Obituary: Jim McGinniss, 1949-2022 | Obituaries | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Obituary: Jim McGinniss, 1949-2022

Pine Island bandmate was a sensitive and articulate artist

Published May 31, 2022 at 6:03 a.m.
Updated May 31, 2022 at 12:32 p.m.


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James McGinniss was born on July 25, 1949, to Jerry and Sis McGinniss in Burlington, Vt. He had the idyllic and sometimes difficult experience of being the child of a small-town Vermont doctor. His childhood was filled with the wonder of rivers, words, trees, the night sky, hunting and science. His mother instilled in him a love for good food, pleasure and fairness. He had a fierce love for and loyalty to his siblings, Kitty, Matthew, Mary and Bridget, that lasted his whole life. After stints in Long Island, Arkansas, and Dorset, Vt., the family resettled on Brookes Avenue in Burlington in 1962. At Rice Memorial High School in Burlington, Jim made lifelong friends, excelled at writing and music, and failed at many other things.

Jim started his higher education at St. Anselm’s College, continued it at the University of Vermont and got his master's degree in English from the University of British Columbia. There he wrote a lot of poetry, drank a lot of red wine and ate excellent food. Upon his return to Vermont, he was arrested for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War and sent to prison for 12 weeks. His mother liked to remind him of this every Thanksgiving and Christmas, hoping that he would never miss a holiday again. He did not.

Jim was a sensitive and articulate poet, musician and songwriter. Shortly after leaving prison, he began playing music again with his childhood friend, Tim McKenzie — a collaboration that would birth the legendary Vermont bluegrass band Pine Island. Jim worked in construction and played every weekend during those years, writing some of Pine Island’s crowd favorites.

He also loved rock and roll and played with the N-Zones, the Mercuries and the Spiders in the 1970s and ’80s, returning to acoustic music with Wild Branch, Jim Daniels and Salt Lick in the ’90s and the aughts. He continued to write extraordinary songs, exploring genres and pushing musical boundaries while maintaining his distinctive voice. Though he preferred singing his own songs, they were covered and recorded by many musicians in Vermont and beyond.
In 1978 he met Anna Blackmer at a poetry reading and subsequently fell in love with her, her poetry and her child, Misa. Jim’s role as stepfather was difficult, beautiful and, according to him, the most meaningful job he ever held. In 1983, Misa’s sister, Meara, was born.

As a parent, Jim was exceptional. He told his daughters they were smart, strong and beautiful — often. He stood up for them in the face of ignorant, racist and small-minded people. He was protective to a fault but also encouraged them to be wild, outspoken and free. They swam in rivers naked, shot bows and guns, read too many books, had tangled hair and homemade haircuts, learned the names of plants and animals, played the fiddle, and were encouraged to follow their passions. Most importantly, he supported their decisions as adults. Misa and Meara’s happiness was paramount to him.

In 1997, Jim fell in love again — with Clare Doyle, his darling companion for the next 25 years. Jim wrote Clare many poems and songs; his love for her is made plain. Clare and Jim lived a beautiful life together, playing Irish music, eating green chili, being in nature and having fires. They were very devoted to each other and very happy.

Jim’s dedication to children didn’t stop with his own — he had meaningful and long relationships with Clare’s children and their spouses: Isaiah and Meghan; Naomi and Micah; and Mikaela and Caleb. He deeply loved his nieces and nephews, Owen, Willy, Molly, Patrick, Eamon and Sean, and their partners and children.

Jim had a special way of meeting the many young people in his life right where they were. He was a great teacher and loved passing on his knowledge of the natural world, woodworking, clocks, guns, instruments and poetry. Jim was a very good listener. He was especially supportive when young people he loved were struggling — with being artists, learning disabilities, substance abuse, coming out, learning music, abusive relationships and death. He was an exceptional writing teacher. As an adjunct professor and teacher of writing at the Pine Ridge School, Johnson State College, UVM, Burlington College and Champlain College, he told many people for the first time that they were good writers.

His relationships with his grandchildren were like his relationship with the moon. He couldn’t have loved Mikaela Lucy, Val, Jaylee, Elijah, Renzo, Orion, Asher, Arden and Marion any more than he did. He was in awe. They will always feel his keen attention and the love that he had for them.

Jim was able to articulate his feelings in ways that very few can. His lyrics, melodies and poems are lasting evidence of this, but many of us felt it in everyday conversations. He leaves all of us as he was — deeply loved, not always easy, looking at the stars, smelling the lilacs and bearing witness.

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