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'Big Jim' Griffith built bridges, not walls, in the Borderlands

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'Big Jim' Griffith built bridges, not walls, in the Borderlands

Tucson Meet Yourself co-founder & folklorist James S. Griffith died this weekend at age 86

  • courtesy Daniel Buckley

Known far and wide as "Big Jim," renowned Southwestern folklorist Dr. James S. Griffith died this weekend at age 86.

No one can fill "Big Jim" Griffith's shoes, for he—more than any other Tucsonan—triggered enormous and lasting community pride in our "folk" traditions of music, food, santos, architecture, and border culture.

From the co-founding of the Tucson Meet Yourself Folklife Festival in 1974 with his equally-talented wife Loma Griffith, to initiating the first national tour of Cowboy Poets, Jim left an indelible mark on Western folklore both in content and in inclusiveness. His pioneering scholarship of the folk architecture and music of the Tohono O'odham — his neighbors who surrounded his home near Sam Xavier Mission – were just of his many academic achievements.

Fortunately, several of his most memorable books and recordings will be around forever. As he often said about his extensive archives, "Our chivos are your chivos."

Related: More than memories: 'Big Jim' Griffith dedicated himself to keeping Southwest traditions alive

Big Jim's role is stimulating community-based participatory folklore studies, festivals and archives spread far beyond Southern Arizona.

Furthermore, his banjo-playing, singing and tall-storytelling made him a full participant in these traditions, from playing music at Sunday masses in New Pascua Pueblo, to sitting in with other musicians at the National Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, to winning a banjo contest at Uncle Dave Macon Days Music and Dance Competition at a Roots Rendezvous festival. He was the anchor folklorist/mentor for the multiple-year Sonoran Heritage Programming that Kathy Dannruether managed for the Pima County Public Library System.

And none of us who were involved in forwarding Tucson as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy as 2016 could have achieved that designation without the groundwork that Big Jim had developed though years of food folklore celebrations sponsored by the Southwest Folklore Alliance and the University of Arizona's Southwest Center.

I first met Big Jim back in the 1970s while he was co-starring with the band Summer Dog in a series of performances of the saloon musical Diamond Studs—the Life of Jesse James.

We soon began doing fieldwork together on the Tohono O'odham reservation here he researched folk Catholic chapels for his University of Arizona dissertation, in bootleg distilleries in Eastern Sonora, in ranching towns where he recorded cowboy recitations, and in the Comccac (Seri) Indian villages while he recorded Sonoran corridos for the Western Folklife Center.

We ate more tepary beans and chiltepins together than most human beings could (or should) ever swallow. We hopped from bar to bar and cruised cantinas in South Phoenix searching for Norteño conjuntos who could play the following fall at Tucson Meet Yourself. We dialogued at conferences of the American Folklore Society, Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums and the Western Folklife Center where it was clear that he not only had many friends and admirers, but disciples and fans who worshiped the dusty ground his big boots walked upon.

Because Big Jim could comfortably talk and listen to nearly anyone of any ethnic background, it was hard for those of us who were his local friends to remember that he was also a national celebrity. Over the decades, he attracted to Tucson many musicians and musicologists who regarded him as an esteemed peer, from Lalo Guerrero, Alan Lomax, Mike Seeger, Linda Ronstadt, Dom Flemons, Nick Spitzer, and Tommie Vennum.

Those of us who knew Big Jim at his home savored the late-summer Club Pimatleño outdoor barbecue that Loma and Jim annually hosted, where dozens of friends who come to hear his barking vocals and banjo, his punishing puns, and his bilingual tall tales.

With one eye closed, and the brow on the other raised high like it was about to touch the mole on his forehead, his facial expressions, gestures, and mimes could entertain us for hours.

But most of what he did also had a higher purpose: To remind all Borderlands residents in Arizona that our shared heritage is multi-cultural, trinational — involving Mexico, U.S., and the Tohono O'odham Nation — and the best antidote against the divisiveness that threatens to pull us asunder.

In everything he did and said and sang, Big Jim built bridges, not walls.

'Big Jim' Griffith dead at 86

Known far and wide as "Big Jim," renowned Southwestern folklorist Dr. James S. Griffith died this weekend at age 86.

A native of Santa Barbara, Calif., Griffith moved to Tucson in 1955 to attend the University of Arizona, and over the decades became an authority on local history and culture so steeped in Southern Arizona ways that it's hard to imagine that he wasn't born here.

Griffith was one of the co-founders of Tucson Meet Yourself in 1974, and after earning a Phd in PhD in cultural anthropology and art history at the UA, later became the head of its Southwest Folklore Center, leading it from 1979 to 1998.

The author of numerous books, including "Hecho a Mano: The Traditional Arts of Tucson's Mexican American Community," "Saints of the Southwest," "A Border Runs Through It: Journeys in Regional History and Folklore" and "Saints, Statues, and Stories: A Folklorist Looks at the Religious Art of Sonora," Griffith was nationally recognized for his knowledge and caretaking of Southwestern folkways.

For years, he hosted "Southern Arizona Traditions," part of AZPM's television program "Arizona Illustrated."

In 2011, he was named a National Heritage Fellow and recipient of the Bess Lomax Hawes Award by the National Endowment for the Arts.

His dedication to music was recognized when he was inducted into the inducted into the Tucson Musicians Museum in 2018.

Griffith is survived by his wife, Loma. A celebration of his life is planned for early next year.

— Dylan Smith/

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