Who is Maynard Silva, anyway?

Certainly, he is a classic blues man.

Island born and raised, Mr. Silva has appeared on stages on and off the Vineyard for nearly 40 years, his voice a familiar throaty growl.

His public persona is the sheen on a core of enormous strength and wisdom, shaped by time and pressure.

Maynard Silva is the sum of the elements of his life code: tradition, humility, the value of relationships and of mentors. And he has a wriggling delight in our inexhaustible opportunities to experience joy in life.

“I live my day-to-day life based on a tradition of people I know and learned from. People who have survived similar things to me. So tradition is very important in my life. Without tradition, I lose a very important part of my life. I’ve been very lucky to have encountered strong people who taught me their strong traditions,” he said, adding:

Maynard Silva
Jaxon White

“My first influence and the man who influenced all my music to this day was a man named Petronio (Pete) Ortiz. He lived on this Island and he taught me the sign painting business. He understood the tradition of sign painting and how to be creative within it. He taught me that relationship. I see people struggle with the relationship between creativity and tradition every day.”

Today, recovering from several bouts with cancer and in recovery from alcohol addiction, Mr. Silva has become the mentor, just as legendary blues men like Booker T. Washington (Bukka) White were to him as a young musician. The Memphis-based White shepherded the career of his cousin B.B. King and welcomed a skinny kid from Martha’s Vineyard into his world to learn his art form.

“It was an attitude more than following a set of rules, a process more than anything, just like the sign painter,” Mr. Silva recalled. “When I met Bukka, he lived in this little apartment in Memphis. I got close to him and saw he used the same framework as the sign painter. Opening his guitar case and pulling out that old National [guitar] was the same thing as Pete opening that box and pulling out those brushes,” he said.

“I am a traditional person and artist. I work in the context of tradition that people have taught me. Tradition is the great liberator. It provides me a different individuality and expressiveness than functioning without a tradition. That was a golden gift.

“Humility is a huge part of it. If you have no humility, you just got your own damn self, the most boring thing in the world. When those guys opened their boxes, they were praying for inspiration. Artists are humbled by the opportunity to do that magic, that’s the difference. Somebody with a strong tradition can conjure up these things from their hearts and from the world around them. It’s amazing.

“Everybody was expecting them to be something — ‘My God, you’re Bukka White’ or ‘You’re Pete Ortiz,’ and at the moment they opened their cases to get out their magical tools, they were the most humble men in the world, mentally getting down on their knees, saying, ‘Give me something I can share.’

“You got humility, you got B.B. King. You don’t have humility, well, that’s where a you get a lot of the stuff we hear.”

Mr. Silva credits his cancer experience with teaching him more. “It’s my third year dealing with this and it’s changed everything. My way of relating to the human race changed because I learned how to ask people for help.

“When people help you it’s actually a joyous thing for both of you. I always thought asking for help was shameful, a weakness. I learned that to be connected to people that way was a joy, and that they liked it as much as I liked it. That made the way I relate to everybody different, including other musicians I play with and the people I play for.

“I am more inclusive of them. Really, I provide a context for people to play music in. I try to give people a safe place to take chances, to dig inside, to show their stuff. It’s okay to make a mistake playing with me.

Maynard Silva
Playing harmonica in 2001: since recent shoulder injury, he’s gone back to harp. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“The December [brain] cancer became a violent thing. Cancer usually isn’t a violent thing, but it became so in a very few minutes. Caused me to break my own shoulder. Made it seem like my time in this body was a matter of hours at most. The first thing I thought was, ‘No more music?’ What I got out of that is that my life is not measured in a half hour anymore. That knowledge informs everything now, and I just play for the joy. Before I didn’t know how deep it ran in my bones. I kind of took it for granted.” He continued:

“The final way my sickness has affected me is that I’ve gone back to my first instrument, the harmonica.” Mr. Silva is recovering mobility in his broken left shoulder but right now, he said, “I can’t get up and down a guitar neck to play.

“So I went back to the harmonica. Guitar players are like dogs, sniffing around, peeing on trees. They’re tough. The guitarist’s ego is a piece of work. I’m the worst. I have to be the cock of the walk when I play. But when I’m playing the harmonica, I’m closer to the guitar players than I ever was. My blessing is to go back to old Petronio’s head. He taught me to be intuitive.”

Maynard Silva
Maynard Silva with new wife Basia at this past weekend’s musical potluck. — Peter Simon

On relationships: “My marriage is a big part of my life. Basia [Jaworska Silva] married me a year ago when I was on chemo. She refers to it as a medical adventure. She is a great spirit and a great artist.”

Mr. Silva has made huge changes in the midst of his medical adventure. Getting married, selling his house, changing his instrument.

But he doesn’t see it that way. “If you find a person that’s sincerely willing to be a partner to you in times that would scare people off, then you’re a damn fool if you don’t enter that partnership,” he said. “And if you find some material possession is taking more energy away from you than it should, then convert it to capital and enable yourself to function in the lives of the people you love. Selling the house made my involvement with Basia more healthy and allows [his son] Milo a little bankroll for his explorations or an opportunity. That’s better than hanging on to an old house,” he said.

Milo, an accomplished musician, is exploring the blues musical roots in the Republic of Tuva, a kingdom in Siberia, 2,000 miles east of Moscow.

“Anything you got, if it’s a guitar, a car or a toilet, it’s gotta work for you. If it doesn’t, get rid of it, that’s the way I feel,” he said.

Mr. Silva is planning recording work with bassist Tom Howland and guitarist Al Schackman and he’s is excited about singing in the Jim Thomas Spirituals Choir, reviving slave spiritual music. “You can hear every element that is in black music. Everything I’ve been playing my whole life you can hear in those spirituals,” Mr. Silva said.

He was a philosophy major in college. “I never called on what I learned in philosophy because my self-centered lifestyle went away from any contemplation of spirit or consciousness. Later on, when my life changed, when I got out of that way of looking at things and living, the philosophy background made me more open. Not religious, not corny, but feeling your own spirit and that you’re part of the world. It’s a dance, two steps forward, one step back.”

He concluded: “I’m down to one prayer, from the Lakota Sioux: Today is a good day to die. If it’s a good day to die, Then it’s a good day to live. So take your day.

“If you accept in your heart that it’s a good day to die, you can really live, baby.”