Buffalo Nichols| Milwaukee, WI
I was born just outside of Houston, Texas, but I don’t have any memories of Texas. Before I was able to be aware of the world, my family moved back to the city where my mom was born and raised—Milwaukee. This is where I’ve spent most of my life.
Music has been a major part of my life since I was young, and, like any other kid, all my music exposure was from the radio. I clearly remember the first music that I connected with; it was the Cher song, Believe. There was something about that song that really made me want to hear it again, so I had my mom buy me the tape. That was my first foray into music
By the time I was about ten years old, I picked up the guitar for the first time. My older sister had already started playing, so I tried playing her acoustic guitar. As the years went on, I started taking it more seriously. I remember the first time I was able to make a guitar sound like a guitar was when I figured out how to play the riff to Johnny B. Goode, the Chuck Berry song. While it was pretty guitar 101, it felt like magic.
I also connected with the guitar because I didn’t have to be popular or have a group of friends to play it. Guitar was something I could do by myself. As I would come to find out, learning an instrument and writing songs is such a lonely and isolating thing, but in a lot of ways you start to like it. The outside world becomes more confusing the more time you put into the music and so you keep hiding in the music.
I remember playing guitar for a long time, just sitting down with music I liked and trying to figure out how to play. Around the time I was twelve I got my first electric guitar and started playing with different people around town. That was when I started songwriting. Really though, it was just me in some kid’s basement writing riffs, mostly punk, and metal.
As I got older, I became more serious about songwriting. I spent so much time writing songs but I never intended for people to hear them, so I got really comfortable with the therapeutic aspect of writing. Once I wrote it, I felt better and I would put those songs away and never feel the need to revisit them. It’s only recently that I’ve gone back and thought, ‘Okay, maybe I should share this or maybe there’s some value in this for other people.’
A great paradox of songwriting is that it can be isolating and a place to hide but it’s also a way to connect with people. It feels vulnerable to admit that I’m doing this because I need to share something while at the same time knowing that it pains me to have to open up. With songwriting, I’m not trying to reach everybody, but I really want what I’m doing to connect with whomever it does. The feelings I use to connect with other people are usually about loneliness. So, it’s weird to be in front of 1,000 people singing about these kinds of things, but I also know that there are people out there who are in the same situation. In the course of life, you come across songs that seem to be written for you and, well, if I can write that song for one person, I think it’s a worthwhile way to spend my time.
I got to be known as a songwriter when I played in the duo Nickel & Rose, a folk group from Milwaukee. That was a community-based sort of band. The songs that we were writing were a direct response to things that were happening in our community. We always played shows with other folk musicians, always trying to lift each other up, which was really fulfilling. It’s hard to be a folk singer who never leaves their house. You can write some songs that way, but I think in order to be a part of the folk tradition, you have to have other people there with you as your equals.
Traditional and folk music have been things I’ve been serious and committed to for most of my life. I spent a lot of time playing West African music and, specifically, the traditional music of Mali, Guinea, and Senegal. This was before I even really got into the blues. That was my first time seeing music as a part of a culture and that really opened my eyes and made me want to go and explore my own culture, in particular, American and Black American music.
Many of my friends in Milwaukee were immigrants, and a lot were West African. While I don’t want to speak for them, I saw a lot struggling with culture shock. But music was something that reminded them of home. It was also something they could use to connect with people and became a way to make new friends. There was a lot of joy in that. As I got older, I started thinking about how this all connects to Black history, and how, in the same way, when we were brought here, music was that one thing that could connect us to home.
I’m thirty now, so I am just getting to that point in my life where I can look back and connect the dots on the formative times in my life. I’ve had all these different musical lives, but the blues was kind of my own thing I did.
Music is something that I don’t think I ever will understand, but when everything else doesn’t seem to make sense, when things get scary or when the world is overwhelming, music is also the one thing that makes sense. That’s why I keep coming back to it.
Buffalo Nichols’ story was produced by Adam Blackbourn and is part of our series on Wisconsin musicians. You can listen to some of his music on his website.
The Blues is one of the most influential styles of American music. Check out this Smithsonian website to learn more about the regional styles of this living tradition.