When Jimmy Buffett recorded Phish’s “Gumbo” 23 years ago, it was one of many incredibly generous things he did, to the surprise of some. Generous, because it was for the Mockingbird Foundation’s two-disc tribute album Sharin’ in the Groove, which continues to raise funds for music education through scores of streaming services (from Amazon to Spotify and beyond) to this day. Incredible, because he spent an entire week in an Atlanta studio with the full Coral Reefers band, all on his own dime, recording the one Phish song that mentions a parrot. (Jimmy also has his own song about gumbo, as well as a song about a lizard.) Surprising, because some in the “music industry” continue to be stupefied that he did it at all.
Jimmy was extremely charitable, helping to start three nonprofits serving different needs. But he was apparently known for declining charitable performance invitations. He did his own things, and enjoyed his own spaces, and he gave plenty through other means. But his performances were understood to be for Parrotheads, or perhaps for profit (at least up front), not directly for philanthropy. “How’d you get him?” many who would know have inquired. The short answer is, I just asked. The longer answer involves that Jimmy and his people were instrumental in the creation of the Mockingbird Foundation, in ways few know and appreciate, providing helping hands both before and after Jimmy recorded what became our track #2.
In 1996, a group of Phish fans decided to incorporate their volunteer work, in order to protect accumulated intellectual property and ensure that any proceeds from it went to charity, rather than to any of the individuals involved or to the government (through income taxes). We were lucky enough to have some lawyers among us, to craft the 501c3 application to the IRS and create the Articles of Incorporation that legally established the Mockingbird Foundation. That covered the external hoops, and we were already becoming the standard bearer of the IP (which has become three editions of a book, the database behind Phish.net, and more). But we had no clue how to organize and realize our charitable ambitions.
I don’t recall how the contact was initiated. But somehow, we were connected with Judith Ranger Smith, then Executive Director of Jimmy’s Singing for Change nonprofit. She was instrumental in helping us create what became the Mockingbird Foundation, providing the guidance and examples that were critical in the creation of our funding guidelines, application process, bylaws, and more. (She was also extremely patient. The Mockingbird board now is a range of professors, attorneys, brokers, and more - but it started when we were bumbling hippie kids trying to do a good thing, and I pestered Judith with far more questions than her generosity deserved to endure.) I don’t know that Jimmy played any role, or even knew anything of the help we received from Judith. Nonetheless, I’ve long imagined him as one of our nascent source influences, a supporter without whom the Mockingbird Foundation wouldn't exist as it does. We worked to bring the book back to the lizards, from the hands of greed to a community of goodwill - but we couldn’t have done it without the help of Jimmy and his people.
So, when I heard last weekend that he’d passed, I was in shock. He was the fifth of the performers who contributed to Sharin’ in the Groove to have passed since its release, and the roster is of course aging like the rest of us. But I had had no idea that Jimmy was anywhere close to leaving, much less that he’d been fighting cancer, and was immediately swept with a wave of memories of all he’d done - for music generally, and for our little efforts for music education. (And the reminders kept coming. For example, while I suspect it to have been a coincidence on 9/3/23 when Phish followed “Gumbo” with “2001”, that’s the year we released Jimmy’s version of “Gumbo”.)
Continuing to create, and always fun, Jimmy had just completed a new album that’s now about to be released, with the first single dropping tomorrow, “My Gummy Just Kicked In.” (For a guy known for margaritas and marijuana, the evolution from "reefer" to "gummies" says a lot about changing social norms and the normalization of cannabis.) He got the title from Paul McCartney’s wife Nancy, after she stumbled a bit at a Hamptons dinner party - and his last performance was with Paul, playing “Hey Jude” to a small crowd. Paul recently said of “Bubbles Up”, another song from Jimmy’s upcoming album, that it “turned a diving phrase that is used to train people underwater into a metaphor for life. When you’re confused and don’t know where you are, just follow the bubbles — they’ll take you up to the surface and straighten you out right away.” For the Mockingbird Foundation, Jimmy and Judith were our bubbles.
Rest in peace, parrot king. We’ll keep singing, and working, for change.