Spencer Bohren uses one song, “Down the Dirt Road Blues,” to trace the roots of American music in his one-man show.
The story begins in the Little Belt Mountains of central Montana about 10 years back. Revered New Orleans blues musician Spencer Bohren was on his way to Choteau to meet with the local arts council concerning a talk he was giving the next day to students. And it dawned on him: Traditional American music, with its African and Southern roots, boasts one of the richest history lessons in the country.
“But it’s such a big story, and little kids, even if they did care, would have trouble grasping it through the changes and characters,” Bohren says.
The next morning, Bohren met with Choteau elementary students and spun an impromptu tale about the history of American music. Since that day, Bohren has expanded that musical lesson for larger audiences focusing on a single song: “Down the Dirt Road Blues.” He tracks the song’s historical path from Africa to Mississippi with the slave trade, up the Mississippi River and into the repertoire of Bob Dylan and the British Invasion.
These days, his performance “Down the Dirt Road Blues”—which utilizes vintage instruments—has gone international. Bohren has performed his history lesson/concert in Germany, England and most recently on XM Radio in Washington, D.C. Bohren’s performances continue to be impromptu—he doesn’t always use the same anecdotes or songs for each performance—but he does try to show through various versions of “Down the Dirt Road Blues” how the song has changed—instrumentally and lyrically—over time.
“We’re talking about nothing less than the story of American music,” Bohren says. “It’s one of the greatest treasures we share as Americans.”
Bohren has called a lot of places home. He was born in Casper, Wyo., and lived in Denver, Seattle and, most recently, New Orleans. But his real comfort zone is on tour. For much of the 1980s, Bohren and his family roamed the country in a ’55 Chevy Bel Air and an airstream trailer. His wife, Marilyn, scheduled concerts along the way. One of those stops was Missoula, where he played a free show at Caras Park. Tom Webster, director of the University Theatre, and Rockin Rudy’s owner Bruce Micklus, both University of Montana students at the time, helped book the appearance. That was 1986. Today, Webster and Bohren remain good friends.
“He’s not really a huge star like a Buddy Guy or a BB King, but all these years he’s stayed true to his roots,” Webster says of Bohren. “He’s a road warrior that never quit.”
Bohren visited Missoula last fall as a guest lecturer for UM’s Entertainment Management Program, and wound up jamming in Webster’s living room with Webster’s 9-year-old son.
“He’s one of those guys that works under that radar,” Webster says. “But he’s well respected in a lot of circles.”
The road is wide-open for a musician of Bohren’s caliber and charisma. He’s been to Europe six times this year. He’s released eight studio recordings since 1994. He’s a regular guitar instructor at the Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, run by Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane. Not bad for a kid who grew up in a modest, gospel-singing home in Casper and picked up a guitar in 1964 for reasons he can’t quite remember.
“I had just really learned at that time about folk music,” Bohren says of that beginning. “I’d been singing since I was a little kid, so I guess I just wanted to accompany myself properly.”
But Bohren’s life hasn’t been as simple as a guitar and a concert date. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home. The healing process was long and slow—for Bohren and New Orleans—and both benefited from Bohren’s music. His song “Long Black Line” told the world about the storm’s power, and became a call to arms in the reconstruction effort. Bohren credits the song’s impact to its open, honest nature.
“It was done without any kind of personal agenda,” he says.
“Down the Dirt Road Blues” is a similar success, a spark igniting enthusiasm in something so often overlooked—tradition.
“A lot of young people today don’t know the well-spring of rock, how it all came to be,” Webster says.
Bohren’s mission in “Down the Dirt Road Blues” is to spread the knowledge he’s gained of the “muddy waters” of American music. On the surface you see the likes of Bob Dylan or bluesman Muddy Waters. But scratch below that surface and you find the Blind Willie Johnsons and Blind Willie McTells who work backstage in Bohren’s tale.
“I’ve never been able to boil [“Down the Dirt Road Blues”] down to an influence,” Bohren says, “which is why I think people are attracted to it.”
And Webster’s glad to bring “Down the Dirt Road Blues” full circle, back to the state where it all began.
“It’s important to keep people aware of it,” Webster says. “It’s a great American tradition … it’s the story of the evolution of American music.”
Spencer Bohren performs “Down the Dirt Road Blues” at the University Theatre Wednesday, Oct. 8, at 8 PM. $15.