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Paul Geremia
by Chris Flisher © 1995 /
(first published March 1995 Worcester Phoenix)

Paul Geremia
Obviously, you can’t recreate the time, circumstances, and dynamics that gave birth to the blues, but Paul Geremia (pronounced Jeremiah), a veteran country-blues singer-songwriter proves you can come pretty damn close. “I don’t think anybody who played blues or jazz music in the ‘1920s can be covered accurately. The music was more localized and rooted in the people’s lifestyles.” says Geremia, adding, “But if you got your shit together, study it, then you can pull it off.”

Listening to or watching him perform, there is little doubt that Geremia has his shit together. Whether playing 6 or 12 string guitar, his deft finger-picked blues are full of notes that spring and flip-flop, vying to outdo each other, in a spongy, elastic cascade of rhythm and soul. A salivated harmonica rests on a rack around his neck and his gravel voice, raspy and genuine, calls out words to songs, many written over fifty years ago, by the greatest original voices in the history of the blues—Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, Charley Patton, Skip James. All of them are dead and long gone, but their collective souls are living on in the unlikely body of this Rhode Island native.

“I guess I just play what’s on my mind at the time,” admits Geremia modestly when asked about his dazzling, note-filled style. “I certainly don’t have a standard arrangement, but when you combine the harmonica and guitar together it maybe sounds fuller than it really is. I listen to a lot of ensemble music and I guess I try to make up for the band that’s not there.”

A tireless, country blues journeyman and historian in every sense of the word, Paul Geremia has performed, recorded, and preached the blues since he first became enamored close to thirty years ago. “In the ‘60s it was the Kingston Trio and all that commercial stuff. You were lucky if you got to see someone like Pete Seeger or someone who knew the real music,” he recalls, adding, “I started out on harmonica in 1966, but picked up the guitar not long after and that became my primary instrument. It’s just the kind of music that I gravitated towards since I was a kid. I listened to Louis Armstrong and the old blues guys when I could find them and I decided if I was going to do this, that there is only one way and that’s to do it right.”

Like John Hammond, Taj Mahal, Spider John Koerner, or Dave Van Ronk, Paul Geremia embraces the old blues while bringing them forward within his own unique temperment and style. “I try to be as true to the music as I can and I record along the same principles as they did, using no overdubbing or special effects or any stuff like that.”

In addition to uncovering obscure tunes from the Mississippi Delta, Geremia writes his own, more current songs, using that same style as a point of reference. “My ideas for songs come from a wider spectrum because I am a modern person living on the road,” he explains, continuing, “Which is why it is so hard to be one hundred percent accurate, but what I try to do is take the musical styles from that period and incorporate them with my own contemporary songs.”

As his aptly titled latest album, Self Portrait In Blues attests, Geremia takes the framework and emotion of the country blues, and duly applies it to his own songs. “In the original country blues, people sang about where they were at, you know the farm, the field whatever,” offers Geremia. “But I’m not gonna sing my own songs about somebody’s well that went dry or something, I sing about my own life because I am a modern person out on the road.”

As such, many of his own songs rise from the usual singer-songwriter well-springs including, lovesick blues (“Wonderful Affliction,” “Out And Down”) and the endless highway (“The Truth Is On The Streets”). Elsewhere though, he’s less than typical with a hip, comical send-up titled, “Henry David Thoreau” in which he recalls Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” with the lines, “Go, go, go Henry David Thoreau, he’s the swingin’ est transcendentalatin’ cat alive.” By contrast he also performs renditions of Leadbelly’s “Leavin’ Blues,” Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” and “Shake It And Break It” by Charley Patton.

Joining Paul on his new album are long-time friend and upright bass player, Rory McLeod and an original string-band picker named Howard Armstrong. A contemporary of many of the musicians that Geremia reveres, the 85 year-old Armstrong contributes violin and “anything with strings,” adds Geremia. In the 1930s Armstrong performed with many of the seminal country string bands that were then bound by racial barriers, recalls Geremia, “In Howard’s case they [black string bands] were recorded and marketed as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops for the black audience and the same recording was released to white audiences as the Tennessee Trio.

Although Geremia includes jazz and urban blues occasionally in his repertoire, country blues distinguish his predominant style. “Historically the music that counts as country blues is what was recorded before World War II,” he explains. “Basically it was before electricity really got into the music and amplified it. There are no drums in country blues and the sound is always acoutsic; acoustic guitars, bass, violin whatever. I don’t find too many people doing what I’m doing to the extent that I am doing it. If I do it’s more often in the South. The blues is all relative,” he ponders. “And like Louis Armstrong said, ‘There are only two kinds of music; good music and bad music.’”

Chris Flisher

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