A traveling musician
Lewis was a tot when his father, a vocalist with Harry Belafonte and the Belafonte Folk Singers, exposed him to music. At 5, he began playing the guitar and starring onstage in shows like "Porgy and Bess" and "A Christmas Carol."
The Lewises, both named Joe, also spent more than a decade performing in various iterations of groups — Lewis and Lewis, Lewis Eastman and Lewis, and Sleepy Joe Lewis — at concerts, union rallies and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.
After graduating from Hamilton College, Lewis traveled overseas on a Watson Fellowship. Toting a Samsonite suitcase and guitar, he played at beaches and galleries and on the streets with samba bands in Rio de Janeiro and Paris and with other musicians in Austria and the Philippines.
As an artist who works across multiple disciplines, Lewis sees music as "cathartic" — something to lean on "during the lean years."
"It also brings different kinds of people together," he remarked. "I didn't speak the language when I was in Brazil, but I'd pull out my guitar and immediately make friends. We could talk to each other; we could communicate.
"Wherever I was in the world, even when the music was very different from what I was playing, there was this bond that was created, and it's still created to this day."
Many of the numbers on "Three Black Bungalows" — the earliest was created in 1968 and the most recent in 2002 — were written while on the road, while others were inspired by daily life. It's not Top 40-esque music, Lewis said.
Conjuring the Delta
The project includes songs that were penned long before Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani education activist, was shot by the Taliban or racial profiling accusations were lobbed at Barneys New York. But they get to the heart of exactly those types of issues.
For instance, "Open Mind" — a political critique that's neither left- nor right-wing — touches on the courage required to be a free thinker and how, in many places, people gamble with their lives to speak out against the norm. "Frankie and Johnny Got Busted" speaks about minorities who, while driving an expensive car, get pulled over simply by virtue of their identity.
"They are thought-provoking, provocative lyrics that are issue-based and come out from the folk music protest tradition," said Lewis, adding that his work showcases influences of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie as well as Big Bill Broonzy, Sun House and Muddy Waters. "The songs are hung on that Delta, Mississippi and semi-urban blues form."
Lewis, who sang vocals and played percussion and guitar, is accompanied in some places by Jimmie Wood on the harmonica, UC Irvine music professor Nicole Mitchell on the flute, Ed Vodicka on the accordion and Alexis Kelly on background vocals.
"First of all, 'Three Black Bungalows' reminds us to have fun and enjoy life," Mitchell said. "The music tells stories and takes you on a ride that's fresh and yet historic. It brings you back to the old tradition of old Southern front-porch guitar blues, and yet it speaks to modern-day challenges with an honesty that I think everyone can appreciate."
Mitchell completed her bit, which was improvised for an alto flute, in a single afternoon. The 46-year-old Long Beach resident believes this album marks a departure for Lewis.
"I think it represents a new dimension of Joe Lewis, the artist," she said. "What a unique voice he has. It also connects to his socially commentative visual art and will widen his audience of those who can be impacted by his message."
Lewis said album sales have been slow. The album — featuring cover art by Jay Vigon, whose clients include George Lucas and Warner Bros. Records — is available for purchase on iTunes, CD Baby and Spotify. He quickly clarified, though, that any funds earned are a bonus, that the endeavor was motivated purely by his love of the craft.
How have people responded? Positively, he remarked, but with surprise.
"I should be about 90 years old with lots of wrinkles, a few teeth missing and a 200-word vocabulary," Lewis said. "That's the kind of music it is."