She was an idealistic Harvard college student—until a few incomparable blues musicians turned Bonnie Raitt's destiny on its ear.
I think people must wonder how a white girl like me became a blues guitarist. The truth is, I never intended to do this for a living. I grew up in Los Angeles in a Quaker family, and for me being Quaker was a political calling rather than a religious one.
In 1967 I entered Harvard as a freshman, confident—in the way that only 17-year-olds are—that I could change the world. My major was African Studies, and my plan was to travel to Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere was creating a government based on democracy and socialism. I wanted to help undo the damage that Western colonialism had done to native cultures around the world. Cambridge was a hotbed of this kind of thinking, and I was thrilled.
Playing guitar was one of my childhood hobbies, and I had played a little at school and at camp. My parents would drag me out to perform for my family, like all parents do, but it was a hobby—nothing more. Then one day a friend called and told me that blues promoter Dick Waterman was doing an interview at WHRB (the Harvard college radio station) and asked did I want to come meet him.
Dick was a leader of the blues revival, and he happened to live in Cambridge. Dick and I became close friends, much to the chagrin of my parents, who didn't expect their freshman daughter to be running around with 65-year-old bluesmen. I was amazed by his passion for the music and the integrity with which he managed the musicians.
Then in my sophomore year Dick moved to Philadelphia, and this incredible community of musicians moved with him. Something inside me told me that I couldn't not go with them. These people had become my friends, my mentors, and though I had every intention of graduating, I decided to take the semester off and move to Philadelphia. I went to my parents and to the Radcliffe admissions office and explained how I would never again have the same chance to learn not just about music but about life. It was an opportunity that young white girls just don't get, and as it turns out, an opportunity that changed everything.
After my semester off, I went back to school, but that little bit of performing had whetted my appetite. Then Dick called and invited me to help out on tour with the Rolling Stones. I made a second trip to the admissions office at Radcliffe and said, "I'm going to take a leave of absence, but this is only going to last a year." Imagine being 20 in 1970—wouldn't you have gone on tour with the Rolling Stones?
I still had to support myself, and that fall I was opening for Fred McDowell at the Gaslight in New York when a reporter from Newsweek spotted me. After that, a few record company scouts came to hear me play and I got a recording offer from Warner Brothers. I made my first album, and I guess it wasn't a fluke, because now I'm on my 16th.
I never went back to school, and I never got to Tanzania. But through my music I was able to contribute to political and social causes and to speak out on issues that are important to me. To this day I don't feel that I compromised. My decision to leave Harvard to go to Philadelphia with those bluesmen certainly changed me, but it was like being 13 years old and having only enough money to buy either the new Beatles record or the Bob Dylan record. It's a big choice, a deciding moment, but ultimately either path brings surprises and magic.
Bonnie Raitt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Her most recent album is Silver Lining (Capitol).
From the July 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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