This weekend, the New Orleans-based blues/folk singer and guitarist lost his battle with cancer. But he went out as a gentleman.
This year at Jazz Fest, Spencer Bohren finished his set in the AARP Rhythmpourium (seriously!) with his cover of The Impressions’ “People Get Ready.” Bohren was living with prostate cancer, and it was clear that the cancer was winning. In that context, the song’s “train to Jordan” lyric rang with extra significance, but that’s not where he was going with the song. Instead, he introduced it by pointing out the lines that gave the song resonance during the Civil Rights Movement. He preceded “People Get Ready” with Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Crash at Los Gatos),” and the songs together created one of the more political moments during an oddly apolitical Jazz Fest as he spoke up indirectly for immigrants, African Americans, and civil rights.
I don’t remember seeing Bohren when he didn’t play “People Get Ready,” and it was most powerful when he performed it at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, where its chimney-like front room provided a natural echo chamber for the melancholy notes he patiently coaxed out of his lap steel guitar. The effect was transcendent, but I suspect that was more due to Bohren’s performance than the room. He told me later that a famous guitarist bought a lap steel after hearing him play “People Get Ready.”
This weekend, Bohren passed away. I always shorthanded him as the curator for the folk blues hall of fame, and there was truth to that. He knew the stories behind the songs he played, and he told them to his audiences so that they could appreciate those songs for the same reasons he did. But the intent behind those monologues was less official that “curator” might suggest. He told them as a friend who’d discovered something cool and wanted to share it.
Hours after I saw Bohren perform, I ran into him while leaving Jazz Fest. He was with friends at a house near the Fair Grounds, and I stopped to say hello. Before I could compliment him on his performance though, he told me that while going through things, he ran across the article I wrote for No Depression after Hurricane Katrina and told me how great he thought it was. We talked about writing after Katrina, and how the anxiety of the time is hard-wired into the work we did, and how hard it is to go back to that place for exactly that reason. He had that experience with “Long Black Line,” the song he wrote after the floodwaters receded.
“It just came out,” he said.
While we talked, others walking home recognized him and stopped to say hi. One fan asked, “How are you doing, Spencer?”
“Oh, not well,” he answered cheerily. Then as they walked away, he turned to me and said, “Morphine.”
Bohren was excited about a song that his friend Ray Bonneville had written for him. “It’s called, ‘You Can’t Live Here,’ and I’m singing it to the cancer,” Bohren said. “You can’t live in this body.’”
He was going to send me a recording of it, but that didn’t happen. Understandable—he had other things to think about. Fortunately, Bohren and Bonneville did record the song with Mark Paradis and Bohren’s son André filling out the band, and it is now available on his website.
Bonneville wrote in his notes on the song, “When I heard my long time good friend Spencer was sick I really didn't know what to do. I desperately wanted to do something to be of help…. Three or four days had gone by when I found myself with a guitar and this song coming out very quickly. I wanted Spencer to have a way to talk to the cancer directly, to confront it and tell it to get out of his body and move along.”
Bonneville’s guitar sets up a gentle groove while his harmonica hints at darkness ahead. Bohren’s lap steel fights back brightly against the ominous harmonica while he sings, “If you think I’ll give in to fear / think again / you can’t live here.” His vocal is resilient and determined. You can hear the will in it. Unfortunately, his voice and all were up for the fight more than his body was.
For a proper obituary for Spencer Bohren, see Keith Spera’s for The New Orleans Advocate. To get “You Can’t Live Here,” visit Bohren’s website. It’s a pay-what-you-want download with proceeds going to help his family with end of life expenses.