The Collected Works of Jack Hardy
Some years ago The New York Times said, "Jack Hardy must be getting tired of being 'discovered,' yet here he goes again." And now, some thirty years after he began his recording career, he's doing it again. The founder of Fast Folk Magazine, one-time songwriting mentor to 90% of the headline bill at most major folk festivals, Jack has now become, in his own words, the "most least famous person to have a box set."
This is a mammoth release of Hardy material from between 1965 and 1995 -- thirty years of work. The set makes available again 10 individual albums from Hardy's discography. This is the entire catalog (with the exception of his 1997 Prime-CD release, The Passing) from a man who was releasing his own albums before Ani DiFranco was born. In true guerrilla-folk style, Hardy saw a complete lack of interest from major record companies, yet an ever-increasing demand for his records from the fan base he built through steady touring of Europe and New England in the 70s and 80s. So he created his own Great Divide label to release his recordings. Now collected for the first time under the roof of the New York Prime-CD label, these records show the journey and changes from a good and original songwriter into the title "master writer" that Hardy so richly deserves today.
Collected Works is the perfect vehicle for those still unfamiliar with this master songwriter and performer. Don't be intimidated or put-off by the size of this collection. This is a very approachable, very enjoyable, and hugely educational collection of material, and well worth whatever price tag Prime-CD puts on it, even if you (like most) have barely even heard of Jack Hardy. And why hasn't the world picked up on Hardy? It remains a mystery, but the consistency of his writing over the years is obvious, as is the quality. Hardy should be held up as one of the greatest writers of the folk genre with the likes of Bob Dylan, Greg Brown and Kate Wolf. He serves up the most mysterious metaphors to be deciphered at every turn, and his songs are more a vehicle of imagery than they are stories. Listening to Jack Hardy is like listening to fine art. His voice almost seems as if it is being forced out-as if it doesn't want to be heard. It is almost as if it wants to keep secrets. Dark themes seem to dominate the body of Hardy's work, incorporating folklore and history throughout.
The first album in the package is entitled Early And Rare, a repackaging (with additions) of his first recording. It becomes rapidly evident that Hardy has always had the knack for writing in his own distinct style. Musically the backdrop fit the time of the recordings, riding the country folk-rock wave of the later 60s and early 70s he employs a heavy dose of pedal steel guitar. His voice was as purely Jack Hardy then as it is now, though he was a bit more cavalier in it's use. With the song "Nashville Rag" you will even hear Jack Hardy howl and yodel, something not typically in his repertoire today. On the same CD we are also treated to what sounds to be the first song recorded in Hardy's present style- "Down On You," from 1973.
Disc number two, Mirror Of My Madness, recorded in 1976, shows an admitted brief influence from Bob Dylan. A fine example of this style is the track "Murder"-"'cause he uses his memories instead of his tools and the game that he's playin' it's got it's own rules, and he's gettin' away with murder." A romp of clever rhyme throughout. It seems that it was during this period that Hardy developed his wry sense of narration with songs such as "Houston Street," "Locked Up In Feelings," and "Murder." From "Houston Street"-"My dreams they reek of madness and I try to understand how people can rely on sadness as the only card in their hand and you find out 'bout the weather when you get rain in your eyes and you find out who your friends are as a consolation prize." It is also on Mirror that we are treated to 3 extra tracks. No mention is given from where they originate so we must assume that they are from these sessions as well. This album also marks the beginning of a long musical relationship with The Roches, who can be found here lending some great harmony to tracks such as Hardy's revamped version of his song "Go Tell The Savior."
The Nameless One, recorded in 1978, seems to be yet another turning point in the definition of Hardy's present style. With "May Day," "The Three Sisters," and "Blackberry Pie" we hear the first serious Celtic themes which have since seemed to be ever present in his body of work. He is in fact so good at writing in that genre that they could easily be mistaken for traditional songs. From "The Three Sisters": "Long before the coast makes claim with its spray o'er the inland plains of fair favored fields, where nature shares secrets in autumn's yield, three sisters alone winter's wishes betrayed." Hardy's voice also gives credibility to his Celtic styled songs in it's pure simplistic timbre. With "All Saints Eve" Hardy visits a recurring theme for perhaps the first time-Halloween. "It was All Saints Eve though some call it Halloween, and all the saints were there quite decadent and obscene."
Following is the fourth of the set, entitled Landmark. Recorded between 1979 and 1980, Hardy experiments with many of the electronic effects that were working their way into popular music at that time. Sounding often like a cross between Dire Straits and Fairport Convention, Hardy employs a somewhat heavier and electric band to this release. Of all the albums of the set, Landmark seems the most out of place and experimental. It does however bring to us one of Hardy's finest works-"Tinker's Coin." Revisiting the Celtic aura of the previous album, the song is absolutely gorgeous, and arguably one of the finest songs Hardy has written. A three-way conversation between a weary traveler, a shady looking tinker, and a conservative barkeep, the song is a stunning ode to the power of song itself over political oppression.
1981's White Shoes picks up where Landmark leaves off. With less of the flashier edge of the previous album, Hardy includes some of his finest work here with "Woman Of The Road," and "Incident At Ebeneezer Creek." The latter is a great war story dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. It ends: "The camp lies now in embers. Newspapers all been read talk of a change in Washington of a dream shot through the head. Some say Jefferson Davis is a blessed name to speak -but the pontoon bridge is gone and Sherman's troops have gone and freedom now has gone." The song seems to further delineate where Hardy would continue to go with his style of writing. Also included here are a rockabilly romp with "Circus," and his wryer side with "Femme Fatale," and "The Subway." The title song, "White Shoes," is one of those songs and melodies that finds itself buried in your head long after the song ends, a sad look at love lost.
The Cauldron, number 6 of the collection, is perhaps the finest example of Hardy's imagery, leading off with his classic "Night Train To Paris." Hardy says in the notes, "This song is by way of saying that all that follows is not as serious as it may seem." It begins, "All that is open is the window. I hold out my hand to the rain. The tracks are glistening in shadow. The ties, the steel, and the train. Stand in the cold at the station though it really isn't you at all. The snare of infatuation, the desperate ledge of a fall." The song was inspired by some rather meaningless passing of time one morning in Paris, but through his use of imagery the song seems to carry great weight. The song descriptions in the notes are the exception here, aiding the listener somewhat to figure out some of Hardy's interesting metaphors such as in "The Siege" which came out of a conversation with another artist over the dangers of success by using a medieval siege as a metaphor. One of Hardy's truly great albums, it also includes "The Wren" which also should probably be considered a classic by now.
The Hunter seems to once again deepen Hardy's journey into the darkness within. Lonesome saxophone helps lead off the album with "The Coyote." Some superb complex lyrics follow, "alone is the coyote who stalks all the graveyards digging up the promises sworn to the moon." Songs such as "Marlene," "The Wedding Song," "The Children," and "The Hunter" all add to that feeling-heavy stuff. Pictures and moods seem to flow easily through you as you listen to his words. From "The Wharf Song," "It's not down by the wharf they look for Jesus down the crooked streets on the misty nights where the dockmen defy the fate of photographs by looking old before their time." One must wonder why this stuff hasn't been published in some dusty old leather-bound book worn from repetitious reading.
The eighth portion of the set, Through, sees Hardy continue into the Celtic themes. It also offers harmony from the likes of John Gorka and Suzzy Roche. Two versions of the title cut are at the beginning and end of the CD listed as a European Mix and American Mix. The difference primarily seems to be in the lead guitar work with the former more in the Mark Knopfler style and the latter being a bit more subdued. On "The Knight's Dream," the guitar style sounds so much like John Gorka's style that you wonder if it actually is him. It is only upon reflection now that you realize how heavily both the guitar and vocal styles of Gorka and Richard Shindell borrow from Hardy. He begins to be mistaken for his students! Gorka paid tribute to Hardy and his mystique in his own "Jack's Crows": "where everybody's from, and nobody goes."
Perhaps one of Hardy's finest works is the ninth of this set, Two Of Swords. Leading off with his celtic-vibed environmental anthem "Your Time Is Your Own," Hardy again masks his thoughts in metaphor-"With the blue of Earth upon your bones and your name upon the wind-o, to choose between the bread and stone remains our only sin-o." This followed with, "'Tis vanity to name the trees, and claim more than your pillow." "Forget-Me-Not" is another Hardy masterpiece-"When first I held you to my breast I would believe that east was west, I would believe that right was wrong. When first I heard your silken song, believe that false was true and cold was hot with eyes as blue as forget-me-nots." This album is also the debut of the voice of Wendy Beckerman who has been perhaps the finest compliment to Hardy's voice to date. This is Jack Hardy in the 90's. Recorded in 1991, this album shows a master at work and very comfortable in his craft. Compelling melody as well as words. Check out the songs "Silver Penny," and "The Blue Garden" for some moving melodies. It is also here that some extra tracks are provided. Originally included on Fast Folk compilations, "Of All Of The Sorrows" is simply beautiful. Also tagged onto this one is "Whose Fault."
With the most recent release in the set, Civil Wars, Hardy creates haunting images of a tour of duty in the "111th Pennsylvane." The narrator tells the story of becoming a soldier alongside his cousin. They march and never find the rebel army. They fear they will never get to see battle and let down their guard. Stonewall Jackson ambushes them, and the cousin is killed. "We fought but we were caught by an enfillading fire-an unexploded shell crashed through our lines and chest and limbs and unsung hymns and god almight's ire-my cousin Casper Kingsbury lay dying." Hardy's delivery and voice really drives this home. His voice at times seems sweet and fragile, at other times ominous and haunting. Drawn from true stories of a relative, Hardy claims to have spent well over a decade researching and polishing this song. The final product is one of the finest written Civil War songs to emerge in this century. Hardy explores some darkened nursery rhyme phrases in "I Have Eyes." Harmony is provided once again by Beckerman on "The Three Ravens," a wonderfully dark song. Other Hardy gems here include "The Promise," and "Fool For The Dancer." "The Zephyr," if you know the story, provides perhaps the closest glimpse to the inner Jack Hardy a listener is likely to hear. On the surface a simple country-twinged song with the chorus tag , "Take it slow, take it easy, take it any way you can," the "take it" in fact refers to the train Hardy grew up listening to outside of his boyhood window, the same train he finally hopped aboard himself with never a look back. Fantastic lines and imagery here include, "Some people pay such neat dues, to their church or their boss. At the crossroads and at the station, or at the stations of the cross." Some nice dobro provided on this album by David Hamburger as well as the return once again of the Roches round it out nicely.
This is a collection to buy and then cherish, and consume slowly, as one might with a case of fine wine. Jack Hardy can't be consumed quickly (one hint, perhaps, towards his lack of mainstream success), but this is not a flaw. Like "The Zephyr," take this one slow and take it easy, but by all means take it any way you can.
More information on Jack can be found at the web site maintained by Ron Mura, http://world.std.com/~rmura/jhardy.
Jon Colcord is a music writer as well as folk DJ at WNEC in Henniker, NH. Christian Bauman is a touring songwriter, freelance curmudgeon, and former regular at Jack's Crows.
Main Jack Hardy Page