When Chicago bluesman Dave Specter watched the video of a Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds, causing his death, he knew that the times — pandemic and all — called for more than the usual platitudes.
Specter did what he does best, but with a bit more grit and vigor: He wrote a protest anthem, “The Ballad of George Floyd.”
He’s a bluesman who got the blues watching police brutality.
“I was in shock — disbelief,” said Specter of the incident. “There’s a dark history in Chicago of police brutality. Think about the injustice that’s happened that we don’t even know about. Now with everyone having their phones, taking videos, we’re seeing it a lot more. And I know there’s terrible violence — terrible gang violence — but the overreach by law enforcement is very disconcerting, alarming and shocking.
“I’ve come to realize that channeling my thoughts and my expression through music is really an important part of who I am. And I think it’s a really good outlet for me to use my music to write and create, based on, unfortunately, the turmoil and troubles that are happening in this country. The events surrounding George Floyd’s death were so shocking to me that the song pretty much wrote itself.”
The song, which is available as a digital single, follows Specter’s newest Delmark Records release, “Blues from the Inside Out,” a 12-track album (released in 2019) on which Specter — a musician who appears on more than 50 albums and has performed in 20 countries worldwide — makes his debut as a vocalist.
“It’s been cathartic for me to write some of the songs based on social justice protests, and it gives my art and my music more value,” said Specter. “To have something to say about these issues has been very rewarding for me.
“My career up until then, I just was perfectly content and always saw myself as a guitarist. ... I just felt it wasn’t a revelation, I just felt like it was finally time to start singing. It was daunting, and it still is because I’m only a year into singing gigs — it’s definitely a learning process.”
Specter, who wrote the song a few days after Floyd’s death in May, enlisted friend and three-time Grammy Award-nominated singer and harmonica player Billy Branch to be a part of the project.
“People ask me: ‘Hey, I’m coming to Chicago. Who should I go hear on the blues scene?’ Billy will be one of the first two or three names always mentioned,” said Specter. “I think he represents what Chicago blues is all about. … I also know he was a political science student, as was I, and we’re both somewhat engaged and aware and concerned about what’s happening in the country.”
Branch, who jumped at the opportunity when Specter asked, says the times demand more from musicians amid the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest, citing Specter’s voice and his lyrics, along with the optics of the times.
“We’re in this era right now where you’re seeing a lot of social and political commentary come from musicians, and it’s a reflection of the times,” said Branch. “We’re in such a strange place right now that none of us in our lifetimes have ever witnessed as musicians.
“[Specter] sent [song] over to me, and I said: ‘My, this is a great tune.’ I felt that it was well written and very powerful, and it spoke to the moment. Over the years, I’d encourage Dave to sing. In the blues, you don’t have to be the best singer — you say it like you mean it.”
The album takes a decisive tone by naming the man Specter believes is the catalyst for America’s issues: President Donald Trump. In the song “How Low Can One Man Go?” he takes aim at the president saying: “Rich daddy’s dollars on a silver spoon/telling lie after lie like hot-aired buffoon/like a time bomb tickin’ that’s ready to blow.”
“It’s like watching a schoolyard bully mark everybody in sight from disabled people to minorities,” said Specter. “We’ve never seen anything like it from any politician.”
Specter — who also participates in the Chicago Blues Network, hosts a podcast, and curates the bimonthly “At Home Chicago Blues Trading 4s” live-streamed concert series — says the people who have a hard time understanding racism ought to listen to the people who are most affected by police brutality.
“You need to talk to the people that are experiencing it, and it makes my mind spin sometimes when I just hear white people claiming to know racism and being sanctimonious about it and acting like they know what’s happening and they don’t,” said Specter.