While the passing of James Brown is sure to spark a series of retrospectives, I did not want a small but significant parable of Mr. Brown’s ability to spread SOUL and good cheer, much like a sweaty, funky, pompadour Santa in a sequined cape (Hey it’s Christmas....) escape notice. From preventing riots in Boston after MLK was shot to avoiding being shot himself while playing for the troops in Vietnam, James Brown was usually at the center of attention when it came to issues of race, even in the small ski-town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
In April of 1993 I was starting to face the dreaded question of what to do after college. My girlfriend at the time was originally from Steamboat Springs Colorado an bucolic playground snuggled in the Yampa Valley. She suggested we spend a summer amongst the Aspens before braving the “real world”. Procrastination being an overlooked virtue I jumped at the idea and headed up from Boulder on a spring weekend to lock in the details. In short order I found a shack in the village of Oak Creek about ten miles out of town with no plumbing for $75 a month and a job as a kayak instructor for a small outfit right on the Yampa river. Filled with the promise of an eventful summer, I will never forget listening to “Love in the Afternoon” on the local radio station as I crested Rabbit Ears Pass on my way back to my final month of school. Always a lightning rod for serendipity, I guess I was not so surprised to discover the DJ was someone I knew from my tiny high school back east. However, what did catch me off guard was the breaking news story he read on air after the song ended. On an earlier lark, the radio station had discovered the town’s intention to hold a contest to name a non-descript concrete bridge spanning Walker Creek just west of downtown Steamboat, and had opened up the phone lines for possible suggestions from its listeners.
In re-reading the Town Council Meeting Minutes it was noted that after the contest five names were recommended by the Tread Of Pioneers Museum who held the rights to name the bridge. An additional name from the radio station was added as honorable mention due to its creativity. Those six (6) chosen were: Bear River Bridge, Yahmonite Bridge, Ute Bridge, New Stockbridge, Twentymile Bridge and James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge. Ms. Belle Chotvacs, a Steamboat Springs resident, suggested that the names be placed in the local newspaper for public input/decision. Needless to say the top two vote getters in an informal poll highlighted the increasing divide between the old school ranchers and founding fathers who were squarely behind TWENTY MILE BRIDGE (originally named for the corresponding mile marker) and the more “open” minded residents who were in favor of recognizing the godfather of soul’s cosmic hub (not surprisingly, James Brown had never been in Routt County but whose to argue with harmonic convergence). The vote was scheduled for the following month.
While I missed what turned out to be some full fledged campaigning and heated community debate, I did blow off my final Western Poetry Exam in order to make it to the vote. The result of which turned out to be more controversial than expected since 26,300 ballots were cast in favor of JBSCOTUB in a town of only 10,000 people. What started as a tongue and cheek gesture lead to numerous examples of a small western town facing issues of rampant development and social change, which even culminated in derogatory racial slurs spray painted on the bridge itself. However after all the OP/Ed articles and the veritable hanging chads were counted again and again, it was deemed that the name was chosen through “due democratic process.” Ironically, through all the dialogue the town found itself more in harmony and aware of its diversity than ever before. To celebrate, on a random Wednesday in late summer the Godfather himself stood on the bridge and cut the ceremonial red-ribbon. Only an icon like James Brown could gaze out over some two-thousand on lookers wearing a black hat, black cowboy boots, and a powder blue one piece jump suit, grab the microphone and yell out, “Can I Take it To The Bridge?” and be showered in a resounding chorus of “YEAH!” before counting off ....
“I FEEL GOOD”.
The Godfather of Soul, yes indeed.