Cowboy gypsies

Hawks and Eagles Jimmy and Nancy Borsdorf tell twisted tales of their life of music

DRAWING ON THEIR PAST <br>Famed illustrator, R. Crumb’s rendition of the eclectic duo.

Famed illustrator, R. Crumb’s rendition of the eclectic duo.

Talking to local “cowboy gypsy” string musicians Jimmy and Nancy Borsdorf (mostly Jimmy—he’s the talkative one), also known as the duo Hawks and Eagles, puts one in the midst of many tales, coming fast and furious, of many people, places, things (mostly musical instruments) and times. The characters (and it is amazing how many near-mythical personalities are actually acquaintances of theirs) that parade through their stories and songs—reclusive cartoonist R. Crumb, Regis Philbin, Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong and Lola Montez of “Spider Dance” fame, to name a few—are simply fascinating.

Jimmy told me that what he most wanted to talk about was the “petting museum” he hopes to create—a portable museum inside a renovated, gutted Airstream trailer in which he and Nancy could haul the many old and unusual instruments they have acquired over the years from place to place so that people can have hands-on experience with the instruments that the Borsdorfs love and want to protect and promote. A two-string traditional Chinese fiddle called an er hu, a one-string Yugoslavian gusle, a seven-string Bulgarian gadulka, a “real Peking Opera fiddle” with gold inlay Chinese characters, a Norwegian one-string bowed dulcimer called a psalmodikan, a one-string Hawaiian jazzitha, a Turkmenistani dutar

Nancy, with a Portuguese mandolin built in the 1880s and Jimmy with an er hu, a one-stringed Chinese violin, just two of the pieces in their collection of the exotic and vintage musical instruments.

Photo By Tom Angel

The list goes on and on. In addition to their traveling museum, the Borsdorfs also desire a permanent home for all of the instruments, which are currently in storage.

Both Jimmy and the stately and calm Nancy have much to tell. I learned that they were both extras in the film, Bound for Glory, a movie about Woody Guthrie, starring David Carradine. I now know that Jimmy played music with R. Crumb, pre-Cheap Suit Serenaders, before he gave his cello to Terry Zwigoff to take his place. Jimmy and Nancy have also played with Steve Allen ("One of the highest moments of my life,” says Jimmy), Pat Boone and John McKuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Places dealing in California history, such as Sutter’s Fort and the Vacaville Museum, consider them experts on early California music. Jimmy was 1989 Nevada State Fiddle Champion, but also had his violin snatched out of his hands by his music teacher in grade school, and was marched over to the drum section after being told he would never be able to play the violin. Jimmy used to live “in a school bus under 30 feet of snow in an avalanche path” in Conundrum, Colo. That’s where Nancy found him upon following him from California to Colorado after she quit her gig playing Hungarian music at a Sacramento chain dinner restaurant when some fans threw pennies at her violin and dinged it.

In 1980, they were “trapped in Mount St. Helen’s ash” for five days. Once, at a gig in Ukiah, they had 40 Sons of Hawaii bikers come in, after refusing to pay the 50-cent cover charge, intending to beat them up. Things somehow calmed down after a black theater group from Oakland showed up and one guy got up and sang, “All I Want is 15 Million Dollars.” Are you keeping up?

The Borsdorfs now live in Oroville, which is where my 2-year-old daughter Lydia and I saw them play recently at C. L. & Harry’s. They played a number of instruments while we were there—violin, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, a Bolivian charango—and an assortment of tunes from various countries, including a lovely version of the “Theme from The Godfather." At times I imagined I was at a table in a European sidewalk café. We had to leave after too short a while because the music inspired Lydia to start doing her version of Peking Opera, and I didn’t think that would go over too well with the other customers.