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James Durst (November 6, 1945 - April 1, 2016) - by Ron Olesko of Sing Out!

James Durst, 1945 – 2016

“I love unconditionally.” — James Durst

When you heard those words uttered by James Durst, you knew that he was speaking the truth. His music and his life were filled with messages of the deep personal connections we have with each other as well as the planet and all the creatures that make up this world. James Durst left his physical existence on at 4:57am on April 1 after suffering an accident on March 26. His spirit will continue on through the lessons he taught through his music and life.

James Durst / photo by Elaine Heinsman ©

James Durst
photo by Elaine Heinsman ©

James Durst came into this world on November 6, 1945. He was born in a military hospital, his parents were both officers in the Army Air Corp during World War II. It was a musical family as his mother played a bit of piano and violin and his father played guitar and tenor sax in their high school days. After expressing interest in his dad’s guitar, his parents bought him a starter instrument and he began teaching himself to play a few songs. Like others who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, James became fond of the folk music. On the radio he would hear the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four and other commercial artists of the era. Growing up in a military family that traveled frequently, a sense of wanderlust was instilled in James and he was also drawn to the music of artists like Theodore Bikel and Bob Gibson who explored the music of other cultures.

As he grew older, he became exposed to the protest singers of the folk revival who were singing about the issues that members of his generation were grappling with. Issues like the growing Vietnam war and the growing environmental movement were affecting James on an emotional level, and these songs were providing the inspiration to fight for peace, brotherhood and the preservation of the planet.

After struggling with the direction his life should take, in 1969 James graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the Radio/Television/Film department of California State University at Long Beach. Throughout his school years, James was singing songs in small clubs and libraries. Realizing that he was not cut out for a 9 to 5 job in an office, his love of music provide him with a path. Motivated by the songs he loved, James let the music carry him for the next 50 years of his life. He would soon be writing songs in addition to singing the songs he loved from other songwriters. James creativity would lead him into many interesting and fulfilling projects.

One of his earliest musical accomplishments was taking the Grand Prize in the 1965 ‘Mon Ami/Mecca’ Folk Music Contest held in Orange County, California. One of the other contestants that James bested in that long forgotten completion was a banjo picker and future comedian named Steve Martin. Around that time, James began exploring acting, and his abilities were utilized at California State in a student film produced by a classmate, Steven Spielberg. James would find himself in Munich, Germany in 1970 where he was part of the German cast of Hairalongside Donna Summer.

As a traveling artist, James performed for audiences in all 50 states and in over 200 cities in 45 countries. His travels provided him with opportunities to explore numerous cultures and musical traditions. His tours included appearances throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia including visits to Russia, Japan, Vietnam, India and Israel. James collected and sang songs in more than two dozen languages. He would note that while there were subtle differentiation’s among these cultures and their music, in the end it was all music created by and played for “folks.” He played for audiences of all ages, composed over 230 songs, published four books of his songs, and made 18 recordings. In 1981 he was a “New Folk” winner at the Kerrville Festival and played the main stage of the legendary festival in 1982, 1988 and 2006. James also shared the stage with many notables from the folk music community during his lengthy career.

Work o' the Weavers / photo by Brian Kanof ©

Work o’ the Weavers
photo by Brian Kanof ©

In 2003, James founded the group Work o’ the Weavers with friends David Bernz, Martha Sandefer and Mark Murphy. The group celebrated the musical legacy and spirit of the seminal folk group the Weavers, singing their classic songs alongside newer songs that the group might have been singing in current times. Their faithful arrangements of the Weavers songs drew praise from Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, who were the surviving members of the Weavers. In concert, Work o’ The Weavers shared the music and story of the Weavers rise to prominence in the early 1950s, their subsequent battles with blacklisting during the Communist scare of the period, and their historic reunion at Carnegie Hall in 1955 that resurrected their music and careers and sparked the folk revival that was to follow. Work o’ the Weavers recorded two well-received CDs and performed in 28 states as well as Canada and Israel.

James love of our planet and its creatures could be found in many of his songs as well as multi-media theatrical productions. One of his songwriting accomplishments was the epic A Whaling Trilogy which was orchestrated by Kim Scharnberg for symphony, chorus and soloists. He also was the author/composer of an eco-peace world musical called Hue Manatee’s Quest that featured James original songs alongside songs from artists including Bill Staines, Lorre Wyatt and Jay Mankita.

These are only a few of the creative projects that James Durst accomplished during his lifetime. His untimely passing leaves a deep void in the folk music community.  In 2009 James rebounded from a serious health crisis and many of us thought that he would rebound again. He continued to perform and create brilliant songs until his final days.

Perhaps the most fitting description of James Durst and what he accomplished in song and in life can be found in piece that appeared on his website. After performing a concert in Macedonia, a woman approached James backstage after a concert. Through an interpreter she said “I didn’t understand a word, but” touching the area of her heart, “I understood what you were saying.” I thank James Durst for showing us how to understand.

My condolences to his wife Madhumita and their loving family and friends, and all the fans who were lucky to spend time in his presence. Those of us who knew this minstrel were inspired by his gentle spirit and loving nature. James Durst loved puns and making people laugh, and I’m betting his passing on April Fool’s Day was his way of getting in a last laugh. His infectious smile and the warm expression in his voice will forever be etched in my memory.

updated: 6 years ago