One of the best musicians you've probably never heard of, Doug MacLeod has been a traveling troubadour, singer, storyteller and four-star emissary for the blues for close to 30 years.
MacLeod, who headlines this week's 23rd annual Savannah Folk Festival, was a sideman for Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulsun, Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton and others.
He found a singular voice, however, when he struck out on his own, writing in a country/blues style, traveling the country with nothing but a National resonator guitar he called Mule, a case full of good-natured songs, and an open-tuned finger picking style that is both familiar and deliriously original.
The St. Louis native's tunes have been covered by Albert King, Albert Collins, Joe Louis Walker and Eva Cassidy ("Nightbird," one of the late, great vocalist's signature songs).
National gave him a new guitar 15 years ago, and asked him to try it out on the road. It took a month or so for MacLeod to warm to the instrument, but when he did, a permanent bond was forged. He named it Moon.
"That means," says MacLeod, "that guitar's gonna be with me forever."
How would you describe your relationship with your guitar?
Doug MacLeod: Very close. I had a real bad stutter when I was a kid. I couldn't speak. And when I picked up the guitar, when I started to sing this voice came out. And now, as my wife says, "You can't shut him up." I talk all the time now. So the guitar means something to me.
You're a blues singer/songwriter, as opposed to a guy who interprets the old classics. What does that do for you?
Doug MacLeod: Years ago, I met this old one-eyed blues singer, Ernest Banks. He told me that in order to be a bluesman, you gotta write, sing, play and entertain. We were sitting on a streetcorner in Norfolk, Virginia, and I said "Mr. Banks, I don't know nothing about picking cotton, mojos and black cat bones. I was a witness to some of that stuff when I was younger, and I don't really want to fool with that stuff. What am I gonna write about?" And he looked at me with that one eye and he said "You ever been lonely? You ever needed a woman? You ever needed money for that little apartment you got down the road?" I said yeah. He said "That's the blues, too, boy. You write about that." That stuck in my mind.
Then when I met George "Harmonica" Smith, years later, I was backing him up and playing electric in those days. George got me aside and said "Why are you trying to play like B.B. King?" I said, because he's great. George called me Dub, and he said "Put Dub out there. Let's see what happens with Dub." I think that was real good advice.
When you think about it, Lightnin' Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Son House, Blind Boy Fuller, all those guys were singer/songwriters. They wrote their songs, they sang ‘em for people. It's folk music.
To your mind, what's the difference between folk music and blues music?
Doug MacLeod: In some ways, I see no difference. Because they are music for people, talking about the basic things that everybody goes through in this world. Maybe the difference would be the style of music, and how it's played. Blues might have a more rougher edge on it at times. But I've heard folk music that has a rough edge. I really don't see much difference, because to me it's folk music.
Doesn't blues have a limited palette? I mean, you're playing in E, you have E, A, B7 and you resolve back to E. Or am I not seeing the bigger picture?
Doug MacLeod: Awwwww ... no, that's a real good question. What happens in those three chords ... there's so much that goes on in there. I've always said the blues is deceptively simple music. When I first saw the old guys play, I had the same kind of thing. I said "It's just three chords!" But I was working with one of the great old piano players, he said "When you're backing me up, just play the third and the flat seventh of the chord." And I said "Why?" I was playing seventh and ninth chords. He said "Because you're directing me. I should be directing you."
That's when I learned, when I listened to him, what he was playing against a simple chord might have gone out of the key at times, but he resolved it. I learned to use my ear to say "OK, if he's going this way, let me see if I can go with him." So the blues, to me, it's a huge palette.
Savannah Folk Festival
All events are free
Friday, Oct. 12
Folkfest in Ellis Square, 7-11 p.m.
Lauren Lapointe, Chris Desa, Jim McGraw, Synergy, the Pace Brothers, Alice and Albert Williams, ensemble singalong
Saturday, Oct. 13
Youth Songwriting Competition, 2 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 520 Washington Ave.
Blues Workshop with Doug MacLeod, 3:30-5:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church.
Old-Time Dance, 7:30-11 p.m. at Savannah Arts Academy, 500 Washington Ave.
Sunday, Oct. 14
Concert in Grayson Stadium, 2-7:30 p.m.
Doug MacLeod: 3:55 and 6:45 p.m.
Al Petteway & Amy White, 3:30 and 6:10 p.m.
Curly Maple, 2:45 and 5:35 p.m.
Diedre McCalla, 2:10 and 5 p.m.