The blues are dying, and Nigel Egg and the ghost of Willie Dixon intend to do something about it.
“The blues has been stuck in a time warp, and now it’s just dwindling,” said Egg, a 65-year-old British-American singer/songwriter and northeast Minneapolis resident. “So I decided that — in honor of what would be Willie Dixon’s 100th birthday on July 1 — 2015 should be the ‘Year of the Blues Songwriter.’ ”
Great idea. A fitting patron saint for the cause, Dixon was a central player in the Chicago blues scene in the 1950s and ’60s alongside Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He had writing credits on more than 500 tunes, including such jukebox and radio hits as “I’m Ready,” “Little Red Rooster,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Back Door Man” and “Wang Dang Doodle” — many of which were covered by the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.
“He was the bass player for every Chuck Berry record; he was the house bass player for Chess Records, and in the ’50s and ’60s, when the blues had already turned into jazz and pop tunes, he took some of those basic elements back and put them into the blues,” Egg enthused over a beer at his favorite neighborhood watering hole, Dusty’s Bar.
“Now it’s becoming a niche music rather than a healthy root. Willie Dixon said, ‘The blues are the roots of all American music, and the other musics are the fruits. It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on.’ But I don’t think we’re really caring for the roots, we’re just keeping them alive.”
Blues lovers need only make a cursory spin of the commercial radio dial to confirm the blues’ on-the-ropes status. Various “save the blues” efforts and organizations have come and gone over the decades, but in a state that has nurtured such blues stalwarts as Willie Murphy, Spider John Koerner, Dave Ray, Tony Glover, Cornbread Harris, Willie Walker and Charlie Parr, Egg is determined to shine a light on this vital sound before it becomes a distant echo.
“Locally, you’ve got Bruce McCabe, Curt Obeda, Kevin Bowe, all experienced, good blues songwriters that write good songs and even hits, but their names don’t come up,” said Egg, a married father of four.
“Nobody’s really interested in blues songwriting, as far as I can tell. If I can just make it an issue, I think that would really be all I need to do.”
Teenage blues singer
Egg (né Nigel Eccleston) discovered the blues as a 16-year-old singer for a blues band in his hometown of Ramsgate in Kent, England.
He moved to Minneapolis in 1972 for graduate work in anthropology at the University of Minnesota and taught blues harmonica at the West Bank School of Music for a decade. In the 1970s and ’80s he was part of the blues-based West Bank staple Big Sky and several other local bands. He retired from music in 1985 to concentrate on working as a computer programmer and raising his family.
Then, a decade ago, he started writing and recording his own songs. Now a board member with the Minnesota Association of Songwriters and host of the popular Sunday night open mike at the Coffee Shop in northeast Minneapolis, Egg has explored his penchant for penning blues songs, including “The Blues Is Personal,” “Back to the Blues,” “You Can’t Sing the Blues,” “Lucky Man Blues,” “Tax on the Blues,” “Blue Meanie Blues” and a none-too subtle dig at blues purists, “Occupy the Blues Museum.”
‘No one can define the blues’
“The blues has not kept up with the world we live in, and I think one reason it’s fallen off is because of the words,” he said. “The music is fine, the players are great, but the words haven’t changed for a long time. If we get kids in their teens and 20s actually writing blues tunes that are about their lives and what they’re into and their concerns, then that would bring it some new life.
“I teach these blues for kids workshops for the [Minnesota] Blues Society, and we give ’em a free harmonica and I teach ’em a 12-bar blues, and by the end of it they’re playing. So I know kids can get into it. There’s a little template in their brain: the 12-bar blues.”
Thus far, Egg’s campaign is relegated to his website (www.nigelegg.com) and blog (yearofthebluessongwriter.blogspot.com), on which he lays out his mission statement.
“I’ve got to give it a shot,” he said with a laugh, well aware of the uphill climb he faces. “Maybe you could get Brother Ali or Slug to actually record a blues song, and do it their own way. Maybe no one else would think it’s the blues, but it would be their blues. My position on this is that if the singer says it’s the blues, then it’s the blues. Because the singer has to make it the blues.
“No one can define the blues. People have such different ideas about what makes the blues the blues. Even if they like it, they’ll say, ‘That’s not the blues.’ So that makes it hard for new things to break through.”
Lucky for all blues lovers, Egg is on the case. How will he know if he’s reached his goal?
“In January of 2016, I’ll hear blues music during drive time on commercial radio,” he said.
Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis-based writer and songwriter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org