Rambling Steve Gardner

by Ry Beville

Blues musician Steve Gardner is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Maybe genuine is a better word—a quality no doubt acquired from years of rambling in some of the poorest parts of Mississippi. There, he mingled with blues legends and common folk alike, trying to record the more transient aspects of that particular Southern culture in black and white photography. He also absorbed the blues, not simply as a style of music but as a way of life and telling stories. He’s Mississippi through and through.

So how the hell did he end up in Japan for so many years?

His apartment in the Tokyo suburbs is humble but comfortable. He’s cooking up some chili and apologizes that its ingredients break from tradition. Beers are in order. This isn’t going to be an interview, but a long conversation as the snow melts outside.

Steve begins, “I like what all the old guys say: ‘everyone gets the blues sometimes.’ Sometimes it’s talking about the way you feel. ‘Talk’ is the operative word. In the South, people love to talk, and I loved to listen to all the stories from family. Financially, we weren’t the best off. We lived on a farm, rode horses and in the midst of that, you hear all kinds of stories from people. The foundation of the blues is those stories and dead-on honesty. A blues man might sing you something he’d never tell you (at least sober) in person.

“My first guitar was borrowed because I’m left-handed. I had to move the strings around and my cousin would beat me up for that. I wasn’t making much progress either so I started playing the harmonica. Well my daddy and uncle played in a string band and the idea was that you had to modify your music to the crowd that was listening. You had to sing about the pretty women if they were there. If there were dangerous guys, you had to sing about them. So I’ve become really good at making songs as I go along.

“Playing the blues, I met a lot of people. Sam Chatmon was one, the youngest brother of the Mississippi Sheiks. According to his story, he actually wrote ‘Sitting on Top of the World.’ It’s an interesting tune, a Delta standard. If you listen to Fred McDowell’s interpretation of ‘You Gotta Move’ (later covered by the Rolling Stones), it’s the same as Sitting. The Robert Johnson classic ‘Come on in My Kitchen’—you still hear the influence of Sitting. The whole idea of the song revolves around its refrain, ‘But now she’s gone, I don’t worry—I’m sitting on top of the world.’ That kind of blues is like all good stories: it starts in the middle and the ending is already set. We don’t need the beginning.”

Except that I’m not sure that’s true of people—I ask Steve more about his beginnings, the people he knew and learned from.

“I used to sit down and talk with Jesse Mae Hemphill, who was dating B.B. King back in the old days. Well, we had gone down somewhere to get some fish and when we came back she said, ‘Hand me that rifle off the backseat.’ She rolled the window down and started shooting and shouting, ‘Jesse Mae is home, Jesse Mae is home, so you better run!’ People thought she had money and she was afraid people might be breaking into her house when she came home. Inside, she had a guitar with a hole in it. She said, ‘It wouldn’t stay in tune, so I shot it.’ Then I noticed there were a lot of things shot up. I asked her about it and she told me she was trying to shoot her alarm clock because she couldn’t get it to stop! Those are the people I used to hand around with when I was young.”

Steve studied journalism at the University of Southern Mississippi, explaining, “I always liked radio. I thought that was the thing! But I also knew that radio was on the way out as the prominent disseminator of knowledge. I also liked photography because I thought that went well with music. I was just knocked out by some of the Depression-era photographs of the South I saw so I went out looking for that unchanged horizon and found a great deal of it. Where is the hinge between the times? Where are there people practicing the old ways, still farming with mules? I was a young guy in my 20s and many people would take me in to talk to me while I took photographs.

“In the late 1970s I left the university and got a job at the state newspaper. I thought it’d be great but they didn’t have much use for my thoughts on photography. They didn’t think sharecroppers bought newspapers (except as insulation). Then I had a bit of a struggle there as the newspaper was being sold to some big international news conglomerate. I realized I could stay there and be poor and miserable, or I could go some place and just be poor!

“I had a friend in the Air Force who was a chaplain in Japan, so we visited without any preparation or knowledge about Japan, and boy was that where our education began!” Steve laughs.

“The guy I came over with was Charlie Cole, who eventually won the 1989 World Press Photo award for his photo of the man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. So we came over and did some photography exhibitions. One thing led to another and we eventually found out that as much as we wanted to work and do photography in Japan, news organizations wanted us to work elsewhere. I was contracted out to news organizations to cover Asia, but was based in Japan the whole time.”

“I went over to cover the Civil War in Burma and that’s where music really came in handy for me. I used to carry around my harmonica back then. Well, we were up in the hills in some place that was about to be overrun. We were being shelled and I was in a bunker. If a hot round landed that didn’t blow yet, they would actually run, grab the shell and try to rearm their cannons before it went off. Well, they messed up on one and I caught some shrapnel in the head.” (Steve shows me the scar.) “So I just started playing the harmonica. Well, a guy had a field radio and he held it in front of me. They asked me to play ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ Slowly the shelling stopped and the people on the other side started yelling out requests! By about 3am in the morning, smoke was everywhere and I stopped playing. Some rafts had come down the river by then and we retreated in the middle of the night. I filed my story and thought, ‘This is a ridiculous way for me to be spending my life. I’m not changing anything.’ I wanted to go back to doing my original photography book on the South.

After a bad bout of Malaria, I went back to Mississippi to finish my book. I bought a Harley so I could ride around and get reacquainted with America. So much had changed in the last decade in the old areas where I had been photographing. So much was gone. Those first and second-generation men and women of the blues were just about gone. I really needed to accelerate my pursuit of these folks and finish the project. I just wanted to be able to tell their stories.

After collecting my material, I returned to Japan. I was playing a lot more music by this time and met a young fellow who was working for a design office. He told me, ‘Go to the waiting lounge, show everyone your photographs and just play your harmonica. Don’t say a word.’ The guy liked that and decided to do my book—I brought ‘Rambling Mind’ out in early 1994.”

But why come back to Japan, I wondered, to publish a book about the blues and the American South?

“I found an interesting thing coming to Japan. The most positive thing is the amount of pride I can take in being from Mississippi. In America, it’s hard to be proud about that state sometimes. There’s a lot of weight we have to carry around because of troubles on both sides of the racial divide. But good things have also come from Mississippi. I take great pride in our music and storytelling. I wish I could say that I have something original and new to bring out, but I’m happy to have shaken hands with the past and to have brought those stories forward in time.”

Since his return to Japan and publication of his photo book, Steve has released six blues albums, his most recent one being Hesitation Blues. He also travels to universities and schools across Japan, playing blues and doing programs on Mississippi and Southern culture.

Please see the next Koe Magazine for a photography spread of his work, as well as the continuation of this conversation, with a focus next on his experiences playing the blues in Japan.





「よく年寄りが言う、’everyone gets the blues sometimes’ という言葉が好きです。これは音楽スタイルとしてのブルースと、ブルーな気持ち、という両方の意味合いがあります。話す、ということは重要な意味を持っていますが、アメリカ南部の人たちは本当に話好きで、僕も家族から色々な話を聞くのが好きでした。私の家族は決して裕福ではなく、農場で暮らし、馬に乗り、そんな環境の中でそこに暮らす人たちから色々な話を聞いていました。ブルースの根底にあるのはそういった物語と正直さです。ブルースマンはシラフの状態では話してくれないような内容も曲に乗せてならば歌ってくれたりするものです」。


「ブルースを通じてたくさんの人と知り合いました。黒人ストリングバンド、ミシシッピ・シークスの3兄弟で一番下のサム・チャットマンもその一人です。彼から直接聞いたのですが、デルタ・スタンダードにもなっている”Sitting on Top of the World”は彼が書いたということです。また、テネシー出身のカントリーブルースマン、フレッド・マクダウェルの代表曲”You Gotta Move”(後にローリング・ストーンズがカバー)を聞けばSitting…と同じ曲であることに気付きます。ロバート・ジョンソンの”Come on in My Kitchen”もSitting…をベースに作られたと言われています。この曲の意味は繰り返し歌われる’But now she’s gone, I don’t worry-I’m sitting on top of the world’( 彼女はもういない。でも気にしない。彼女がいなくても僕は幸せなんだ)という歌詞に込められています。この類のブルースはよく語られる明るい物語に似ています。曲の途中からある歌詞が繰り返され、お決まりのフレーズで終わる、というパターンです。曲の最初の方はどうでもいいのです」。








「ミャンマー(当時のビルマ)にも内乱の取材に行きましたが、ここでは本当に音楽が役に立ったと思います。当時の私はどこに行くにもハーモニカを持ち歩いていました。その時私たちは制圧間近の丘陵地帯にいたのですが、砲撃を受けて掩蔽壕に避難しました。飛んできた砲弾が不発弾だったらその砲弾を急いで拾い上げ、爆発する前にバタバタと自分たちのキャノン砲に装填してそのまま撃ち返す、などというクレイジーなことをやっていたのですが、拾った一発が撃ち返す前に爆発してしまい、私は頭に砲弾の破片を受けました(と言いながらスティーブは頭の傷を見せてくれた)。私はそこでふと思いついてハーモニカを吹き始めたのです。すると一人の男が携帯無線機を持ってきて私の前に置き、私に’You Are My Sunshine’をリクエストしました。やがて相手方の砲撃が徐々に収まってきたと思ったら、なんとあちら側の兵士たちがこちらに向かって大声で曲をリクエストし始めたのです。午前3時、タバコの煙が立ち込める中、私はやっとハーモニカを置きました。その頃までにゴムボートが迎えに来ていて、私たちは夜更けに撤退しました。私はこのとんでもない体験を記事にしながら考えました。私の人生はこんなことでいいのだろうか?以前から何の進歩も無いじゃないか?それで私はアメリカ南部の写真集を作るという当初の目標を再び目指したいと思いました。


取材を終えた私は再び日本に戻りました。この頃の私はそれ以前よりも随分と演奏する機会も増えていましたが、ちょうどその頃、デザイン事務所で働く一人の若者と知り合いました。彼が『ここの事務所のラウンジであなたの写真を展示してくれませんか。そしてハーモニカを吹いて欲しい。何もしゃべらなくていいですから』と言うのです。彼は私の作品を気に入ってくれて写真集の出版も彼がやってくれることになりました。こうして私は1994年に写真集’Rambling Mind’を世に出すことが出来ました」。



スティーブは日本に戻ってきて写真集を出して以降、6枚のブルースアルバムをリリースしている。最新作は”Hesitation Blues”。また彼は日本中の大学などを訪れ、ブルースライブを開催したり、ミシシッピやアメリカ南部の文化を紹介する講義を行ったりしている。


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