Eugene Hideaway Bridges is everything a fine bluesman is supposed to be: truthful, rough, and simple but never simplistic. He’s also a whole lot more. For as long as he can take another breath, he will not be painted into a corner stylistically or logistically. He plays blues, gospel, a little country and a lot of soul, and he does it from Pittsburgh to Perth, New Orleans to Tokyo.
“Am I gonna wait until someone they consider the right color comes along and writes (a particular song that isn’t a blues)? Am I supposed to forget my grandmother is part white? She’s also part Navajo on my daddy’s side, and my mama is African American and Cherokee.
“I’m supposed to forget that part of my family just because we weren’t 100% black or 100% that? I don’t consider myself a black man. I consider myself a MAN. I don’t consider myself a blues artist. I’m an artist who writes blues, who writes gospel, who writes R&B because all of that is a part of me.”
Yes, Eugene Hideaway Bridges is the perfect blues artist to discuss a century of uneasy relationships between secular and sacred music. He learned how to play guitar from his daddy, Hideaway Slim, in 1965 at age two. Daddy was both a preacher and a blues artist, a combination rare for a generation that drew a line in the sand between gospel and blues.
The late John Campbell told me a story about searching out Son House to learn some of his secret licks. He found the aging blues master in Rochester, New York, but was somewhat taken aback when Son’s wife demanded the two retire to the front porch for the lesson.
She wasn’t about to have the devil’s music permeate her home.
House died in 1988 at 86, and Campbell passed in ’93 at 41. But even today, the relationship between the blues and gospel can be an awkward one. “There’s still a line in the sand. That’s why the rest of the world never heard of Hideaway Slim,” says Bridges whose blues cross that line in nine solo albums, eight of them on Armadillo Records out of England. Bridges’ heritage includes touring with one of gospel music’s most enduring legends, The Mighty Clouds of Joy.
“(Daddy) was taught to do religious music. Matter of fact, they wanted him to be a preacher. He ended up being a preacher. There was a line in the sand. My grandmother didn’t stand for it, but he had to wait until he was out of her house before he could do anything like that, and she frowned on it. She frowned on the fact that he started playing blues.
“My grandfather Jesse Bridges played guitar. There was a lot of music around the area (New Orleans), but he would hear that sound. My grandmother would drag him into the church, but that music and that sound were in him, and it needed to come out. But he wanted to do it in blues, and the sound that impressed him was Jimmy Reed, B. B. King and T Bone Walker, and he was always trying to sing.
“He had a piano, and he tried to get Daddy to learn piano. (My father) had a cheap rug that his daddy bought, and made him pick up his piano on the edge. He caught the other edge, and they carried it across the rug. He hated that piano every day.
“The sound was in him being around a lot of Dixieland sounds and stuff like that, horns and everything. He was around those sounds all the time, but that didn’t stick. Not with those instruments. He started hating the piano the moment he hurt his back trying to carry that piano as a kid or as a teenager. He played the trombone and the trumpet a little bit, and I think he tried to play the saxophone, but that wasn’t the thing. It was the guitar that he wanted.”
“When daddy talked about his childhood, it was not in a lot of sorrow ways. As the only kid, he had a lot of fun on his own. He learned how to entertain himself, and he would play the harmonica. He learned to play the harmonica because he loved the way Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkins played, and that kind of stuck with me.
“Later on he was always pulled away from the blues. That was the devil’s work. That’s what he was told. That the devil’s work. You leave that devil alone being a boy raised in the church (The Church of God and Christ) and at the church all the time – and when I say all the time, I mean seven days a week, three times on Sunday. All the time!
“It was right in the heart of segregation and everything, but on Sundays they would let some black churches broadcast their church services over the radio. That was the sound that stuck in his head, and I can relate to that because that is the sound that stuck in my head. I’d sing myself to sleep; my baby brother and I used to sing ourselves to sleep with those riffs and other sounds.
“The washing machine or the refrigerator had a hum to it. If it had a hum, that was music to me. Anything that had a melody, it’s a hum. It wasn’t so much a beat. It was that mmmmm. It was just that steady hum. Mmmmmmm! And when somebody would come and pick up Daddy, you’d hear a car go by. Bump, bump, and that’s a Chevrolet horn. And I could hear that was a Chrysler horn. It was always different horns. I could pick up these different sounds with my head. I didn’t even have to look. I’d know that was a Chrysler horn or Ford. I knew that was a Chevrolet.”
Eugene first sat in with his father as a toddler. “I was two going on three. It was January. I turned three in March, but he was showing me a Jimmy Reed riff, and he would shoot a game of 21. After he came home, I was playing that riff. Not only that riff that he showed me, but I’m bringing out that other sound I was hearing in my head, too. It was like, ‘Now I know how to put my finger on the strings and actually match it.’ I had to earn those blisters. I had to learn those hard strings that cut the grooves in my fingers that really made them sore. I earned that by actually playing.
“Again, he would go and shoot basketball, go do something, and when he came back, I’m playing it. Sometimes it could come like click, click, click, but he said, ‘You gotta match it, boy. Gotta match it.’ And I learned how to bring out that sound. And when I was able to bring out the sound, he showed me to make that song all the way up.
“Then, once I caught on to that, then catching on to other grooves (He scats), the licks started coming through, not that fast, but it was slowly. I thought, ‘Man, I’m gonna break my fingers playing that,’ but I kept going. It sounded terrible for a long time, and then pretty soon I got it, and he said, ‘Two frets up in your third.’ So about a month later or so I was able to play, and he’d call it. ‘Go to your one. Give me a three. Give me a two. Ok, back to the one. Give me a two again.’
“And when he’d call out those chords I would stop. He said, ‘Look, don’t stop. Keep the time and always pat your feet. Always pat your feet. No matter what’s happening, you don’t have an instrument? Clap your hands. Don’t stop.’ I learned a lot of lessons from him. He said, ‘To be a good leader, you have to be a good follower. Just keep the beat.’
“We left New Orleans and moved out to the country. I could hear the trains go by. That Illinois Central, that wha-wha-wha. In my head I’m hearing (sings a melody extrapolated from a train sound). I’m hearing stuff like that, and walking round my daddy, around him with my guitar – with my little plastic shovel (of a guitar) and the rest of my brothers.”
“Daddy was inspired by B. B. King, Jimmy Reed, T Bone Walker. Those are the cats he looked up to. When he was like four years old, my Uncle Saul Osteen – he was a preacher. Uncle Saul would carve a piece of wood into the shape of a guitar, and Daddy would beat the devil out of those church bands, tearing it up when Ella Utah Slim was playing his guitar ’cause Daddy was trying to play his guitar like Ella. Then he would do the same thing.
So, Uncle Saul, my daddy’s uncle on his mama’s side, would carve him out a guitar. He would carve out a guitar shape because, again, Daddy was in church all the time. Matter of fact, he was the Sunday school teacher for the male adults, including the pastor, the visiting preachers, and other ministers in the church.
“People just heard of gospel music, but they never really tasted it. They never really experienced it. They just heard that the blues came from gospel, and they’d get just one sip of this gospel soup they heard from one church. ‘Okay, that’s what we’re gonna paint a picture of for all of black gospel.’ And it became a habit, but this has gone beyond habit. This has gone beyond the reality sound that was grown up in Daddy, and then it came out in me.”
Eugene’s mother walked out on her family of five kids when Eugene was five. He joined the Air Force when he was 16 after being kicked out of school, and he’s turned the entire planet into his performing showcase as an adult after finding a blasé response – to put it politely – to his playing in the United States. “I got tired of people literally standing in my way telling me I wasn’t what they were looking for right now.”
Through it all, he’s found Christianity to be helpful in getting him through the rough spots. In other words, he’s found a balance between the gospel and the devil’s music. “Don’t give up. You don’t have to be the best. Just do your best.”
About his mother’s leaving, he says, “You don’t worry about the blessings you don’t have. You’re just grateful for the blessing you do have, and sometimes that includes family. You do have to be strong, and that’s what this music teaches you because all the things I put into my music is things that I learned from life itself through my pastors, through my Sunday school teachers, through my grandparents, through my daddy, even through my mama. You got to face the world through yourself, but you learn things, and you’re able to pass that on to people where music lifts the spirits, and that’s what this music is doing. What people refer to in this music came from gospel.
“Gospel was the way of lifting the spirit through slavery. That’s enough to give anybody reason not to believe in God. But through your faith in God you get through that. It don’t mean that you’re gonna have your way, that everything will go your way now that you profess to believe in God. You just have to stay the course, believe in something, and just keep on fighting for it. Keep on working of it and when you learn that as a child as you go through life, these are things that help you climb the mountain instead of trying to push the mountain out of the way.
“It helps me go around the mountain out of the way. It helps you go around the mountain, helps you get over the mountain, go under the mountain. These are instruments and tools that you learn along the way, but when you’re lied to and told everything’s alright, that you’re privileged, you’re supposed to love that. So, the moment something bad happens, then all of a sudden, everything’s gone bad until it gets better.
“I believe in rock and roll until something goes bad. Then I’m gonna get the blues. That’s the way a lot of people have faith in blues and any other type of music. They’re caught in the feeling they’re having right now. ‘If I’m horny right now, am I gonna sing a horny song? Then when I feel religious, I’m gonna jump up?’
“No! It has nothing to do with who I am, but it has to do with lifting the spirit.
“My daddy and grandmother taught me how to not concentrate on what bad does happen but how to say, ‘Yeah, this has happened, but guess what? You’re gonna be alright,’ but that kinda twists into your writing, and it’s by living it, not just talking about it but actually living it. I’ve never faced the challenge that prayer could not handle or that prayer and faith failed me.”
Eugene’s vocals often sound like Sam Cooke and he covers Cooke’s “Farewell My Darling” on his 2013 CD Roots & Vines. Cooke was in the vanguard of soul and blues music’s efforts to blend secular and religious music. His “A Change Is Gonna Come” about turning a relationship around was actually code for an appeal for better race relations and was released in 1964 when Eugene was one year old. He was 16 when he first heard Cooke.
“Sam Cooke’s words were inspired by Bob Dylan, the way Bob Dylan would tell his story in a positive way, in a poetry way when he wrote “Blowing in the Wind.” He was singing about the racial tension in the United States, and he couldn’t just come out and say what needed to be said without him being shut up, without him being stifled and stopped.
“Same thing with blues. When you hear, ‘Oh, my woman sure do treat me mean,’ (the singer is) not talking about his wife or his girlfriend or his lover. He’s trying to say, ‘My boss, this racist boss I got is treating me so bad, but I can’t say anything. If I say anything, he’s gonna take offense against me, and this is the only way I can actually say what I want to say without getting stifled, shot, hung or whatever.’ It’s exactly the same thing.
“The beauty of poetry (Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan) said in such a beautiful way. Blues ain’t about blues. They knew about gospel. Gospel is the culmination of not just the African crowd, not just the European crowd, but the American Indian who was caught up in the slavery as well. All that they didn’t kill off, they put into slavery as well. That’s how you tell the sound of Baptist, Methodist, Church of God and Christ, Church of Christ, Church of Living Christ, Church of Living God.
“I mean the list goes on and on, and that’s just with black gospel. There’s so many, and when you overlook all of that, how can you call it chicken noodle soup when you don’t even discuss the chicken? You try to find everything to disguise the chicken, and then call it chicken noodle soup.
“The same thing with the music, the sound and the melodies and the harmonies and the way they pray, the way they serve, the way they have service, and the way they continue to moan, and when they work the mouth to talk. It’s just a way you say what needs to be said. A lot of people had the education, and Sam Cooke educated himself and learned a lot of things, did a lot of reading. To be able to say what needed to be said, but have a way to not shake up the industry so hard where they catch on straight away, but had to be a hit, had to catch on to be a hit. If you want to be popular, you gotta get cheeky with it. You gotta get funky with it. You gotta sound like it’s got nothing to do with religion.
Bridges’ latest CD Hold On A Little Bit Longer is a fine example of his eclecticism. “Am I gonna wait until someone that they consider the right color to come and along and write (a particular song that isn’t a blues)? Am I supposed to forget my grandmother is part white? She’s also part Navajo on my daddy’s side, and my mama is African American and Cherokee. I’m supposed to forget that part of my family just because we weren’t 100% black or 100% that? I don’t consider myself a black man. I consider myself a MAN. I don’t consider myself a blues artist. I’m an artist who writes blues, who writes gospel, who writes R&B because all of that is a part of me.
“When I was seven I started the Bridges Brothers. When I was 13 I started the Five Stars. So, I’m running three bands at the same time. I didn’t know I was supposed to decide who I am to suit a color scheme or whatever. I’m following my heart just like I did 50 years ago in 1966 when I just picked up that sound and played it out of my heart. That’s what this music is supposed to do, not just fill your belly up with something, but it’s supposed to lift your spirits.”
“I’m ready to go to wherever and anywhere there’s a door and somebody’s standing in my way, I go around it. I go around the mountain. I go over the mountain. I don’t let nothing or nobody (get in my way). People call me a nomad. I’m not a nomad. I’m just not willing to let someone else dictate to me what I should be, what I should do with my life and to sit back and wait until they allow me to do what I was born to do. I refuse to let that happen.”
“We’re here to make a mark, to do something with our lives and then later on we gotta move on. We gotta die. We’re born to die.”
Photos by Alwyn R Coates © 2016