Country Blues singer/guitarist Catfish Keith toured Britain in August this year, and after his very well received set as an opener for James Cotton at the Municipal Hall in Colne, Lancashire, I took the opportunity to conduct a short interview with the talented Mr. Catfish:
Norman Darwen: Catfish, can you tell me your real name and something of your background?
Catfish Keith: Well, I was born in East Chicago, Indiana back in 1962 and my given name is Keith Daniel Kozacik, a Slovak name, and I grew up there until I was about aged five. I used to hear blues there when I was a little kid, on Big Bill Hill's radio show, and you'd hear people like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Howlin' Wolf and people like that. Then when I was about 15, over on the Mississippi River over in Iowa, I started picking up guitar myself. I was into folk music at first but then I heard a Son House record, and, man! I had to get me a National guitar and give up my life to the blues. The National? Oh, I bought mine about fifteen years ago, you could find them here and there. They were sort of around, but now, since they have become popular, it's big bucks!
ND: Who were your main influences?
CK: Son House, Robert Johnson, Booker White, Blind Blake, Lonnie Johnson; see, I made a real effort - I really love solo guitar, how one man can make the whole sound by himself, so I really sought out the country style blues where it sounded like two people playing guitar at the same time and I thought, "Wow, if I could ever do that, I'd be into something!" I really love that solo style because you can do it all by yourself and besides, nobody else was interested in that music at that time. It was during 1976 when I first picked up the guitar, in the middle of the disco era and alot of the music was just . . . not so great, and it was kind of a low ebb for the blues. So, on my own, I just dug down - like I found some records by Sonny & Brownie in the public library of all places, and I started getting into that, digging for it, because back then you really had to search, and even now, you still have to search out the country blues. It just doesn't come up and hit you over the head unless you grow up right around it . . . but I grew up in different multi-racial neighborhoods, what they call ghettoes I guess, and that's where my grandma still lives back in East Chicago, and in Davenport where I grew up there was a ghetto area.
ND: Did you meet any of the older guys who were still playing?
CK: Yes, I got to hang out and play with Johnny Shines, and he was one of my big influences,one of my favorite Delta blues singers. I got to play with him, back him up in 1987 with Madcat Ruth, the harmonica player I play with every once in a while. Madcat's an old buddy of mine, he's on my Pepper in My Shoe! album. I have always loved that style of music, along with early jazz, like Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke; see, in Davenport they also had the "Bix Festival," which is a traditional jazz festival, they've been having it since way back in the seventies, so I had heard more of that live than I'd heard blues. It's not until the last five or ten years that there have been blues festivals there to hear country blues.
ND: What recordings have you made?
CK: Back in '85 I did a record called Catfish Blues, which was my first. I recorded it when I was twenty-two years old and it came out on the Kicking Mule label. I didn't put out another until 1990 when Pepper in My Shoe! first came out on cassette, and it was doing pretty good, so I decided to put it out on CD. Me and my wife, we formed our own little record company called Fish Tail Records and we put out Pepper in My Shoe! on CD and to our surprise and pleasure it did really well. It even got on the international Living Blues radio charts. I tell you, when I saw that, I jumped about twenty feet in the air!
ND: How do you select the material for your records?
CK: I have a very large repertoire and on an album I try to have a variety of styles, though I try not to make so much of a variety that it doesn't hold together -- I want it to hold together as a whole piece so I wouldn't go too far out and put a bunch of swing numbers on there or something, although I love to play jazz and swing -- in my spare time. I know a lot of different kinds of music; like island music, on Catfish Blues there are island influences like Joseph Spence . . . see, I lived in the Virgin Islands for a little while -- that's where I got the name "Catfish." I was crewing on the deck of a sailboat and I used to go lobster diving with a fellow, a West Indian gentleman -- he used to play music too, but he was really into Bob Marley and music like that, and they had a lot of calypso music down there too. Anyway, he dubbed me Catfish when I used to go lobster diving with him; he thought I swam funny or something, he'd say, "You ain't nothing but a catfish swimming around!" We had fun together, and we had lobster to eat too, that was good. I haven't had so much lobster since!
ND: You've just made a new recording, I believe?
CK: Yeah, I've got my latest one all recorded, to be out by October and it will be called Jitterbug Swing. It will be on our own Fish Tail label and we will probably be licensing it. You'll be able to get it in Europe almost easier than in the United States!
ND: How would you define your music?
CK: I'd say it's my own style of country blues, Delta blues, but I think it is good dance music too! People sit and listen quietly to it, but I also like it when they get up and jump around. Not so much in England, maybe they're a little more reserved, but we have some places in the United States I play where a whole group of dancers will come out and start boogie-woogying. I'm trying to compete with plugged-in electric blues and rock-and-roll bands, over there I got on festivals where I'm the only solo and acoustic blues performer, so I have to put out a big signal to do good.
ND: Finally, what about the future?
CK: Well, I just want to keep on putting out records and keep writing music. This new album is about half original tunes, and I want to keep creating. I think it is very important to create new music in the country blues tradition, because if you just keep playing songs from say, the thirties, that doesn't take the music anywhere new -- you might as well just play the old record and listen to that
. . . but if you are writing new songs and creating, it makes the tradition carry on to the next step.
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