Tab Benoit & Odetta: Singing to the Choir

Tab Benoit & Odetta: Singing to the Choir


Born November 17, 1967 in southern Louisiana where he lives to this day, Tab Benoit can barely remember learning to play the guitar. He had a book explaining basic chords, and once he’d mastered three of them, he tossed it and went straight to playing gigs around town, learning firsthand from local legends. He recalls an early piece of advice from Tabby’s Blues Box proprietor Tabby Thomas: “If you play the blues, you’ll always have a job.”

Benoit has been recording regularly since his debut album, Nice and Warm (1992). Since then, he has played about 250 nights a year. Anyone can see how much he loves his work, his guitar screaming and his energy never giving way. Between constant touring and 14 wildly acclaimed albums, he’s one of today’s most hard-working musicians, drawing comparisons to such greats as Albert King, Albert Collins and Jimi Hendrix, though he says he doesn’t aspire to be the next anybody.

Benoit is as passionate about his home in southern Louisiana as he is about the blues. In 2003, he founded Voice of the Wetlands, an organization devoted to saving Louisiana’s shore, which is shrinking 30 square miles each year as a result of erosion. Benoit is, unsurprisingly, currently on tour (see this month’s Also Appearing for a concert review). His latest album, the live CD Night Train to Nashville, was released earlier this year (see June On the Record).


Born New Year’s Eve, 1930 in Birmingham, AL, Odetta moved with her family to Los Angeles at age six. Her singing talent was recognized early on, and she began voice lessons at 13. She landed roles in Finian’s Rainbow and Guys and Dolls in the summers of 1949 and 1950 and became familiar with the San Francisco folk scene. When she moved to New York in 1953 to sing at the Blue Angel club, she caught the eyes of Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte and put out her first album, The Tin Angel with Larry Mohr.

The 1960s were especially successful for Odetta. She released 16 albums and served as an inspiration to Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and most famously Bob Dylan, who credited her with inspiring him to trade his electric guitar for an acoustic.

Most significant, however, was her involvement in the civil rights movement. In 1963, Odetta marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington; it was Dr. King who dubbed her “the Queen of American folk music.” Odetta explained how music and activism come together for her: “I love to perform. It has been the folk music that has informed me, educated me, got me to feeling good and better about myself, and I have a need to propagandize and to continue putting out the stories of how strong a group of people we came from, how we got over, under, through in spite of all the feet that were holding us down. So I’m a propagandist really.”

After all these years, she’s happily still at it and on tour. After a long studio hiatus, 1999’s Grammy-nominated Blues Everywhere I Go re-launched her career. In 2005 she released Gonna Let It Shine and received the Library of Congress’ Living Legend Award. More recently, Odetta appeared on Maria Muldaur’s forthcoming album Yes We Can as a member of the Women’s Voices for Peace Choir. She also has several projects set for release this fall, including her first in-concert DVD and a biographical documentary called Odetta: No One Can Dub You With Dignity…That’s Yours to Claim!. Her indomitable spirit continues to inspire people the world over.



We asked a simple question, “What are your goals?” and got an interesting earful.

I’ve come to the conclusion that what happened to us is the fault of not exercising my democratic right. When you ask for democracy, you ask for responsibility. If you don’t accept it and carry a piece of that on your shoulders, then you’re not doing your part and you really can’t say anything. Either we do it, or we stop claiming that we’re a democracy and that we have the best form of government.

The First Amendment rights are the most important, the ability to speak up and tell the government what you want. It’s government by the people, for the people, and all that stuff. That’s not a cliché. That’s real, and we’re not doing it. Remember, we decided to do this because they would behead you in other forms of government. There’s not a person in this country who would disagree with me.

What I get from a lot of people is a football mentality, “I’m going to pull for my home team—Republican or Democrat—and vote every time an election comes around. When my team doesn’t win, okay, we’ll get them next time.” And they forget about being involved. You know more about what’s going on with Britney Spears than you know about New Orleans. This is about life in this country. We have to talk about it, because it’s part of our job.

We learned this stuff in third or fourth grade when we wrote letters to the President in school. Email the President, email Congress—it takes five minutes. Make it a point to show up at public meetings and listen to what people are saying, because they’re deciding your future. It’s not just the national election that’s important, because so much has to be changed.

I’m telling people what they already know. We just forgot about it. That’s what being a real patriot is, being involved in your government, not going along with the President and whatever he decided—that’s asking for dictatorship. It shouldn’t be taboo to talk politics in a democracy—it’s required. We’re the third part of the system that has to be in place for a democracy to really work. I’m not talking about parties, and I’m not talking about individuals…I’m talking about your responsibility and my responsibility to do what it takes to make democracy work. You can’t play the blame game unless you jump in there and try.

It didn’t start with Bush. Our form of government is short-term. Elected officials make decisions based on their terms, so they work for four to eight years and leave the rest of the problems for the next guy. With the majority making decisions, we will make the right decisions, but it’s never going to be made by a person who’s only in office short term.

The BBC covered the Katrina recovery story before Jazz Fest, and what they showed was a worldwide embarrassment. That was the biggest disaster we’ve ever experienced as a nation, and actually the best opportunity for this President—who is not so popular these days—to become a hero, and he didn’t take it. It’s a shame. The biggest job the President has is taking care of his people in a crisis.

One big problem is that our priorities are not with us, our priorities are in some other country. Other countries look at us like, “Why should we follow you all into the democracy thing when you all are showing us that you can’t take care of yourselves?” Look at what happened with Katrina. You go to New Orleans and you see 70% of the city is still down almost three years into this. Halliburton moved to Dubai. I hear in Dubai, they build islands. In two years, they will have palm trees and super-skyscrapers, but these same people tell us, “New Orleans is too hard to fix.” There are no excuses.

The millions of people who live here are in a powerful position. Around the planet nobody is joining in our program, and we’re not the most popular people right now. With the eyes of the world upon us like they are, waiting for our next move, if we exercise change, then nations would probably follow, because they would see, “Hey, maybe this does work. If they can do it, we can do it, too.” The people of the world uniting.

The Voice of the Wetlands started out with my backyard and it ended up being a worldwide thing. It really does work like that. If people just think, “Hey man, if I get involved in something small in my hometown, it can affect the world,” I think they would be encouraged to join up. It doesn’t take that much time. It doesn’t take that much effort. And it’s so much more rewarding when you feel like you got involved. Even if nothing happens, even if you didn’t make the change you wanted to make, just getting involved is a very rewarding experience. E

Elmore: What are you listening to right now?

Tab Benoit: At home I mostly listen to XM. I listen to blues stations, jazz stuff, comedy. I don’t have a huge record collection of the earlier stuff.

Odetta: No one in particular. I don’t go home and put on records or anything. So don’t even beat that cow.

EM: Where do you buy your music?

TB: I don’t buy anything any more because record stores have fallen by the wayside. The Louisiana Music Factory now is kind of the only real record store in the world.

O: I’m given music along the way, CDs made by fellow performers but I never adjust to the time to putting the CDs on. If I’m on the road I turn on the radio.

EM: What was the first instrument you played?

TB: I first played the drums. I still play them. It’s the root of what I do. I bang more on the drums than I do on the guitar.

O: The first instrument was piano.

EM: What brought you to the instrument you now play?

TB: I picked up guitar probably when I was nine or ten years old. My parents gave me a guitar to try to get me off the drums. I didn’t like it, but I played it. At first it was like, “This is not my drums. What happened? I was just getting good at that.” I wasn’t really happy about it and then once I started messing with it, I realized that it was more versatile than the drums. I could play songs and could do the whole thing. Now this is my living. It’s my medium, my art.

O: I don’t play anymore; I’ve given up playing the guitar. My guitar was a good rhythm guitar but I’ve heard a real guitarist, someone who can really play and I’m not a real guitarist. But as time has gone on, my facility at arranging on the guitar is slower than what my mind is and so making arrangements for the guitar has slowed me down. Then I went into being accompanied by piano.

EM: Who would you like to write with that you haven’t?

TB: I never did much writing with people. I like to be alone and be away from outside influences and other human beings. I like being with nature and myself and God, standing alone in the swamp. You kind of think about things differently. I wouldn’t turn it down, but it’s not something I’ve ever thought about. My thought would be, “Do these guys want to write with me?”

O: First off I’m shy of writing. But if I were working with someone else I might not be as shy. Writing to me is exposing what’s in your very mind. If I could write I would like to have the daringness that Joni Mitchell has. She just puts it right on the table and it’s a truth that comes from her. But with me and my music I tend to hide in the personalities of the people whose song I’m singing. So it’s a peculiar place to hide on a stage in front of the audience but that’s the way that goes.

EM: What musician influenced you most?

TB: So many, on different levels. B.B. King and John Lee Hooker and Willie Nelson, Albert Collins. Those guys have taught me more about how to be: being a real person and not just acting like a star. Those guys never acted like they were huge stars, they acted like real people. They taught me to go by what was important, more about being true to life and that that was the best way to be. I have to say they were right.

O: There was a woman, a black contralto voice, by the name of Marian Anderson, she was a great hero of mine. And a black male baritone bass voice, incredible voice, Paul Robeson. And he was the one that helped me know it was possible to be responsible to your fellow humankind, your fellow beings. He politicized me.

EM: What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?

TB: The day I decided to make it a living, I was teaching flying in New Orleans. I told the flight school I would work for them for at least a year, to force myself to do the so-called right thing. That was the first and only year of my life where I didn’t have any musical instruments around and it was on purpose. I was doing comedy at that time, too. I always played for fun and extra money on weekends, but to make it a living, I had to know in my heart and soul that I could do it before I could make that leap.

I was nineteen, and something was eating at me and telling me that I needed to do something to help the world to be just a little bit better than it was when I showed up. I just felt bogged down like I was going nowhere and all I was doing was working for a paycheck. During that year, I kept getting more and more calls from people calling me to perform. Music just kept coming up. I kept turning them down. I knew I had to do something to change it.

I was in the air when I decided that’s it. I was with a guy from Greece and I could barely communicate with him. I’m just up there going, “Man, what am I doing?” I’d have had more fun and felt more at home playing music than I did flying for a living.

I turned down more money than I made. When I landed, I told my boss, “I’m gone and am going to play music for living.” Nobody at the flight school knew I played music. My boss, he had a good hearty laugh when he heard that I was leaving to play music. He came back to see me later, and said, “Man, I didn’t know you had it in you.”

It was definitely a tough decision. I had to go against my parents and my family and everyone. I already had a good job locked in. They weren’t encouraging me to be a musician, you know? I had to get the money to go to school and learn to play. For a while, I wasn’t the most popular kid in the family.

O: I don’t think I decided that. I loved music and I loved doing music and then I went into folk music as a hobby and then I was getting jobs. So it wasn’t as if I planned that if I sang “On Top of Old Smokey” I would get a job. I think my timing, the time I came along, was perfect because that is when the record industry turned the spotlight onto the folk music area.

It’s a happenstance in that the world’s best voice could be wandering around trying to get somebody to listen to them right now. An awful lot of it is being at the right place at the right time. But nobody knows what the right place and the right time is. All you can do is be ready for “in case.” And the love of the music makes it very easy to be involved without having lights and whistles. And as you’ve noticed, people just do what they do and all of a sudden somebody puts a spotlight on them and the whistles start blowing. That means they’re on television or you hear them on the radio. Performers are some of the biggest gamblers going, because there’s no guarantee that someone is going to care for whatever it is that you’re mixing up in your song or your music. So you just do what you love and take your chances.

EM: Who would you like in your rock and roll heaven band?

TB: It would have to be a real deep band. I would have loved to play with Stevie Ray Vaughn of course. He’s one of those guys I really thought I would meet and we would get along great. When I listened to him for the first time I thought of Albert King, B.B. King…Buddy Guy, I could see all his influences. So I’m sure he’d definitely be a part of it.

On drums, the first album that I recorded was supposed to be with Jeff Porcaro, the drummer for Toto, and a real studio wizard, a great drummer and real settled in the smoothness. He recorded with Steely Dan, Michael Jackson—he was like the go-to guy from the West Coast. He was booked to play on my CD and died a week before. Him or Bernard Purdy, who was Aretha Franklin’s drummer. Chuck Rainey or Jamie Jamerson from Motown on bass. That’s all we need.

O: My musical director is the closest to it, Seth Farber. He plays the piano and there is a connection between the two of us that at times is totally spiritual, I mean it’s just unbelievable how wonderfully we work together but I wouldn’t have more than one person because then you start producing a thing rather than presenting a song that addresses a situation or a policy or an individual feeling. I guess too many cooks spoil the broth.

EM: What’s your desert island CD?

TB: I might not bring a CD. There are a lot of times when I just don’t want to listen to music. It’s kind of in my head all the time, and I just have to get rid of it once in a while. It’s hard to think with the music. If I was by myself, I’d be more into a nice shelter and figuring out a way to get water and food and really getting into it. I think I’d love to live on an island. I wouldn’t have any responsibilities, no taxes to pay.

O: There’s a record many, many years ago I heard by the composer Villa-Lobos. He wrote a piece for the soprano Beju Sayu and it’s called Bachianas Brasileiras—I’m hearing it now. It’s such a healing piece, beautiful.

EM: What was the first thing that made you politically aware?

TB: When I was 15 or 16 years old and flying a lot, from the air I’d see land disappearing. It was happening right by my house. I started to try to find a way to get involved and change it.

We’re losing land in places where my grandparents and parents used to drive cars and walk and where people used to live, where I used to walk and camp in the swamps. All that is washing away. It’s not going to be long where I’d take people out in a boat and say, hey, this is where I used to live, right under here.

I’ll be at the Republican and Democratic conventions. Hopefully that’ll help make a dent in this thing and get these people to stop procrastinating and take care of this country.

O: We look at it now and call it political awareness but I wasn’t necessarily politically aware when I was growing up—it was that I was in the area of “that is fair or that is not fair, that is right or that is wrong” and I would usually go and support what I thought the right side of the question was. But now as we look back on it you can say I was politicized, but I was being politicized actually from the needs of the world and the needs of the people.

EM: Have you achieved your goals? What will it take to achieve your goals?

TB: My goals have become bigger than I ever thought they would. Whether they are attainable or not really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have to try. If you don’t, then you’re not exercising your democratic rights.

O: No, but a lot of times people accuse us of singing to the choir, but who else would you sing to? The choir has been singing a long time and trying to work out problems, and they need to be sung to, and we need to be sung to.

Solving political goals—that’s a little heavy an assignment for music but it does help soothe the spirit and it does help heal, and I really mean physically heal. As far as setting our political curvatures straight, it ain’t gonna do that.

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