David Massengill and Jack Hardy at the 2008 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival
(photo by Lisi Tribble)
Jack Hardy was a man of a thousand songs. I first heard one of them in 1977 at Gerdes Folk City in New York City on hoot night. I had come up that fall hoping to make my way as a songwriter and was playing all the hoot nights I could find. Hoot nights are hit and miss: everyone is brave, but rarely are they the gold standard. Jack Hardy was the jackpot. He stood on stage as though he owned it, looking like Wild Bill Hickok hell-bent-for-leather in his cowboy hat, with flowing long hair and a big handlebar mustache. Singing perfect harmony and in similar attire was his handsome younger brother Jeff, playing a big standup bass. I half expected to see their horses tied up to the hitching post outside. I sat bolt upright as they sang "Go Tell the Savior," one of Jack's early signature songs. It was my good fortune to hear many more over the years.
Just a week later I was performing at another hoot at the Dugout and after my 2 songs I sat sipping a beer, when this very clean-shaven and moderately dressed fellow approached and with a calm demeanor politely introduced himself. He said he'd seen me perform at the hoots these last 2 months and liked my songs; that he often made pasta dinners for a whole group of promising songwriters and that I'd be welcome to come join in the next time. Then he casually asked if I'd seen any acts that I particularly liked at the hoots and I remembered the 2 cowpokes from Folk City. I enthusiastically began to describe this act that I swore was as good as Bob Dylan. I described their cowboy hats, their bandanas, the big bass, the flowing locks, the harmonies and most of all the perfect song. Jack had a sly little smile as he repeated my review. "As good as Bob Dylan, you say? Tell me more..." And I was happy to rhapsodize some more about this magical act I'd heard the week before. Jack milked me good and his sly grin finally broke into good-natured laughter, as he told me I was describing him and his brother; that they'd shaved and gotten haircuts and thrown away their dusters. He no longer looked like Wild Bill Hickok, but he would prove to be just as legendary. And it was my good fortune to witness that sly grin many times over the years.
There was a new folk movement afoot and Jack Hardy took that movement by the scruff of the neck and made it go. He was the catalyst behind The Musicians Cooperative that became The Speakeasy, where legends like Dave Van Ronk and Odetta would play shows with Jack or myself and a whole new gang of performers, which for the sake of brevity shall be listed as the usual suspects. This is written for Jack and not the future stars for whom he hewed a path. Jack also founded the Fast Folk Musical Magazine LP-CD that helped give airplay and career breaks to these usual suspects. You'd hear a good song at a hoot and Jack would have it recorded the next month and on the radio. All this, while leading a weekly new-song and pasta dinner at his apartment for over 30 years. This was a forum for new works. A chance to fail and fail grandly, but now and then there was magic. Jack looked beyond himself while fostering the songwriter movement. He saw the big picture. "Shut up and play the song," he'd say encouragingly. Among his many mantras I most favor: "It's not the singer, it's the song."
When things were going good there was no one more fun to be around than Jack Hardy. When things were going bad, there was no one more interesting to be around. He had the uncanny knack for telling you things you didn't want but often needed to hear. Many a grumble has been heard in the night and in the bright light of day: Who does Jack Hardy think he is? And yet this selfsame grumbler has softened with the passage of time to admit, by god, Jack was right on the mark on this and that – well maybe not that, but certainly this. Jack kept poetry alive as he stood his ground. He never held a grudge and for as long as I knew him, he never turned away from a beggar on the street. He believed in himself and thereby believed in the dignity of others. And yes, it has been my good fortune to witness that dignity many times over the years.
He was a dutiful son and his children adored him. He is survived by his mother and father, Lillian and Gordon, his brother and sister Christopher and Susan, and his four children Eva, Morgan, Malcolm, and Miranda. He loved his children for who they were and not for who they might be. As a result all are flourishing. As he did with his parents, he greatly admired his children's quirks and eccentricities. Life is a banquet to be enjoyed and Jack did that to the hilt. He was a beautiful scoundrel.
When Jack first moved to New York City in 1976, he and his brother Jeff planted two trees in a little park near his apartment on Houston St. and Sixth Ave. They have grown apace and will be a comfort to me as I continue life's journey. Jack's tunes were pure, haunting and yes, sexy. Spicy too. The world is a better place for his mighty efforts and I am a better person for having known him. Rest assured for those who knew and admired Jack, he spent his final weeks on earth surrounded by friends and family and he knew he was loved. He had his wit to the end. He was brave in life and brave in death. He was a passionate man and gave his all to us workers in song. For Jack Hardy the song was sacred. The song the song the song. Shantih Shantih Shantih
A shorter version of this piece ran in Sing Out! v.54 #2, Spring 2011.
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