Hometown: Pasadena, California
Web site: http://www.jamesdurst.com/
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The following was derived from answers to questions posed by Turkish journalism student Ugur Dinçer for a print interview:
I was born on the 6th of November, 1945, on the 6th floor of what is now the County Courthouse in Pasadena, California. Having been formerly a hotel, it was taken over for use as a military hospital during WWII. I mention the 6th floor only because, the family story is that after 72 hours of labor, Mom threatened to jump if they didn’t deliver me NOW! I don’t remember.
My parents first met on 31 October, 1944, and were married about 9 weeks later at the base where they were stationed in Fort Worth, Texas. They were both officers in what was then called the Army Air Corps (later the Air Force); my mother was a nurse and a First Lieutenant, and my father was a pilot and flight instructor, and a Second Lieutenant. They were inseparable companions for 56 years and a week until Dad’s peaceful passing on 8 November 2000.
It was shortly after their January 7th wedding in Fort Worth that I was conceived. This makes me, at least conceptually, a Texan. Because the war was still raging, there was a very real possibility that Dad could be sent to the Pacific at any time to join the conflict. For this reason it made sense to become pregnant as soon as possible so that Mom could be discharged and Dad kept stateside. All this was made moot with the end of the war in August, 1945.
Discharged from service, they drove west to Los Angeles, California, where Mom’s parents and two sisters resided. That’s how I came to be born a Californian.
I have long joked that I burst from the womb singing and, taking the doctor’s pat on the back as encouragement, have been singing ever since. Both parents would seem to have tinkled a musical predisposition into the gene pool. Mom had dabbled in piano and violin, and Dad had jockeyed between guitar and tenor sax, each in his/her respective high school ensemble. And although both can carry a tune, it can be safely said that neither was destined to distinguish him/herself as a vocalist.
My only sibling, my sister Judith, followed me into the world some two-and-a-half years later in June of 1948. With her clear soprano, she has enjoyed solo opportunities in each and every church or school choir she has graced. Of the four of us, however, it was only I who entertained the illusion that music might be considered something more than just an avocation. I have yet to awaken from the dream.
In my first year on the planet, Dad took a job in the middle of the Midwestern state of Indiana. When I was five, we moved to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park; then a bit further from the city, to Lombard, when I was 8. At 13, we were transferred once again, to the northwestern Illinois town of Sterling. And just as this displaced new teen was getting oriented, after only a year we were uprooted once again to return to Southern California. Thus did I learn to keep my roots close to the surface and well-spread out for maximum nourishment.
It was around this time, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, that folk music began to permeate the membrane of American awareness. The Media had caught its scent and pounced upon it like a predator upon prey. Sensitive and impressionable, I responded readily to its fresh and unpretentious authenticity. It was a medium that spoke straight to my heart. Real stories, real issues, real people; and easily absorbed. Simple and straightforward.
Dad had a guitar in the corner that I suddenly became aware of, as if for the first time. It had a clunky, kind of squarish neck that was difficult to play, so when I expressed interest, my folks bought me my own starter instrument that came complete with 8 lessons. I recall taking 2 or 3 before I realized that I wasn’t learning what I wanted to learn–chords to accompany me when I sang. So I set off independently, with the help of instruction books and records, and pointers from this or that friend, and began to become what’s been termed ‘self-taught.’
Honing my newly-acquired skills by practicing each day after school, I managed to teach myself a couple of rudimentary songs, and was ready when given the chance to share them with classmates at school. The times being what they were, and the music being what it was, I somehow managed to garner the much-desired approval of my peers, enough so anyway to encourage me to go home and expand the repertoire. Simply put, the process has not changed all that much in nearly 40 years.
Perhaps because of my shallow root system as a result of moving numerous times while growing up, I’ve had an ever-growing interest in the world around me — a wanderlust. My grandmother (my dad’s mom) must have recognized something of that in me when she penned a prose-poem she titled ‘Travel On‘ for my high school graduation. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, she never before or since wrote anything else like it. Perhaps being the firstborn grandchild, I became the recipient of her one and only spark of creative expression. Whatever the case, her words could only reinforce the nascent desire I was beginning to experience for the discovery of the world that lay beyond the walls of my perception. I began to ‘Travel On’, and music became my ticket.
After toying momentarily in preparation for a career in medicine (measured in nanoseconds), I realized that music would have to play a central role in my life’s drama. So for the first 2 years of my college studies, I called myself a music major and focused on courses aiming me in the direction of a life envisioned as either a choral conductor or an ethnomusicologist.
Both, I finally realized, required much more in the way of discipline and rigorous study habits than I was, in late adolescence, able to muster. So, as I graduated from Fullerton (community) College into a 4-year environment at Long Beach State College (somewhat later to be transformed into California State University at Long Beach), I also shifted majors to the newly created Radio/Television/Film Department. And it is there I struggled to squeeze out a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1969.
All through school, from late high school through college, though, I was performing songs, accompanying myself on guitar, at small clubs, libraries and events, which helped to finance my education. (It didn’t require much, as a state college education for California residents at the time was essentially tuition-free, with most of the expense amounting to the cost of books and supplies.) I was becoming a musician without being fully aware of it. And closer to graduating, I became increasingly mindful that I was not cut out for the politics, the routine, the restrictive four walls of a corporate life, even in the potentially creative end of the Communications Arts. And although, for the initial 8 or 9 years I had been expressing myself through the songs of those writers I most admired and emulated, I soon began to find the words and music that reflected my own clarifying perspective, just as a lens slowly comes into focus. The Muses finally tracked me down. And I was ready to listen.
My earliest influences included the ‘popular’ folksingers–the ones heard on the radio: The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four, The Limeliters and their subsequent clones. But somewhere along the line, I was introduced to the singing of Pete Seeger, whose exuberance and ability to incite an audience to sing was intoxicating. It was an era of revolution, of sorts, and ‘protest’ singers were burgeoning. Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan. And there was much to protest–war, racism, pollution, greed; and counter qualities and conditions to rally behind–peace, tolerance, brotherhood and equality, justice and ecology. Folk music, unlike the other popular forms, addressed issues of substance; issues that were, and still remain–despite advances owing not in small part to the emotional and intellectual stimulus evoked by folksongs–subjects requiring ongoing vigilance.
Numerous other influential names could be recalled — Bob Gibson, Theo Bikel, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez; a bottomless well of thirst-quenching, soul-nourishing song makers whose output stoked these inner fires of creativity. It was a richly fertile time in which to be a young plant, with no shortage of compost from which to gain sustenance.
What is ‘folk music?’ What was once generically categorized as Folk Music has since been subdivided into a multitude of specializations. We have Old-timey, Bluegrass, Roots and Blues; Celtic, Balkan, Latin and World Musics from as many places as there are places; even among song writers there are subtle genre differentiations, as in Singer/Songwriter and Americana. Ultimately, however, it’s just music made for and by–folks!
My instrument is the guitar. Although I can tinker with other folk-type instruments, such as the American adaptation of the zither called the autoharp, it’s the guitar whose resonant and vibrant voice most satisfyingly reinforces my own.
As I stated earlier, my earliest performances were among classmates and friends, in an informal atmosphere. I don’t honestly remember my very first time to step upon a stage for a more formal presentation. Rather, I recall snippets of occasions, little mental video edits from throughout the years; memories both fond and not-so.
But the first response, or responses, must have been at least relatively favorable, or else the chances are real good that I wouldn’t have kept doing it!
In addition to song writing and singing, I’ve enjoyed at various times in my life, drawing and painting, photography, graphic design–visual expressions, as well as poetry and writing.
My interest in songs from other cultures was first sparked by the singing of such performers as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Theodore Bikel. It coincided with my curiosity about other people’s cultures. And as I began to have the opportunity to travel to distant lands, I found some songs while others found me, and I began to grow a collection of songs in a variety of languages. The ones that seem to command the most interest are those in Vietnamese, Icelandic, Hebrew and Yiddish, German, Turkish, Greek, Spanish, Russian and Japanese; and I’ve also recorded songs in Bengali, Danish, Chinese, French, Indonesian/Malaysian, and songs with choruses in Azeri, Burmese, Arabic and Swahili.
When producing an album, I choose to allow the words, melodies and instruments to be as clear as possible, and as true to their original intent; in other words, with a minimum of echoes and reverbs and highly processed effects. I want it to be as real as possible, not artificially enhanced.
Concerts are where I derive my greatest musical pleasure. It’s where I can finally interact with and engage my audience. It’s the completion of the act of writing a song, when it can be heard. Otherwise, it’s like the old question: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” A song is incomplete without the audience to respond.