By Robert Downes
Thirty-seven years ago, Jim Crockett set a pen to paper in a
reflective mood and wrote The Manistee River, possibly the
best-known folk song ever to come out of Northern Michigan.
Through the years the song, which is a waltzing melody of family
troubles washed away by a peaceful river, has been performed so often
at folk festivals, concerts, and on college radio station WNMC, that
the mantle of elder statesman of Northern Michigans folk community
has settled on Crocketts shoulders. Especially when taking into
account his other deep-folk compositions such as The Last Believer,
a defiant anthem for social justice and the values of the 60s, or
Barrel of Whiskey, about the American immigrant experience.
You can hear those soul-stirring songs this Thursday, Aug. 5 in a rare
public appearance when Crockett and long-time friend Fred Ball perform
at the Delbert Michel Studio at 516 E. Front Street in Traverse City.
With his shoulder-length, salt & pepper hair and mountain man beard,
Crockett, 68, projects an intense, almost fierce presence on stage.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that he teaches Spanish,
English composition and rhetoric at Northwestern Michigan College and
is as mellow as a shot of Jack Daniels in conversation.
A LIFE OF MUSIC
Its no surprise, however, that music has been a big part of
Crocketts life since childhood. He grew up in Kalamazoo, where the
school district had the novel idea of providing each student in the
fifth grade with a ukelele and weekly lessons.
Ive always done music, Crockett says. I had an a cappela singing
group in the fourth grade and was writing songs for it even back
He says his first guitar was an $18.50 Stella that he pestered his
mother to buy him at the age of 13. It had a neck like a friggin
two-by-four and I had an awful time playing it, but by the night I got
it I was playing three chords and singing.
If Crockett looks more like a farmer than a college language
instructor, you can credit his roots:
I used to be a dairy farmer and farmed for quite awhile in St.
Johns, he says of the community outside Lansing. But I started out
as a teacher first and Ive always been all of the above in the
things Ive done. I moved here in 1970, and just like everybody who
lives here, I do a little bit of everything.
Here is Kingsley, where Crockett owns a farm. Although he no longer
farms, he still cuts 60 cords of wood each summer to stay in shape.
Kingsley has served as the setting for several of his songs, including
one that involved a barroom confrontation, and of course, The
Manistee River, which runs near his home a few miles south.
How did he happen to write that particular song, merging the river
with family heartache in June, 1973 at the age of 31?
I think I was just feeling sorry for myself at a time when I was a
new dad and was at a high point in my life -- just like rare nerve
ganglia, he says. And I realized that no matter how dysfunctional
the adults in your life are, you can still have happiness; its as
simple as having a beautiful new baby girl. When youre feeling
crappy, you could just go down and sit there by the river for 15
minutes and feel better.
Crockett estimates that hes written 100 songs or so through the
years. Some have the same gritty, underdog,
dont-take-shit-from-no-one quality as those by Bob Dylan or John
I was influenced heavily by Bob Dylan and Prine when I was younger,
but I think everybody was, and I had other influences as well, such as
Motown or the songs we played when I was in four- and five-piece bands
back in the day. If we liked a song, wed play it, no matter who
But I try to keep an edge with my own songs, he adds. Its about
protest as much as anything -- about the crap going wrong in the world
and about stuff in my own life. I think thats the case with most
songwriters -- a sort of therapy for people who dont want to pay a
therapist, or like self-medication without the drugs.
In any event, comparisons to Dylan or Prine are a bit out of sync,
since Crockett began playing folk music well before the heyday of
either of those luminaries, and even before the Great Folk Scare of
the early 60s: he purchased his Martin acoustic guitar in 1957, when
folk was just getting big. Today, its a valuable collectors item.
Fred Ball, a singer-songwriter from Charlevoix who will join him in
concert this Thursday, is an old friend who goes back 35 years.
I met Fred in 1975 back when he turned the Glen Arbor Rolling Mills
grist mill into a recording studio, Crockett says. He had this
state-of-the-art recording studio with a 32-track recording equipment
and asked me to come up and break the place in for him. No one knew
at the time that he was also a singer-songwriter.
Jim Crockett and Fred Ball perform this Thursday, Aug. 5 at 8 p.m. at
the Delbert Michel Studio, 516 E. Front St., Traverse City. $15
advance, $20 at the door. Info: 231-941-8667.
The Manistee River
-- by Jim Crockett
The Manistee River
it runs near my home
I sit on her banks
when Im feeling alone.
She plays with my spirit
she eases my bones.
Shes the finest old lady
that Ive ever known
My daddy was a blind man
although he could see.
He raised up my brothers,
my sisters and me.
He married my mother,
it didnt last long.
She went to Chicago
and never came home.
If you see my mother
tell her for me.
I got me a woman,
Ive got cows in the stable
a nice piece of land.
I go to my river
whenever I can.