Multidimensional artist Jim Colegrove talks about Festival Express '70 and his experiences in the music

"Blues is the Rosetta Stone of music - a key to understanding."

Jim Colegrove: Poetic Notes & Cool Groove

Jim Colegrove has had a long and distinguished career in American music. He was born in Springfield, Ohio and began playing French horn and trumpet at age nine. He took up the guitar at age thirteen. A few years later, in 1958, he was cofounder of the rock ’n’ roll band Teddy & the Rough Riders and when the Rough Riders broke up in 1965 Jim formed a new band called The Knights. In 1967, Jim left Ohio and switched from guitar to bass and was a member of Bo Grumpus, and Jolliver Arkansaw, where released from an album in the late 1960s. The late Felix Pappalardi produced both records.

Jim was a studio musician on a number of recording sessions in New York in the 60s and 70s, with such artists as Bobby Charles, Todd Rundgren, Nick Gravenites, and Borderline. He also worked sessions with Paul Butterfield and members of The Band. He was a part of Ian and Sylvia’s pioneering country-rock band Great Speckled Bird. They were a part of the legendary Festival Express train tour across Canada in the summer of 1970. Later, the same band, with Jim as one of the lead vocalists, recorded an LP under the name Hungry Chuck. In early 1971, Jim met the late Texas guitarist Stephen Bruton in Woodstock. They became friends and worked on music together in their spare time. In 1974, Jim moved to Fort Worth and formed a band with Stephen called Little Whisper and the Rumors.

It was 1977 when Jim and Stephen’s brother Sumter Bruton combined to form the Juke Jumpers, a group that played blues, rhythm & blues, rockabilly and jump music, all in a traditional Texas style. Since 1958 Jim has been writing songs and has been producing or coproducing in the recording studio since the 1960s. His first book of poetry, Vacation Dreams, was completed in 1983. He performed live with the late poet Allen Ginsberg in 1985 and later recorded with Allen on Airplane Blues issued in 1986 on the Made Up In Texas. Jim appeared as a musician in the 1986 film True Stories directed by David Byrne. Jim performed with the Juke Jumpers in Europe in 1989 along with the late Dallas R&B singer, Zuzu Bollin.

Jim is a performer immersed in America’s musical roots. He writes and records in his home studio in Fort Worth and continues to perform with the Juke Jumpers on their annual reunions and occasional gigs. Also work was completed in 1999 on a collection of tracks for a group called Lost Country. In 2008, Jim celebrated 50 years in the music business. He continues to produce new recordings such as the spoken word hipster, Wes Race. He has recently finished working on his own CD, look for it this year. Now he has his sights set on more recordings by his band Lost Country.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the music and poetry?

I began playing an instrument (French horn, trumpet) when I was 9 years old (1950).  I began playing guitar when I was 13 (1954). I started playing guitar in my first band, a rock ‘n’ roll band in 1958 when I became part of Teddy & the Rough Riders. The wanting to really started then.  I became interested in writing around that same time.

"Most secrets are locked inside your head.  You just need to open the creative part and let it come out."     Jim and the Lost Country, Photo by Quincy Holloway

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about poetry and Blues?

I’m not sure about secrets but I would say the musicians that I have learned the most from and have influenced me the most are Scotty Moore, Link Wray, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Otis Rush. There are many others both r&r and blues.  By poetry, I assume you mean writing.  Studying many records and lyrics influenced me to write.  Studying the Beat writers has as well. Most secrets are locked inside your head.  You just need to open the creative part and let it come out. I don’t consider myself a blues musician/writer exclusively.

What do you learn about yourself from the notes and words and how has changed your life?

That I have my own style and my own ideas about the way things should go. It has, perhaps, changed my life in ways that are both good and not so good for me.

How do you describe Jim Colegrove’s sound and philosophy about the music and poetry?

My sound is not confined to any one style.  As I said before, it is probably to my detriment that I am so eclectic. My philosophy is to create in appropriate styles and be clever about what I attempt to say (write and record) about the world of which we are conscious and how we find ourselves reacting to it.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and poet?

One has to assume that someone thinks of me as good to answer this.  So, assuming one does I have to say the influences of the musicians and writers I have worked with in my life have done the most to make me the way I am. The rest is imitation of those I haven’t worked with but admired.  Then I would have to add I am just plain stubborn as to the direction I wish to take at any given moment.  Call it impulsive if you will. I am simply compelled to do what I do and make the records I make.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Very difficult to say with certainty. I think the best days were the days I spent in Woodstock, NY recording with so many great artists in the early 1970s.  Some of the best moments came for me when I was working with Great Speckled Bird—performing at the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan; playing the Troubadour in L.A.; playing on Festival Express train tour; playing the Johnny Cash show; playing the Ian Tyson TV show—all happened in 1970. The worst days were struggling in New York City in the early days I lived there around 1967.

What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from the 50s rock and roll and 60s blues rock era?

The fact that everything was wide open and anything could happen - all things were possible.  That and the fact that I was younger then - ha! 

Tell me your experiences from the legendary Festival Express tour across Canada in 1970?

My response below is copied from my autobiography manuscript:

The Festival Express was referred to as the most imaginative concept in pop music history. The tour had a slew of major rock acts: The Band, Janis Joplin, Delaney and Bonnie, Buddy Guy, Traffic, Seatrain, Mountain, Ten Years After, Eric Andersen, the Grateful Dead, Tom Rush, Sha-Na-Na, Smith, Ides of March and others. Its scheduled start was in Montreal but the show there was canceled because of the violent atmosphere due to recent bombings by Quebec separatists. The train moved from Montreal to Toronto to do the first shows there.

It was held at the Canadian National Exposition stadium. The crowd was good but there were riots outside when groups of hippies tried to crash the gates demanding free admission. We played our portion of the show in the late afternoon to a large, receptive audience. That night The Band went on and we got to watch them from stage-side. It was the first time I saw them perform and I loved every minute. I couldn’t have been more than ten feet from Levon as he sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” I watched as they switched instruments with Levon playing mandolin or guitar, Rick playing fiddle, Richard playing drums, Garth playing piano or saxophone. They were as good as I expected they’d be.

The next day the train left Toronto bound for Winnipeg. We didn’t get on the train because we had to drive to North Tonawanda, New York, a suburb of Buffalo, to play that night. After that gig we drove to the airport next morning and flew to Winnipeg where we rejoined the tour and finally got on board the train. We loaded our gear into sleepers that had been reserved for us. We wondered who would be on the train since we were told everyone on the tour wouldn’t be a passenger. Some acts only played one stop and weren’t on the train. Others, like The Band, who were at every show, jumped off board at Winnipeg. At the last minute Rick Danko decided he wanted to stay on board and was there when it pulled out of the station.

We played the show in Winnipeg at their Canadian Football League stadium and the crowd was not as large as Toronto. N.D. and I were introduced to Levon by Ian. Ian had known the guys in The Band for years. This went back to the days when they were on Yonge Street backing up Ronnie Hawkins. We noticed they were filming the concert that day. They had been filming from the start we were told. The producers planned on a documentary film of the tour ala “Woodstock” or “Monterey Pop” so the cameras were rolling somewhere all the time.

Back at the train that night, the party began for us. In the middle of the train there were two lounge or bar cars. These cars became the meeting rooms for everyone. They soon were divided into the folk/country car and the blues/rock car and you drifted back and forth depending on the kind of action you were looking for. Amps and drums were set up in the blues/rock car. The passengers on board included Ian and Sylvia and The Great Speckled Bird, Buddy Guy and his band, Janis Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band, Janis’s road manager John Cook, Eric Andersen, Rick Danko, The New Riders of The Purple Sage, The Grateful Dead, members of Delaney and Bonnie’s band, and two Canadian bands, Charlebois and James and the Good Brothers.

The train pulled out in the middle of the night and we woke to a view of the Canadian Prairie. The partying ran nonstop in the bar cars. The liquor supply soon ran empty and it was decided to open a people’s bar. The train stopped in a small Saskatchewan town, Saskatoon, to replenish the alcohol. The people’s bar fund was collected and a group of buyers left the train and headed for the local liquor store. I stayed on board and watched them return to the train with arms full of beer, wine, whiskey, gin, vodka, all types of drinking supplies. Someone was carrying one of those extra-huge bottles of Canadian Club. The liquor store must have been bought out. What they must have thought of this bizarre group of long-haired strangers suddenly coming into their store in the middle of the day spending so much cash.

The bar was restocked and the train rolled on. The music was nonstop. During this time the New Riders met Buddy Cage. The New Riders was a spinoff of the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia played steel in the band. When Jerry and Buddy set up and played together on the train, Jerry knew that he was outclassed by Buddy’s chops. Songs were exchanged between Ian and the New Riders. That night I went into my roomette to retire for the night. I pulled out a stick and smoked it. I turned off the lights and looked out into the prairie darkness. There in the sky I beheld one of the greatest visions a human can witness on this planet, the Aurora Borealis. The Northern Lights were burning brightly that night and I laid back in my bunk and gazed at them until I went to sleep to the rhythm of the rails. The next morning the train was at the station in Calgary, Alberta when I woke up. After I got out of bed I went to the dining car for breakfast. I saw Eric Andersen and Janis Joplin so I joined them. Janis was drinking vodka. She had a purse full of those miniature nip bottles.

I ordered bacon and eggs and had some coffee. We talked for a while then a journalist came up to ask Janis some questions. Janis told him she’d talk to him but he couldn’t take any pictures. I ate my breakfast as they talked about the tour, records and the usual. Just as the writer was leaving and Janis was getting up to go, Janis wheeled and exploded at the guy, accusing him of snapping a picture on the sly. The guy denied it but Janis took a swing at him anyway and her punch landed on his arm. Eric held her back while the fellow made his way off the train. I finished up breakfast and the band got in rental cars and went into town to the hotel. When we checked in, we ran into Delaney and Bonnie in the hotel lobby. They had recorded Barbara Keith’s song “Free the People” on their new record. Since N.D. and I had played on the demo we went over and introduced ourselves and talked to Delaney about it.

He was very friendly and we talked awhile. He said they would see us at the festival site that evening. After we got our rooms and settled in, we went out to the festival site at the local CFL team, the Stampeders, stadium. It was July 5 and there was a good crowd gathering as I watched Sha-Na-Na perform. I talked to Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manual. Rick was living on Zena Road just down the road from the house we’d rented so he was a new neighbor. By now everyone on the tour seemed to be bonding in group consciousness. It was soon our turn to go on and we gave it hell. The sun was just setting as we started our set. The crowd had built up and the moment seemed just right. By the end of the set Ian called Delaney and Bonnie to come up and jam with us. Then, Jerry Garcia joined us, then Rick Danko. Before it was over it seemed that everyone on the tour was on the stage playing and singing. It was a wild, exciting moment and it was being filmed to boot. Everyone felt really good about it. Barney Hoskins states in his book Across the Great Divide—The Band and America, that this was an open jam, neglecting to point out that it was, in fact, the climax of our show. All the film produced on this festival, I was told years later, eventually rotted in the can. Of course, as we found out that was not true.

The rest of the evening was just as good. When Buddy Guy did his performance, he got on a fork lift to be raised high above the crowd. Janis played and The Band closed the show. Earlier, Janis had everyone sign a long two-by-four with a miniature train tacked on one side as a memento for Kenny Walker. That was the end of the tour but not the end of the action. On the way back from the stadium, N.D., Buddy, and Ian and Sylvia had a slight run-in with the occupants of another vehicle. N.D. told them to follow them to the hotel, whereupon Ian, N.D. and Buddy got out of the car and confronted the others. Ian proceeded to break a bone in his left hand while punching out one of the antagonists. I returned in a car with Amos and Tom Rush so I missed the fight right there in front of the hotel lobby. Next morning we had to fly back to Toronto to do the taping for Ian’s new television show. He could barely play guitar for the next month or so.

Are there any memories Zuzu Bollin, U.P Wilson, Robert Ealey and Felix Pappalardi, which you’d like to share with us?

Zuzu Bollin: a real Texas R&B musician from his era.  Like most of them a T-Bone Walker devotee. He missed the first tour we took to Europe in 1989 due to a passport issue.  We had to leave him at the airport.  But he made the next one later that year.

U. P. Wilson:  I never knew U. P. very well.  He was a more hard blues player and not so much on the T-Bone side as others.  He always used the cigarette smoking while playing the guitar with one hand trick in his act. But he played with us at the Bluebird several times and we backed him at the Utrecht appearance in ’89.

Robert Ealey:  A great singer and drummer.  I could go on about Robert forever.  He used to make up lyrics to anything we would play while we played it.  Nobody could understand him anyway. He and U.P. had a band together at one time early on. He was a loveable man.

Felix Pappalardi: A master musician classically trained.  He was my mentor on the bass.  As it turned out I played bass for 10 solid years and made a good living at it.  He liked Boysenberry sherbet.

Which memory from Allen Ginsberg, Nick Gravenites, Paul Butterfield and The Band makes you smile?

Allen Ginsberg couldn’t believe I had all the Jack Kerouac recordings I had.  He didn’t have them.

Nick Gravenites recording session at Bearsville was a good one.  Richard Bell played piano, Paul Butterfield played harmonica.  It was the only session I ever did with Robbie Robertson who was the producer.

Paul Butterfield was a good friend and neighbor.  He, I and Sumter Bruton went to see The Godfather I film together when it came out.  We had many good times together.

The Band was a great bunch of musicians that were very influential.  I was good friends with Rick and Richard.  Levon and I used to play softball together with everyone else.  I worked in the studio will all of them at different times on different projects.

Do you know why Ginsberg’s poetry (and life) is connected to the avant-garde, bohemian, politicized and underground culture?

Well, he was a charter member of the group known as The Beats which pretty much says it right there.

Some music styles can be fads but the Blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

It is the Rosetta Stone of music - a key to understanding.

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of Blues?

No.  But there are some that are considered blues artists that know little about its history.  But all of us can still learn.

You have traveling all around the North America (Ohio, Canada, Texas, and N.Y). From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between the local blues scenes?

I don’t think there is a great deal of difference, most of it is really similar.  If there is any difference it is usually in the way people sing and the way they feel the groove when they play it.

What are the reasons to become the Texas blues family, a legendary generation that left it mark through the years until now?

Many reasons I suppose.  The Texas blues family is a rather large one and has a lot of rooms in the old family house where you might be surprised if you open a door.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

“Time changes everything” as the old western swing song says.  But, yes, I believe in the existence of real blues nowadays.

You have met people from Ginsberg to Janis. It must be hard, but which meets have been the biggest experiences for you? Of all the people you’ve meeting, who do you admire the most?

John Ernst, artist, musician, friend, and neighbor that I met when I moved to Woodstock.  He passed away in the ‘90s. He came from a circus family, was drafted into the service in WW2, was mentally damaged from burying dead bodies in the South Pacific, hospitalized, decided to become a painter and never made a dime doing it.  I have quite a bit of his art and the only known music recording he ever made.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Think twice.

"The Texas blues family is a rather large one and has a lot of rooms in the old family house where you might be surprised if you open a door."

Jim and Fort Worth band, Little Whisper & the Rumors with Stephen Bruton, whom he'd met up in Woodstock, Photo by Vince Foster

What is your music DREAM? 

Dream: A town filled with honky-tonks, jazz bars, juke joints, rock taverns all doing a thriving business while the local radio, TV stations, and other media routinely play and plug the band’s records regardless of status or what’s considered “hip.”

Which is the most interesting period in your life? 

I think I answered that earlier, it was the period I spent in Woodstock from 1970 to 1974.

Happiness is……

Happiness is an illusion created by advertising agencies.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

A painting of my wife Susan along with our late cats Junior and Sparky with me in front of the Christmas tree listening to music and having a good time.

The Cool Groove in American Music - Home

Jim and his wife Susan with the Lost Country, Photo by Chad Redmon

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