It is interesting that on Migration Blues, the only covers among the 15 tracks are of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” because Bibb serves the same purpose as Dylan, Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and others. He is a troubadour for our day, with a voice that draws people in and holds them even as he sings straight into the heart of controversy. Just as Guthrie did for the migrant workers in “Deportee,” Bibb here takes on the issue of migration. From African American sharecroppers in the ’20s, leaving the South for Chicago, to boats full of refugees today, to the ancestors of every single person in America except, possibly, a few Native Americans, everybody at one time or another had to move, and that is the Migration Blues.
For this album, Bibb and his musical companions use instruments that would be easy to carry. Bibb shows his prowess on vocals, guitars, six-string banjo, and contrabass guitar, backed by Michael Jerome Browne on guitars, vocals, banjos, mandolin, and triangle, while JJ Milteau wields his harmonica.
Bibb is not a preacher, he is a storyteller, and stories can teach us and touch us more than sermons. Here, the stories concern people who have to move from many places for many reasons.
From the first notes of the first song “Refugee Moan,” Bibb puts you in touch with the feelings of the displaced. Browne plays a banjo made out of a gourd, and Bibb plays baritone guitar, giving the song a plaintive sound. “Delta Getaway” follows, telling of a sharecropper running away to Chicago to escape lynching. It will send chills down your spine.
“Diego’s Blues” is jaunty blues about a Mexican man migrating to the Mississippi Delta to replace the Afro-Americans migrating elsewhere. “Prayin’ for Shore” is a heartbreaking song about refugees attempting to take an open boat across the sea. Bibb sings with great emotion, and Milteau does a stunning job on harmonica.
“Migration Blues,” an instrumental written by all three musicians, evokes the feeling of men playing together in a camp along the road. Of course, the guitarists have some petty fancy instruments: Bibb is playing a resophonic 12-string, pictured on the album cover, and Browne plays 12-string slide. “Four Years, No Rain” is about what happens when the crops fail and fail again. The only accompaniment to Bibb’s voice is Browne’s acoustic guitar and Milteau’s harmonica.
“We Had to Move” handles the issue of eminent domain, when the government forces people to move, with a bit of an unexpectedly sprightly air. Then Bibb’s understated, slow version of Dylan’s “Masters of War” underlines the biting, bitter words and makes this song, if possible, even more effective as an indictment of power misused than the angry original. It is a highlight of the album. In contrast, it is followed by a plea for “Brotherly Love.”
Next comes a playful instrumental, “La vie c’est comme un oignon” (“Life Is Like an Onion”). It was written by Bibb and Milteau, who have done a brilliant job representing the Acadians, French Canadians driven out of Canada by the British, who settled in Louisiana and became Cajuns. “With a Dolla’ in My Pocket” is about being broke and on the move and features some fantastic harp. It cannot be stressed enough what skilled musicians are on this album.
Next comes Guthrie’s unsurpassed declaration, “This Land Is Your Land,” then “Postcard from Booker” which deals with escaped slaves, and “Blacktop,” a song about hard travel on the road. It all ends with the traditional spiritual, “Mornin’ Train,” with Ulrika Bibb singing harmony.
This album was well-conceived and well-executed. It tells stories and delivers messages we need to hear and does it with marvelous vocals and musicianship.