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Just singin' the blues
Short North Bluesman Jack Via keeps his act - and his life - real

July 2008
by Jennifer Hambrick

Jack Via and his dog Ricky have been regulars at Victorians' Midnight Cafe since shortly after it opened in 1997. Via is said to be one of the first musicians to ever play there, and Ricky was listening in. Photo/Darren Carlson

Blues singer. Roofer. Visual artist.

Jack Via works under all of these titles in and around the Short North. To get from Charlottesville, Va., to Columbus, Ohio, he followed a path only Dorothy Gale could imagine. That path and what Via, 58, has done in his 12 years in Columbus and as a fixture at Victorians’ Midnight Café, have helped him become one of the Short North’s most appealing blues acts.

Floating Into Vic’s
Via says he stumbled upon Victorians’ Midnight Café shortly after it opened in 1997 while walking his dog, Ricky. Jack and Ricky went in, and Jack convinced Victorians’ owner Greg Rowe to let him play his guitar there.

“He just walked in off the street, got his guitar out and started playing,” Rowe said. “He introduced himself and (said) ‘Blah, blah, blah,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ When you put ‘coffee house’ in the window, the guitars just come floating in.”

Jack took his guitar and Ricky onto the tiny platform at the front of the coffee house that serves as a stage. He started strumming and singing.

Via became a regular at Victorians’ – Vic’s, as the regulars call it – where across the room from the stage another tiny platform welcomes visitors with overstuffed sofas and chairs. Ricky was always by his side.

“She pretty much had the run of the couches for a while,” Via said.

Via continued to play at Vic’s as more musicians found out about the place and its open stage. He’s been a mainstay of Victorians’ open stage nights ever since he walked into the café.

Now, after years of playing Vic’s almost weekly, Victorians’ staff always reserve a spot for Via on the open stage schedule.

Via has also played at two of Columbus’ most important blues halls, The Thirsty Ear and the now-defunct Blues Station. But his journey to those stages, and to Columbus itself, started back at a time when simple American life was about to get more complicated, and in a place where all kinds of music filled crisp mountain air.

The Beginning
Via was born in Charlottesville, Va., where blues and Appalachian folk music mixed in the ether like telephone signals crossing. When he was 13, his father gave him a guitar for Christmas. He spent hours picking out songs by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary and other folk music giants by ear.

“I was head over heels,” Via said. “As soon as I got that guitar I was up in my room and I was practicing until my fingers bled.”

Via’s dad was a pillar of their community. He was a lawyer and also head of the city school board. He and his fellow B17 crew members had been decorated for their missions over Germany during World War II. He and Jack’s mom presided over a family of four rambunctious children.

One night he took Jack to hear one of his lawyer friends play in a bluegrass band.

“It was a life-changer for me coming there to watch them,” Via said.

Via added playing the banjo to his musical skills set. His dad found a place in Colorado that made “print-on-demand” banjos and bought him an instrument.

Jack Via, 6th grader.

“(They) would send you blueprints of the various styles of banjos, have you select a blueprint and then they would make it then and there and send it to you,” Via said. “I wound up with an exquisite five-string, long-neck banjo, which I added to my practice time. Now I was spending an hour or two on guitar and then switching to an hour or two of banjo.”

Via also remembers being 15 years old, coming home from school and listening to Muddy Waters’ Real Folk Blues album, the only Muddy Waters album he owned at the time.

“It was so simple and so raw and I knew that it had good stuff in there,” Via said. “It had an infectiousness about the way he sang. I would just listen to those songs over and over again.”

If music had seeped deeply into Via’s soul, it also had an effect on his father, who had been battling emotional issues about the time Via started picking and strumming. Doctors prescribed one medication after another. Via thinks the medications led to his father’s death. But his music may have helped his dad a little.

“When dad was in his last days, he would come in my room and sit down and listen to me,” Via said. “He said it was one of the only times he felt calm and could relax.”

Via later took classes for a summer at the University of Virginia, where he remembers writing 1,000 words a week in English composition class. He then went on to Old Dominion University that fall, but left to follow a wanderlust that took him back stage at Woodstock and into jail cells in Toronto and Santa Fe and a Texas courtroom before sending him back to Virginia.

Road Trip
In August 1969, Via and his friend Fred, who had been a corpsman in the Navy, hitchhiked from Norfolk, Va., to the Woodstock festival.
“We had no money in our pockets,” Via said. “We were relying on good will and good whatever.”

At Woodstock, Fred had an unusual opportunity.

“We got there at daylight,” Via said. “We were way up on top of the hill there and they asked for anyone who had any medical or first aid experience to come backstage, and Fred said, ‘I’m there.’”

Via waited near the backstage area where all the performing musicians were hanging out. Fred gestured for him to come backstage. That’s where Via says he met blues and folk musicians Johnny and Edgar Winter.

“Johnny was a new sensation” Via said, “a shockingly intense guitar player that just dropped one’s jaw to hear any human being able to do what he did. I was trying to work out Johnny’s riffs at the time.”

After Woodstock, Via and Fred hitchhiked to Toronto, Canada, where they spent a night in the Toronto jail for harmless hooliganism, and then on to Detroit, where Via played harmonica on the street to, as he put it, “make a little spare change for some dinner.” Via and Fred met up with a mutual friend, Terry, in Wisconsin. Terry wanted to go to Texas to visit his family and to visit a mutual friend from their college days. The three eventually made their way to Austin, Texas, then to Riverside, Calif., to visit another friend. After traveling all night, they hiked a bit off the road just outside Santa Fe, N.M., to sleep.

“Next thing you know there’s a tap on my feet by policemen and they asked us how much money we had between the three of us,” Via said. “We had maybe $1.98.”

The cops threw them in jail overnight for vagrancy. Still, there was a silver lining.

“This was one of the greatest moments of my life,” Via said, “because we were in a cell with a guy who had traveled with Woody Guthrie. A real character. He told us stories the whole time. We were just enthralled with this guy.”

Once out of jail, the trio headed back for Austin, where they encountered multitudes of like-minded free spirits.

“It was right on the campus of the University of Texas, and it was just a feeling of great to be alive,” Via said. “Every day was good day, you might say. There was always something good coming round the corner. There was always someone good to meet. It seemed to continue the journey. Life was interesting.”

This utopia proved to be a mirage, however, when Via got in trouble for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Eventually Via got 10 years’ probation. The journey had come full circle: after almost a year on the road, and with the blessing of his probation officer, he took his empty pockets back to Charlottesville.

These Walls Don’t Really Mean That Much
Back in Virginia, Via got a day job working construction. He also hooked up with a boyhood friend of his and started a band, Magic Fingers, doing rock covers and some blues on the side.

When the band broke up, Via needed another change of scenery. Driving north out of Charlottesville one day, he picked up a hitchhiker who was heading to a commune called Free State, at the base of Ragged Mountain.

“He told me where he was headed and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll check it out. My band’s broken up. I’ve gotta find a place to drop anchor,’” Via said. “And I found that place and I dropped anchor.”

Via recalls Free State as a hodgepodge of hippies, each subscribing to his or her own brand of idealism.

“Somebody had bought that plot of land and he wanted people to create with it, so different people who found out about it came there and they did their own thing,” Via said. “There were geodesic domes out there that somebody had built based on Buckminster Fuller’s vision. There were some Bahá’i people who were trying to get their thing going. It was a very peaceful, harmonious anarchy.”

Via and a Cherokee Indian named Three Paws would hitchhike from Free State into Charlottesville looking for work. Via also earned some money doing chores for farmers in the area.

But all along he knew that Free State was only a temporary home. He had been there four months when he ran into a buddy, Mike, he had met in Austin, again got a construction job and left the commune. He and Mike roomed together in a house 10 miles outside Charlottesville.

When Via’s family moved to Florida in 1973, Jack decided to go with them. His mother had long hoped he would return to college. She encouraged him to enter Miami-Dade Community College.

But the first thing he did after moving to Florida was to look for other musicians. He found some.

“Florida is just full of musicians,” Via said. “I managed to meet some right away and jam with them.”

A band called the JC’s asked Via to fill in for their bass player. They played the Dade County Jail to a packed house.

“The JC’s are a goodwill group and they go into jails and they try to inspire people to get their lives together,” Via said. “And we rocked the place, and somebody said, ‘What’s it like out in the free world?’ And I said, ‘It’s the same world out there. These walls don’t really mean that much.’”

Eventually Via did enroll in Miami-Dade Community College, just like his mother wanted. One of the classes he remembers best was a jazz humanities course he had with Dr. Larry Zingale, a trumpet player who had traveled with Benny Goodman’s orchestra.

“Dr. Zingale told stories about traveling with Benny Goodman,” Via said. “They would have these rap sessions between them on the bus, and they’d have these heated arguments. One time the argument got so heated that one guy said, ‘Let me off the bus,’ and the bus driver had to drive real slow (alongside him) until the guy cooled off.”

It was also at Miami-Dade that Via got into drawing, an avocation he still pursues. He tried to absorb material across the spectrum of visual style, from the classics to magazine art.

“I went through a phase of all things Rembrandt, all things Picasso,” Via said.

He devoured Salvador Dalì’s writings and became transfixed with Malcolm Morley’s style of ultra photorealism.

He found both a technical framework for drawing and a way to transcend technique in Kimon Nicolaides’ classic The Natural Way to Draw.

“(Nicolaides’) method is not ‘style’ or aesthetics or technique exactly,” Via said. “It is the act of directly communicating with the object by all of the senses. The drawing is a byproduct. One can align the sense of touch directly with the eye to draw.”

Via completed enough credits to earn an associate’s degree from Miami-Dade in 1975, and stayed in Florida for another two decades. He’d work during the day – for a while as a night janitor at a downtown Miami bank, then at a restaurant – and sometimes play gigs at night. Via eventually started working for the Miami Church of Scientology, first as a printer in the communications office and ultimately for the church’s international Sea Organization.

But Via’s muse was calling. He left the Sea Organization in 1992 to devote more time to artistic pursuits. A couple years later, he got a job selling framed art and photography at the side of the road. The economy was booming at the time. Everyone dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur and leaving the boss and the day job behind.

“But if you sell pictures by the roadside,” Via said, “you’re on the bottom of the bottom rung of entrepreneurs. You set up these pictures and hopefully you make some money and you’re your own boss.”

It didn’t work out exactly that way. Via did have a boss who dispatched him to choice locations at which to set up his roadside artwork stand. Via sold his way across Florida, Alabama, Georgia, New York and Indiana. In 1996, his boss told him to stay in Columbus for a while, so Via sold art around Columbus during warm-weather seasons and took up roofing – still his occupation – to bring in money during fall and winter.

After four years on the road selling pictures, Via quit that job in 1998, right about the time he and Ricky the dog came upon Victorians’ Midnight Café. He channeled his experience as a roadside art vendor into an original song, “The Road Warriors Theme Song.” “We call ourselves the Road Warriors,” the song begins, “a product of today’s economy.” To the tune of a Bach Bourrée, Via describes the plight of the bottom-feeders of the entrepreneurial food chain.

“It’s all about how you live in this Gypsy life, and you go to a town and you’re saying to yourself, ‘This town is mine,’” Via said. “And you set up on the border. ‘You may not have a corner on the market, but you’ve got a market on the corner.’”

Via began playing openers for national acts at the now-defunct Blues Station in 2006. © Photo/Dave Uhas

True Blue
If anything has been consistent about Via’s seemingly rootless life, it’s his passion for music and the joie de vivre he’s brought to almost all of his unusual occupations and pastimes. Some musicians fear a day job will suck the life force out of their talent and confine them to the unglamorous world of the wanna-be. But Via believes just the opposite.

“It’s the dialogue between the art and the day job,” Via said. “One nourishes the other. Doing some good, basic work is entirely important to involvement with art.”

After all, you can’t sing the blues if you don’t know about hard times.

“It’s all about embracing the suck, as we say,” Via said. “Salvador Dalì – I used to read a lot of his interviews and stuff – he mentioned that it’s really in the hard work and disgusting experiences of mundane life that you find all your inspiration as an artist.”

Many of Via’s blues heroes were hard laborers. Muddy Waters himself was a field worker from an early age. For Via, this kind of hardscrabble life gives his idols artistic cred as living testaments of the harsh realities of making a living. In his own work as a roofer, Via says he is lucky enough to “brush up against” the spiritual authenticity he believes comes from hard, honest work, but he stops short of saying he actually has it.

However, those who know Via’s music don’t stop there. Poet Rick Klaus Theis was a regular at open stage night at Vic’s for many years before moving to New York City in 1999. He says Via’s playing and singing were as real, as genuine as it gets.

“You could tell he really loved it,” Theis said. “He didn’t seem like he was performing to an audience. It was more like you were sitting around with him on his porch and listening to him play. That to me is more authentic, because it’s ‘I love doing this.’”

Connie Harris, a folksinger who has helped run Victorians’ Midnight Café since the place opened, agrees.

“It’s real,” Harris said of Via’s singing and playing. “He totally sings from the soul, for sure. He plays the music because he loves it, and that’s just really obvious when Jack is playing. And he doesn’t use the stage as a pedestal. Some people just can’t wait to get up there, but I think for Jack the grandiosity of it all doesn’t even figure into his reasoning of playing music.”

Kevin Gregory first heard Via’s act at The Blues Station, a Columbus blues bar that closed in 2007. Though Gregory says he’s no musician, he’s a staunch blues appreciator and has heard virtually all of Columbus’ local acts and most of the national acts that come through town. He says Via infuses his blues playing with a down-home folk style that sets him apart from other players.

“He’s kind of unique in Columbus because he actually mixes it up between blues and some of the old country stuff,” Gregory said. “It’s fairly atypical for someone playing that kind of music. He definitely does his own interpretations of the songs he performs. It’s not aping someone else’s version of the song he’s doing.”

People who know Via also say his personality comes through in his music. His light-colored trousers and loud Hawaiian print shirts aren’t a costume; they’re just what he wears. The broad brim of his fedora gives his brilliant blue eyes something from behind which to glance out.

Despite the rowdy get-up, he’s a quiet person who draws his listeners in.

“When he would play, the place would get quiet and people would listen. And that didn’t always happen (with other acts),” Theis said. “He had that persona that made people want to listen. Maybe it was (his) gentleness.”

This could explain Via’s genteel approach to selecting the music he performs. He sings what he calls “obscure covers,” his own renditions of other musicians’ blues that, shall we say, never made it to the charts. In choosing a repertory that has all but fallen into oblivion, Via is following in the footsteps of the late blues great John Fahey.

“Fahey said it’s okay to steal only if you steal from obscurity,” Via said. “I thought he was so right, because if you steal from obscurity, you’re actually reviving something that would have stayed in obscurity and thus never to be heard and felt.”

Whatever Via’s approach, it seems to work. In 2006, after about eight years of playing at Vic’s, Via bellied up to the open mic at The Blues Station, once a top Columbus venue for visiting national blues acts. They liked him so much that they invited him to open for some of those national acts, including Kenny Neal, Smokin’ Joe Kubeck, the Holmes Brothers, Anthony Gomes and the late Shawn Costello.

Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Jack Via

But some in Via’s audiences may not know it’s Via performing when they see him. They may instead know him as Silas Buckley, a combination stage name and nom de plume (Via also sometimes signs his drawings with that name) he sometimes invokes just for kicks. The name itself is the alias ascribed to the murderous and otherwise reprehensible title character of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell.” A longtime Borges fan, Via says the name Silas Buckley, which Borges introduces in the last three sentences of his story, just had a ring to it.

“That name really jumped off the page for me,” Via said. “So I just started putting it out there.”

Via stops short of saying Silas Buckley is an alter ego in the vein of Garth Brooks’ murky and socially discontented (though musically versatile and, as such, a brilliant marketing tactic) Chris Gaines. He hasn’t developed the persona of Silas Buckley into the fully shaped personality Chris Gaines assumed.

Yet, Via does seem to suggest that Silas Buckley is something more than just a stage name. Something, though it’s not exactly clear what. He credits Joseph John Campbell, a scholar of the social and spiritual functions of myth, with inspiring him to explore the mystical possibilities of creating the story of a whole new person.

“(Campbell) says people are always hungry for the myth. It’s just out of reach. You step off the bus and it’s somewhere around the corner. And I thought it would be interesting to create a mythology, but not to do anything with any effort behind it. Just to put the name out there and see how it grows. I’ll be fascinated myself to see what happens with it,” Via said.

If a stage name is intended to help create a persona for the person using it, then one wonders about the strategy of using a name that, in combining the biblical Silas with Buckley’s stodgy Anglo resonance, makes as puritanical an impression as showbiz has ever seen. But maybe the name’s sheer oddness is what makes it work. That, and the nifty possibility that Via’s stage name, which most of his regular listeners by now probably know is not his real name, could actually be a creative enterprise – an artwork in progress – in its own right.

A People Person
Regardless of what Via does on stage, when he’s off stage he shows a deep concern for people.

Connie Harris remembers when Via came back from a trip to New York City with a group of fellow Scientologists to help victims cope with the horrific aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

“Jack saw firsthand absolute pain and suffering, but he never made judgments about it,” Harris said. “Jack was there to help the people of New York City and help restore some harmony that was really needed. He really is a really wonderful person.”

Via did a similar thing after Hurricane Katrina. He has been a volunteer counselor in the Church of Scientology in Columbus since 1992, and believes in the power of Dianetics to help release the spirit from the shackles of the mind’s reactions to the world.

And at the end of the day, he lives by other words of Scientology’s inventor, as well.

“L. Ron Hubbard said about being an artist: there’s no better joy in life than creating,” Via said, “so splurge on it.”


Check out Silas Buckley at the following sites

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