is not pretty. The blues is badass. The blues is a music that reverberates from the swamps of the Mississippi Delta and is, others maintain, equally endemic to the Native culture as it is to black Americans.
The Pappy Johns Band may not be from the Delta, but they surely have paid their dues. Started 30 years ago by Oren Doxtator and Don Powless, the band of four Canadian Mohawk and Oneida musicians has performed internationally at venues including the Chicago Blues Festival, the Blues sur Seine in France and the Montreal Jazz Festival. This summer, southern Ontario’s favorite sons are releasing a new CD, “Pappy Johns III: Having a Good Time Now” with a fresh sound that stays true to the band’s rez-blue foundation.
Lead singer and guitarist Joshua Miller, the youngest band member at age 33, wrote most of the new tracks describing them as “…rockin’ blues with roots in country and soul.” This creates a distinct compilation, he explains, that comes from growing up on the Six Nations Mohawk reserve where families play and appreciate all forms of music.
“We touch on a lot of influences in our music; something we get from growing up on the rez. You’ll hear rock and roll and blues, of course, and even funk.”
Their new CD assimilates these various genres, and the result is a sound that captures the best of classic blues and southern rock. The cheeky track “Early in the Evening,” for example, is reminiscent of early J. Geils Band; the wailing guitar riff in “Love Me Like you Should” eerily channels Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Allman Brothers.
Although Pappy Johns remains largely unknown in the U.S., they have earned a solid reputation in their home country. They are regular performers on the Canadian show, “REZ Bluez TV,” the BRAVO network and were nominated in 2004 for Canada’s most prestigious music honor, the JUNO awards.
“We’ve received mainstream attention in the blues community for being trailblazers and have gotten a lot of respect in the Native community as well. No matter where we go we find people appreciate our music,” Miller says.
But how is their music intrinsically “Native,” if at all?
“What is an ‘aboriginal’ sound?” Is it only something that has drums and flutes?” he asks rhetorically. “African-American blues music and what we call traditional Native music have a very close relationship that dates back to the Underground Railroad. A lot of the music was influenced by what they heard as they traveled through the reservations heading north.”
The merits of Miller’s argument remain plausible. Two cultures fighting to maintain their identity under siege; two cultures with artistic traditions that reveal pain as well as pleasure. Art that derives its strength through struggle.
Is he onto something? We’ll let the anthropologists and musicologists wrangle with that one. But I gotta totally agree with Ringo—you gotta pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues.
And when you do, like the Pappy Johns Band does with a slice of sass and a whole lotta savvy, the results are fabulously badass.
Scheduled for a summer 2008 release, “Pappy Johns III: Having a Good Time Now” will be available on ITunes.
For information on the Pappy Johns Band touring schedule and musical downloads, please visit: www.myspace.com/pappyjohnsband.