About Woody Mann

Among guitarists and critics, Woody Mann is considered a modern master. While the blues are his touchstone, he seems to draw inspiration from every direction with ease and grace. Pioneering guitar legend John Fahey said it well: “You can hear classical, jazz and blues approaches somehow converging into a single sparkling sound completely his own.”

Mann has pursued a rich and diverse career; he has performed everywhere from the orchestra pits of Broadway to stages worldwide, recorded extensively, and schooled countless guitarists through his many books and DVDs including “The Art of Acoustic Blues Guitar” DVD series, “The Complete Acoustic Blues Guitar Method”, and his latest DVD “Take Command of Your Fretboard”, for Homespun Tapes. For Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop he created several lesson books/dvd’s covering various artists, from Blind Blake to Big Bill Broonzy to Robert Johnson.

From his first solo recording “Stairwell Serenade” that Guitar Player Magazine included in their “guitar recordings of destiny”, Woody has since recorded over a dozen releases as a soloist and in collaboration with others including blues greats Son House, Bukka White, and John Cephas.

As a producer, writer and filmmaker he has co-produced the award winning feature documentary, “Harlem Street Singer”, the story of Reverend Gary Davis, the legendary Gospel, blues, and ragtime guitarist, produced the soundtrack CD “Empire Root Band”, and penned his latest book “Just Play”, combines history and stories of artists Woody has known and worked with including his early mentors Reverend Gary Davis and jazz great Lennie Tristano.

Mann has taught at the major guitar workshops in the USA and Europe including Fur Peace Ranch and Port Townsend Centrum, been a faculty member at the New School in New York City, founded International Guitar Seminars, and created his own innovative online teaching website. Acknowledging his artistry, the C.F. Martin guitar company has honored Woody with the release of the “Woody Mann” signature model guitar. Presently, he is a visiting artist at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, where he is teaching a new generation of musicians.

Throughout his career, Woody has not forgotten those early lessons in the Rev. Davis’ living room or the jazz traditions that were his wellspring. He has become one of the world’s renowned guitar masters – bringing the past up to the present – with his own contemporary improvisational style.

The Interview

You have so many hats on: musician, teacher, historian, film maker… that has to be a very busy life. What keeps you going into this musical direction?

Harlem Street Singer produced by Woody Mann

Well, some of it is planned and a lot of it is unplanned. You just go from project to project and being a musician you’re open to a lot of different opportunities- you’re playing and meeting a lot of interesting people. 

You know I was a student of Reverend Gary Davis and I always wanted to make a film about his life. So when I met some people who wanted to fund the film and people who were film makers –project became a reality.

Teaching always was a part of my career, not a lot, I like to teach a little bit but not as a full-time teacher. Now I’m at Berklee college as a visiting artist and that works out beautifully, teaching country blues to new students which is really wonderful.

So as a musician, as a freelancer, you get involved with many different projects. It could be a Broadway show and all of a sudden you do a blues festival, the next day you’re teaching at a college giving a workshop… then you’re in Japan doing a workshop. It’s exciting in that way, it’s nice to have a lot of spokes in the wheel.

Music is in the center and that’s what drives it. It’s difficult to make a living just as a performer. Ever since I was in high school, I was always teaching guitar on the side and writing books. That always was a part of my income. Then I started my own workshops, international guitar seminars. A part of being a musician is being a businessman. That forces you into all kind of projects.

I’m still touring, not like 8 months a year or so, but a couple of months a year and playing locally. Apart from that, I love country blues but I also play jazz music. That takes you in a lot of different directions as well.

 

Do you need all these different directions to ‘stay fresh’?

I guess so, I don’t think about it too much. I think I’ve reached the point where I just play what I play and I try not to categorize it. My background is country blues of course, but I love jazz, I love classical… So I just play what I play and it comes out how it comes out. It’s not ‘straight blues’. Yes, sometimes I play blues festivals and then I can do a blues act. But when I do a show on a concert stage I play my own music. It’s about keeping YOUR music alive and finding the right audiences for that.

 But for me it’s not a conscious thought process. I mean, I love country blues and to me what I play is country blues. It may come out as jazz music or so. But everything I do has a foundation in country blues. It all goes back to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Bo Carter, Scrapper Blackwell… That’s my muse.

Even if I play a jazz standard now, the licks I play and the feeling, it always goes back to those artists and that music.

To me country blues is an ongoing art form, if I play country blues I don’t need to play a cover of Robert Johnson. I can play my own music but to me there always will be a strong connection back to the country blues.

 

A lot of different directions and projects, but do these things ever feel like a job to you?

That’s a good question. It’s all a job in some way. When I’m teaching it’s a job. When I’m performing it’s a job… and so on. I’m approaching it like I’m going to work. In that sense I treat it like a job, I take it professionally so I do the best job I can do. So whatever the project is, whether it’s a film project or a workshop, you prepare and you show up on time and you do the best you can. But absolutely not like: I have to go to my job and I’m hating my job.

 There were times I wished a had a straight job with a paycheck like ‘everybody else’. Because there are times the money is not steady and you go ‘up and down’. I wouldn’t trade the music for anything, but there are sometimes difficult times as an artist, it’s a up and down ride. But as you get into it you learn how to take care of yourself and for me it was ‘being involved with many different things’. That works for me.

I used to perform all the time, 8 months a year, but I learned I didn’t want to travel all the year. You make choices along the way.

 I had a teacher, Lennie Tristano, and he used to say “Don’t be a professional musician! Just work at the post office and then play the music on the side, then the weekends “. I know a lot of great artist who’re not performing musicians, they just work in an office or in a hospital and in the weekends they play great blues.

You don’t have to be a professional to play great music and sometimes the reverse happens where you are a professional and the music business gets to you so much you end up giving it up.

 In the end the key is to survive and keep the music alive and however you do that, you do that.

 

What position does country blues have in the musical landscape according to you?

I don’t see country blues as a “folk music”, I see it as an art form. Just like jazz. We don’t think of jazz as a folk music, we think of jazz as an art form. I think of country blues the same way.

 Country blues music is not rooted in time, maybe it’s originated by African-Americans but we don’t think of jazz as a black music. We think of jazz as an art form.

 To me country blues is an ongoing tradition. That’s the way how I teach it at Berklee. I tell the students they can use the technique, ideas and groove of country blues but you can contemporize it and make it your own as part of your own craft and music. Country blues as a tool.

 

Jazz and Blues are two worlds you’re involved in. How do these two styles relate to each other?

Musically they’re absolutely connected. I don’t see them as different worlds. In a way I can’t see Charlie Parker without Louis Armstrong, Lester Young without Blind Blake and Lonnie Johnson.

 For a lot of people jazz starts with King Oliver and Louis but what about ‘pre-Louis’? I see the blues as a continuum of jazz for sure. As a guitarist the techniques, the ideas and the improvising is the same whether you’re Big Bill Broonzy or Bud Powell. Musically these two styles are very related.

 I learned from Reverend Davis and also Lennie Tristano, these are very different disciplines and they didn’t know each other. With Lennie I was dealing much more with scales, chords and things, with Davis it was all about his music.

 Blues and jazz, it’s hard to think of one without the other.

Woody Mann and John Cephas

Nowadays the audiences of jazz and blues music seem quite far apart while the music is so related…

I think that’s what happens with music, people categorize music. There’s jazz, bebop, post-bebop, trad jazz… There’s country blues, modern blues, urban blues, Chicago blues. I think that’s the way we market music. I don’t think the musicians thought of it that way.

 Today when people think of country blues they say “ah, that’s old fashioned music”. And it’s not. You don’t think of Louis Armstrong as ‘old fashioned jazz’.

 Why? Well I think socially being a blues musician was not a good thing to be, they were outcasts in some way. They were not upstanding members of the community. That’s why Reverend Davis turned to the church.

 When people nowadays play country blues it’s thought as being a museum piece. And there’s no need for that!

 If you wanna play Mississippi John Hurt, Scrapper Blackwell, Robert Wilkins, Son House and all these guys, it’s good to study their music and learn from their records you can use that to further your own music or you can just play their music. It’s up to you.

 When I was young I played “their” music for years. Doing concerts like “Here’s a Blind Blake song”. That’s wonderful but I think it’s a very personal journey in terms of music. My music just went in other directions, not because I thought about it like “country blues is old, I don’t wanna do it anymore’, just as an organic process I went in different directions. It’s still a process. You have to find out what your authentic voice is.

 I really enjoy performing because you have to be spontaneous and you have to be original. I just want to try to see if I can say something with the music. Even if I play a Gary Davis tune, I’m gonna try it my way. Just because, first of all, Gary Davis was great- I don’t wanna play just like he did. Bring yourself to the music. Whatever form that takes, it can be very subtle, it can be just a feeling… You can still cover a song and make it really fresh. You don’t have to create your own music, you can still play “John Henry” but you can bring yourself to that music.

 When someone has something to say in their music (even when it’s a cover), you hear and feel it! Find your audience and speak to their heart.

 

Isn’t that what the country blues musicians did back in the days?

These were professional musicians, when they were playing for white audiences they played music the white audience liked. When they played black audience they played music the black audience liked. Whatever the audience wanted, they played it.

That’s where all these categories come in: Piedmont blues, Mississippi blues, delta blues… You have to take those terms with a grain of salt. These bluesmen would play anything, “I’m so Glad” was a pop tune. They would play anything they could hear, they were professionals. It wasn’t categorized like ‘this is country blues, this is delta’ and so on.

It has always been interesting why the musicians played like they played. What material they played, how they played. Different areas had regional folk songs that the musicians picked up on. In different areas of the country you could hear different melodies, for example the plantation owners heard a lot of Irish music. All this kinda stuff.

I don’t think in categories like that in terms of country blues, it’s all about the individual artist. Take someone like Robert Johnson, his influences were from everywhere. If you look at Mississippi within a 100 mile radius you had: John Hurt, Son House, Robert Wilkins and they all played very differently. To me the term “Piedmont Blues” sounds a bit silly, there is no such thing as “Piedmont Blues”.

I think with blues, and with history in general, it’s easier to throw around terms because people don’t define their terms. People like Alan Lomax don’t mention what a folk musician is or what a blues musician is. Now over time here it is! We have it all neatly categorized –if you are an African-American from Mississippi than you are a Mississippi blues player. When you grow up in Virginia as an African-American musician, OK! you are a Piedmont blues player.

I say ‘wait a second’, what if a Piedmont player played in open tuning with a slide? Wait, that’s not Piedmont! Oh my god, that breaks the category, let’s not deal with this artist!

And probably that’s one of the reasons that a great musician like Reverend Gary Davis didn’t get the attention he deserved (in my opinion). He didn’t fit into a category and he played gospel. Blues historians were never that interested in gospel.

To diminish Reverend Gary Davis as a Piedmont player is ridiculous. I think it diminishes a lot of musicians when we put them into categories.

 

What were your personal early musical influences?

I grew up in a house where we listened to Paul Robeson, Leadbelly, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Seeger, the Weavers and so on. Those were the records in my house as a kid. I just gravitated to folk music. That was the foundation.

 When I first heard Lightnin’ Hopkins it just knocked me out. One person with a guitar and sounding ‘complete’. Maybe because I was a bit of a loner as a kid, it was like ‘I don’t need a band to make music’. That really resonated with me.

 I just stumbled on that Lightnin’ Hopkins records, after that I went to a store and stumbled on a Blind Blake record, I was like “Who’s this?” and I just bought it because I liked the picture.

 After that one thing led to another and then you start searching. There were not that many places and sources to find this music back then. There was one magazine “Sing Out Magazine” and there was a place “The Folklore Center” in NYC. I got a mail order record each week and get a new LP of like Little Brother Montgommery. That’s how I started the learn abou the music.

 When I was looking for a guitar teacher, I couldn’t find one. I just looked up Reverend Gary Davis in the phone book. I knew a few tunes of him “Candyman” among others and I just went to the phone book and looked up all the Davis’ in the New York area and by the fifth or the sixth one I got Annie on the phone. I just asked “Is this the Reverend of Candyman?” she said “Yes this is his number”. I asked “Does he teach guitar?” she said “I don’t know why don’t you just come over?”. So I went over and that’s how I found my teacher.

Reverend Gary Davis and Annie

My mother drove me over to his house. I knew what fingerstyle was of course.. I knew Blind Blake, Van Ronk and Lightnin’ Hopkins, I was familiar with the genre and style. But when I heard Reverend Gary Davis play at his house it blew me away. It knocked me out. I only asked “Can I study with you?” and he was like “Ok!”. That was it.

I remember my first lesson, I only knew “Candyman”, “Cocaine” and “Delia” and I asked “What else do you play?”. “Did you ever heard this one?” and he played Hesitation Blues, I was like… teach me this! I was picking his brain.

 

Can you describe Reverend Gary Davis’ teaching style?

He taught me lick by lick, starting very slow. Back and forward. “Let me hear you play it….. no that’s wrong”. Then jam on a tune for two hours, one song. Back and forward, back and forward.

I tell this story in the movie (Harlem Street Singer – The Reverend Gary Davis Story),

he would teach me a song and I tape recorded it and would go home and write everything out. All twelve verses of Hesitation Blues or whatever, lick by lick. After that I would go back a week later and then he would play the song for me and I was like “Wait a minute, that is not the same song!” and he said “Yes it is!”. I thought every time he played it, it would be exactly the same but he kept improvising. That opened my eyes.

That was my way of learning from him, I have about sixty hours of Reverend Gary Davis lesson tapes.

I tell people: anybody could have learned from him, it’s not that I’m so great you know what I mean. It was almost impossible ‘not to learn from him’ because he was so patient. He wouldn’t let you leave unless you learned the tune. It was very easy in that sense. Drill, drill, repetition, repetition. And than you learn it.

 It was a complete gift.

 And from there I met around the same time Nick Perls (Yazoo Records & Blue Goose Records) and he was very familiar with the blues scene. The I met Stefan Grossman and the New York blues mafia.

 

How do you look back at this period?

I was living in the east side of Manhattan. Nick Perls was a big influence, because he had a huge record collection. We became friends, I was much younger and he kinda took me under his wing. I would go to his apartment and he’d be working and in his basement he had from A to Z: Texas Alexander, Blind Willie Johnson and so on. I spend the whole day like “Oh, who’s this?” and playing all these 78’s. I learned about a lot of music there.

When Yazoo was doing all these records, I became the ‘musical guy’. They were the historians and I would work with Steve Calt and if they would put together a Blind Blake record let’s say, they would decide ‘what are the best 15 Blind Blake songs?’ or whatever.

They would ask me “What key is this in? What key is that in?”. That was my favourite thing to do. I didn’t really know the history, I knew about the music. I would listen to the music and say “That’s an open G”, “That’s a capoed third fret, key of D?.

Besides that I collaborated with Steve Calt on the notes that come with the album. He would do the history notes, I would do the musical notes. I really loved doing that.

Looking back it was a good time. I met so many interesting people, interesting collaborations. Nick Perls house was the hub, that was blues headquarters. Everybody was there Jo Ann Kelly, Son House, Hacksaw Harney, John Fahey were in his basement. That’s where I met them.

Back in the days it really was a scene but still a small world. If you were into blues there were thirty people you needed to know, that’s it.

Even one of my first educational guitar books that I was involved in. The publisher knew Nick Perls and they wanted to do a blues book, the publisher asked Nick “Who do you know in New York who can transcribe?” and he recommended me. It was a very small group of people who knew the music and could do it.

So I was very fortunate in that way.

Do you, as a historian and writer about this subject, have some idea what influenced these early blues artists?

There is this history of folk music in America, white or black. For example: you have this area in Appalachia and a song is going around, a certain melody that was handed down from generations and this song grew in that area and everyone has version of that. Like everybody had a version of “Crow Jane”, later that became “Key to the Highway”. Everybody had version of “Salty Dog”. There were certain generic tunes that ‘everybody’ played.

It’s a general history of rural American roots music or how you want to call it. After that people started to learn from records. Robert Johnson did for example, he learned from Scrapper Blackwell, Son House, Blind Blake and Lonnie Johnson and tried to cover all these tunes. After the records came in, all the local styles started to change and blur.

 What’s interesting to me are the early guys who were a little older when they recorded, artists like Papa Charlie Jackson. They go back to the 1890’s and that tells a story of music before the blues.

I’m fascinated by the elements that went into blues. Like Reverend Gary Davis, you can say “Well ok, he’s got some of his music from blues, gospel and from this and that” but why did he play the way he played?

Nobody, knows. But I have some thoughts of it and I don’t know if it’s true. He was unique in one way – he started with playing blues, then he played a lot of church music and he was a street singer. He played everything he could play. He played these spiritual tunes and they are very melodic, not like blues where vocal is more the melody.

Maybe he was leading the congregation and the tune, maybe he was just playing the tune… Maybe he developed playing the song with the melody and the chords. Besides that he was also playing for the streets so he had this ragtime swing to it. All these elements together gospel, ragtime, swing, melody and the harmonic complexity for the blues and all that with a blues feel… that became his style. So it has to be a real confluence of influences.

It’s very interesting because he didn’t really influence a generation of players, apart from people like me way later. Like Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Blind Blake or Blind Lemon, they influenced a lot of players in THEIR time period. There was always some influence in that world.

But with Davis, who played like Davis? Who played before Davis like Davis?

Personally I think it’s because his music was really complicated. Who COULD play like Gary Davis?

Davis is really a one-of in that history of blues. In the history books of the blues he’s like one paragraph, he’s not really looked on as part of the ‘tree of blues’ – Son House, Patton, Lemon, Jefferson etc. Gary Davis is not part of that.

That’s why country blues to me is all about the individual artist and their influences. That’s what we think of jazz too, jazz is about the individual artist.

I know I’m repeating myself but I don’t see country blues as a folk music, it might have started that way but it’s an art form. It’s also nice to think of it that way because it makes the music to me ‘deeper’. You can play it, you can teach it, you can learn a lot from it, you can make it ‘yours’.

Just like studying jazz; you have to learn the Charlie Parker solos, the Wes Montgommery solos – you learn through craft. You learn the tunes and the melodies but when you improvise you need to find YOUR voice to say something that comes from YOU.

Interesting enough with Chicago blues there’s more of that. There they bring more of their personality in the music. Because improvising is more a part of the Chicago blues package.

When you’re playing a fingerstyle blues tune it’s less improvisational, more like ‘I’m playing this tune’. Improvising on Blind Blake… it’s more difficult because there’s more going into it. When you’re playing a 12 bar blues Chicago style you can just blow and improvise and say something new. It’s a curious thing the music is simpler in a way but it’s more expressive and personal while the old country blues is more difficult to play and harder to ‘be free’ and improvise within it.

 

Today we have so many potential influences, all these records in Spotify, the videos at Youtube, guitar lessons on almost every artist… you can find everything. That’s quite a contrast with the guys back in the days. Do you think that less influences forces you to become more creative in your playing?

That’s a very interesting question but also hard to answer. I think you work with what you have. I think having less influence or less outside stimulus can get you deeper into something.

 Like Reverend Davis played Reverend Davis, he didn’t play a lot of slide guitar or open tunings. Today we want to learn it all, we want to play like Blind Blake and Chet Atkins and Blind Willie Johnson. You can use all that to your advantage or it can blow you out.

 I know for me when I was learning as a kid, I had a dozen albums and they were my bibles. I devoured them and got deeper into it, so if I had Youtube back then, maybe I would’ve been to scattered. Who knows.

 

What do you think of the development of country blues after the second world war?

I think after the 40’s and 50’s there was almost no black audience anymore for country blues, it was more about Chicago blues and the blues in the nightclubs. It all moved in that direction which makes sense because ‘it’s entertainment in the city’. It went with the times.

After that there was this country blues revival with guys like Bukka White and Son House who were rediscovered. I don’t know if they were surprised that there was a new audience for their music.

I went to Indianapolis once with Nick Perls, Steve Calt and a few people. We were staying in a motel room, they wanted to go out and look for records but I didn’t feel like so I stayed in the motel room. I remember they found, I think it was, Shirley Griffith and took him to the motel room. He was working in a TV repair shop or something and played gigs on the side.

We said “We want to record you!”, and we’re sitting in this motel room. He picks up the guitar and starts playing Elvis Presley. Nick Perls was saying “No, no, no, we want you to play the old blues that you used to play when you were young!” and Shirley was like “I don’t play that anymore, I play this now…” and he started to play something like “You’re Nothing But a Hound Dog”. Nick said “No, no we want to pay you to make a record!” then Shirley was like “You wanna play me to play old blues??”.

He really didn’t understand why these people wanted to hear that old stuff. Of course the next day he came back and he played all his old stuff and he could still play it. But there was just no audience for it, that’s why he didn’t play it anymore- his audience wanted this rock ‘n roll stuff.

That was a real eye opener for me and very interesting. These old guys they just played what they played.

 

What’s your advice for acoustic blues pickers and students around the world?

Play slow, keep trying, be patient and go for the groove. It’s about expression.

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2 Comments
  1. JD Seem 7 months ago

    Great piece Robbert. Woody is a treasure and I was lucky to have studied with him back in his New School Days.

    • Author
      Robbert 7 months ago

      Thank you JD! I totally agree with you: he is a treasure. Lot’s to learn from him!

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