The Pulse of RVA: Conversations with River City Artists

Spotlight: Barry Bless. Part 1 in a Series

Barry Bless

I have mostly known Barry Bless as an attendee and fan of his musical endeavors: The Professor and the Madwoman, The Gourd Orchestra, The Happy Lucky Combo, The Ululating Mummies, and The Breakfast Cabaret.

Barry emanates an aura that implies there’s a depth to this person that I bet is fascinating. Boy, was I right!

A quote from our conversations that is particularly relevant: “There’s something called the oral tradition. Engaging in conversation is a way to strengthen this oral tradition. It’s an important part of anyone’s social life, and anyone’s intellectual life. Reading is fine, but, for me, if you can’t put it into dialogue, or a conversation with other people, it’s not as rich, it’s not as deep, it’s not as meaningful. It’s not as usable. It’s not as musical.”

Barry has mastered the oral tradition.

To watch Barry Bless play the accordion is a study in the art of blissful and meditative music making. 

You can see him around town performing from his Wandering Cabaret.

Barry and I sit in the colorful, whimsical house where he has lived since 1972. His mother bought the house with the intention of making it a group home for elderly people. She asked Barry if he and artist friends would like to move in until that point. She died before realizing her dream.  Barry, 66, says it might yet happen. 

Barry has shared the home with over one hundred and twenty people throughout the years.  He is currently living there with his wife Jennifer and his daughter Odessa. Barry has three additional daughters: Emma, Jenna and Isadora.

“My parents were wonderful people. They lost two children before me to cystic fibrosis. I was an only child. I was coddled, but I was given a long leash.” 

Barry laughs at this memory:  “I was fifteen years old. I asked my mother if I could hitchhike from Richmond to Florida to attend a rock festival. My mother told me she would discuss it with my father. They gave me permission to leave that night if I cleaned my room. My mother gave me a Mylar blanket, invented by NASA, to keep me warm. My father gave me a box of chia seeds, which he said sustained Indians on long trips. In a way those gifts characterized their personalities.”

Barry’s father, Wally Bless opened Main Street Grill in Shockoe Bottom in 1968. I ask Barry if his father cooked. 

“Oh yeah. When I was a kid he was the parent that loved to cook. He was always into food. My dad was born in a log cabin in a German-speaking community in Appalachia – in Kentucky. When he was a child, he got sick a lot. He attributed it to eating too much pork, to being too ‘acidic’. I’m not sure what the scientific reasons were but he had pneumonia a lot as a child. He started to spend a lot of attention to his diet.”

“He left the farm at age 15. As he was coming into the cosmopolitan world, Cincinnati, he discovered the health food movement. Kellogg’s and Post were part of that health food movement. Society was becoming industrialized and urbanized. The health food movement was partially a response to that. Part of it was the nostalgia, and grief, for the lost farm life.  In my fathers’ final days he was still grieving. He said to me, ‘Why did they give up the farm?’

“One thing the military found out when they started to draft people in WWII was that malnutrition was rampant all over the United States. That was part of the impetus for starting the school lunch programs. In rural areas you might imagine that they were healthier, but they weren’t getting the broad spectrum of nutrients that people in urban areas were getting. They would be existing on a whole lot of cabbage or a whole lot of this or that – but they didn’t have a lot of access because of poverty.”

“One of the ironies of the health food movement is that it considered itself a ‘back to nature’ movement. But Kellogg’s and Post were both grain oriented, unlike the Paleolithic diet. The agricultural revolution radically changed the kind of foods we were evolved to eat. We evolved as hunters and gatherers. We were eating meats and plants, and then suddenly massive amounts of grains were introduced.”

I say, “It would be interesting to see if disease took off at that point.”

“Yeah, and what kinds of disease. One thing we know is that it was necessary for the development of civilization, because grains, primarily wheat and rice, provided a reliable source of concentrated calories. You could mass-produce and concentrate calories for a city. And make beer! If you’re a hunter and gatherer, you’re spending a lot of time hunting and gathering.”

“In the Gourd Orchestra we’re always reminding people that the gourd was the first plant domesticated by humans in the late Paleolithic Era, when we were hunter gathers. That was the beginning of the agricultural revolution. When people in the 20th century were saying, or now, ‘we’ve got to get back to nature’, the nature they’re getting back to is recent in human evolution – it’s back to the farm and the agricultural diet.”

“A big part of my father’s identity was being a part of the land. Being a part of the farm. Being a farmer. You asked me if my father was a renaissance man. All farmers are renaissance men. He had to learn carpentry and animal husbandry. He had to learn about the soil and timbering and how to make lumber. He learned it from his family. I’ve seen the barn that my great-great grandfather built. My grandfather had a portable steam driven sawmill that went from farm to farm. My father as early as age 13 would lead the crew.”

“My great-great grandfather left Germany to avoid conscription into the military. They moved into a community that was Anglo Saxon. They came into this really fertile land in Kentucky. It was like the Promised Land. They started to bring all these German cabbage farmers over to this fertile land from Alsace.”

“I have a short article about the concerns the Anglo community had about the Germans bringing with them radicals and anarchists. The article is written to put the Anglos at ease. It said, ‘these are good, hard-working Germans, not trouble makers. A brewery will soon be built!’ I joke that my family is proof that radicals and anarchists did sneak over. I identify with the German radical tradition.”

“If my father was a German hillbilly my mother was a proper German middle class lady.  She was trained to play the parlor piano. She was trained to be well spoken, well educated and well dressed. She was not trained to cook. She became an excellent piano player but her parents wouldn’t allow her to attend conservatory. Her piano playing was for the parlor. Later in life it was for the church, the Senior Center and the City Jail.”

I ask Barry how his parents met. 

“They met at a Lutheran church in Cincinnati. My father moved to Cincinnati from Kentucky. My mother moved there from New York. It was largely a German town. When I was growing up I was always reminded that the United States almost became a German-speaking country. There was a vote about what would be the national language because there were so many Germans. I haven’t researched it but that’s the story.”

“My father was always surprised and concerned that I went through school without studying Goethe. Goethe was Germany’s great Renaissance person. He was seminal. If you read any German scholar – Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, (my trinity) – they’ve all been heavily influenced by Goethe. So my father is like, ‘My son is growing up culturally deprived.’ “ 

“When I grew up my father was a life insurance salesman. It was an interesting culture; sales culture. “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie was one of the cultural touchstones. 

“My dad was active in the Toastmasters. It’s a public speaking club. My mother was in Toastmistress’. A lot of sales people, business people and political leaders joined Toastmasters where they learned how to give speeches, presentations. When I was growing up, my father started the junior Toastmasters club, the Gavel Club, at the Jewish Center.  So I was brought up doing public speaking, and debating and thinking on my feet and being put in really awkward situations.”

“I remember when my dad died, and people just start pouring over to the house. One person remarked that he was able to take his sales skills and transfer them to the civil rights movement. ‘How to win friends and influence racists!’ “

“Insurance became more and more a part of big business finance. When I was growing up, he talked about the Lutheran brotherhood, a non-profit beneficial aid society. Whenever anyone was in need, they would take from that pool and help that person. Basically, what he was saying is that insurance is socialism.” 

“At some point he realized that’s not what the insurance industry had become. He found himself in a business that didn’t jive with his values. And at this point, so we’re talking about 68 or 69, we looked for other options. We considered a Baskin-Robins franchise, a foster home and settled on the Main St Grill.”

My mother led the way. She was an amazing woman. It’s easy to talk about my dad because he was more colorful and had a bigger public profile but my mom made things happen.”

I ask if Barry’s mother worked.

“She was a church secretary.  For many years, she worked for Presbyterian churches when I was growing up, then she worked for the Unitarian Church and then the State Penitentiary.”

“During the late sixties I came home from the Lutheran church. I was just starting to get confirmed. The minister came in to our first confirmation class. He said, ‘You’re going to hear a lot of things in the world, and I want you to know that what I’m going to tell you and what you learn here is the truth. It’s the absolute truth.’ Which I guess is some people’s definition of faith.”

“So I went home. I was deeply offended partly because I knew the story of Martin Luther. He wasn’t going to accept the dogma of the Catholic Church. That was part of the story. Part of the narrative I grew up with. So how could this guy come in and say this was the Absolute Truth. Of course, with Martin Luther – the history is a little more complicated than that. At that point my mom and I left the church.”

“After my grandmother died – she lived with us for six years of my life – she was religious to the point of being a fundamentalist. After she suddenly died, my mom went a little nuts. And suddenly, we had to pray at dinner every night. My mom had this little box of cards with prayers on them. It all seemed so artificial.”

“Around that time, I started having doubts about the existence of God. I’d do this exercise where I had to try to convince myself that there’s a God. And for a fleeting second, I’d believe in God, and then it would go away.”

“I said, ‘Mom, I’m not sure I believe in God.’ She swiveled around in her chair, looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Barry, I don’t know if I believe either.’ I was so relieved. She went on to become a pretty radical atheist.”

I ask Barry how old he was when he told his mother he didn’t believe in God.

“Somewhere around nine, ten or eleven.”

I say, “That’s progressive for that age.”

“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. I was tortured. My dad stayed in the church. He loved arguing and talking to people. And when people would ask do you believe in God, he said, ‘I don’t have to, I’m in it, it’s all around me.’

“So his was just kind of an existential approach, like Popeye, “I am what I am, that’s all that I am.” And “What is, is what it is.” So he didn’t feel a need to possess knowledge. He just wanted to swim around in this pool of existence, awash in humanity.”

“And for my mom, partly because I think, I don’t know if she would have articulated it this way, but it was part of rebellion against patriarchy. To rebel against this patriarchy. So her atheism packed a punch. She was pissed off.”

“She started the local chapter of The American Atheist Society and a group called the Atheist Corner at the Unitarian Church.  I remember when they started; they invited one of the major ministers in town from a Baptist Church. He came to talk to the group. There were questions like; ‘Was God a man or woman?’ and the minister said definitely God is a man.  One of the people in the group said, ‘Well, we’re mostly agnostic here. Thanks for being open minded.’ My mom stood up and she says, ‘I’m no agnostic.  When I listen to you talking about the Bible, I may as well be listening to somebody from Mars. What you’re saying makes absolutely no sense.’ She was a warrior.”

“I started hanging out at the Jewish Center. All of my friends were Jewish. I had an affinity, and my family had an affinity for Jewish people, for whatever reason. I think retrospectively, one of the reasons is, many of them were German, or Central European. There’s a cultural difference between Anglos and central Europeans. Part of it was that – the Jews that I knew in town were more similar to Germans and Central Europeans than the Anglos. I know that sounds strange given the history of German fascism.”

“At some point, I made a list of what it was that attracted me to Jewish culture. I decided it was a developed world view, a sense of social justice, intellectual rigor, and a sense of humor.”

“As I have matured, I’ve realized that these things are not unique to Jews. But it distinguished the Jews around me from the WASPs around me.”

“Simply put, given my choices, Jewish people were more friendly and more interesting.” 

I mention that my sister converted to Judaism. She likes that there is no original sin.

“Have you ever read Freud’s take on that? He believed one of the roots of anti-Semitism is that Jews wrong doings exist in the ethical world. Their sins are not original. Christians on the other hand live in a constant cycle of sin and absolution, like children. So Jews remind Christians the painful truth that living with guilt is part of being human, a mature human.”

“One of my father’s favorite stories was about being invited to hang out with some Rabbi’s at one of their homes. He felt so honored and respected. A German hillbilly with a high school education hanging out with these learned men! My father was a kid in an intellectual candy shop. Something that had interested my father was what does ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual’ mean? So he asked them. He said that after they ran through multiple languages they turned to him and said ‘breath’. This was a revelation for my father and something he talked about in his final days.”

“My social life from ages twelve to fourteen was immersed in the Jewish community. I wrote a song for the cantor of Temple Beth El a few years ago. It’s written in what in Klezmer music is called a Turkish or Oriental scale.” 

“I’d go to temple and listen to the cantor chant. And he’s chanting in Middle Eastern modes. I mean, they’re not Arabic, but they’re a similar.”

The cantor, Cantor Okun, he was as wide as he was tall. And he would start chanting and swaying. And I’d get chills up and down. That had a big influence on my music. I kept looking for and finding that same soulfulness in Black music and Arabic music. I kept seeking it out, like, what kind of music has that level of depth, that deep sense of homesickness and longing.”

I ask Barry to name some of the music.

“Greek music, the blues, jazz…  but, you know, modal jazz where the emphasis is not just on all these chord changes. Bebop was virtuosity. I love bebop. It was doing all these gymnastics with all these chord changes. And then suddenly, then you say, well, maybe we can reach deeper levels of feeling. So, you get Kind of Blue and Coltrane’s movement into modal music.”

I ask Barry if he likes free jazz.

“Yeah. It’s not all that I like, but I listen to free jazz. Cecil Taylor. Sun Ra.”

I say, “Ornette?”

“Ornette. I don’t think Ornette as free jazz, but yes, he helped free us from the tyranny of chord structures and European harmony.

I ask Barry if he likes classical music.

“I love classical. Baroque. It would be tough, but if I had one thing to listen to on a desert island, it would be Bach.”

I ask Barry to talk more about the Main Street Grill. 

“My mom was looking for things maybe my dad could do after leaving insurance sales.  I remember we went down to Shockoe Bottom. We’re talking 1968 or 1969. My dad’s really involved in the Black Liberation Movement, slash, Civil Rights Movement. 

I ask, “How big was that movement in Richmond?”

“Huge. The main organization my father was involved with was The Richmond Council on Human Relations. He was very active. There were lots of organizations. It was the sixties. Every black church was the Center for political activity. Richmond, like everywhere in the United States, had a huge civil rights movement.”

“My father headed up the committee that brought Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Ture, to town.”

“I prefer the term Black Liberation Movement, because Civil Rights focuses on the rights of the individual. It can be the ultimate divide and conquer.” 

“Black liberation, just like we’re having a discussion about reparations today, looks at things systemically, and historically. Slavery and what has followed is systemic, institutionalized. That’s why I prefer the term Black Liberation Movement, to Civil Rights Movement, because it’s easy to reduce the complexities of what happens in a society to individual rights. Civil rights, individual rights can become abstractions that don’t address the underlying racial and class coalitions and systems of power.” 

“Back to the restaurant. My parents and I go to Shockoe Bottom. A lot of people are leaving the city. It’s flight of the whites. My family said, ‘No, we’re gonna move more deeply into this’. Shockoe Bottom was perfect. We go there one evening, to check out this working class restaurant, owned and run by white people. Across the street you had the railroad YMCA where a lot of indigent people were coming through. You had the farmer’s market. A lot of working class poor, domestic workers, day workers, mostly black. Six nip joints on that block. A Muslim butcher. Jewish-owned pawn shop.”

“We go into the restaurant. It’s pretty bleak. This waitress comes up. She finds out we’re interested in buying it. She comes over and whispers that we shouldn’t buy because there’s “too many N-word around here”.  We looked at each other as if to say, ‘Sold’. Dad set up shop.”

I asked if his father created a menu.

“We inherited the menu. It had an old steam table for lunch. We kept all of the stuff. A lot of it was cool, Indigenous, meaning old Southern fare; smoked sausage, salt herring, shad roe, bologna burgers.”

“My dad introduced natural foods. He would talk to people about healthy food. Part of the mission he was on was to get the working class to eat healthy. And the restaurant was right on the farmers market that supplied the city with produce. So he had his connection to the farm. My Dad would grind his own grits and serve fresh-ground grits. We had a soda machine, but it was also a beer joint. I could go on and on about what the restaurant offered me in terms of a cultural education. It was a mostly black working-class restaurant during the morning and afternoon. There was a Bowery vibe too. Eventually, my friend Pippin and I opened it in the evenings. Part of the problem was no one wanted to go to that part of town after dark.”

“Next door was a gambling joint and a nip joint. Organized crime. The elderly white man that ran it was found bludgeoned to death. A large young Black man, over six feet tall, took it over and ran it. This man, who we were friends with, comes in the restaurant one evening and stands in the door. He has a sawed-off shotgun. He looks at everybody and he says, ‘No, not here’ and he walks out of the door. That’s what we were up against at night in terms of getting people to come to Shockoe Bottom.”

“There was a lot of political activity at Main Street Grill. My father described it as a forum, where anyone could come and talk about anything.”   

“I know this story second hand from Steve Fishman. Some of my friends were standing in front of the Main Street Grill, and students from the West End would come to Shockoe Bottom just because they were fascinated. Don Michellitti was a big, burly, Russian looking guy. He was of Russian descent. The students were saying, ‘We hear this place is so radical, they don’t even let Democrats in here.’ Don had been carving these heads from apples, and letting them shrivel up. They looked like shrunken heads. He pulled one out of his pocket. He got real serious and says, ‘This is the last Democrat that tried to step foot in Main Street Grill.’

 “After my mother died my father traveled a lot. He traveled to China, the Soviet Union, Cuba… That’s a whole other thing, the US China People’s Friendship Association – my dad started the chapter here in Richmond, when there was a big push to normalize relations with China. My dad was one of the first people to go to China after it opened up. The local chapter was very active. A story for another time…”

“Going back, buses would leave from Main Street Grill and go to marches in DC. One of the earliest marches I went on was the Poor People’s March. Martin Luther King was organizing it, right before he was assassinated. There’s always been conjecture. He was assassinated in Memphis. There was a labor dispute. Martin Luther King was openly espousing socialist ideals. He was openly trying to organize poor black and white people across racial lines around issues of poverty. It’s then he gets shot.”

“The Poor People’s March (1968) was addressing poverty. I don’t remember any speeches. I remember experiencing the whole event. Resurrection City was tents and shacks built on the mall until the United States addressed the issue of poverty. The way I remember it, and I’d have to go back and check my history, is that King was assassinated before the march.”

I ask Barry about the national reaction to King’s assassination. Was there an overall sense of utter tragedy?

Barry tears up. He says, “Yeah.” We take a break.

I ask Barry if there was a gathering in DC after King’s assassination.

“The night he was assassinated my father and I went to the Byrd Park spring to get spring water. The town was completely silent. My father was connected with movement organizers. Everyone is wondering what’s going to happen. Why did we go get spring water that night? I think my dad wanted us to get out into the city, and just feel the city that night. We sat down by the spring. I think a lot of people stayed home because they were afraid. The city was unusually quite. Like when there’s a big snow. We’re wondering if it’s the calm before the storm. Instead of people running errands around the city, the city as a whole was experiencing this momentous, historic event. But, there were no riots.”

“When I was fourteen, I’d get up every morning and go to the prison and demonstrate in support of the prison strike. In the afternoon there were meetings. Later in life, I got to meet a prisoner and he told me he wanted to thank me for marching in support of the strike. I say that just as another way to emphasize how deeply I was involved in Richmond’s radical community as I was growing up.”

“I grew up thinking there’s going to be truly radical change. Even under Obama, wealth disparity has increased. Income and wealth. The wealthy have steadily become more powerful over the past thirty years. The very nature of capitalism is to concentrate wealth.”

“When King was killed, I lost a lot of hope. King was an important leader. He wasn’t just fighting for civil rights.  He started speaking against capitalism and imperialism. He was evolving into a leader that was a threat to the economic system. Then Reagan got elected and my hope diminished more.”

“The problem with capitalism is that it’s unsustainable.”

 “Most people that I know that are radical, got to that point from their life experiences and getting deeply involved in some issue. For politics to get stuck in opinion, unrelated to collective action, is toxic.”

Barry brings up the avant-garde jazz artist Cecil Taylor.

“He played at the Smithsonian Institute in 1973.  They had a lecture demonstration, and then a concert in the evening

“Cecil Taylor did most of the talking at the lecture. All he wanted to talk about was culture, politics, black liberation movement, and all these things that had meaning for him. And people were getting antsy. Because they’re expecting an entertainer, a musician, to talk about his music.  And, at one point, somebody raised their hand and they were saying ‘why don’t you play us a tune?’ He got pissed, and said ‘what I’m talking about influences my music.’ 

“It made me think: here we are talking about politics, you know? It wouldn’t make much sense if I spoke Chinese while you were speaking English, right? And it’s similar, this is not an exact analogy, but it’s similar with music. There’s a lot of connection to language in there, and we’re not talking about a separate world. But again, just in conversation, just us talking about politics is much like music. If I was talking to you about music, it would be once removed, if that makes any sense at all. The two of us having a dialogue is a lot like music. The important thing is the collaborative creative process.”

I say, “Is it like show don’t tell?”

“Yes. We have common interests in what’s going on in the world today. So we’re sitting here conversing. That’s a lot like music. Especially when you consider the rhythm and cadence of language”

Stay tuned for part 2…

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