LAST DECADE IN PARIS
By Mike Zwerin
The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
– Paul Simon
When I first met Spencer Bohren, the Paul Simon line above was not yet a cliche. And it had taken Bohren a while to come to terms with the idea that journalists are more interested in his lifestyle than his music. I think I was the first journalist to put that on the table with him.
He was an excellent guitarist, sang with conviction, had a warm low-keyed stage presence and ‚ along with John Hammond Jr. ‚ was one of the few white solo blues singers who made a living at it. He would drive a total of a thousand miles to get to four or five one- nighters a week and when he started to raise a family he realized that he’d either have to start bringing them along or lose them. His wife, Marilyn, was a midwife in Louisiana, delivering babies for circus people. The circus people recommended the mobile-home life. Bohren saw that what these people lacked in space and privacy was made up in rich relationships.
The Bohrens first hit the road as a family when their oldest son, Django (named after the Gypsy guitarist) turned six. There were four children, the youngest was seven months. They were all born at home and the older ones were home-schooled. They started with an old Chevrolet towing a bottom-of-the-line trailer. Bohren learned how to repair the engine “with a flashlight in my teeth. I’m a hell of a mechanic on a small-block Chevy engine. I learned in the School of Hard Knocks ‚ or rather valve knocks. I dug us out of some major holes.”
But before I met him, the blues business had begun to look up. He had recently bought what he described as a “maxed-out silver Airstream chrome- home deluxe,” 35 feet long with three axles, a hardwood interior and cedar closets (”it’s a real dish”). And then there was also a new Ford van that was “made to tow, it’s a killer vehicle.”
The fact that the loan officer was a blues fan is the only explanation Bohren could think of for approving a $31,000 loan to someone with $91 in the bank and without “what most people consider a job.” He called it a “dream life, that endless American highway åOn the Road’ thing. We’re not really political, we just know a lot of people who don’t fit the envelope exactly. I think we’re only taking advantage of the freedom America offers.”
It was the old Huck Finn vision of freedom in America, free of school, free of prison workplaces. He ran into some resentment and jealousy, but also a great deal of respect and generosity. A shrimp fisherman in Florida who was touched by his music gave him a mint condition 1928 National guitar. He told Bohren this incredible wartime story about his friend Shorty, who said, just before he died: “Arthur, take this guitar and give it to…” Another time, Bohren was buying a Toyota part from a funky biker who was running what appeared to be a fencing operation in New Orleans when he saw this black 1958 National that looked like a compressed Buick leaning against a wall. The biker said to take it home.
“I guess it’s my good looks,” Bohren said, laughing. He was born and grew up in Wyoming and you get a touch of the prairie when he laughs. They traveled by the old blue highways, driving slowly, stopping often, the kids were always looking out the windows, interested, thinking, asking questions. It took Django four years to learn his multiplication tables but he learned them.
The family was thrown together, they’d become friends. And returning over and over to the same towns, the family accumulated a lot of outside friends, although they only saw them a few at a time. Kind of a horizontal crowd. “My life is horizontal,” Bohren said. “I may not be famous but I’m working everywhere, I’ve got all the local gigs in America, I’m a local everywhere.”
Six weeks a year he worked in Europe, mostly Scandinavia, and then he left the family behind. Early in 1989, he recorded an album with Totta Naslund, a Swedish blues singer, and so that tour was longer than usual. He refused to do it until the record company agreed to pick up the tab to bring over the family. The music has to fit family life rather than the other way around.
On a later tour, while Bohren was working in Paris, Django was sitting in the Airstream, which was parked in his grandfather’s driveway in New York state reading “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Django read four or five books a week. They had no television. If there happened to be one somewhere, Django would turn it off in order to read. “I guess a kid growing up in America without television is rather unusual,” Bohren said, understating up a storm.
He grew up in a church-oriented family. His father was a deacon. He sang gospel songs with the choir. From there it was a short step to the folk movement in the å60s. Moving to New Orleans, he discovered the vast difference between white and black gospel. It was another short step to Robert Johnson.
He lived in Denver, Hollywood, New Orleans: “I had bands, played with bands, endless bands, bands, bands. Then I went out solo, started to build my own circuit. It got better every day. I wasn’t famous but I was popular in blues circles. I used the genuine Delta, Georgia ‚ whatever you want to call it ‚ blues as a jumping-off point. I love the feeling of early blues. It’s so informative, almost like reading a newspaper.”
About once every two years he worked Medicine Bow, Wyoming, close to where he grew up: “It’s a crossroads for two highways nobody ever travels on anymore, 90 miles from the nearest town. Windblown, open range, no fences, mid-Wyoming. My mother stands next to me and points to elderly people saying things like, åThat’s Mrs. Mills, she was your kindergarten teacher.’ I draw tons of people. They tell me what a charming little boy I was. They forget all about the time I was åa nasty drug addict’ and they just about threw me out of town.”
He produced two of his own albums and then sold them to small record companies that barely get them distributed, let alone paid royalties. His wife, who had a business degree, was his manager. Gigs were usually self-promoted. They had a regionalized mailing list and sent out periodic postcards to keep in touch between appearances. The kept a telephone answering machine in a friend’s house and rented a mail service (a packet once every 10 days or so) two blocks from Fats Domino’s mansion in Arabi, Louisiana.
One day they got a letter from Ojaste and Christian Di Natale, an English teacher and a physiotherapist who had started a label called Loft Records in their spare time, of which there was plenty, in Vichy, France. The partners had stumbled on one of Bohren’s records and wrote to the address on the jacket. Bohren became a Loft artist. He said he thought it was “pretty hip to have a record company in Vichy.”
So after Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Jerry Lewis and Samuel Fuller…Ladies and gentlemen, Spencer Bohren. The French are always pleased to discover American talent from under American noses. Business had been better than good, media play out of sight, when he opened at the Platinum Bar of the Meridien Hotel in Montparnasse for a week. “They seem to think I’m some kind of star over here,” he said. “I’m beginning to believe it myself.”
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.
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