Spencer Bohren, a much-respected and widely traveled New Orleans folk- and blues-based guitarist and visual artist, died Saturday of cancer. He was 69.
Over the course of a career of more than 50 years, Bohren, the quintessential modern-day troubadour, traveled far and wide from his Esplanade Ridge home to peddle an evocative medley of American roots music that drew on blues, folk, gospel and other traditions.
He was born in Wyoming and spent his formative years in various Western states. He and his wife, Marilyn, moved to New Orleans in the 1970s, and he soon became a fixture of the local music community. From 1978 to 1982, he held down a Monday night gig at Tipitina’s.
When his children were young, he took them along for long tours across the United States. He toured extensively in Europe and was especially popular in Germany. He appeared on the public radio show "A Prairie Home Companion."
He generally performed alone, interspersing stories between songs rendered with acoustic guitars, a National steel guitar or vintage lap steel guitars. His documentary performance “Down the Dirt Road Blues” introduced legions of students to American roots music.
His 2006 CD "The Long Black Line" was one of the most acclaimed albums inspired by Hurricane Katrina. Named for the dirty bathtub-like ring left on thousands of buildings by receding floodwaters, the album bristled with menace and the moan of a slow-crawl, doomsday acoustic slide guitar. His unflinching narration resonated with the authority of an Old Testament prophet.
His most recent CD, “Makin’ It Home to You,” was recorded in New Orleans and Germany. It intermingles original compositions with selections from the traditional canon.
Seven songs on the album feature the Whippersnappers, the next-generation band that included his son, Andre Bohren, the drummer in Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes.
His annual holiday season performances at Snug Harbor inevitably featured a litany of friends and fellow musicians.
In addition to his musical endeavors, Bohren created elaborate shadow boxes, collages consisting of collected and created items that sometimes decorated his album covers.
In September, Bohren was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer that had metastasized into his bones. He announced his diagnosis in November, after he and his wife had settled on a holistic treatment plan that focused on his diet. He worked with a nutritionist to fashion a diet designed to boost his immune system and make his body less hospitable to cancer.
Marilyn Bohren chronicled their ordeal on his website, writing, “It is a big one, and it has our full attention, you can be sure. After several weeks of studying and talking with doctors, healers, survivors, and friends/family of survivors, we see our path to better health.”
Bohren canceled all upcoming tours, his main source of income, but still played the occasional local gig. A GoFundMe campaign raised money to help cover his living expenses. He performed at "Singing for Spencer," a benefit at Tipitina's in January organized by Andre Bohren.
In April, according to the blog on his web site, he was admitted to the hospital after experiencing intense pain in his hip. The cancer had spread there and also caused a fracture.
He went through several rounds of radiation treatment and was able to perform as scheduled at the 2019 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He also participated in an interview session at the festival's Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage.
"Our emotions ran exceedingly high during those days as Spencer played his heart out, letting the music and the audience buoy him into the stratosphere," Marilyn wrote on May 21. "It was a beautiful and loving way to pause Spencer’s memorable career."
Those turned out to be his final public performances.
Funeral arrangements are pending.