Outsider-Outsider Music: Willis Earl Beal and the Real Blues / "The faith is made devout by his life narrative"

exclusive feature
Brian Kupillas

Willis Earl Beal was found lying on a sidewalk in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was not actually the singer/songwriter himself, but one of his now infamous fliers that held his self-portrait and a plea for “a nice, pretty girl” to call him. To have seen the flier, the lone figure dressed as if for a date he might have been stood up for, and to have read the logical argument for why he is “a good person” written along the bottom edge, one might have taken the time to call the number he listed beside his portrait and be entertained with a song—after all, Beal is also notoriously forthcoming with his phone number, stating on his fliers that he will sing you a song if you call, or draw you a picture if you write to him. Davy Rothbart, editor and co-creator of FOUND Magazine—a publication interested in bringing the discarded remnants of strangers’ strange lives into the public eye—found Willis Earl Beal, put his flier on the cover of FOUND’s #7 issue, and in doing so sparked an interest in the unheard-of musician. But before Rothbart discovered the artist, Beal had a long, fascinating history.

Predating his desire to be a poet or musician, Beal tried his hand at writing screenplays and even tried out an acting career under the pseudonym “Jack Fate” (referring to Bob Dylan’s character from the film “Masked and Anonymous”). He was even cast in a low-budget indie film which he told me during a phone interview was called “The Eloquence of Gabriel” and was a mock, snuff film. “I’ve always been a big film buff” he said “film is a great inspiration to my writing. Without the images you can’t come out with the words.” When preparing for a role, Beal would use his karaoke machine to record himself “babeling”. “I would just babel all day and all night onto a tape and write down the best of my babeling, memorize it as a monologue and use it to try out for plays in Chicago.” Willis told me however that “most of the actors and actresses [he] encountered were all too pretentious and took themselves all too seriously” and so he tried out a new form of expression. In Albuquerque, New Mexico where he lived on the streets, Beal tried song. He met up with musicians John Mulhouse and Emily Nelson to form a band that would play Beal’s original music, with the primary goal being to get it out into the world. The band was to be called “A Simple Twist of Fate” though Beal mentioned that he thought a funny name would be more suitable, something like “The Retail Dealers” or “Macho Men from the Flea Market”. Whatever the name, the music is what mattered, and by talking with John Mulhouse, it was clear that the music couldn’t have come about more organically. “Willis rarely told us what to do and he never would tell us anything in musical terms” he said, “It was never: ‘Play a ‘C’’ chord here and switch to 4/4.’ It was always like: ‘I want this to sound like sunshine on the grass’ or ‘Let’s play a funeral march.’” The naturalness of the finished product is very much a testament to what Mulhouse says are Beal’s influences; “He’s influenced more by attitude and approach than actual musical style, I think.” John Mulhouse’s hunch could very well be true. When listening to Willis Earl Beal’s material, one experiences an attitude more than a song. Unfortunately, “A Simple Twist of Fate” never found their way to an audience, because the day Beal and his girlfriend broke up, he was gone for Chicago and the band never had the chance to perform. It’s there in Chicago he began playing with the Ghostones and where his fliers became more well-known (probably due to the fact that Found Magazine had published their #7 issue). And there, on that flier, is where Willis Earl Beal became the story everyone wanted to hear.

Beal has been on the rise lately, and although he’s still quite unnoticed, he’s grown enormously popular from where he was on that sidewalk in Albuquerque. Just a few months ago, the man was working for $150 a week at a UPS store and living with his Grandmother in Southside Chicago. Now, Beal is signed to London based record label XL (other artists include The xx, Tyler, the Creator, M.I.A, Jack White and Radiohead), with his album Acousmatic Sorcery to be released April 2nd, and plans to tour Europe at the end of February. Now Beal is simply awaiting his second advance check so he can begin helping out his grandmother monetarily, and of course, find his own place to live. “It’s very surreal to have started alone” he said “I didn’t feel I had any talent…and now to be on this trajectory…”—he had no more words.

Willis Earl Beal’s back story certainly helps his songs work, though in the end, they still have the strength to stand on their own. That strength comes from Beal being true to himself. It’s this strength of the individual journey that calls to mind Gospel, secular Soul and Blues music at their most basic values: struggle and hope. The relationship between Beal and these sects of sound can be hard to hear at first because he brings his own personality through their channels, widening them, even distorting them a bit. But the discordant and muffled grumbling of the backing tracks on songs like “Take Me Away”, and the minimalism of his music on songs like “Evening’s Kiss” only serve as the atmospheric condition for his songs. It’s the singing which translates nearly everything Gospel, Soul and Blues are about. The base values of these genres in the modern era can feel lost on many younger listeners because they tend not to believe the struggle of most contemporary performers. Blues is almost always a few older men at a biker rally playing Blues Rock songs about things that don’t necessarily pertain to them. Gospel simply fell away, and it has not yet had a strong resurgence of interest in it, like Blues did in the 1960’s. The easiest religious music one can find today is Christian Rock which does not truly get across the emotion old time Gospel like Blind Willie Johnson could. The power is simply spoken and not felt. Soul was overtaken by Funk in the seventies as the most important form of Black music, and though it still exists today as R&B, it is not nearly as soulful as it once was when acts like Solomon Burke and Sam Cooke were performing. Perhaps why Beal is being categorized within these categories is due to the fact that he represents their core. “Growing up, I listened to a lot of New Gospel” he said, stating that Kirk Franklin and the Family was a favorite of his mothers, though he didn’t particularly like it. Instead, Beal says “I sought out Gospel Music in my own way. I found negro spirituals and chain gang songs are songs I related to.” This return to the roots is definitely sensed in his music. But Beal isn’t just another flat act clinging to an old form. He’s reintroducing these mediums to the public with a voice that they believe, accompanied by a style of music that only emboldens the faith. The faith is made devout by his life narrative.

Much like older performers like Blind Willie McTell or Robert Johnson, Beal has been shrouded in myth and legacy because his tale is so intriguing. Not to say that his story is untrue, but when told who he is, and where he’s come from, he registers in a part of the brain meant for long-ago and far away heroes of folk-lore. Blind Willie McTell is said to have known Georgia like the back of his hand, learned from his wandering the state with only a guitar, playing songs for those who would listen. Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads to be able to play guitar as well as he could. It’s with this sort of legend Beal comes to us. “Already my story has been embellished, and I didn’t do it” he claims. It is his story which really makes us want him. He shares this trait with the likes of more contemporary artists too, i.e., Tom Waits and Bob Dylan; two of Beal’s favorites. Waits has always felt like a vagabond who got off some boxcar and found out it was fifty years later and now he’s got to make himself at home with us. Dylan, on the other hand, was so many different things it’s hard to talk about him in such a general way. Nonetheless, he’s “otherworldly” as Beal would put it, and Beal has a hint of that aesthetic too. What truly unites the three is how well they connect that aesthetic to the contemporary audience and create a sense of nostalgia with new, innovative music. You never hear recordings from the 20’s and 30’s utilizing distorted, detuned guitars played like percussion with a man growling over it. But for some reason, when we hear it now, we understand how it associates with those time periods and files so easily within our mental catalog of music. So naturally, as listeners we canonize Beal a certain way, somewhere in the Freak Folk, Blues/Soul category. But Beal would himself deny most claims that he is a Blues singer, or a Soul singer. In fact he finds it “a little frustrating” when he is constantly compared to those styles of music. “It’s not necessarily bad, but I shy away from that a little bit because it’s a characterization because I’m black.” However, Beal does admit that “there’s definitely a connection. I am a blues singer” he said, “but not necessarily because of my voice. I’m a blues singer because I sing about what’s going on in my life on a very personal level. That’s what blues singers did.”

That much is true. Willis Earl Beal makes what many call “outsider” music. That is, music that comes from the fringe, music that does not follow trends and has no stake in being widely accepted or popular. One common thread between these “outsider” musicians is their inherent need to express themselves. Beal may sound like a man worked to the bone in some small South Eastern town, but his idiosyncrasies are what makes him stand out. He’s managed to connect with our cultural obsession for what is old and his generation’s infatuation with music that praises personality over polished presentation (which is what makes them outsiders in the first place). And that’s really what the blues are—unpolished personality. Old bluesmen like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Abner Jay, Mississippi John Hurt, and Leadbelly can all be believed by their audience because their suffering can be felt through their music. What outsider artists like Daniel Johnston, Jandek, Sharkula and now Willis Earl Beal bring to the public is a personality trying to shine through to the world, through the barriers of their own lives, just like the old blues singers used to do. That’s what soul is, rising up over oppression, and it certainly is what Gospel’s all about; getting to the glory beyond this mortal toil. When a man like Daniel Johnston sings “True Love Will Find You In The End”, one wants to believe him, partly because the sentiment is beautiful, and partly because his story—one of lost love, and never ending optimism even through mental disturbance—also resides in a sort of folk-lore where the romanticized values of an older time still reign supreme. Just as when Leadbelly sings “Leaving Blues” you somehow are made to understand his pain and confusion for having to leave home because the woman he’s been living with for the past twenty years doesn’t love him anymore. The same goes when Willis Earl Beal sings “Take Me Away” with lyrics like “My head is heavy but my body is light / Ain’t got enough strength much left to fight / Right now, if you believe.” The outsider has been stripped down and has nothing to offer the world but their most bare, naked self, all flawed and beaten and yet unashamed. Blues music is very similar, and has always been a desperate man’s expression, and outsiders are known to be desperate. One only needs to read a Beal flier to know that. It’s the desperation that makes these artists authentic and real to us as listeners. It is more than just a few songs. It is a story trying to be told.

Kupillas, Brian. (2012). Outsider-Outsider Music: Willis Earl Beal and the Real Blues. In B. H. Kasoro & K. D. Whittaker (Eds.), The Last Generation Of Black People. New York: The Liberator Magazine.

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