The endless journeyman: Portland icon Lewi Longmire

By Sue Zalokar, Staff Writer

Lewi Longmire is a staple in the Portland roots rock ‘n’ roll music diet.  He plays gigs more nights than not, appearing with any number of bands. In a 2008 interview with the Willamette Week, he said that in 2003, he peaked at playing 282 shows that year. He continues to collaborate tirelessly with other musicians, from national to local acts, including Michael Hurley, Victoria Williams, Blue Giant, Dolorean, The Minus 5, Fernando, Little Sue, Casey Neill, Michael Jodell, Freak Mountain Ramblers and The Peasants.

A multi-instrumentalist, the fair-skinned redhead left his home in Albuquerque, N.M., 16 years ago for the more forgiving skies of the Pacific Northwest and headed for the vibrant music scene in Portland. In that time, Longmire has cultivated a reputation as a “hired gun”. He is the booking agent for the Laurelthirst Pub.

He recently returned from an Alaskan tour with the Lewi Longmire Band and sat down with Street Roots to talk about songwriting, the Vanport Flood and life in Portland.

Sue Zalokar: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard you play?

Lewi Longmire: That’s the question that everyone wants to know of all musicians. It’s difficult to quantify in that sort of way.  I personally am not into these descriptions of music that are a mish mosh of a person’s influences.  Our music is like Frank Zappa has a baby with Courtney Love and they all go out to coffee.  My music is rock ‘n’ roll music played with the spirit of late 60s, early 70s.  I like it kind of rough and ready. I like more modern music, but I can’t say that a lot of that influence has seeped into my music. I tell people the music is along the lines of Neil Young and Crazy Horse — loud, electric rock ‘n’ roll, but with folk songwriting at its heart. S.Z.: You currently have, not one or two, but seven (or more) active music projects:  Lewi Longmire Band, Portland Country Underground, Michael Hurley and the Croakers, Lewi Longmire James Low Duo, Denver, Fernando and Ducky Pig. How do you manage all of that?

L.L.: Through the miracle of calendars and datebooks. Really,the Lewi Longmire Band and maybe to a lesser extent, the Lewi Longmire James Low Duo are the only projects that I am actively in control of any major portion of the creative aspect. I’ve pared down in recent years from what I used to do. I’ve been learning how to manage my time better — to make sure that I’m doing the things that nurture my creativity and actual allow me to be truly creative, like writing songs. I do this for my living, primarily, so there is an impetus to keep playing live a lot because it’s the only way I can make rent.

S.Z.: I have heard you described as Portland’s hired gun.

L.L.: Really, a strong point in whatever skill set I have developed as a musician is that I do a lot of improvisation work. You could hire me as your lead guitarist, and I may have never heard the songs. And if you’re confident enough that I’m gonna do a good enough job, I have no problem with going and playing an entire set of music that I’ve never heard before. With that said, my learning curve is pretty high. I get a lot of session work and to do a lot of live shows because I’m pretty quick at sussing out a song.

S.Z.: Did you start on guitar?

L.L.:  I started on trumpet actually.

S.Z.: In school?

L.L.:  In the fourth grade. I transferred to French horn at some point in high school and played into college. But I started playing guitar concurrently as a teenager. The wind instruments were always just reading music and playing notes on paper, and I was honestly never very good. My lung capacity was not great. My embouchure — I have bad teeth — it didn’t work with the mouthpiece, or something like that. It was only in playing guitar that somehow I learned that you can improvise and you can just make it up.

S.Z.: On your latest and the third release for the Lewi Longmire Band, “Tales of the Left Coast Roasters” you tell a compelling story in “Vanport 1948.” What was the motivation for this song?

L.L.: I was lucky on that one as a songwriter. The song just came to me. I often will take my dog for walks out at the dog park near the Portland International Speedway, which is on the site where Vanport used to be. So, this complete verse came into my head, and it just kept spinning around. As I was lying in bed that night, this verse just kept spinning around in my head, and other verses came and would attach themselves to it. More words kept coming. It was driving me crazy. My mind wouldn’t be quiet, and I really just wanted to sleep. Finally I got out of bed and went downstairs, and I wrote down everything I had and then I was able to go to sleep. In the morning, I looked at what I had and kind of moved things around so that it had a more chronological feel, that the story made sense. But I really only changed a word or two. Later, I went to read up on the flood to see if I was just making a mockery of the whole thing. It turns out that whatever I had imagined was pretty much what had happened. It was almost a true story that I feel like I was channeling, because I didn’t really know the story before I wrote it down.

S.Z.: Can you quickly summarize that story for someone who hasn’t heard Vanport 1948?

L.L.: There was a housing community of big public works project, it was called Vanport and it was in North Portland. It was called Vanport because of Vancouver and Portland. And it was a housing project set up primarily for workers in the Kaiser shipyards who had all moved to the area to aid the war effort. And because of their working on the war effort, there was a very relaxed policy along race lines. It was an integrated community which was incredibly rare for Portland, then — and to a degree, now.

There were a lot of lower-income African American and white folks living there and it was built on really low-lying land near the Columbia River. And at one point one of the dykes burst and flooded the entire area and displaced thousands of people. Because of certain race policies at that time in Portland, the displaced African American people were not allowed to move anywhere into Portland except into very specific areas. There were only certain places that it was acceptable for a black person to live in those times. It put a lot of strain — there was a lot of influx — into an area that was already fairly crowded.

Vanport was interesting to me because it was very much like the Katrina situation in New Orleans in that as late as like a couple of hours before the dam burst, people were worrying, waters were rising, and they had actually sent flyers around on all of the houses telling people not to panic, that everything was just fine and there was no need to move to higher ground. And by three o’clock that afternoon, people were on the roofs of their houses. The places were all hastily built — all these apartment buildings — it was far from an ideal community. But it had been so hastily built that there weren’t proper foundations on a lot of the places so when the water started rushing in, entire apartment buildings would sort of lift off and then float over and then smash into another apartment building. It was terrible.

S.Z.: Does “Vanport 1948” have relevance in Portland today?

L.L.: Definitely. Portland is still like an incredibly white-bred city. It’s an incredibly sort of segregated city in its own way. I’m from New Mexico, which is pretty diverse in that it was white, Latino and Native American cultures all living together. But they have been assimilating each other for hundreds of years. I can’t speak to what it’s like compared to a city like Chicago or Washington, D.C. Portland seems to pride itself on this sort of grooviness that they’ve got and how hip it is. A lot of this has been built on a horrible bed of inequality and terrible practices against people of color. So a story like “Vanport 1948” is still good for people to hear. People who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

S.Z.:  At the CD release party for “Tales of the Left Coast Roasters” last June, you had all sorts of media options for your fans, everything from digital download codes printed on compostable cards with wildflower seeds in them to old-school, vinyl albums. What are your thoughts about the direction that music distribution is heading?

L.L.: I understand the need for it all. I am impressed by the convenience for people to just download music, but I myself am a fan of vinyl. I like records. I still feel the sound of analog music is far superior to that of digital music. I was just on tour with my band in Alaska and the drummer had his iPod. I was thankful to have 10,000 songs to listen to, so I’m totally down with that. And I understand the convenience of not having an entire wall of EPs like I have at my house (laughs).

But at the same time, the part that I really am less comfortable with about the whole switch is the fact that the concept of an album, the concept of a folio of songs as a collection, is now going by the wayside because, as things become more convenient and people become more addicted to technology, if people hear a song they like, they’ll just go download that one song. Which is fine, but it also deprives the artist of the full income of selling a full album. To record and put music down for posterity, it all takes money. Most musicians out there are not making tons of money. Even truly famous bands are not always making huge bank. Also, many times I buy a record because I like that “one song” and fifteen listens later, my favorite song is some other song on the record. I’m disappointed that (the loss of the album) seems to be an inevitable thing.

S.Z.: Digital music is so much “cleaner” from an audio perspective. Why produce vinyl albums?

L.L.: It may indeed be more clean. But life is not clean. You could make a million cases for all sorts of things. There is a case to be made where, realistically, the whole concept of “cleaning up music” heavily is not real anymore. This is coming from someone whose main way to interact with music is through live performance. So, it’s not like hearing an acoustic guitar mic’ed up perfectly so that you don’t hear any finger squeaks on it as you play — that’s not natural to me because I want to hear an acoustic guitar the way it sounds. The more successful albums for me are the ones where you can actually hear the room around the people.

S.Z.: What advice do have you for musicians trying to break into the Portland music scene?

L.L.: Keep your nose to the grindstone and focus primarily on just doing your music — making your music good. Satisfy yourself first and foremost with your music and with your art. Secondary to that would be getting it to the people. Because if your art, your music, is fantastic, then it will help you go a long way if you are comfortable with your art.  Just concentrate on making your own music and satisfying yourself.  Beyond that, go out and see a lot of shows, socially integrate yourself into places.  Show an interest in other people’s music, be a part of the community. It’s important that the community supports itself.

Find out more about Lewi Longmire and when he plays next.

Photo by Kristina Wright


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