Essig is currently touring around northern British Columbia as part of a Home Roots House Concert Tour that includes a stop at the Dawson Creek Art Gallery on Oct. 2. He said the gallery is exactly the kind of smaller venue he enjoys playing in because it gives him a chance to interact with his audience and share the stories behind his music.
“It’s very intimate, and the kind of theatrical presentation you can achieve in that context is significant,” said Essig. “It’s very moving for me to be able to do that, and the audiences seem to appreciate it as well.”
He said his music is in large part a product of growing up in Washington, D.C., which he said is a very cultural city as much as it is a political one. He said there was a convergence of blues and bluegrass music going on in the city in the 1960s that he was fortunate enough to be a part of.
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“There was a big bluegrass scene, and I worked in a music store where a lot of other people who worked in the store were professional musicians. I learned to play bluegrass from the guys in the band called the Country Gentleman, one of the legendary bluegrass bands. I was always the kid who tagged along and carried the mandolin case!”
He said at the same time there was a big push by the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress in finding and recording traditional blues musicians from the Deep South.
“It turned out one of the apartments they rented for these artists was just down the street from that music store, so we discovered Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James were living down the street from us and we got to know them.”
He said as he learned the two different genres of music he realized how much they had in common.
“It was the social tension of the age that kept them separate. When you could break through that racial tension, you found out these guys all listened to each other – Mississippi John Hurt knew a lot of old-time country songs, and likewise the guys in the bluegrass bands were secretly listening to Muddy Waters.”
Essig said he continued to learn and play throughout high school and university, but he said it was around the time he graduated university that he realized what kind of music he wanted to make.
“It occurred to me that I could express myself as an artist by writing my own songs within the traditions that I grew up learning to play.”
With that direction in mind, he moved to Canada in 1971 and immersed himself in the singer-songwriter circles in southwestern Ontario. He said at that time there was also a convergence of music happening between socially-conscious folk music in the vein of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan with the American blues and bluegrass of Muddy Waters and Bill Munroe. He said Canadian legends The Band were probably the most popular example of that synergy between traditional and contemporary music, and was definitely an influence on his own music.
“It was within those traditions but it pushed the boundaries a little bit, and that is what I’ve tried to do with my songwriting over the years is keep one foot in the tradition and one foot in the current world. I’m not one of those old-timey guys who says this is exactly the way Clarence Ashley played it so you have to play it like that or you’re crap – I’ve pushed the boundaries a lot and I have tried to stretch the definitions of the musical forms.”
Essig has since gone on to perform in festivals all over the world, and has found strong audience support in Europe, and particularly in Italy, where he has played extensively and was even signed to an Italian record label.
“It (Italy) has always been a big part of my life, and it gives you an interesting perspective on things. The Italians in particular treat the kind of work I do more as art than entertainment, and I think that’s a really important distinction, and one that we are kind of maturing into here in Canada.”
He said his music remains the same when he plays there, but he learned to speak Italian so he could interact with the audiences there.
Essig took advantage of a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts in 1982 to travel to Asia and learn how different cultures there have improvised traditional music. He said his most interesting experience was in Seoul, South Korea, where he learned to play a traditional instrument called a under one of that nation’s best players.
“It really changed the way I play Western music – the way I played guitar became heavily influenced by the experience of learning to play Korean music. My teacher taught me to play with my whole body instead of just my fingers.”
He is currently touring behind his latest effort, “Rolling Fork to Gallows Point,” an homage to the sweet and sad sounds of American Delta blues. He said the album is actually a re-recording of an LP he released in 1985 called “Whose Muddy Shoes” that was lost in the transition to CDs at that time, so he decided to get together with some his closest musician friends and record those songs again with a more contemporary sound. “Rolling Fork” is an homage to the birthplace of Muddy Waters, while “Gallows Point” is a landmark on Protection Island, British Columbia, where Essig now lives and records.
Essig’s show at the Art Gallery begins at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $20 at the door. Besides the show, he will also be hosting three workshops on Monday – one at each of the campuses of Dawson Creek Secondary School, and one in the evening at the Art Gallery. He said the evening workshop, which is acollaboration with members of the Peace Region Songwriters Association, is open to the public.
“It will give me a chance to explain to members of the audience some of my ideas about how songwriting should work. I try to teach a set of tools that I can give to aspiring songwriters to help them understand whether they are on the right track or not and whether the things they are doing make sense and will stand the test of time.”
Tickets are $10, and the workshop begins at 7:30.