More than memories: 'Big Jim' Griffith dedicated himself to keeping Southwest traditions alive
Tucson Meet Yourself co-founder & folklorist James S. Griffith died this weekend at age 86
Known far and wide as "Big Jim," renowned Southwestern folklorist Dr. James S. Griffith died this weekend at age 86.
I was cutting across campus from the Student Union in August of 1971 headed back to the hotel on Stone Avenue where they dumped us out-of-staters until fraternity and sorority rush made room in the dorms, when an unexpected sound caught my ear. It was an old-timey string band set up in a parking lot where the Harvill Building stands now.
It was my first day in Tucson and it had been a whirlwind day of frustration and elation. I had experienced my first monsoon storm the hard way, and there's a college ID photo taken minutes later in all my drowned-rat glory to prove it. I'd met the president of the university, John Schaefer, as well as the head of the geology department, Ed McCullough. I met Ewen Whittaker and Dr. Gerard Kuiper, heroes of my geeky childhood, at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. It was very exciting stuff.
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I'd spent the bulk of the day competing for classes by following a spreadsheet and a map like a scavenger hunt, crisscrossing the campus to extract class computer cards from the room where each would be taught before said class filled up (with mixed success), then returning to a designated center to turn that slim packet of cards in for the mainframe to process, I assume to declare some winner, although none was ever announced.
I was bone-tired, dragging my butt. But the closer I got to that parking lot the more I forgot how tired I was. A sonic gravitational tug drew me in. It was a great band. They had an ever-swelling crowd gathered of folks dancing, clapping hands and just watching. Now and then you'd catch a whiff of something now legal, then not so much. The whole experience was just what I needed to revive.
There was a guy with a rub board and another with a slap bass made with a stick and an overturned metal tub. There was a fine guitarist too, and an excellent fiddler.
But the guy playing banjo, claw-hammer style, was off the hook. He was a giant guy with awesome chops. He made that banjo ring and chime, driving the fiddle and guitar. At the break I went up and passed my compliments to that banjo player — a guy by the name of Jim Griffith.
He was a grad student at the time, if memory serves. After that from time to time I'd see him playing at the Campus Cup and other local spots. Sometimes he'd be solo, sometimes with one or two other musicians and on rare occasions with some form of the Biodegradable String Band he'd played with the night of my Tucson arrival.
I would run into him at pretty much any old-timey or bluegrass event or folk music gathering, and there were a lot in those days. There was a place called the Modern Times Bookstore, first on Sixth Street and later on Speedway and Park, that was a music lover's paradise, particularly for all things traditional. I often ran into him there scouring the racks and occasionally jamming with some of the folks that worked there. The whole idea of an organization called the Tucson Friends of Traditional Music was hatched there, and Jim had a hand in some of those first shows, bringing in Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Michael Cooney, Mick Moloney and many others few of us imagined we'd ever see.
Around that time Jim started Tucson Meet Yourself as a showcase for tradition-bearers — people who had learned their art, music or craft as it had been handed down, generation after generation. The original fiddle player for the Stanley Brothers, Les Keith, had settled in Tucson and Jim gave him a stage to make that known. Tejana songstress Lydia Mendoza swelled the crowd in the park to capacity one year, and father of Chicano music Lalo Guerrero returned to hometown acclaim at TMY.
There was a globe full of food and traditional arts and crafts from a broad spectrum of Tucson's indigenous and immigrant cultural groups at TMY, and all manner of traditional singing and dancing.
We all knew that Tucson is a multicultural community but this was genius on a whole other level. It was a feast for the senses, a place to celebrate all that we are as a community, to learn from one another, to rub shoulders and feel as one, with what he termed "a hint of communion" to it all.
And while Tucson Meet Yourself was how most people knew of Jim Griffith, he was so much more. His books and tours of the Spanish missions of Sonora created an awareness of the history and context of some of the jewels of the desert. His collections of traditional and sacred stories and lore of this region and its people fleshed out history better than Ken Burns could in all of his films.
To many from outside Tucson, he was the distinguished Dr. James Griffith, anthropologist and folklorist and the creator of the University of Arizona's Southwest Folklore Center. He was well known in folk circles around the country and the world. And "Big Jim" Griffith was a musical god in the Southeast, where he took first place in several national claw-hammer banjo competitions.
In 1987, when I was hired as a reporter by the Tucson Citizen, I figured I'd do that gig for a couple of years and then go back to composing and performing. But I wanted to make the time I was there count. So in my first days I went by the Southwest Folklore Center, then housed in that old pink building on Sixth Street across from the stadium, to talk to him and maybe do a profile on him.
In typical Jim Griffith style, he refused to be the focus of an article. Instead he gave me a list of names of people he thought ought to be written about. And he refused to be a source for the stories. He offered instead to put me in touch with people from their communities to have them, rather than an authority figure, tell their story. I went back a few times over the years. Jim always had a way of enticing me with something else I'd never heard of, something real and true to this place. He changed the way I did stories and how I would come to see my adopted home. If I'd had ideas of leaving, an hour with Jim and the thought would be inconceivable. There was too much yet to be seen and experienced here. And too little ink about any of it.
Now and then he'd call to let me know when something amazing was happening.
Like when the Tohono O'odham waila band The Joaquin Brothers played a polka festival in Carnegie Hall, wowing a crowd that never expected to see desert tribal members in ribbon shirts playing that music. He helped Angelo Joaquin, Jr. start the Tucson Waila Festival after a trip with the Joaquins to Wolf Trap, and was a constant fixture at the South Tucson Norteno festival, cheering on new and old generations of players, including the Pasqua Yaqui nation's Los Hermanos Cuatro.
He called again in 1997 to make sure I knew that Lalo Guerrero was getting the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton, along with Stephen Sondheim, Lionel Hampton, Edward Albee and Robert Redford.
Outside of work I got to see him in his element on a number of occasions, collecting stories and songs. He had an uncanny knack for picking up melodies and lyrics on first listen and recalling in detail stories passed down for generations by a variety of cultures that settled the Sonoran Desert and Tucson.
There is no doubt that Jim Griffith changed my life for the better, before, during and after my time with the Citizen. And my experience is just one of many as he altered our city's path in sublimely beautiful ways.
I am lucky to have had Jim as a friend. And so is all of Tucson.
We will profoundly miss our friend. But we will see him all around us.
We'll hear him in a song, feel him close when we catch a whiff of something tasty from a smoky food stand, when we see a carver at work, or ladies cutting paper flowers or folks decorating eggs. When we see people in exquisite traditional garb from around the planet strolling by each other Downtown, or hear an exotic tune. When we hold hands in a Tohono O'odham round dance at the close of each Tucson Meet Yourself and feel the unity of our diverse community.
The great photographer Dorothea Lange said a camera is an instrument to teach you to see the world without a camera. Jim gave us the complete sensory experience. He gave us the deeper meaning and the context. And all of us are forever in his debt.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the instrument played by Les Keith.