On the tiny YouTube screen is a close-up of a diminutive black woman who looks about 12 but is, in the video, 16. Her hair’s in cornrows; she has a nose ring and three piercings between her eyebrows. She plays a beat-up acoustic decorated with a Bad Brains sticker and a taped-on definition of the word Liberal.
She’s harnessing her own arrangement of the traditional song “Deep River Blues” in a claw-hammer style: Her right thumb plunks the bass part while her forefinger upstrokes notes and chords, leaving the other three fingers unused. A banjo technique, it’s also used by acoustic blues guitarists. Her fingers are long and strong — Robert Johnson hands — in jarring contrast to the waif they’re attached to. The walking bass line sounds like a hammer striking piano keys in perfect meter, while the fills are dynamic flurries — like cluster bombs. I haven’t heard a young guitarist this dexterous and ass-kicking in eons.
“Sunny War is going to blow your mind,” Gerry Fialka said to me more than a year ago in a portentous voice. “She’s like no one else.”
Fialka is a Venice, California, cultural revolutionary, who produces several ongoing word and film events, including the PXL THIS Film Festival. He also agitates against the gentrification currently crushing Venetian bohemia. When he says a musician is going to blow your mind, you follow his links to YouTube.
There’s that voice. While clearly the product of a very young woman, War has the sob and throb of Billie Holiday — if Lady Day had emerged in Mississippi and not Harlem during the Depression. As if Bukka White, not Lester Young, were her mentor. Like Billie, War undersings. She doesn’t push the notes — the notes push her. “Her voice is like an open wound,” observes Moira Smiley of vocal group VOCO, “as if she has a physical need to sing.”
Most of the songs are originals, some (like “Police State”) political, others chronicle, as it turns out, her wayfaring, chaotic biography. “I’m the man of my house/To take care of my mother/Ain’t no father/Ain’t no brother,” she sings in “Man of My House.”
While the blues is her foundation, the singer is by no means a revivalist. Some tunes have the staccato chord structure of punk rock, others are utterly idiosyncratic. Peter Stampfel, co-founder of the legendary Holy Modal Rounders, is a fan: “I really like how her songs don’t fit in the standard blues forms, which I began getting tired of about 40 years ago. I like irregular forms and blues approaches to non-blues songs. I’m extremely gratified to see a young blues person breaking out of that straitjacket.”
Recently, I was invited to meet her at Fialka’s Mar Vista criblet. Sunny War is shy — bordering on painfully — and it’s clear she’d rather sing than talk, but she’s friendly, plays a few songs and demurely answers questions. (Some responses are so oblique you wonder whether she actually recalls her own life.) Born Sydney Lyndella Ward 18 years ago in Nashville to a peripatetic, bohemian, single mother, they moved every couple of years, to Colorado, Michigan and California. “But I don’t really know the order,” she shrugs, recalling “a lot of new schools.”
Replying in an affirmative “Mmm-mmm” when asked if she likes road life, the veteran busker’s been in L.A. for most of the last five years, leaving for months to sing on the streets of San Francisco and San Diego. In L.A., she gigs on the Venice Beach boardwalk and various farmers markets. (She sometimes plays in a duo called the Anus Kings, who gig at downtown punk club the Smell.) She’s squatted, lived on the streets and out of her van with her boyfriend, Patrick, and is currently staying at her manager’s pad. “Now I’m so used to it that if I’m somewhere for a whole year, I get really uncomfortable,” she explains. “So I have to go somewhere else.”
She can’t pinpoint where she picked up her startling Delta authenticity but credits Nashville and says, “My mom’s boyfriends listened to blues.” War began playing guitar around age 7, is largely self-taught (“I have tricks that I do and my own system for every chord”) and began fingerpicking while mimicking the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” (“Before that I was just playing basic blues chords.”) I mention that the Beatles learned fingerpicking from Donovan, to which she guilelessly queries: “Who’s Donovan?” She attributes the sob in her voice to the fact that “I smoke a lot” — a typical self-effacing Sunnyism — but there’s a genetic thread that reaches back through time.
There are a slew of young 21st-century black musicians who are resurrecting Delta blues, Piedmont blues and ragtime, including the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hubby Jenkins, Nansamba Ssensalo of the California Honeydrops, and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. Whether playing it pure or switching to more experimental mode, they are contemporaries of young, white musicians like the Mammals, Old Crow Medicine Show and L.A.-based Frank Fairfield, who’ve gotten in touch with their inner Harry Smith. (Fairfield stands on L.A. street corners dressed like a Depression-era Southern preacher and sings old Dock Boggs songs.) Blues and trad never disappeared from black culture; artists like Taj Mahal, Otis Taylor, Keb’ Mo’, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Ben Harper have kept traditions from the ’60s and on vital. L.A. native Jerron Paxton is a 20-year old, shit-hot country blues guitarist who’s fluid on banjo, piano, washboard and mouth harp. Sight-impaired (hence his “Blind Boy” moniker), he’s a behatted and well-fed R. Crumb character — a jovial cat whose humor is a tightrope walk between warmth and a knowing edge. “What I’ve noticed about the [blues] musicians is the black ones who do it are never bad,” submits Paxton. “It seems like they got the right voice, the right picking style. Everything seems to synch up. I just picked up my guitar and started playing in my natural voice. Did a hell of a lot of practicing, but I didn’t think of it as having to work too hard. My white friends said, ‘I struggled, I learned it note for note, I tried to sing like them.’ ”
Paxton dubs this phenom “Negro Finger Envy.”
War too credits the undeniable progenitors of the blues: “We made it. [laughs] I can’t do, what I consider, “white music” so well. I can’t play Mexican music. With blues, it’s what black guys did with guitars. It’s a culture thing.”
Her explanation for the appeal traditional music holds is equally straightforward, but it’s an enduring truth that has long motivated a certain subset of young artists: “It has soul. Everything from the past is better than it is now. Our way of life was more honest. We were more connected to God, to the Earth and to each other. People use to actually play instruments; now it’s all computer stuff. I like the idea of not having a TV, cooking, drinking and playing guitar with your friends. Old music sounds like utopia to me.”
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War counts her tribe of punky outcasts as family. Fialka recalls an incident at the Sponto Gallery in Venice, where he met her while he was hosting an antiwar screening/talk. “I said, ‘The current war can only be stopped if everyone stopped buying anything and didn’t go to work,’ ” Fialka recalls. “And Sunny’s in the front row with five punk cats and they all go, ‘That’s what we do!’ [Laughs.] She began playing Sponto. At a Bloomsday event, people celebrating literature, I told Sunny, ‘You can play one song.’ She plays one song and we pass a hat and she made 50 bucks. Fifty bucks for one song!”
Though Fialka co-produced a homemade solo disc, War enters the studio this fall to begin recording full band tracks with producer/engineer Thom Russo (Audioslave, Johnny Cash, Macy Gray, Michael Jackson). Gibson Guitars has signed her for a sponsorship, and BMI has inked her song licensing. She’ll soon begin classical guitar lessons at Flea’s Silverlake Conservatory of Music, wants to learn music theory and how to play metal “like Slayer,” War says.
Bring it on.
Sunny War performs on Monday, July 20 at the Talking Stick in Venice from 7:30-8 p.m., and on Thursday, July 23 at the Mint at 8 p.m.