(Editor’s Note: ‘I Just Stopped by to See the Man’ played the Alliance Theatre from March 9 to April 8, 2012).
Mississippi Charles Bevel is as authentic a blues man as you’re likely to find in the acting community. The artist, otherwise known as ‘Sip, was born in the Mississippi Delta and came of age during the civil rights movement. He went on to open for everyone from Taj Mahal to B.B. King before making his way into a theatre. Now, in I Just Stopped By to See the Man, Bevel combines his passions — playing a retired blues musician sought out by a British rocker hoping to find the spotlight one last time. The engaging Bevel recently sat down for a chat that covered everything from harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson and Jimi Hendrix, to the ways in which he relates to his latest character.
How did you first get into the blues?
I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, but the only musical instrument I’d ever heard by the time I was 10 years old was a badly out-of-tune piano. That’s how far back in the boonies I lived! Around Christmas of ’48 or ’49, my father bought a radio. A few months later I heard Sonny Boy Williamson playing his harmonica and singing on the radio, and that was my introduction to the blues.
When did you start playing music yourself?
I didn’t get into playing music until I was in my 30s. I came back from Africa in 1968, where I had married and lived in Liberia for 3½ years. I got back and was working in Chicago in the civil rights movement with Jesse Jackson and somehow ended up with a guitar. That’s when I started playing. I ended up on A&M Records, where I released Meet Mississippi Charles Bevel. In the mid-’70s I met a guy who was an incredible blues player out of Boston named Chick Streetman. He and I hooked up as a duo, and we wound up opening for Taj Mahal and B.B. King. That’s how I learned to play the blues.
What did you think when you first heard British bands remaking the blues as rock ‘n’ roll?
When I came back from Africa I was introduced to Jimi Hendrix, who took the blues thing to a whole different place. I felt like a lot of these rock bands were trying to do what he was doing. It’s interesting that I Just Stopped By to See the Man was written by an Englishman. Historically, it seems as if the British have more of an appreciation of the Delta blues than Americans do.
My understanding is that because racism was so endemic, white America wasn’t comfortable dealing with black culture. The English guys who didn’t grow up with all that racism heard something that just went to the bottom of your heart, and they could accept it and imitate it without caricaturing it.
What can you tell us about your character, Jesse, and how his story unfolds?
It’s very interesting in terms of how it’s written. What I connected to was that whole struggle he’d gone through in terms of being a good musician, but it never meant anything to him in terms of making money. The whole tragedy is that his woman left him because of that. So many guys, like Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, had to deal with making nickels and dimes for most of their lives. I saw that play out in so many ways, where you couldn’t get credit or you wouldn’t be allowed to do it because of how things were structured racially. I’m really looking forward to dealing with that onstage, and I think I can get that across to the audience.
Bret Love is the founder of the ecotourism/conservation site GreenGlobalTravel.com; the national managing editor of INsite magazine; and music editor for Georgia Music Magazine. He freelances for more than a dozen other national and international publications, and performs on improv teams with Jackpie at Relapse Theatre.