Scott Ainslie Plays Old Songs in Voorheesville on Saturday
Scott Ainslie is the poster boy for the argument that a white man should be able to play and sing the blues. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Washington & Lee University. More importantly, he plays guitar with a passion and intensity that practically raises Robert Johnson from the dead. He wrote the definitive book on Robert Johnson, Robert Johnson/At the Crossroads, containing transcriptions of Johnson’s recordings with annotated lyrics and historical notes.
“My allegiance is to the sound we make. So, if you played something black, white, yellow or brown, that, I think, is cool. How did you do that? What was that? And all of us, all musicians, are like that. The music business is racist as all hell. The society? My God, we can’t apologize enough, but among musicians between you and me, it’s like, ‘That’s great! How did you do that?’ The color barriers did not work.”
Scott talks about white guitarist Steve Cropper, the house guitarist/producer at Stax Records and point man for Booker T. & the MGs, the Memphis band that broke the color barrier for mixed-race bands six decades ago. “They were working in a mixed-race society. Cropper says, ‘You work in the studios and race didn’t matter. Can you play? And if you can play, fine. Let’s play.” When the Stax musicians left the studio, the Memphis police would often tailgate them as they drove home.
“I was in Northern Ireland in the 1970s when the IRA was still pulling people out of bars and shooting them in the back of the head and blowing shit up; the music community did not talk politics. Music was the important thing. Outside the gig, outside of the pub, God knows. But inside the pub? No! And music was the same kind of thing in the South. If Lonnie Johnson said he wanted to record with Eddie Lang, they would have closed the door on him. When Eddie, a white guy, said, ‘I want to record with Lennie,’ they said, ‘Well, maybe ok.’
Scott plays originals and his interpretations of Robert Johnson and other delta blues players. Today, Robert Johnson remains the least well-documented of any bluesman, and yet his recordings are like The Old Testament of the blues Bible.
“This was an ambitious musician who was aggressively curious about music, did not want to walk around in fields, and was just fighting his way out of the sharecropping system with his own kind of musical talent. All that stuff holds up perfectly, and it’s in the grooves there in the recordings, but it’s fun to have the other information.
“He played everything he could play, and there are stories from musicians that toured with him, Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, and one or two of the old girlfriends that Robert would hear and sing while you were talking to him somewhere. Somebody would play a record, and later in the afternoon, he would
play you the whole song, words, and everything. Just play it the first time. Hear it the first time and just play it.
“Anything that was good they played, and the racism of the recording industry is what makes us think a real blues guy is only going to play blues. They’re not going to play anything else. Modern performers like me are kind of straight-jacketed into that thing. You’re not a blues guy because you played a Van Morrison song. You played a Billie Holiday song. This is what musicians do. You play what’s good.”
Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 11th at the Old Songs building at 37 South Main in Voorheesville, and live streamed on the Old Songs YouTube Channel. Tickets can be purchased at http://scottainslie.oldsongs.org