When you talk to blues guitarist, songwriter and singer Bob Margolin, you get the sense this is a man who deeply cares about family, friends, those he meets and animals. Those who know him use words like, "He is a very nice man," to describe him. It is perhaps those sensitivities that have infused the sensibilities that he brings to his music, and have made him a highly regarded musician and songwriter. He has shared the stage with music legends such as, Muddy Waters, "Pinetop" Perkins, The Band and Johnny Winter.
The cover of his new album In North Carolina is homey with the photo of his black and white border collie Cap lying on the couch not far from Margolin’s guitar. On the inside of the CD is the picture of another dog, Colleen, for which he named the fifth track of this record. You can hear the sadness in Margolin’s voice as he relates the dog passed away last summer at seventeen years of age.
Our discussion however was not focused on animals or photos, but the CD fashioned to look like an old LP. We also spent time talking about his illustrious career. As he talked to me on the phone, while walking up the driveway to his home in rural High Point North Carolina, our conversation turned to the song "You Rascal You."
"It ("You Rascal You") is a very old song. In the early seventies, I heard a version of it that was done by Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan. They sang the song together, traded verses and worked with their horns. The version of it that I heard by those two was a lot of fun. It may be about murder and infidelity, but it takes a lighter view of it. It is a happy song. One of the things about blues style music is that it sometimes takes life’s problems and makes you feel better about them. It is a fun song to do. I took a different approach to it musically, playing it with Django Reinhart type licks," says Margolin.
One should point out that Margolin is not trying to minimize tragedies, infidelity or murder, but in true blues tradition attempts to contribute to folklore, allowing us to take a step back and spoof what might otherwise be a bleak situation. His audiences usually discover the humor in the satirical punch lines. I spoke to Margolin the day after the Virginia university tragedy and this was a man who was deeply moved especially in light of the fact that he spent several years living near Blacksburg.
Turning our attention to the song "Colleen," the affable songwriter says, "About ten years ago I wrote a song and recorded it as a demo for Alligator Records. At the time, they didn’t like the words to it, so I put it aside for another time. In thinking about the criticisms I felt that they were legitimate, however I loved the music so much that I decided to record the song as an instrumental."
"I used a (technique) that I have (employed) for a few songs over the years, and that is to build the instrumentation as the song goes along. I begin the song fairly sparsely, and then add more instruments one at a time to build the intensity of each verse. Instead of being joined by different musicians, I am joined by different guitar parts (played by himself)," he says.
As for Colleen (the dog) the inspiration behind the song, "The whole spirit of the song seemed to reflect that little dog that was so sweet. She was actually about a month from having to leave the world when I recorded it. She was pretty deaf, but she was lying in front of my guitar amplifier and could hear the music. She had enough hearing left and seemed to be enjoying the music. I played most of the guitar parts one after another, just looking into her eyes. Unfortunately I had to let her go just a few weeks later."
Throughout "Colleen" and the balance of the songs on In North Carolina Margolin uses his trademark thumb pick, allowing him the flexibility to grip it with his thumb and forefinger, utilizing it as though it were a flat pick. This technique also gives him the flexibility to use his fingers to pull and pluck the strings as he plays.
One of the more spectacular songs on this album features Margolin’s guitar on his original composition "Lonely Man Blues." He bends some awesome notes and his soulful vocals are vintage blues.
He follows up "Lonely Man Blues," two tracks later with "Natural Blues," which should warm the heart of anyone that is a Downchild Blues Band fan as the lilt of the lyrics and the rhythm serve up reminders of the classic "Flip, Flop, Fly."
As he describes In North Carolina Margolin says, "It is different from the other records that I have done. The last album that I did before this one was The Bob Margolin All-Star Blues Jam. I got a group of all-star Chicago players together and we just jammed. I was almost like the sideman on my own album. We had a really good time, and the album did very nicely for me. With this CD, I wanted to go in the opposite direction. I wanted to do something upon which I played every note. I made it (In North Carolina) at home, with my wife and pets (present). Nobody else heard it until I had an engineer come in and work with me on mixing it. "
"Another project that I am working on is Breaking It Up And Breaking It Down, which is a live recording from a tour that took place almost thirty years ago with Muddy Waters, James Cotton and Johnny Winter. I was a sideman on the tour. It is a pretty powerful performance because everybody was jamming with one another. Everybody is trading verses, and they are having a tremendous amount of fun while they are playing," says Margolin.
He says that one of the highlights of the new project is Muddy Waters performing "Can’t Be Satisfied." Margolin enthusiastically talks about the song, "It was his first hit in 1949, and now (during the 1977 concert) you are hearing him sing it with all the depth he had acquired as a singer and musician. He was in his thirties when he first recorded it, but by this time he was almost thirty years older, had thousands of gigs under his belt and had become an icon in the blues world. It is some of the best blues singing that I have ever heard in my life."
The connection with Muddy Waters continued in late 2002 when Margolin produced Big Bill Morganfield’s CD Rising Son. Morganfield is the son of Muddy Waters. "It certainly was a labor of love for both Bill and I, to try and do something that would honor Muddy. It was his (Bill’s) first major label album for Blind Pigs Records. It introduced him in a strong way to the blues world. We were very aware of the opportunity with him being Muddy Waters’ son, as well as the burden of comparison. He had to walk the fine line between honoring his father, as well as being his own man," says Morganfield in speaking about the experience.
"I know how it is (to be compared to someone else). Despite the fact that I have had my own band for twenty-seven years, and put out a bunch of albums, often all people want to talk to me about is Muddy Waters. I indulge them to a large degree, if that is what somebody wants, as long as they consider my music too," says Margolin.
It would be difficult to imagine someone not considering Bob Margolin’s music and talent in its own light. In 2005, he was recognized by the blues music world when he was awarded a WC Handy (now known as the Blues Music Awards) award for Best Instrumentalist, Guitar. It seems as though that public acknowledgement has raised the level of visibility for the friendly guitar man and delivered to him the respect that he deserves.