Adios, Big Jim: Saying Goodbye to the Man Who Stirred Tucson's Melting Pot

click to enlarge Adios, Big Jim: Saying Goodbye to the Man Who Stirred Tucson's Melting Pot
Steven Meckler

James “Big Jim” Griffith died just before Christmas, on Dec. 18, at the age of 86.

He’s best known in Tucson as the founder of Tucson Meet Yourself, the annual melting pot that bring together Tucson’s rich cultures, but he was much more: An encyclopedia of folk tales, a celebrated author, a tour guide who could reveal hidden paths here, in Sonora and elsewhere. He was an American original and a local treasure.

In tribute to this storyteller, the Weekly brings together just a few of his friends to tell a few tales, tall or otherwise.

In my mind, memories of “Big Jim” Griffith are forever intertwined with those of his dear friend and neighbor, Bernard “Bunny” Fontana. Both moved to Tucson in the 1950s to study anthropology at the University of Arizona, where two titans of the field—archaeologist Emil Haury and cultural anthropologist Edward Spicer—were creating the finest anthropological department in the country for the study of the southern Southwest, including northwestern Mexico. Both bought land next to one another on Mission Road near San Xavier del Bac, which reflected their love of the Sonoran Desert and its Native peoples, especially the Tohono O’odham.

When I came to Tucson in 1973, Big Jim and Bunny became beloved mentors, teaching me in so many different ways that anthropology was more than an academic field. It was a way of life, a way of being, a way of immersing yourself in a region where O’odham, Yoemem, Sonorenses and Tucsonenses continued to shape the cultural milieu of a community far older than the United States.

And make no mistake about it: Big Jim was an anthropologist. He may have called what he did folklore, but he always placed the arts people made and the food people ate in broader cultural and historical contexts. Jim wrote his dissertation on the iconic ceremonial masks of the Yoemem (Yaqui) and Yoremem (Mayo) peoples of southern Sonora and northern Sinaloa. He went on to write about an astonishing range of other subjects—O’odham chapels, Native and Mexicano folk arts, the sacred spaces of all peoples in the Pimería Alta. Jim didn’t write for academics but his scholarship was rigorous and encyclopedic. Because of his work, even newcomers to Tucson soon realized that Tucson was a multicultural city with roots that extended back thousands of years.  More importantly, that multiculturalism reflected living, breathing, vibrant traditions created by living, breathing, vibrant people.

Above all, Big Jim and his wife Loma gave us Tucson’s signature cultural event—Tucson Meet Yourself—which showcases the arts, crafts, music and foods of all the different ethnic groups who have settled here.  

My closest connection to both Bunny and Big Jim, however, was the Southwestern Mission Research Center, which was never a “center” at all but a network of people who loved a region that did its best to ignore a border that split it in half. 

We shared that love with others through our three-day tours of the Spanish colonial missions in northern Sonora founded by Jesuit Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino in the late 1600s. Big Jim and Bunny were tour leaders when I began driving the SAG trucks that Jim Click Ford loaned us to follow the bus driven by Adán Morales. They became part of my SMRC family along with Charlie Polzer, Jim Officer, Mardith Schuetz-Miller, Neto and Julieta Portillo, Ed and Mary Catherine Ronstadt, Carmen and Tom Prezelski, Nick Bleser and Birdie Stabel, David and Kim Yubeta, Tom Naylor, and the two women who really made the tours work, Leah Ward and Mary Malaby.

My fondest memory of Big Jim, however, took place in the high desert of northern Nevada, not the Pimería Alta. I gave a talk at the Western Folklife Center’s Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada, one January. Big Jim, who co-founded the festival, was there as well, and after it was over, a group of us adjourned to Meg Glaser’s ranch for food and drinks. There, in a bedroom, I found Big Jim and another musician playing Appalachian songs carried across the Atlantic by Irish and Scottish immigrants. Jim was playing his banjo, and it was then that I realized his curiosity was omnivorous. It knew no boundaries of race or ethnicity, language or nationality.

At a memorial service for Bunny at Mission San Xavier, I said that it was impossible for me to think of a Tucson without him. For so many of us, it is inconceivable to envision our community without Big Jim. I miss his larger-than-life personality, his generosity, the parties he and Loma threw every September, his bad jokes. (“Sheridan!” he would boom, “Have you heard the one …”) He called on all of us to embrace one another and celebrate our differences. Now more than ever we need to honor his memory by carrying that message forward.

—Tom Sheridan

Tom Sheridan is the author of Arizona: A History and has worked at both the Arizona Historical Society and the Arizona State Museum.

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click to enlarge Adios, Big Jim: Saying Goodbye to the Man Who Stirred Tucson's Melting Pot
Courtesy Photo
Jim Griffith in a folk dance.

My world would’ve been different had I not been blessed with meeting Jim Griffith. I learned from him; he supported my work; and offered advice when I didn’t even know I needed it. 

One memorable trip across to Sonora began in Nogales, Arizona. I am a border dweller from Texas, but I didn’t know the Arizona-Sonora border and despite having close friends and family in Nogales, I had not ventured south of Nogales until I went with Big Jim. His encyclopedic knowledge of the folklore of the region was almost as rich as his love for the land and the people. On that memorable trip, I met some of the folks he had been working with for decades, learned about particular folk saints from that borderland, like Malverde—he had been working on what would become his book Folk Saints of the Borderlands: Victims, Bandits, and Healers (2003)—and I learned of his penchant for telling tall tales. 

He could sure spin a yarn and only an experienced raconteur would notice the glimmer in his eye that signaled you were in for a treat! Most people believed him until his grin would turn to laughter as the listener figured out Jim had been telling a tall tale. 

At American Folklore Society (AFS) meetings, he would jam with the best of them, deliver brilliant papers with powerful images, and chat with budding folklorists, listening intently and offering sources from his vast knowledge. I remember such a conversation after a paper I delivered on the Texas border saints sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s.

His and Loma’s home filled with folk objects and books was a welcoming space for many of us and he never tired of sharing his space and his stories. I will miss him at AFS, and on my infrequent visits to Tucson. 

—Norma E. Cantú

Norma E. Cantú is president of the American Folklore Society and the Norine R. and T. Frank Murchison Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Trinity University.

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click to enlarge Adios, Big Jim: Saying Goodbye to the Man Who Stirred Tucson's Melting Pot
Courtesy photo
A young Jim Griffith

One day around 1995, a giant walked into my office at the Tucson Weekly. 

At 6 foot 7, he easily towered over my 5-foot-4 frame. But he was a gentle giant with a massive smile. 

He took one look at me, gave me one of those smiles and said, “You have the map of Ireland all over your face.” 

Now I was the one beaming. I had finally met Big Jim Griffith, a renowned folklorist who specialized in the peoples of northern Mexico and southern Arizona also Pimeria Alta, be they the Mayo, the Yaqui, the Tohono O’odham and  Mexicanos above and below the border and Mexican Americans in South Tucson and beyond.

I learned that day he was interested in the cultures and traditions of everyone he met, including me, an Irish-American from Philadelphia. 

Tucson Meet Yourself, the annual cultural festival Big Jim and his wife, Loma Griffith, founded way back in 1974, is all about celebrating the Tucsonans who have come from the world over. 

“A Filipino dance group was on stage,” he told me one year. “Ukrainian kids in costumes were waiting to go on. A Norwegian man in a horned helmet and fur was selling food.” He was reveling in the moment, he says, when “a lady came over and said to me, ‘This is just like everything else in Tucson: nothing but Mexicans and Indians.’” It was Big Jim’s job for years to help Tucsonans see beyond that narrow perspective.  

In turn, Big Jim’s marvelous books taught me about my new home in the southwest; I learned not only what the Pimeria Alta is but why Mexican folk art equals the European Baroque.

He was a Ph.D. with a position  at the UA, and an author of at least nine books. But he moved easily between the halls of academe and the streets. Over the years I saw him emceeing an Asian Indian dance concert; telling silly jokes at plays; and wailing on his beloved banjo in the Posada procession in the old barrio.

But the happiest I ever saw him was in a tour in Sonora. He had joined an all-star cast of brilliant tour guides running a trip to the mission churches. He and his great friend Bernard “Bunny” Fontana, an anthropologist who studied the Tohono O’odham, led a merry busload of fans across Sonora. Over a couple of days, the group visited the tiny jewel-like mission and a couple of the big ones, including the Magdalena church where Father Kino’s remains rest. We listened to a talented soloist singing in a sanctuary and we shared jolly family lunches at Mexican homes. And everywhere we went, Big Jim would pull out his ever-present banjo, sit under a tree or squeeze in the bus, and send his music sailing out into the world. 

—Margaret Regan

Margaret Regan is Tucson Weekly’s longtime arts writer and the author of The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands and Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire.

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click to enlarge Adios, Big Jim: Saying Goodbye to the Man Who Stirred Tucson's Melting Pot
Courtesy photo
Jim Griffith inspired some folk art himself.

How does anyone in Tucson ever have a chance to fill the big shoes of Big Jim Griffith, who for decades has served as our own local hero and (bi-)national treasure?

Whether you heard him barking out Uncle Dave Macon ditties over his banjo, telling bilingual puns at Tucson Eat Yourself or reading from his books on santos, street tacos and folk chapels of La Frontera, Big Jim was ferociously memorable to say the least. 

And yet it was not just Jim’s legacy—or Loma and Jim’s memory—that will last in the changing forms of Tucson Meet Yourself, Southwest Folklore Alliance and the City of Gastronomy; it was the whole entourage of wayward friends, mariachis and sad ones, street musicians and chickenscratch polka partners who waila-ed away the hours with him in the Snorin’ Desert. 

There was nothing normal, ordinary or conventional about how James Griffith lived, wrote, ate, clawhammered or danced the schottische. He was a supernatural power that helped Tucson galvanize its distinctive image among all Southwestern cities and celebrate its homegrown talents. Whatever Tucson was before Big Jim moved from Santa Barbara to bless the dry, dusty, stinkin’ desert earth, he was the catalyst who guided it into becoming more than the sum of its parts.  

The last time I visited Jim on his porch near San Xavier Mission, he was bound to his wheelchair and had a stubble on his chin that was wilder than a grizzly bear. I went there ostensibly to have him tell me stories about Lalo Guerrero and Joaquin Murrieta, but I was really there to hear him spin the kind of yarn that no one else in the world could do. 

As his narrative digressed and meandered all over Hellnback, his eyes grew wide and wild, his mole took on the aura of a third eye, his laughter soared and his voice blasted like a 10-piece Banda Sinaloense on steroids. We slid into sheer silliness, buoyant with bad puns and grateful for all we had seen, heard and done together over 40 years of fish-tailing down sandy desert roads and slumming in cantinas on both sides of the border. I was delighted—if not eternally grateful—to momentarily be a sidekick once again for a Borderline Fool as magnanimous and monstrous as Big Jim.

Let the Little Guy go in Peace.   

—Gary Paul Nabhan

Gary Paul Nabhan is an ethnobotanist, the founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH and the author of multiple books, including Mesquite: An Arboreal Love Affair and Where Our Food Comes From.

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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 my geek childhood heroes Ewen Whittaker and Dr. Gerard Kuiper at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Very exciting. 

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, and 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 the way 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, all with what he termed “A hint of communion” to it all.

And while Tucson Meet Yourself was where 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 other 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 god in the Southeastern U.S. where he took first place in several national claw hammer banjo

In 1987, when I was hired 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 Norteño 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 paper. 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.

—Daniel Buckley

Daniel Buckley is a former reporter for the Tucson Citizen who is now working on The Mariachi Miracle, a film and companion book about how mariachi music has inspired schoolchildren across Tucson.

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