Lunch with Clay Windham

Clay Windham is an American blues musician who sings throughout Eastern Europe. In Bucharest, I saw him playing with some of the greatest Romanian musicians: Raul Kusak, Liviu Pop, The Nightlosers… I started a conversation with him about the music he sings and the people he meets while travelling, and it got to his birthplace – Orange, Texas- the southern region of America, a place of music and prejudices. This is not exactly a classical “Q&A interview”, it’s more of a story about art, music, America vs. Eastern Europe, clichés, personal philosophies and all the vibes that made Clay sing blues music.

(Iuliana )

Travelling between Bulgaria and Romania.

I played quite a bit in Varna. The guy who owned the place I played in, the Underground Club, is a big fan of American music, he knows a lot about music, he’s collecting music, blues, jazz, 70’s, funk. The first time I went there he played a record with B.B. King playing Louis Jordan - an American band leader, one of my heroes. I never knew B.B. King even made a record of this guy’s songs. So I started playing in his club, I was even thinking of investing in this club (I was an editor at that time). This was my introduction in Eastern Europe, where I met a lot of great musicians. I fell in love with Varna and Bulgaria. Then I crossed the border to Romania, where I was surprised to find people that want to know more about blues. The atmosphere here in the clubs is very good. I noticed that people tend to respect what I do, because they see it as being authentic: real American music. Here there’s not such a huge demand for blues and jazz, it’s still a little bit exotic to people. Even though you don’t hear a lot of blues music in Romania, I’m surprised how much people do know about it, and how much they listen and are open to new types of music.

Texas, as a musical scene and a place full of stereotypes

I was crazy about music all my life, but I was no prodigy. What I know and what I learned, it wasn’t given to me by God. I was really lucky to be in two very great musical cities. I was born in Orange, Texas, on the coast, a small town, with a very limited mentality. There wasn’t a culturally rich scene. But at the same time a lot the blues music came from this area. For example, where I come from, southeast Texas, Johnny Winter was born. He is an albino, he was so white, almost like the opposite of a black person, and he learned how to play blues, in a region that was culturally deprived and where blues music was played mostly by blacks. The part of Texas where I’m from, next to Louisiana, there was a lot of French influence from the French Arcadians – “Cajuns” - that moved from Canada to the South, in Louisiana. In the mid-1700’s, they came all the way down the Mississippi River, and they formed their culture. They brought their French ideas about cuisine and music. So this area became different than America, it was founded and created in the 1700's and 1800’s. There was also New Orleans, where one of the biggest slave markets developed and where jazz was invented by a mix of African and European influences. So, this area got a really funny culture.

There was all this black influence, black music and all the funny French influence, and a swampy, sticky hot blues feeling that came from there. Poor people, oppressed people, and the weather… not the nicest place to be. So it created this vibe, this atmosphere that translated into music in a really beautiful way. “

So I came out from a place that I wanted to escape immediately. And the first place I went was Austin, the capital of Texas, in the center of the state. When I moved there, around 1978, I was about 20 years old, there was an amazing musical scene, and not just blues, it was a whole cultural oasis in the middle of this very conservative state. And there was a blues scene that evolved around a particular club, called Antone's. It was the scene where Stevie Ray Vaughan became very famous. A huge blues revival came out of there in the 70’s and 80's, with people like Stevie, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and a lot of others... Stevie Ray became a huge guitar hero. Many people here in Romania and in the whole world are still looking at Steve Ray as some kind of God. I was so lucky at 20 years old to show up in this liberal, musical town.

Mixing up two races

People from the States ask me what is like to live in Bucharest. What I tell them is that you can walk alone on the streets at night. I know there are neighborhoods in Bucharest where I should not go at night. But in general, I can walk anywhere, there is no fear that somebody will stick a gun intro my face and try to rob me. In America it’s dangerous, and sometimes it’s mixed up with racism. The town I grew up in has this institutionalized racism, it’s part of the mentality. I never understood it, I never liked it. I went to a public school, with mostly black kids, almost 70%. I was the minority. I was kind of this nerdy intellectual white kid, the rest where tall, gangster tough guys. I always lost the fights with them, as a kid. […laughing]. But I never hated them; and often I was the one that got discriminated against. I had a lot of black friends, even though sometimes it was difficult. My parents were not racist, they were educated and had a more liberal mindset. But once when I came once home from school, when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, with two of my black friends, my mother said: “You can’t invite these kids over anymore.” And I said “Why?”, and she said: “Because… the neighbors”. Even at that age I realized the situation was critical. Usually the black people just stayed in their own neighborhoods, and the white in theirs. There was segregation between races. When I was young, the government decided that they have to put black kids and white kids together in public schools, to stop the segregation. They decided they had to give the same education to all students. Because until then, only the white schools had enough money to educate the children properly. So then they decided that, by law, a school should have a certain percentage of black kids. It was a long and difficult process. So I remember, as a kid, that one of the biggest issues was kids having to ride across cities by bus to go to school. Because of the new law, many kids had to ride school buses to distant neighborhoods. And the tension grew even more. For instance, a white girl dating a black guy was not accepted easily.

Maybe it’s not so different here. A good girl from a good family starts dating a gipsy guy? Maybe it’s seen as a problem too. “

Seeing all this happening around me, I didn’t get it. And I was listening to this good music in the meantime. First it was this entire British invasion. And it was weird, the British tried to learn black American music, and then they sold it back to white Americans. So we were studying the British, who were studying black music from the black people living among us. The source of jazz and blues was actually African music. A strange relationship. It’s similar to me with what I see here in Romania: the gypsies, they play great music, but at the same time they are hated, judged. It’s a very complicated subject. It's easy to be racist, if you just judge based on singular examples. You make stereotypes about Jews, about Romanians, about Eastern Europe in general, about Brits, or the Dutch. I lived in Holland for a long time, I could say bad things about them, but I won't, I lived for 7 years there, I have a lot of good friends. You have to see people as individuals first. My prejudices are about the American people. My people. They sometimes make me very angry, very upset. Because I am one of them, I know how they think and I don’t like it sometimes. They are often ignorant, violent and small-minded. George Bush Jr. adopted this side of the Texas reality; he was just a stereotypical dumbass Texan – even though his family wasn't really even from Texas. Narrow minded, with a prideful, stubborn attitude. And it comes from some of my people, and I don’t like it. This is everywhere, I guess. I can’t think of a culture that is perfect.

Europe vs. America

I’ve turned 55 this year, and I still have this romanticized version about Europeans. Europe is an adventure to me. Americans are not usually as sophisticated and educated as many Europeans are. The average European knows 2-3 foreign languages. This is amazing. They read a lot of books, they travel a lot, and they are generally more cultured than the people I grew up with. But of course you can find Europeans and Romanians as ignorant as any American. If an American were to meet a Romanian girl, he probably wouldn’t know where the country of Romania is, he would probably think about Dracula and Transylvania. Actually, he would probably be more interested in meeting her, rather than her country. I know that Dallas, the television show, it was really famous here. So it was weird, because probably the main idea of the Romanian government back then was to show how evil capitalism can be, but the result was opposite. Everybody thought instead: “we want this, we want the money”. So we sometimes think that we want and like the “other”. But often when we meet the other, we think about it as of being from a different tribe, sometimes even as the enemy - the opposite of “us”. “The other is not from my people.” This is probably built into us, it’s not exactly cultural, it’s maybe a deeper mechanism.

It’s a sort of survival instinct: to be surrounded with people from 'your own tribe'. It’s so deep you don’t even think about it. “

Channeling the universe inside you and making good music. 

Music, good music, is a natural expression of life. We decide that we like Ray Charles, or that something is good, not just in music, but also in art. The best art is just a reflection, a continuation of the universe through us. Channeling this stuff outside of us. Not only recreating, but creating something that’s in tune with nature. Most of us understand that if something is great art, it is because it is in tune with the universe. And I think this is something that all of us should strive to be: in tune with the universe. You shouldn’t live against the universe. Like being rude or angry, that’s out of balance, against nature.

So good art, good blues and good jazz is made by these people. The ones that can really reflect and channel out of their human experience.”

Everything around me, I try to channel through me, and then I throw it out there, and if I can do this correctly, then it’s something beautiful for others to see. That’s not just in art, that’s how it supposed to be in life. For instance, Adrian Naidin is a person who just… spits the universe out, he can sense the music, you can hear it (meanwhile in the background was playing Raul Kusak with Adrian Naidin).

Being a musician

What happens when the public doesn’t feel what are you transmitting? A lot of artists weren’t recognized for their work, or maybe just post mortem. What do you do if your art is not recognized, do you change it in order to be appreciated, or do you insist on what you think is art?

I asked myself this once. I don’t consider myself a major artist. I do think I am honest with myself, I know I have something to express and I have a little bit of confidence in myself. The definition of an artist, aside from just doing “art” – whatever that is – is the body of work. To me a real artist or more of an artist is someone who creates hundreds of paintings, no matter what anyone thinks. If you are a real artist, you don’t care what everybody thinks, you just do it because you have to, and you feel the need of doing it. I know that now, for many people, the idea of art is connected to success, with all these Justin Bieber types, and all these twerkers, Miley Cyrus-types or whatever. Artists are not necessarily accepted or understood. If you try to adapt your art to the market, you may lose the right to call yourself an artist. I’m a little in between, I don’t write a lot of music, I usually play other people's songs, but I try to play them in my own way. Sometimes people ask me: Do you write your own material? What kind of artist are you, if you don’t write your own songs? And I say: Well, why don’t you say this to Louis Armstrong or Billie Holliday? They weren’t song writers, either, but don’t tell me they weren’t artists.

PozaIn blues there is a language, a blues language. I grew up with that. So I have this language in me, it comes somewhat naturally. So I took this language and reinterpreted it in my own way. That’s why I like blues. It’s an elemental form of art, it’s based on very simple rules, but because it’s so simple you have many ways to express it and play with it. You have the main blues chords, like the primary colors in painting. You just combine them and you have an infinite palette of artistic expression.”


at Jazz Book, November 2013

Photo1: Marius G. Mihalache

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