If you’ve ever danced blues in Southern Germany, chances are you’ll have been lucky enough to have danced to music played by the incredibly talented Rufus Herbertson, a blues musician from Mannheim.
My first encounter with Rufus was when I travelled to France for Blues in Paris, November 2014. He was playing alongside Annette Kuhnle who was teaching classes on styles of dancing to Piedmont Blues music.
Taking classes with a musician playing live is something quite special and his musicianship was very special too. Rufus also played an intimate acoustic set at the Sunday night party. We loved his music so much he had to perform two encores before we’d let him go.
More recently I was lucky enough to renew our acquaintance when Rufus came to play at Octoblues (Heidelberg, Germany). He played a late Saturday night set for us that was just beautiful. He coaxed a roomful of very tired dancers back onto the floor, and kept us long after we hoped to be asleep in our beds. His instinct for when to liven things up and keep us awake, and when to play quieter, dream-like music was just amazing.
Me: How would you describe yourself as a musician?
Rufus: You see me mostly as a blues musician so I’ll tell you something you might not know. Rufus is an artist name. My real name is Jörg Teichert. Rufus is my name for when I show up alone with my guitar. I play in a rockabilly band and the bass player once told me I looked like a Rufus. When I was a child I had bright red hair so the name seemed to fit. I needed to pick a family name and I chose Herbertson because my father’s name is Herbert.
Musically, I’m interested in a lot of styles. Blues is one of my favourites. It’s important to me and it influences my other styles.
Even if I’m playing in a swing band or a jazz band and the music is more complicated, you can hear the blues in what I play.
Me: Tell me how you started to learn guitar.
Rufus: The first music I learned to play was classical music. I was raised with it. My parents like classical music but they don’t like blues and rock. My first real instrument was French horn. I started when I was 10. I went to music school for a while and I also played in an orchestra.
I wanted to play guitar for a long time. I got my first guitar from my mother when I was 13 years old. It was a traditional type of guitar known as a parlour guitar. I started to play from some sheet music that my mother had. Mostly I taught myself and one of the ways I learned was by watching others play, seeing how they moved their fingers. I already knew some music theory by reading books from the library and I was interested in harmonies and composing.
Later I was influenced by my older brother who listened to rock music, blues music and klezmer music. He had a clarinet and we started to play together. I also had a friend who played guitar. When we met we mostly played or listened to records. We listened to a lot of 70s rock but we listened to everything right through to the 90s. We liked blues. We didn’t know much about it but we really liked Buddy Guy.
We made recordings on a simple tape recorder. It was interesting to listen to our own music again. Then one day something happened. We were playing blues. I was playing the parlour guitar and I took a medicine bottle that just fit my pinky finger. I started to play slide guitar. The first song I played was Dust My Broom by Elmore James.
Me: Who were your music influences?
Rufus: My brother was a big influence on me. He had the Robert Johnson recordings. It was very mysterious because I couldn’t see how he played. It made me more curious. I always learned from musicians. Going to concerts and watching people play. Then there was this Robert Johnson which I really liked. So I did the right thing by using the medicine bottle.
My brother had this live album by the Allmann Brothers, ‘At Fillmore East’. They were a southern American rock band that played a lot of blues. I especially liked their guitarist Duane Allman. I listened to that album a lot.
Another rock band I listened to a lot was Whitesnake. In the early days they had Ricky Moody on slide guitar. I really like the rock blues style and heavy screaming on an electric guitar.
I was also influenced by Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix. Muddy Waters – there’s something in his voice that really gets me. And Buddy Guy just explodes when he sings. I love his album Sweet Tea. It sounds swampy and very rough. There’s lots of distortion. I really like this simple style of grounded, dirty, electric blues.
After this period of blues rock I got more interested in the roots of the music. When you listen to an album you read the names of the songwriters and you become curious. I became interested in Charlie Patton. I got his recordings and listened to them. It is interesting but not pleasurable, as the recordings are very poor quality and hard to listen to.
I listened more and more to the acoustic players of early blues. The Delta blues players I liked were Son House and Skip James. I also liked the ragtime players Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson. There are so many of them. I really like Leadbelly. You can always find new players to listen to. This morning I listened to Kokomo Arnold. I really like his slide. Other slide players I like are Blind Willie McTell and Blind Willie Johnson.
Another important influence on me was Tom Waits. I especially love his version of Goodnight Irene.
With all the music I liked I went back. I found that heavy rock came from rock’n’roll and blues. Jazz also came from blues. I like the mournful sound of oriental music. Music can be sad but it can also be humorous.
I like the rough topics in blues. Heartbreak. Crimes against black people. And yet there is so much humour. They turned it around to retell it and make it more bearable. To bring some relief.
The Robert Johnson Book Escaping the Delta talks about how the music industry dictated what was recorded. The black rural musicians just saw music as music and they learned from playing with each other. When I listen to my music recordings I know which ones were influencing me at the time. As I play so many different styles of music I don’t want to draw a line. When I play alone I know all those other influences are there.
Me: Tell me your plans for the future.
Rufus: I’ve been recording an EP recently. I’ve been doing the artwork and I’ve been learning about how to release it. I’ve been finding out how to make a paper case for it. I want something very simple that is also nice to look at and hold in your hand.
I’ve just recorded six songs. Folk and blues. I have a good friend who is an audio engineer. He recorded it with a single microphone. He has a friend who lives up in the Odenwald mountains in a tiny village. She has a barn up there. We went there to make the recording. We did it at night so there weren’t any sounds of cars, but you can hear some bird noises and also the wind. The atmosphere was really nice.
There are some parts that are not as good as I would like them to be. But if you listen to all the old records there are always some strange notes – those musicians were all self-taught. I did study jazz guitar for a while. There you learn to play so it’s perfect. You can’t compare, say, John Lee Hooker who has a really rough style with Blind Blake who plays very clearly. They both play blues.
My tendency goes towards music that is rather simple and transfers emotions and feelings and atmosphere. There was a time when I was more interested in complex structures, freaky sounds and ‘advanced’ music. But now I’m more interested in songs. It doesn’t have to be in the lyrics but somehow the song has to transfer emotions and feelings.
There is so much great music in the world. I couldn’t decide what to take to a lonely island. I would take a guitar, that’s for sure.
Rufus, we’re lucky to have you playing for us. Please let us know when you release your EP because I know there are lots of dancers who’d love to have your music to listen to at home. (And next time we meet, let’s take some time for another chat. The beer’s on me.)