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02 April 2015

Jack Hardy

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My good friend, the songwriter Jack Hardy, died four years ago. He wasn’t a household name, but he was important enough to merit a not-short obit in the New York Times.

Jack was a great artist and a master craftsman, but he also had a gift for bringing people together. For example, he created the Fast Folk Musical Magazine, which sent hot-off-the-presses compositions out into the world for fifteen years. Perhaps more importantly, he hosted a weekly gathering of songwriters. The idea was to write at least one song from scratch every week – under the assumption that the key to writing is, well, writing – present it to the the group, and field constructive feedback. That weekly deadline was a great motivator in and of itself, and I’ve written many songs because of it, some of which were actually good. I also benefited from the feedback, especially in the early years when I was just developing a sense for what a good song sounded like. One memorable nugget from the man himself: “You’ve got to address the melodic situation.”

I don’t remember the night I sang a story song about an altar boy who drinks the communion wine, but I do know that it was the first song of mine that Jack actually liked. I know because he told me repeatedly over many years…disheartening considering the number of songs I’d already floated. Be that as it may, he invited me down to the Fast Falk Cafe in Tribeca a night or two later, where we recorded it with Jack on mandolin and Rob Wolf on bass. It was my very first recording, and eventually came out as “The Drunken Alterboy” on Volume 8, Number 10: Lost in the Works. Look for it on Spotify!

Jack’s all-time favorite song of mine was “The Defenestration of Prague,” about the beginning of the 30 Years War. Actually, if I’m not mistaken, he thought it was the best song I’d ever written. Jack, Tim Robinson, and I had been discussing the inarguable awesomeness of the word “defenestration” over dinner at the Hotel Galvez on Avenue B. Why not build a song around it? I’m not sure if Jack delivered on the challenge, but Tim and I did. I could remember that song in a pinch, but what I most remember is Jack’s relentless assertion that I’d created a new type of song that would, among other things, change the way we educated our children.

Jack was famous for driving to his gigs, even if they were in California. I’m not kidding: he once drove cross-country just to share a night with me at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. One of his favorite destinations was the Kerrville Folk Festival, and he drove there many times. One year, I overheard him planning his itinerary with a traveling companion. “First, we’ll do the gig in Michigan, and then head down to Texas.” When someone questioned his routing, he claimed – with sincerity bordering on irritation – that Michigan was on the way from New York to Texas. I appropriated that preposterous line for the chorus of a new song, which was a big hit in certain circles.

New York Times reporter Andy Revkin used to join the meeting from time to time, and in early 1999 published an article about it. That was the night I brought Las Vegas, a moody number that ended up on Welcome to My Century. According to the article, my performance inspired a “respectful silence,” after which Jack said: “You’ve hit a home run, Bobby.” Perfect, right? Yes, except that Jack adamantly denied saying that, citing as his rationale the well-known fact that he never, under any circumstances, employed baseball metaphors.

I don’t mean to imply that Jack wasn’t generous, because that’s precisely what he was. It’s just that his brand of generosity cut both ways: he wasn’t one to puff you up with false accolades, but that made his praise all the more meaningful. His criticisms could be tough, but he meant to make you better. Still, we might as well face it: that crowd wasn’t for the thin-skinned, and there were storm-outs and good, old-fashioned dust-ups. Maybe we all could have been nicer, but what can I say? It felt like home to me.

1 Response

  1. Hey! I booked Jack for that Michigan gig!! Or… maybe it was at the Ark.

    I don’t recall how I learned about Jack… I don’t think that he attended Folk Alliance conferences, although he might have been at one, I suppose; he went to Falcon Ridge Folk Festival regularly, although I seem to recall that he complained about not getting selected to perform there. I know that he did at some point (the Falcon Ridge “house band” included Radoslav Lorković on keyboards, Kate MacLeod on violin), as I recall him performing in his famous witch hat.

    A friend of mine, Seth Bernard, lived in New York for a spell, and was a regular at Jack’s weekly song nights. I was writing at the time (I haven’t written a full song in over five years, now) and recall how envious I was of Seth. In the spring of 2006, in what was my first visit to New York City as an adult (my mom grew up in the Bronx and Staten Island, so my experiences as a kid were few and far between, and rather short), I attended a friend’s photo exhibition in the Village and—as I knew Jack lived on Houston Street—was tempted to look him up. I didn’t, of course.

    He did two shows at the venue I booked in East Lansing, the Ten Pound Fiddle Coffeehouse, but neither drew all that well, much to my chagrin. I can still hear his creaky voice, and can sometimes imitate it. I still have the bright yellow-orange “Who The Hell Is Jack Hardy/Shut Up And Sing” t-shirt I bought from him at Falcon Ridge many years ago.

    I also still have his business card.

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