The Pulse of RVA: Conversations with River City Artists

Spotlight: Barry Bless. Part 2 (See post below for Part 1

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 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.

I say, “You are such an intellect. Did you like school?”

“Ha! My wife kids me, that I’m a pseudo-intellectual. I say, ‘No I’m a semi-intellectual.’ I’m an amateur intellectual. Amateur, meaning ‘for the love of’. I’m a proud amateur.” 

“I have a high school diploma, barely. I took off Monday and Fridays for long weekends. And as needed, my parents would write a note. I loved to go to school just to argue and discuss things. Busing had just happened in tenth or eleventh grade. Suddenly, all these black kids were coming into school, and I was making friends with a whole new group of people. We had what we called a human relations club, where we got together and discussed issues of race. And that was an exciting time. Suddenly, we had black teachers when we didn’t have black teachers before.”

I ask Barry how people responded to that.

“TJ was the premier public high school for years and years. An upper middle class family would say, should we send our kids to private school or to TJ, they’re both really good schools. College bound kids went to TJ. Suddenly the school transformed. Kids from public housing were attending the school. My counselor told me, we had a close relationship, that any chance the principal had to expel a kid from public housing; he would do it just to get rid of the kid. My counselor was pissed.”

“There was one incident in eleventh grade with a history teacher. She taught American history. She was from a blue blood family. She’d been the wife of a Virginia Attorney General. One story she often told was about spending an hour with the Queen back in the fifties, or something. But, she was racist. I remember she would call the Native Americans savages. At one point, there was a picture of a man in a book, and she said ‘That is the ugliest white man I’ve ever seen.’ ”

“I would challenge her. The next year, senior year, I’m in a sociology class, and she walks into the class, and she catches my eye. She stops in front of the class. She looks at the sociology teacher, and she says, “Watch out for him”. So that’s why I went to school, to argue.”

“Another conversation that happened back then was with a Black sociology teacher. We had these free for all conversations about race and class. At one point, I talked about cultural differences between my black friends and my white friends. The teacher gets up. He says, ‘Oh, Barry thinks his black friends listen to James Brown, while all his white friends are listening to Bach.’ And then my black friends came to my defense.”

“There was this desert time, beginning I don’t know, late 70’s, early 80’s where people didn’t talk much about race or class. They didn’t talk about radical social change. There was a long period of that. I’m glad we’re back to discussing it.”

“The prize for people like me is to build a broad coalition of working class people of color. And pink is a color! I’ve seen the Democratic Party alienate working class pink folks, I was on a so called progressive democratic site the other day, and they were making fun of the way people spell. Basically, it’s this whole thing that these Trump supporters are ignorant, they’re losing their teeth, they, you know, it’s all the stereotypes about country folks, rednecks, hillbillies.”

“My daughters all have an interest in politics. Isadora and her twin sister, Odessa went to London to study ballet. My wife Jennifer went with them. They say, ‘What can we bring you back?’  I said, ‘I want you to go on the Marx tour.’ Because Marx did most of his writing in London, and his grave is in London. They said, ‘okay’.”

“They did the tour, and it really stuck with them. My wife, not as radical as I, lit a candle for me and placed it on his grave. The movement is much bigger than Marx. I’ve always liked Christopher Higgins description of Marx as a “necessary man”. Marx had what I would call a concentrated intellect. Most concentrated intellects get co-opted and bought off by wealth. They become Sophists and spin doctors, that’s where the money is. I find when people hear Marx, or Marxism they think of a very strict doctrine. I find more diversity of thought in people who are familiar with Marx than I do with people who haven’t been introduced to Marx. He was a wild thinker. You asked about free jazz earlier.”

“Marx wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln letting him know that the London organization in which he was an officer, was in support of the Civil War, and explaining the reasons why they were supportive. He saw enslaved Africans and black Americans as being in the vanguard of the world revolution. He studied what was going on in China and India. Engels – they were a cotton family – they owned cotton mills. They were German, but the big cotton industry was in England. He moved to Manchester where cotton from Virginia was being processed. Engels, through his father’s business, had access to all this information about trade and the cotton industry. They were called the blue books, which are these accounting books. The cotton industry was global. Engels was brilliant, a hard worker, and a great intellect. Engels and Marx created a partnership. Engels was constantly giving Marx information about the cotton industry and the world economy. Marx was writing about what he saw as the global economy at the time.”

I say, “Do you read a lot?”

“I like ideas. I read. I’m a slow reader. I prefer conversation.”

“A friend of mine went away to college. I didn’t go to college. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, I’m reading Plato right now. He said, ‘Oh, you probably shouldn’t do that without a professor. You might misunderstand Plato.’ I never fell prey to that logic.”

“My father used to say, ‘Reading weakens the mind!’ He’d say Two of the greatest people in the world never wrote anything down; Jesus and Socrates.’ “

I think my father may have had a reading disability.

“Once I met my father’s high school teacher. She was in her nineties. She looked me in the eyes and she said, ‘Barry, you know how people learn? Like this. Like you and me right now, looking in each other in the eyes and having this conversation.’ That’s what I was taught all my life. 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 a 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.”

“If reading, is a lower form of conversation, then recorded music is a lower form of live music. I try to carry on the oral tradition.”

If you go to Crossroads Coffee (where Barry regularly performs) there’s a sign that says, “Keeping The Oral Tradition Alive through Social Intercourse”. 

“I wrote that.” Barry laughs.

“When Will first opened that shop I said ‘I’ve got your bylineThis has got to be it.’ The owner painted the byline on the building in the fan district. A guy from the City comes in, and he says, ‘Some of us are concerned about what you’ve written on the building.’ Will says, ‘I don’t know where your mind is, but among my friends the oral tradition is conversation and social intercourse is socializing.’ So the guy backed off.”

I ask Barry to talk about how he got interested in playing accordion. 

“I was in my thirties. I had been playing piano. I backed off from playing music publicly. There was a band, Mandala – we all lived in this house together. We had a steady gig at JW Rails, a bar that was located in the fan.  When that band broke up, it was around the same time that the Richmond Artists Workshop started. I became more interested, as this conversation has demonstrated, in politics. I got really involved in political issues. I had a grand piano here, and I continued to bang away on the piano. Right, and I’ve always just played. It’s always been a part of my life.”

“I started to get interested in playing with other people again. I didn’t leave the jazz world behind, but I became more interested in world music. I listened to more and more recordings of music from everywhere. And the accordion is everywhere. The reason is because European sailors, soldiers and missionaries took it with them as they colonized the world”. 

“Then you had this phenomenon where the colonizers picked up the instrument and used it to make their own music. There is all this really interesting music all over the world where people approached the accordion in different ways.” 

“Then you had all the different kinds of accordions. For instance, the bandoneon came from Germany to Argentina, and in the rest of Germany and the rest of Europe, people stopped playing the bandoneon. It was like the Galapagos Islands, right? This accordion had made it to Argentina, and it never changed.  Tango was written and all of the music was done on the bandoneon, whereas the Germans think it’s really awkward. They want to get rid of it and make other kinds of accordions.” 

“I saw a button accordion at a thrift store button. Fifty bucks. I bought it and started playing it. Then I got together with Danny Finney in his kitchen. I still have it and play it.” (Danny Finney played saxophone with the Ululating Mummies.)

“A lot of people moved into Oregon Hill in the seventies. There was a migration of artists from Northern Virginia to Richmond because rent was cheap. I moved to Oregon Hill in seventy-two. My house cost thirty-five dollars a month.”

“Later a health food coop started there. A lot of people living in Oregon Hill were interested in politics. The people moving to Oregon Hill were interested in various forms of anarchism and decentralized communities. A lot of cultural and political activity was going on in Oregon Hill. Largely informed by low rent. People were not pursuing careers that make money. They were pursuing art and political activism in an affordable way.”

“I started playing with Danny. We worked through songs. Danny said he’s going to organize a benefit for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua for medical supplies. There was the war and the United States was trying to overthrow the Sandinistas. We did a fundraiser with a bunch of different people. We put together a band with John Hunter, Coby Batty, Danny and myself.  Ram Bhagat sat in with us. We did a few songs for that. We did another concert after that. We were so well received we said, well, let’s just keep on with this Ululating Mummies thing.”  

I ask Barry how the name of the band came to be.

“I had an album. I still have it. It’s from Panama. Indigenous musicians on the album performed their version of mummery. Instead of calling themselves ‘mummers’, like in Britain, they called themselves ‘mummies’. 

“You have the mummers parade now in Philadelphia. There’s this tradition of mummering, which is performing on the street, this kind of multimedia thing where you have costumes and theater and music, all together. Street performers. The Mummies were a lot like that.  Danny does costuming and visual art and sculptures. I liked the whole idea of being part of a group that was doing performance art, doing costumes, doing staging, doing music and with some political message. Anyway, back to the album. Instead of declaring that they are the mummers, they declared, ‘We are the mummiesWe are the mummies, and we’ve come here to entertain!’ I thought, yes. Yes! The Mummies. That’s it. But, it’s got to be the Screaming Mummies, or the Wailing Mummies. There’s got to be some kind of sound.”

“I’m listening to the radio. My Word. Do you remember My Word? It was these mostly English dudes that are doing word plays and definitions. You’re given a word, and one person has the real meaning and the others have fake meanings, and you have to guess which one is real. The word was “ululating”; to howl or wail. And I thought, that’s it, the Ululating Mummies!”

I say, “You mentioned that the cold war influenced your music.”

My friend Stephanie Ycaza got me thinking about that because she was working on cold war influences on music as part of her doctorate.

“Odessa and I were just laughing about it last night. Odessa told her friends at school, ‘My dad’s a communist.’ Which for the most part is true. But see, I grew up in a time that if people think you’re a communist, you may as well be a child molester. Careers and credibility were destroyed.  You’re foaming at the mouth. And so I say, ‘Whoa, you’re telling people at your school that I’m a communist? Why don’t you say I’m a socialist?’ She says, ‘Dad, you’re a communist.’ I say, ‘Okay. We’ll go with that.’ Isadora, had some friends come up to her and say, I’m ready to have the talk. She says, What talk is that?’ ‘The communist talk.’ Apparently, they’d been talking with their parents and that led to a discussion.”

“An important part of communism is internationalism. The creation of global community and culture that is part of a totality that includes strong local roots. Trotskyism is adamant in this regard. Trotsky left the Soviet Union in the nineteen thirties and said the revolution failed. Russia can engage in the larger global communist movement, but you can’t have communism in one country. So he left as an internationalist. Stalin had him killed in Mexico. Jennifer and I visited his compound on our honeymoon.”

“My interest in music is the emergence or the evolution of a global culture. Also, the roots of where all the influences come from that informed this global culture. You have two things happening simultaneously. You’re really interested, just like with agriculture, you’re really interested in preservation. And you’re really interested in what happens when you do hybrids and crossbreeding. Both are really important and interesting. What’s emerging is a global culture. Just like when we went to the moon, we look back and we saw that we were part of a whole. We’re becoming a whole culture as well.”

“The Cold War. This is an interesting bit of information. The CIA funded Jackson Pollock shows. Jackson Pollock was your stereotypical rugged individual, non-conformist, male. They toured his work around Europe with other abstract expressionists. In Europe there was a collectivist art tradition – dada, the surrealists – they were emphasizing the collective aspects of art. US propagandists wanted to feature the United States as the place where these creative, almost exclusively male, rugged individualists, we’re transforming the world.”

“As soon as the war was won against Fascism the Allies, particularly the Atlantic Alliance, tried to suppress and undermine all the communist parties in Europe. It was particularly violent in Greece.”

“The Cold War had a cultural aspect, as well. Both the Soviet Union and the United States were trying to win hearts and minds.”

I ask Barry if he experimented with drugs.

“Oh yeah. My daughter is fascinated with psychedelics. She hasn’t taken them. I pulled out my bible for her, Alan Watt’s Joyous Cosmology. It’s well worn.”

I say, “I haven’t read that book. I read Carlos Castaneda. Are you familiar with him?”

“I read a Separate Reality. I found it really inspiring. I’ve read critiques of it, that it’s fiction and cultural appropriation. Introducing, again, a popular Western idea of the lone individual, while those Native communities were organizing to fight cultural and economic colonialism. That doesn’t even make it in the book. Still, I got a lot out of the book. We do have separate realities.”

“I was reading three books simultaneously. Have you heard of Primal Scream?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“It was this psychotherapy that believed that birth is a traumatic experience often followed by a number of other traumatic experiences. You can actually deepen your memory to remember them and liberate yourself by screaming. I think for an adolescent just the idea, that if I can just scream I could loosen up and release all this tension, all this anxiety. That would be an enlightenment all in itself. I was also hearing the primal screams coming from the horn of Pharaoh Sanders and others.”

“I was also reading None Dare Call It Conspiracy, which was a right wing conspiracy book that you would get at the right wing bookstore here in town. The John Birch society had bookstores back then. I understood at the time that it was right wing, but at the same time, he was talking a lot about these global organizations, which I understood were capitalist organizations, but he thought they were communist organizations, I don’t know why. Like, the Council on Foreign Relations, and these big organizations that the ruling class use to kind of work in sync. Even though they’re often at each other’s throats in the marketplace, they still have common class interests.” 

“Yeah, so Separate Reality, Primal Scream, and None Dare Call It Conspiracy made for interesting cross reading.”

I ask Barry when he first took psychedelics.

“I was fifteen. Remember the story I told you about hitchhiking to a rock festival in Florida?  I still have the sketchbook and the notebook from my first LSD experience, because it was important to me. We arrived that night at the festival. It was dark. There’s people selling various kinds of LSD. Yellow Sunshine. Purple Haze. Two Dollars. Five Dollars. I forget what we took, but it was quite an experience.”

“Did you hallucinate?”

“I’ve never hallucinated on LSD where I confused anhallucination with reality. You’re transcending. You’re looking at what’s there with transcendent eyes. A tree would become a woman. But it was still that tree. Like an object had multiple layers of meaning, and multiple layers of association.” 

When I’m listening to people who are cocksure about their opinions, I think to myself, ‘You didn’t take enough LSD’.

“One thing that I was able to take away from it was how subjective all of our experiences are. And again, that ties to a separate reality. The whole experience of a highly subjective experience, where reality becomes…you construct a reality in your daily life that you’re comfortable with, and it becomes habitual. You perceive things habitually. Then you have this experience where suddenly all your habitual perceptions fall apart. You realize how subjective your reality is –  how separate your reality can be. Beyond that, we construct reality. I guess I’m an incorrigible communist. I believe we construct our realities collectively.”

Stay tuned for more…

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