The first time Doug MacLeod performed “Break The Chain,” the title song from his latest album, was in Denmark. “I was doing a festival. I was in this room. There must have been about 300 people there, and they all stand up there in Denmark. And I mentioned the story of “Break The Chain.” How do you break the chain of abusive families to overcome adversity and not be subject to it?
“I saw some movement as I was singing the song, and there as a young man, maybe 20 years old. He kept moving up through the crowd. He sat down in front of me as I was singing the song, and he sat down like a person who does meditation. He crossed his legs, the hands out on top of the knees, and he was listening to the song.
“It was the last song of the set. When I got done, I was signing CDs, talking to people, and he waited until the very, very end and came up to me. I thought he wanted a CD, but he didn’t want a CD. He just said to me, ‘Mr. MacLeod?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I heard your song “Break The Chain.’” I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘This means I still gotta chance, don’t I?’ I said, ‘Yes, young man. You still got a chance.’”
For MacLeod, playing electric guitar started out as a way to sell alcohol to hippies and make a living. He was lucky enough to study at the feet of masters like George “Harmonica Smith, Ernest Banks and Lowell Fulson who taught him the power of truth and honesty that is real blues. Projecting that truth became therapy in dealing with his own abuse as a child and has become a window that opens out to his fans in music with a personal spiritual revelation. “I still get chills now remembering that young man,” says MacLeod who plays acoustic and writes all his own songs.
“To me that is the most fulfilling thing that can happen because you’re making a difference in somebody’s life. There’s more to this music than just three chords, and it’s more than just let’s have a party tonight. There’s a way to get through life with this music. There’s a way to handle the adversities that come into everybody’s life. I remember learning it, being around those guys just like (Ernest) Banks in Virginia. How the honesty was.
“I sang about hell hounds on my trail.’ Ernest looked at me and said, ‘What’s that song about, boy?’ I said, ‘It’s about hell hounds.’ And he said, ‘What do you know about hell hounds? I said, ‘I don’t know about the song, but I play it for the hippies, and they like it.’ And he said, ‘You don’t know about it!’ I said, ‘No, but it’s a good song, you know.’ And he said, ‘Well, you’re bullshitting me, ain’t you, boy? Why you wanna bullshit me? Write about what you know about.’”
MacLeod’s hellhounds came in the form of a babysitter and a cousin who sexually abused him as a child. He first sang about it in his song “The Demon Moan” in 2008.
“That song is about when someone abuses you sexually, and you hear them moan with enjoyment,” he told me then. “See, when you’re young, there’s no way you can defend yourself against it, and in the end if you don’t come up in a real nurturing loving family, you think this is how it’s supposed to be. I blocked it out.
“All I remember of my eight years in Raleigh, North Carolina is a bamboo fishing pole with my brother like the beginning of the Andy Griffith Show, just walking down to the lake to go fishing. That’s all I remember of it. And the anger! That anger that I had, that rage, and I mean, I took that rage out. I took that rage out.
“I was an angry, angry violent young man, and when I ran into the black people that were playing the blues. I saw how much they enjoyed life with the simple things. They were poor, but they loved music. They would dance and when they made love, I said, ‘Wow.’ The first time I made love with a woman like that was unbelievable to me. I’d never had an experience like that. And how much joy and how much sensual stuff was going on, and I realized if these people can be happy, well then I can be happy.
“They came up through prejudice and slavery and all this. For me, it’s bad, but it’s not like a whole race. So, I said, ‘I wonder if these people will take me in?’ And they did. I was really fortunate. That’s how I got a real handle on things which is also the sense of humor. That’s the thing that balances it. If you can learn to laugh at yourself and laugh at this life, you can survive it a whole lot easier.”
Years later, Doug has mellowed about his induction into the blues. “I should say, I felt kind of lost and adrift, and the only anchor I had was blues, and it sounds so granola-ish, but it’s true. My buddy from St. Louis, Steve Waldman, was the first guy to introduce me to blues, and he took me down to where the blues was playing in St. Louis, and I related. I looked at this and I said, ‘Wow! These people have suffered.’ This is like 1960, something like that, 1961. You know, there was prejudice, and somehow we never had any trouble going to hear the music or hanging out, and I like being around these people because they overcame adversity. I didn’t have the intelligence at that time to know exactly what was going on, but I knew there was something being spoken to me if I would open my ears and my heart and allow it to come in. Later I met Mr. Banks and I (related) to the honesty and how important it is. I think then the catharsis started to happen where I could release all the stuff that was inside of me, writing music and entertaining people and making them feel better.”
There are journeymen who play three chords. There are road warriors who can do it in their sleep. There are icons whose songs fight for space in our busy brains. And then there’s Doug MacLeod whose truth and honesty permeate his music and defy categories. George “Harmonica” Smith called him Dubb, and when George told Dubb he sounded like B.B. King, MacLeod thanked him. “That’s not a compliment,” said Smith who sent MacLeod searching inward instead of out.
“And that’s when I got my balls on, you might say in the sense that what George was telling me is you gotta be you. You can’t be copying somebody. You gotta be you. Finally, I left that other stuff behind. I was gonna be me. George said, ‘Dubb, it’s time to put Dubb out there. Let’s see what happens with Dubb.’”
McLeod went from Blues 101 to graduate school in street. “When I was coming up, if you didn’t play right, they would take you to the side and say, ‘Look, motherf*cker, if you don’t play this right, I ain’t gonna pay ya, or something worse could happen to you.’ You learn! You learn to play it like you’re s’posed to play it.
“Guys you knew were carrying guns and knives and whatever they had, and if they said to you, ‘Motherf*cker, you play this right,’ you had to play it right. The first guy that said that to me was Ernest Banks. It was about playing it right. God almighty. You gotta remember now at that time I was in a small town of Tuano, Virginia, and back in the woods. If a white guy didn’t come out of the woods that night, nobody would care. I mean, so what?
“So, he (Ernest) only had one eye. If you messed up with him, he’d look at you with that one eye and say, ‘What you doin’, boy?’ I don’t think he said “motherf*cker” too much. There was a guy in St. Louis that said that a lot. He was getting’ set to die, so he was playing like Sister Rosetta Tharpe songs and stuff like that. So, the swearing had gone from him by that time, but, yeah, it would be like, ‘Why are you jiving? Why are you bullshitting me, boy?’ But it was serious stuff. Again, talk about the honesty. It’s not like you’re a cartoon character on the stage playing blues. I got my blues music uniform on and playing blues was very serious.”
McLeod played electric guitar early on for Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton, Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Lowell Fulson and Big Mama Thornton. “I could do no wrong with her. She really liked me. So, we’re in the Paris Room (in L.A.). Now, you gotta remember, I’m the only white guy in the band, and maybe there’s two other white guys in the audience. But I’m the only white guy, right? Here we are playing and it’s a slow blues, and Mama says, ‘I want to hear some guitar.’
So, of course, I defer to Pee Wee Crayton. I was the second guitar player. So, Pee Wee starts playing, and then Mama says, ‘I don’t want to hear you. I want to hear little Doug play.’ Wow! Wow! I had to play, and I felt so bad, but I played the solo, and then on the break, I’m sitting in the back, and up walks Pee Wee. I thought he was gonna read me the riot act, but Pee Wee comes up, and he says to me – he’s one of the few people that ever called me Douglas. He said, ‘Douglas!’ I said, ‘Yup!’ He said, ‘I just want to know one thing.’ ‘What’s that, Pee Wee?’ He said, ‘What the f*ck did you do to that woman?’”
Doug has an ability to cut through the prejudices and biases that sometimes can get in the way of musicians trying to get close to their mentors. He talks about an incident with Robert Lockwood Jr. who struggled his whole life overcoming the fact that he was Robert Johnson’s stepson. That seemed to be the only thing anyone wanted to talk about. Never mind that Lockwood was a talented artist whose jazz influences meant that he sounded nothing like Robert Johnson.
“We came to this concert, and I see his 12-string, right? And I’m eying it and, wow, I’d like to know what this is about, and he says to me, ‘I think you been looking at my guitar,’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘You want to play it?’ I said to myself, ‘I’d love to play it’ because then I could get an idea of where to tune it to, and what kind of gauge strings he has.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I would like to play it.’ He said, ‘Let me ask you something, Ok? What do you think about this Robert Johnson at the crossroads and all that?’ And I said, ‘Well, to tell you the truth. I don’t think much of it.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You don’t?’ And I said, ‘No, in my opinion, Robert Johnson was one hell of a musician and he worked real hard to get to where he was.’ And Robert Jr. Lockwood had a little smile, and he said, ‘Go ahead and play it. That’s so funny to me. And I don’t think much of that stuff either.’ Honeyboy (Edwards) didn’t either when he and I talked. He just knew Robert Johnson learned how to play practically from working hard.”
Doug was determined not to let the generational “chain” of abuse continue with his son Jesse. “Jesse and I have had a thing ever since he was a little boy. It’s called our honor, and that’s when you can’t lie to each other. It’s when we have something to talk about seriously, you say, ‘I need this in our honor,’ and that means you gotta tell the truth. We’ve had that relationship ever since he was tiny. You know, the power of love that happens when you have a family that cares about each other. We’re there for each other. It’s healing. We don’t talk about it now because we know that’s what happened, and my wife says, ‘Everything along your road has brought you here,’ meaning to her and to love. I found love finally in my life, and then we had a son who is a product of that love. That’s pretty damn good, I think.”
An example of Doug and Jesse’s “honor” occurred one Christmas morning when Jesse was young. “We were visiting my in-laws, my wife’s folks, and Jesse was in the car with me. We were doing an errand trying to find some milk or something on Christmas morning, and I was smoking a pipe. I lit up the pipe, and Jesse, said, ‘Daddy, I don’t want you to do that.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Well, that’s a drug and you told me, ‘Don’t ever do drugs.’” I said, ‘Well, Jesse, that’s not like the kind of drug I’m talking about.’ He said, ‘But, Daddy, that’s a drug,’ and he was only like six years old, and I said, ‘Oh, God, I gotta stop because if I don’t stop and he gets to be 14, 13, years old, he’s going to say, ‘Look, I asked you to stop and you didn’t. So, I’m not going to stop. I’ll do whatever the hell I want.’ I said, ‘I gotta stop,’ so I stopped smoking. I started using toothpicks.”
To this day, Doug can often be seen with a wooden toothpick hanging from his mouth. “I really don’t use ’em to pick my teeth. I just get ’em in there, so I can remember to stop smoking cigarettes from years ago.”
Break The Chain is Doug’s 25th recording in 34 years. It recently won the Blues Music Award for Acoustic Album of the Year and was recorded for Reference Recordings, a high-end audiophile label.
“It’s a natural sound. That’s what’s so great about it. There’s no overdubs. There’s no pitch control. There’s no friction in the mixin. It’s like I say, it’s music made by humans for humans. There’s a little grease in it. Of course, there’s a little grease in it. There’s a little grease in you. There’s a little grease in me. You gotta have it. The tempo might change, or the pulse might change a little bit, but that’s human. If you love somebody, you don’t keep it the same heartbeat all the time. You know, things move. It’s the same way. So, for us, this is real. When you get an album of ours, that’s what we play. That’s it.
“It’s not like we had to go back in the studio five or six times and redo it and do this and do that and get it right and make the perfect notes and move it to the sides, and it’s gotta be right on the money. Now, you think about it. There’s three, four, five guys playing with me. Think about this in the ’30s and the ’40s with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. How many guys in that orchestra? There were no overdubs then. Those guys went in and played. That’s what’s incredible.”
The title song was co-written with Jesse who performs on the cut. In the liner notes Doug writes, ‘My son Jesse and I co-wrote this song with this message. I was abused. I learned in therapy that the abused can abuse. When Jesse was a little fella, I looked into his eyes and I said, ‘No way!’ I broke the chain of abuse that had been in my family for who knows how long. Jesse and I want you to know that you too can break the chain. You have the power. Use it.”
Doug considers the song lifesaving, but sometimes Jesse goes a little close to the edge just like his dad did to get close to the music they both love. The apple does not fall far from the tree.
“Jesse was in an underground hip hop group whose name was Sophistic. He had to go down to South Central L.A. to be around that hip hop scene, right? That’s all black people down there, and he’s the white kid down there. Ok, so he goes down there. I get nervous about it, and my wife Patti says, ‘How can you tell him not to go down there?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s dangerous down there.’ She said, ‘Where did you go when you were a teenager?’ So, I couldn’t say nothing. You know what I mean?”
Doug says he gets a lot of tears when he performs “Break The Chain.”
“People come up to me and have tears in their eyes. People say, ‘Thank you for that. Thank you for putting it in song. Thank you for putting it out there.’ People thank you for having the courage to do it. It’s kind of ironic. I don’t see it as courage. If you go back to the old blues songs way back in the ’20s and ’30s, the singer/songwriter guys like Lemon Jefferson and that ilk, they were talking about hope, and there was a lot of hope at the end of those songs.
“I have love in my life and when someone says to me, ‘Ok, Doug. He’s living the blues.’ I say, ‘Me, I’m not now. I just remember them.’ I’m a very, very lucky guy.
“I look at my life and I look at where I am now, and where I came from, and I say this to people. I say even from a pile of manure, a rose can grow. I look at my life. That’s what happened.”
Visit Doug’s website at: www.doug-macleod.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.