James McCandless had a big workingman's heart that carried around life's humble glories.
The Chicago singer-songwriter was a fixture at dozens of Chicago music rooms including the Abbey Pub, the No Exit Cafe, the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Earl of Old Town and FitzGerald's in Berwyn, where he debuted his latest record "Lucky Day" in February. McCandless died April 16 after a fall in his north side home. He was 68.
The "Lucky Day" CD cover featured a photo of natty Mr. McCandless and his wife Dee on their 1985 wedding day.
Mr. McCandless was a craftsman who absorbed everything around him....
In 1988 he bought standing room only tickets to the National Basketball Association All Star Game at Chicago Stadium to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Mr. McCandless had composed the song "Kareem and Me" about each of them going bald together.
Mr. McCandless and Dee attended the Woodstock music festival. The first one. They painted crackers on the side of their van, which broke down outside of Cleveland, Ohio. They hitchhiked east until a kind driver took them to Woodstock---Vermont. Their tent and their dog Max are in the movie.
"My songs are not beyond people," Mr. McCandless once told me over a beer at a North Side bar.
"They're right there. The feelings and the thoughts. I keep my ears open. Words jump out at you and that's usually the starting point. Then I grab the guitar and try to put the music to the rhythm of those words." Mr. McCandless sang with the distinctive resonance of Johnny Cash or Roger Miller. He adroitly blended Western storytelling with American folk idioms.
You heard him once and you remembered him.
Mr. McCandless was born in Hanford, Washington. He had worked for 15 years as a Chicago electrician. His father was an electrician who worked on the plutonium bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Mr. McCandless quit his electrician gig because the job was rough on his hands, but again, he used his observational skills to write songs about tradesmen. Mr. McCandless's grandfather Grover Cleveland McCandless (his great grandfather was Franklin Pierce McCandless) was a turn-of-the-century pioneer.
Mr. McCandless taught classical guitar between 1982 and 1988 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Ron Lazzeretti is a Chicago songwriter who accompanied Mr. McCandless on guitar on and off since 1996.
He cited Mr. McCandless's 1991 release "Out West Somewhere" along with the Beatles Sgt. Pepper as one of his top ten all time favorite albums. "Out West" has not been heard by nearly enough people," Lazzeretti said. A song called 'In the Fog' ends the record." And he recited the lyrics:
"In the fog, in the rain, by the riverside
There were pledges made in the dark that night
And they hung in the air like Chinese lights.
In the fog, in the rain, by the riverside."
Lazzeretti explained, "He wrote in the same way Randy Newman puts out very simple language but seems to carry a lot of weight."
Long time Chicago singer-songwriter Chris Farrell met Mr. McCandless in the early 1980s at the Earl of Old Town. Mr. McCandless showed up a a Sunday night open mike hosted by brilliant singer songwriter Frank Tedesso. "Any one of Jim's lyrics would stand up on it's own," Farrell said. "A song lyric doesn't need to do that. It is meant to be sung. It isn't anything negative about the lyric if it doesn't recite well. But Jim's did. They were amazing. They could work either way."
Jim Craig is owner of Hogeye Music, 1920 Central St. in Evanston. He carries a complete catalog of Mr. McCandless's CDs. "He was a musician's musician," Craig said. "He was always saddened by the fact that he wasn't better received in by critics, and I guess the public. But every musician in town will know about Jim McCandless and the quality of his work."
Mr. McCandless was a bit of a racounteur. A few years ago he met an Irish woman at the airport who told him it had been 'six years from home' since she had been to Ireland. Lazzeretti recalled, "Jim said that's how the Irish talk--it's instantly poetic. She was using time as a measure of distance. That applied to a lot of what he did. Jim was a poet, but it wasn't the type of poetry that had you scratching your head."
Mr. McCandless then composed the instrumental "Six Years From Home."
Pete Seeger was a fan of Mr. McCandless.
Mr. McCandless once shared a typewritten single spaced 1985 letter from Seeger which read in part, "At my age I'm unable top learn much in the way of new songs, bit you've got a lot of great poetry there. Don't be surprised if other poets start swiping your prized lines like 'If housework was a lawsuit, I'd settle out of court'."
In recent years Mr. McCandless had endured diabetes and a kidney transplant. "With the health challenges he hadn't been putting out as much music," Lazzeretti said. "But in the last three or four years he was releasing a CD a year. He got real prolific."
Singer-songwriter Andrew Calhoun knew Mr. McCandless for more than 30 years. During the mid 1980s Mr. McCandless opened a volume of poetry to Baudelaire poem and put it in Calhoun's lap.
Here is the conclusion of the poem, "The Albatross." (Translated by Richard Wilbur):
"...This rider of winds, how awkward he is, and weak!
How droll he seems, who late was all grace!
A sailor pokes a pipestem into his beak;
Another, hobbling, mocks his trammeled pace.
The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds
Familiar of storms, of stars, and of all high things;
Exiled on earth amidst its hooting crowds,
He cannot walk, borne down by his giant wings."
Mr. McCandless is survived by his wife.
They had lived together 19 years before they got married in '85.
In 1988 he smiled and said, "We're sort of like moldyweds. So on our anniversary, I buy her flowers, a box of candy and I write her a song.
"Those are the things you do on your anniversary."
A memorial service is being planned.