SOUL BAG review of Just A Dream
Diamond Jim Greene ~ Country, But No Bumpkin!
By Jacques Lacava, Spring Issue 2000
Portraits in Blue – Translated from original French version
These days it seems that blues can be found in the most unlikely places. This time, it was at a booth at a food expo held in the biggest conference center in the world, McCormick Place, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Jim Greene was there singing, wailing on his National steel guitar, in front of a wall of barbecue sauce bottles. His high, lilting voice evoked in turn Tampa Reid, John Hurt and Blind Willie McTell. Was I hallucinating? Did Diamond Greene really live in the trendy suburb where I worked? I managed to meet up with him over a plate of catfish, because I had to find out how he had ended up in this place.
Greene is not at all a country bumpkin; on the contrary, he’s open-minded and sensitive; he loves to comment on the sociopolitical situation of African Americans. Born in Chicago in the early 1950s, his earliest childhood memories are of nameless musicians, unknown outside of their neighborhoods, which at the time were isolated, unstable enclaves. His defining moment came at age 7 on Ellis Avenue, where blind singer and guitarist Arvella Gray drew wildly enthusiastic crowds, a cup hooked on his jacket that was often overflowing with change. Little Jim would run to pick up stray dimes and quarters off the ground and stuff them back in the pockets of the old man.
At 17 he buys an electric guitar, listens to both Nashville’s WLAC and Hendrix, and joins a variety of musical groups. As he puts it, “I heard Johnny Winter before Robert Johnson.” So he comes to know the frustrations that go along with jam sessions, the stifling tendencies of ensembles. Fed up, he joins the Marines in 1977. While based in Washington, D.C., he encounters the artists he will consider his strongest influences: John Cephas, Archie Edwards and John Jackson. He thinks back to his childhood and realizes that this type of acoustic sound that comes so easily to him is the best way for him to express himself. Jim throws himself into the Piedmont blues scene alongside “Bowlin’ Green” [John Cephas] in Virginia, and nurtures his new style with gusto. We next find him in a park in La Jolla California in 1988, barely surviving, living the lifestyle of a hobo and playing with an acoustic group called the Blues Ambassadors, looking like they just stepped out of the 1930s and joined by singer Earl Thomas with Billy Winston on harmonica. His biggest moments during this time were opening for James Cotton and playing by the ocean at Jim Croce’s bar. Not much else would come from this stint on the west coast, except that here is where he would earn his nickname “Diamond,” when a pretty fan, overcome with emotion, would take off one of her jeweled earrings and press it into good-looking Jim’s hat.
After that Jim would make his way back to the Midwest, stopping off at the clubs of Minnesota, then Utrecht in 1995 and Lucerne in 1996. Jim finally settled down in the blues capital, having come full circle, and found an old house that resembled a barn straight out of Mississippi. He would rehearse there for his first gig at the Chicago Blues Festival of 1997, and decided to record there as well while performing for an audience of friends that he could trust to keep quiet. Indeed, from time to time only the sound of birds chirping can be heard. The result is an intimate feel reminiscent of a juke joint.
Will he manage to stay faithful to his roots or will he end up moving away from them in the way of a Keb’Mo’? In any case, he doesn’t really like his CD on Black Magic (“Just a Dream”, BMCD 9032) and is currently dedicating himself to producing carefully crafted verse centering on soulful, reflective themes, illustrating daily life at the end of the millenium. This doesn’t keep him from covering a Kate Bush song for a tribute album, or from crafting his liner notes for his CDs with painstaking care, commenting on each track. These days he often goes to visit Honeyboy Edwards, who tells him secrets and anecdotes about Robert Johnson…Diamond Jim Greene is definitely a man who has paid his dues.