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July 22, 2010
When I made the film, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, it premiered at the NY Film Festival. Big hall, maybe two thousand people in attendance, a lot of hype on the film, and the Festival organizers paraded us into one of the Royal Boxes, and as we looked down upon the crowd they looked up, applauded us like Kings and Queens, and then promptly turned away as the lights went down and the movie began. In an instant, we longer existed. Perched from above, I watched what was our film become theirs. I watched them take it and it take them. It was no longer mine, no longer something I was making or doing or hoping would work. Like watching your child leave home, I wished it well.
It’s the same with a good song. You experience it as you write it. You find that moment, that story, that image you want to illuminate. Combined with the right melody, chord structure, and unpredictable yet plausible rolling along of the lyric, you give it away. You hope they take it. A good song is a gift. You’re doing something they can’t. They are waiting to be transported. All the way back to the Greeks, to the guy at the end of the bar who says, “This one time I was hitchhikin’ through Texas…” to every fairy tale that starts with “once upon a time” – as people, as human beings we are suckers for a good story. Tell me a story. Tell it with structure, unpredictability, originality, something only you would think of, a point of view only you would have, and when you execute it, we will recognize it as our own, and this shared piece of art, in the end, will change them. They will leave the hearing of your song different. More than they were. Maybe you moved them. Maybe you made them laugh. Maybe you just made them think. But you gave them something only you could give them. And now it’s theirs.
I have a few songs that do that. They always land. They’re usually from the heart, from something that bothers me, makes me happy, sad, angry, a right I want to wrong, something I honestly – key word – honestly value in my own experience and by sending that feeling through the craft of songwriting – any story well told has an engine full of nuts and bolts and many moving parts underneath its hood – it becomes universal. Every artistic experience, when shared, be it a song, play, novel, painting, film, you name it, they all hope for one thing and that’s to shine a light on what it means to be human.
If I had to pick one of my own that does that on a consistent basis, it would probably be GRANDFATHER’S HAT. A song about someone who’s no longer here. Someone we miss. Someone in whom we see ourselves. Someone to whom we still remember by wearing something much like they wore. This song came from my wearing this old fedora simply because I liked it, and someone walking up to me and asking, “Is that your Grandfather’s hat?” I looked at him and instantly thought, “That’s a song.”
— Jeff Daniels
This would be my first blog, so let’s ignore the past and pick life up in the present. I’m a big fan of the present. You don’t have to fight your fading memory to remember or imagine something that hasn’t happened yet. All you have to worry about is now.
As I write this, I am in Chicago with thousands of others attending Eric Clapton’s CROSSROADS BLUES FESTIVAL. As a student of the blues, being here is like getting an injection of rhythm and soul and you’ll never lose. The Crossroads. When I first started studying the acoustic guitar back in the late ‘70s, I was bound and determined to teach myself. As a young, constantly out of work actor, who couldn’t afford lessons, I immersed myself in the Guitar Tablature Books of Stefan Grossman (www.guitarvideos.com). In there, I learned the art of the acoustic blues. Fingerpicking, pinching, bending, slides, hammers, alternating thumb technique, on and on. I was hooked.
FLASH BACK: JANUARY, 2004
Now playing professionally in clubs around the country, I’m out on a mini-tour with my son, Ben. We loaded up my Bus and hit the road for gigs in Oklahoma, Austin TX, and Houston and then a swing down the East Coast. Bad routing, right? Not really. Since he’s a musician with his own band (the aptly named Ben Daniels Band; www.bendanielsband.com), we wanted a few days off so I could take him up Highway 61 in Mississippi. The Delta. Where the blues were born. We googled our way to Robert Johnson’s grave in Greenville, MS. Now, some claim there are several graves. Wrong. As far as I’m concerned, when you’re driving five days out of your way to stand at the grave of the man who got it all going, you’ve found the tombstone under which he rests.
While we were there, I shot a video of Ben playing his song, GET IN (YouTube “Ben Daniels Get In”). Later, we recorded it in our room above Morgan Freeman’s club in Clarksdale, GROUND ZERO BLUES CLUB. Anyway, after our trek up Highway 61, we turned the Bus north east and headed for Nazareth, Pennsylvania, to make the pilgrimage to the C.F. Martin Guitar Factory.
I love Martins. My working guitar is a C-2 Conversion. Used to be a 1934 archtop, complete with F-holes. Joe Konkoly, a luthier (konkolyguitars.com) who works at Elderly Instruments in Lansing, MI, replaced the damaged top piece with a new select Adirondack Red Spruce flattop and handed me the guitar I will play for the rest of my life.
So, up to Martin we went, partly so I could show Dick Boak at Martin my “one of a kind” hybrid, and to get Ben his first Martin. Lo and behold, little did I know I was not only going to the Promised Land, I was Coming To Jesus. As we were going over some possible guitars in the Martin lobby, Dick turned to me and said, “By the way, do you know who Stefan Grossman is?” “Of course,” I said, “his Tab Books were my Bible.” “Well, he’s sitting right over there.” Sure enough, there he was, picking away at some Custom Signature Model. I introduced myself, told him how much his teachings and playing had helped me. He couldn’t have been nicer. In fact, after talking about guitars for awhile, Stefan helped Dick find Ben the perfect Martin.
FLASH FORWARD BUT STILL NOT NOW: SPRING, 2009
While on Broadway in the hit play, GOD OF CARNAGE, I arranged for Stefan and his wife Jo to see the show. Backstage, he asked if I wanted to come out to his house in New Jersey and have a lesson. I wept openly.
Learning to truly play a acoustic guitar is like opening a treasure chest. The farther in you reach, the more you find. Stefan has helped me do that. I took a few trips out to New Jersey and everytime, I came back understanding a little more about all the things I hope to know. When he mentioned he was playing at the CROSSROADS BLUES FESTIVAL on June 26th and asked if I wanted to go, I opened up my schedule for that weekend and hit the delete button.
CUT TO: CHICAGO. FRIDAY & SATURDAY, JUNE 24-26, 2010
I got here Thursday. Two days early. Why? Because Stefan said the day you really want to be here is Friday. Rehearsal Day. That’s when all the artists are working up arrangements, deciding on solos, relaxed, laid back, and bascially hanging around marveling at each other’s ability. Sure enough, once the Rehearsals started around Friday Noon, one after another, the artists ran through their Sets. Vince Gill with Keb Mo – another great player and friend who’s also graciously taught me a few things – Joe Bonomassa with Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughn, John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, Doyal Bramhall II, Albert Lee, Earl Klugh, Jeff Beck, Jonny Lang with Buddy Guy and Ron Wood, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton with Citizen Cope, and Bert Jansch and Hubert Sumlin and Johnny Winter and B.B. King and on and on and on. There might have been fifty of us watching throughout the day. Like they were playing just for us.
I hooked up with Keb Mo. He on his way up to the Artists Lounge to rehearse a song Stefan had been teaching me called MISSISSIPPI BLUES. It’s a dastardly tricky little blues tune from the ‘40s. Let’s just say you’re using all your fingers, all the strings and, by the end of it, seemingly all the frets. That the two of them would be working on that song only made it that much more special for me. Up to the Lounge we went and for the better part of an hour, Keb and Stefan worked on that song while I sat ten feet away going to school.
On Saturday, under a scorching Southside Chicago sun, the Festival began with a bang. Just to warm up, we got Sonny Landreth, Vince Gill, and James Burton. Perched on an upper platform Stage Right, I was in Blues Heaven.
After several great sets, out came Stefan and Keb in front of 25,000 or so people. No band, no huge amps, just the two of them and the songs. After ROLLIN’ AND TUMBLIN’, they played MISSISSIPPI BLUES. It was a thrill to see that song played so well.
After their set, I went backstage to congratulate them. There, talking with them, was none other than Eric Clapton. Though relatively shy, I’m still an actor so I immediately cast myself in the role of “someone who wants to meet Eric Clapton.” Apparently, I was brilliant because the next thing I knew I was shaking his hand.
Now, having had the pleasure of meeting many great people over the years, it has come to my attention that the best in the business – in my case, people like Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, George Harrison – the truly great ones have a common quality. With no one to impress, having reached the top, they all share the same thing: instead of living up to some image of themselves, they’re simply interested in you. They ask about you what you’re doing, what you’re interested in, what you think. And Eric was exactly that. Couldn’t have been nicer. “So you play?” he asked me. Right off the bat. “Stefan says you play.” I told him I do and love it. “Has he tried teaching you MISSISSIPPI BLUES? I can’t for the life of me get that one.” “Oh, you’ll get it,” Stefan said, shaking his head. And then Clapton turned to me with a look that said, “Yeah, right…”
Now, it’s one thing to be talking to Eric Clapton at all. It’s a whole other thing for him to be talking to me about a song I was trying to play that same morning, and still another for him to look at me, with genuine frustration, and admit that the song we’re both trying to learn is a royal pain in his ass.
My friends, there’s hope for us all.
June 26, 2010