Interview: Dave Specter and Billy Branch on “The Ballad of George Floyd”
Music can be a catalyst for change. It has a rare ability to make people feel something that words may not do justice. It can supply a voice, when we feel unheard. It can speak to us, when we feel alone. In times of trouble, it can give us hope. In today’s world, there is a lot to be upset about. Whether it be the current pandemic, our government, or the social injustices that become more and more clear everyday, it can be overwhelming.
Dave Specter, a Blues musician from Chicago, has been performing for over 35 years and has played an integral part in the Chicago blues scene. Billy Branch, is an incredibly well known, legendary bluesman from Chicago as well, and has been performing since the 1970’s. I was fortunate enough to sit down this week with the two of them to discuss their new track, The Ballad of George Floyd, and what they think music’s role is in these difficult times.
I spoke first with Dave Specter, the writer and guitarist on the track, about what role he thinks music plays in demanding social justice and change. “I think it (music) can be very important and I think it was very important especially in the 1960’s. Speaking of musicians from Chicago, I think one of the most important groups that wrote and performed some of the best music and some of the best protest music, were The Staple Singers. Roebuck “Pops” Staples was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and wrote a song called Freedom Highway about the marches that were happening in the 60’s, that Mavis Staples still performs today. So I’m very much inspired by that message and it was generally a very positive and hopeful message…I personally love to see artists in all forms of art, from music to visual art, taking on and confronting and expressing their feelings about social issues and justice; anything that’s happening in the world. I think that good art should be provocative. Most of my music is much more along the lines of straight ahead, blues jazz r&b soul that doesn’t really have a political or social justice element. But it feels rewarding and somewhat cathartic to write songs like this”.
I spoke later with Billy Branch, the vocalist and harmonicist on the track about his thoughts on the song and issues facing us today. “Music has always been a vehicle to express social concerns and political concerns and I think right now more than ever you’re seeing a large amount of social commentary by musicians; probably more than ever in recent memory. We’ve got madness in Washington, we’ve got covid and then we’ve got of course, the black lives matter movement. I think now more than ever musicians are playing a pivotal part in being the voices of the masses because of our situation. We’re living in such an altered reality. This is uncharted territory for us. It’s a very different type of existence, so people are looking for solace and answers and I think the music to a large degree provides that relief and voice.
Whether we notice it or not, our location plays a major role in how we see the world. Our cities and homes act almost as a lens for which we see the world through. I later asked Dave what the writing process was like for him and how living in the city of Chicago informed his perspective. “I live in Lakeview which is a pretty diverse community and I have witnessed and been apart of a couple marches that happened after I wrote the song and one of the starkest memories I have during the pandemic, was riding my bike throughout the city, I think it was in June, this was after George Floyd was killed and after there had been a series of marches. I remember riding around downtown Chicago and most of the streets were closed in the Loop and I was riding through these empty stark streets, and then I hit the Gold Coast area around State and Oak street and I started seeing all the luxury boutiques and car dealerships boarded up and then I rode around rush street and I saw the cafes just packed with people outside totally oblivious to the fact that there is a deadly pandemic. Then I got to the corner of State and Division and I saw armored vehicles blocking the streets preparing for protest marches with unidentified soldiers in uniform, which was very surreal, orwellian, and frightening. So it definitely affected me and it is definitely a picture in time of where the country is these days.
Music has an incredibly unique ability to bring out the humanity in people. It forces us to feel, and empathize with others in a way we might not otherwise be capable of. I asked Dave what his goal for the song was. Whether it is a tribute to George Floyd, a call to action, or both. “I think it’s both of those things. In the chorus I write, we can’t let this happen again. It’s time to bring about a change. So hopefully that will inspire people to action. But y’know over the past month since George Floyd was killed how many more cases have there been where these black people are being shot like Jacob Blake, shot seven times in the back, he was unarmed. Maybe he said he was reaching for a knife in his car but does that justify shooting someone seven times in the back; that’s sickening. There have been other cases, there was the case in Rochester, Daniel Prude, he was from Chicago, I think he had mental health issues and he was suffocated by police. So it keeps on happening. It’s always been happening. It’s sad and I hope it changes. I hope things change. I think one of the positives is that the murder of George Floyd sparked a world wide movement. There have been marches and protests and calls for action and changes in laws most importantly in this country and all over the world. I think police reform is happening. I think people are taking a hard look at these issues and I think that’s one of the reasons why I wrote he didn’t die in vain. There have been some positive results to this tragedy”.
When asked what it was like collaborating with one another, Billy Branch said, “I’m really happy to have been a part of this project. I think Dave wrote a song that is timely and captures the moment and speaks to the times at hand. I’m hoping that this song will get sufficient publicity and notoriety. I think it’s delivering a very poignant message”. Dave spoke on the collaboration saying, “I’m proud to collaborate with the great Chicago bluesman Billy Branch on this tune. We share the same vision and are inspired by John Lewis: “If it hadn’t been for music, the civil rights movement would’ve been like a bird without wings”.
This track was recorded at Evanton’s SPACE with proper social distancing practices. If you’re interested in hearing or purchasing the song, visit Delmark.com or stream it on Apple Music and Spotify.
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Dave Specter Biography:
GUITARIST, BANDLEADER, RECORDING ARTIST, PRODUCER, PODCAST HOST
Dave Specter has earned an international reputation as one of the premier talents on the Chicago music scene. Since 1985 Specter has performed regularly at top Chicago blues and jazz clubs in addition to festivals and concert halls throughout the USA. Since 1989 Dave has toured internationally with performances in Argentina, Brazil, Israel, Spain, England, Northern Ireland, Denmark, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Luxembourg, Mexico and Canada.
Before forming his own band in 1989, Specter toured extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe behind such blues greats as Son Seals, The Legendary Blues Band, Hubert Sumlin, Sam Lay and Steve Freund. Specter has also performed and/or recorded with such artists as Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rogers, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Jimmy Johnson, Jack McDuff, Johnny Adams, Snooky Pryor, Kim Wilson, Tad Robinson, John Primer, Johnny Littlejohn, B.B. Odom, Mighty Joe Young, Valerie Wellington, Magic Slim, Lonnie Brooks, Ronnie Earl, Otis Clay, Floyd McDaniel, Pinetop Perkins and Jorma Kaukonen.
Dave appears on over 40 albums and DVDs as a guitarist, bandleader and/or producer, with 12 albums as a leader or co-leader on Delmark Records.
He appears on compilation CDs with artists such as Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells.
Dave is also partner at one of the Chicago area’s most acclaimed music venues, Evanston SPACE and hosts the podcast, Blues From The Inside Out.
Dave endorses Victoria Amplifiers and GHS Strings
Billy Branch Biography:
Blues giant Billy Branch is among today’s greatest harmonica players. With his inventive, deeply rooted playing and gritty, soulful vocals, Branch carries on the Chicago blues tradition that he learned first-hand from icons including Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Carey Bell, Willie Dixon and many others. His famous teachers made it clear to anyone who would listen that Branch was the heir apparent to the Chicago blues harmonica throne. With his instantly recognizable sound and his band, The Sons Of Blues, Branch has traveled the world, creating living, breathing and evolving Chicago blues for over four decades. In addition, he’s dedicated years of work to the Blues In The Schools program, helping children—the next generation of blues artists and fans—develop a love for and understanding of the genre.
Branch is among the very last living bluesmen to have been tutored and mentored by the original blues giants. The young bluesman was able to absorb the tradition and over the years develop a style and sound all his own. With a huge blues vocabulary and dynamic versatility, Branch brings elements of soul, funk and rock to his playing. His upper register licks and his emotional, melodic ballad playing define his sound even further. He is a gruff and potent vocalist, a groundbreaking solo artist, an in-demand session player and consummate band leader. He is a three-time Grammy nominee, a three-time Blues Music Award winner, a two-time Keeping The Blues Alive Award winner (for Education) and a two-time Living Blues Critics’ Award winner. Branch has recorded eleven albums under his own name and has appeared on scores of other recordings.
The new Alligator album, Roots And Branches–The Songs Of Little Walter, finds Billy Branch & The Sons Of Blues doing what they do best. Branch and the band breathe life and fire into their reimaginings of the renowned songs of Little Walter Jacobs, one of the principal architects of the Chicago blues sound and one of the most influential blues harmonica players who ever lived. Roots And Branches, recorded in Chicago and co-produced by Billy Branch, Rosa Branch and longtime Sons Of Blues pianist Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi, features 15 songs written by and or made famous by Little Walter. Each song is played with equal amounts of Branch’s deeply rooted reverence and up-to-the-minute innovation. The songs seem to jump out of the speakers and come alive. They are as timeless in Branch’s and The Sons Of Blues’ reinventions as in Walter’s feral originals. Along with Branch and Ariyoshi, the band features guitarist Giles Corey, bassist Marvin Little and drummer Andrew “Blaze” Thomas. At the end of the album, Little Walter’s daughter, Marion Diaz, shares a few anecdotes of life with her legendary father.
According to Branch, “We were determined not to make this a “typical” Little Walter tribute recording. We are proud to present an album with elements of soul, funk, and even a little bit of gospel. Our goal was to competently and respectfully produce a Little Walter-themed recording with a different twist, while preserving the integrity of Little Walter’s innovative style.”
Born William Earl Branch in Chicago on October 3, 1951 and raised in Los Angeles, Branch first picked up a harmonica at age ten and began picking out tunes on his own. In his words, “I’ve never been without a harp since.” He grew up listening to Motown and classic rockers like The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Beach Boys and folkies like Pete Seeger. But it wasn’t until he returned to Chicago in 1969 and enrolled at the University of Illinois that he fell in love with the blues. In August of that year he attended a blues music festival in Grant Park organized by legendary songwriter and bassist Willie Dixon. That afternoon, Dixon and his all-star group backed up Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker and more top level artists. Billy was an instant convert (and only a few years later was playing in Dixon’s band). When not attending classes, Branch immersed himself into the local blues scene, spending time at many of the famous blues haunts like Theresa’s and the Checkerboard Lounge. Branch was “adopted” by Jimmy Walker, Homesick James and almost every older bluesman on the circuit. After learning from the masters, he developed his own signature sound—powerful, melodic, funky, jazzy and contemporary.
Branch’s big break came in 1975 on the night he entered a harmonica battle royale against veteran Chicago harp man Little Mac Simmons at Chicago’s Green Bunny Club. Among the blues dignitaries in the audience that evening was Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer, who witnessed Branch besting Simmons at his own game. From that night on, Branch began regularly sitting in at blues clubs all over the city. He recorded his first track for an anthology on Barrelhouse Records in 1975. Willie Dixon then invited Branch to join his Chicago Blues All-Stars, where he was groomed to take the place of his friend and mentor, harmonica ace Carey Bell. Branch stayed with Dixon for six years, soaking up the lessons offered up by Dixon and the other band members—both musical and professional.
With Branch’s blues education well underway, his reputation as one of Chicago’s best harmonica players grew swiftly. In 1977 (while he was still playing with Willie Dixon), Branch was recruited by the Berlin Jazz Festival to choose and lead a band of “next generation” blues musicians. He gathered some of the top young talent in Chicago, including Lurrie Bell (Carey’s son) and Freddie Dixon (Willie’s son). They performed to a wildly appreciative German audience. This core group, along with drummer Jeff Ruffin, became the original Sons Of Blues. In 1978, they made their recording debut, cutting three songs for Alligator Records’ Grammy-nominated Living Chicago Blues series.
In 1990 Branch, along with his mentors Junior Wells, James Cotton and Carey Bell, recorded the Blues Music Award-winning album, Harp Attack! for Alligator. “That,” Branch recalls, “was my diploma. My PhD.” He’s recorded several studio and live albums with The Sons Of Blues—most recently 2014’s Blues Shock (Blind Pig)—and has appeared on countless other releases as a session player with blues stars including Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Lou Rawls, Son Seals, Willie Dixon and Johnny Winter.
In addition to his recordings, Branch is also a tireless educator. His Blues In The Schools program has earned him praise both inside and outside of the music world. Branch shares his knowledge of the music with students in Chicago and other cities around the world, where he teaches blues history as well as providing instrumental instruction to children. In 1996, members of his classes, with Branch at the helm, performed on the main stage at the Chicago Blues Festival, which was broadcast on NPR. He has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show and CBS’s Sunday Morning and can be seen in the feature films Adventures In Babysitting and Next Of Kin.
Billy Branch & The Sons Of Blues can be found performing in clubs, concert halls and festivals all over the world. From the United States and Canada to South and Central America, the Caribbean, China, Africa, Israel and all throughout Europe, Branch and his band soulfully deliver their music with a concentrated, raw Windy City authority. Now, with Roots And Branches–The Songs Of Little Walter, Billy Branch & The Sons Of Blues continue to spread the gospel of the blues, reigniting the magical, timeless power of the music of Little Walter Jacobs, and in turn the soul-cleansing power of the real, living, evolving Chicago blues, as only Billy Branch can play them.
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