He doesn’t earn millions but just before his 53rd birthday he is able to play for nearly two weeks in all sorts of venues in Holland. Kelly Joe Phelps released a new CD earlier this month, called Brother Sinner & The Whale. He took the story of Jona as point of departure for a thematical CD which you could subtitle ‘Incorrigible Men Make A Right About Turn’.
On your website, kellyjoephelps.net, Jonah 2 is shown next to the wordless song ‘Spit Me Outta Whale’. Why?
‘It’s a beautiful poem, that reads like prose. Besides, I recognise Jonah’s stubborness. He really is one of those grumpy middle-aged men, not satisfied with his own life, who feels that he’s slowly sinking and then, kind of helped by God, has to make a choice: either go straight to hell or make a right about turn.’
‘Brother Sinner’ as an introduction to yourself leaves little to the imagination’
‘Yes, what I would never want to do is to feel better than other people; after a process of conversion. I stand with everyone who is weak. The word conversion is not representative either. A number of
years ago I decided to really study the Bible and everything connected to it, the core languages, the exegeses…. It was partly that I was interested, but it certainly was necessity as well.’
‘Like so many Americans I have been brought up with a good dollop of religion. My father was a Seventh Day Adventist and my mother was Lutheran. They both passed that on. I kind of went along, but it slipped away. These last few years I became aware of my shortcomings as a man, a husband, a father, a brother and a friend. For me studying the bible was going back to the source, but more than that, it was the sheer discovery of matters new.’
What were the reactions, in the music world and in your personal life?
‘Actally surprisingly positive. All those sob stories that you don’t belong after you have openly become a Christian, that you won’t fit in any longer, has not been my experience. Maybe it’s because I take music and lyrics seriously. Life is primarily about setbacks and beauty. I’m not expecting ever to be asked to do an ad for christian tooth paste. That’s kind of relaxing.’
The CD is a strange mix really. It has ‘I been converted’, a traditional by Mississippi John Hurt and ‘Guide Me o Thou Great Jehova’, which is an 18th century hymn by Wiliam Williamson, which is in most hymn books.
Yes, I was perusing the Book of Hymns and I liked this one. And my musical roots are deep in folk, blues and gospel of the old America: Fred McDowell and Robert Pete Williams and Hurt. These names are not very well known in Holland but they are in the US. Hurt was making records back in 1928, then became a farmer’s hand until 1966 and he spent the last three years of his life, an old, black christian man, performing and making records. I like that.