January 4, 1999

Jack Hardy: A Village Pied Piper for the Spirit of Folk


J ack Hardy perched in a leather chair in the cramped living room of his Greenwich Village walk-up, cocking an ear as his old Martin guitar was passed around and half a dozen songwriters took turns trying out new tunes.

The songs, variously dark or funny, biting or romantic, described everything from the life and times of Goliath -- "He could have been a great hero,/But the Lord had other plans" -- to dawn in Las Vegas, "when the cards are asleep."

Some were clearly works in progress, with melodies and lyrics that collided like drunken drivers. Others were already finely honed. But they were all fresh out of the box, none more than a week old, as per the house rules -- a breed of music that Hardy has for the last 16 years called "fast folk."

Hardy, wispy-voiced, elfin, iron-willed and a decade or two older than anyone else in the room, took his turn, trying out a new ballad about a boy who dreamed of pirates.

As each tune ended, the other writers applauded with muffled finger snapping instead of clapping, echoing days when beat-generation assemblages gathered in similar Village nooks. Then the critiques flowed, almost as liberally as the Portuguese wine, which was left by a friend.

Weekly, usually on Monday night, songwriters trek to Hardy's flat on Houston Street from as far as Boston and Philadelphia to be part of a song-swap that has taken place, one place or another, since the late 1970's. Alumni include Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega and Lyle Lovett.

The meetings are a laboratory for performers seeking to be part of what remains of the modern folk tradition that emerged in the early 1960's, bloomed again in the early 1980's and percolates quietly today.

The railroad apartment is so perfectly Greenwich Village Bohemian -- with its candle-dripped wine bottles, its framed and faded photos of folk performers, its stacks of tattered LP's, its shelves of poetry and novels -- that it has the feel of a stage set.

And in a way, it is. Hardy settled in New York City in the mid-1970's, at first seeking and then trying to recreate the "folk scene" for which the Village was once heralded.

When he arrived, Bob Dylan and most of the other progenitors of the first folk revival had long since departed. In their wake, folk music was most familiar as the commercial pop form perfected by singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Jackson Browne. In New York City clubs, the emerging sounds were disco and punk.

But Hardy tracked down the few hardened folkies who still frequented Village coffeehouses and set about making his kind of music.

"In the middle of everybody complaining that they had no place to play, no one booking them or recording them," said Richard Meyer, a songwriter and longtime associate of Hardy, "he'd say, 'O.K., let's build a club, let's have a weekly meeting, let's make our own albums.' He said he was Tom Sawyer getting people to whitewash the fence."

His work eventually centered on a musical cooperative he founded with a coterie of independent-minded performers in 1982, first called the Co-op and later the Fast Folk Musical Magazine. He and his compatriots, trying to capture the sound of the moment, invited a steady stream of the performers frequenting Gerdes Folk City, the Cornelia Street Cafe and a club of their own creation, the Speak Easy, to record their latest work on a tape deck in an attic in Brooklyn.

Once a month, with unfolklike regularity, the songs were compiled on low-budget LP's and later CD's and distributed to subscribers and radio stations, with an accompanying newsletter. One hundred master tapes of these recordings, along with the organization's archives, were donated last fall to the Smithsonian Institution, which will add the papers to its permanent collection and release the recordings on CD's in the next few months on a label called Smithsonian Fast Folk.

"The whole idea was to do it fast," Hardy said of the music. "You could hear a song at an open mike or songwriters' meeting and two weeks later it was being played on the radio in Philadelphia or Chicago. It was urgent, exciting. It was in your face."

Along the way, Hardy alienated many musicians with his autocratic style, many of his peers said. He forbade performers to sell their own cassettes at early Fast Folk concerts, as part of an aversion to commercialism.

"Everyone harrumphed," said David Massengill, a Fast Folk pioneer who records for Plump Records now. "He would forget that people were not just trying to make a career but also trying to make a living."

Hardy has always been eager to hear and record compelling songs, no matter who wrote them. "You had the schlump in the corner who couldn't tune his guitar or the people who are famous now," Meyer said. "And Jack was equally committed to talking to the guy in the corner."

Despite Battles, They Were a Tribe

In Ms. Colvin's early days in New York City, she was mainly a backup singer dubbing harmonies in the attic sessions. Michelle Shocked, a prominent songwriter today, got her start stapling Fast Folk newsletters. Ms. Vega, fresh out of Barnard College, had a song in the inaugural copy of Fast Folk Musical Magazine, five years before her big hit "Luka."

Ms. Vega said that during her involvement with Fast Folk in the early 80's, she often battled with Hardy, who seemed intent on being the paternalistic guru of this new folk movement. "I wanted to puncture him, to bring him down to street level," she said. Nonetheless, she said, "those were probably some of the best years I can remember." She added, "We had a tribe, and Jack was the nucleus of it."

Hardy's road to the Village was fittingly rebellious. He grew up mainly in New York City and Aspen, Colo., surrounded by classical music. His father, Gordon, was for many years dean of students at the Juilliard School and director of the Aspen Music Festival. Hardy rejected the classics and at the height of the 60's adopted the mantle of the brooding, long-haired rock musician and campus radical.

At the University of Hartford, he played in a band called Some Dead Bears, which sometimes propped a portrait of Che Guevara onstage. He also edited a student newspaper, The News-Liberated Press, and in 1969 was convicted of libeling President Richard M. Nixon by publishing a lewd cartoon that attacked him. The conviction and $50 fine were overturned on appeal.

He moved to the Village in 1973, and over the years, both he and Fast Folk have found ways to carry on.

The recording project has been dormant for two years, largely because of a lack of volunteers and because many musicians are finding it easier to record their own CD's.

Instead, the organization is focusing on the Fast Folk Cafe, a vestpocket club in TriBeCa (at 41 North Moore Street) that Hardy, Meyer and others opened in 1996. In the best anarchic folk style, the club has periodically struggled to pay its bills and fought city officials over increasingly stringent rules for live music clubs.

The music has evolved as well, far beyond the three-chord structures and consistent rhyme schemes of Dylan and his peers. Many of the songs tested in Hardy's apartment and on the recordings are imbued with influences ranging from the dire imagery of grunge to hip-hop beats, although the music remains stripped down, with the focus on unvarnished lyrics and melody. The songs now vary from Massengill's 20-minute ballads to romantic-comic ditties by Christine Lavin to earnest anthems, like Julie Gold's 1990 Grammy Award-winning song, "From a Distance."

Sometimes a Homer, Sometimes Not

Mr. Hardy, meanwhile, is gaining recognition for his role as a songwriter. In his own songs, he has been less apt to incorporate new musical ideas, instead working to hone his vision of the song as a kind of deeply researched message with buried allusions to mythological figures. In his writing, Hardy uses techniques devised by the Irish bards to exploit the sounds of words and phrases as well as their meanings to convey feelings.

Until last year he never had a record contract, insisting on recording his Celtic-tinged ballads himself, well before the rise of CD's allowed anyone with a few thousand dollars to do the same. His 11th album and a pair of five-CD boxed sets were released this year on a small independent label, available from (800) 774-6323 (the letters PrimeCD).

Still, he remains a largely invisible musical force, with his most enthusiastic following in Europe and among his peers. "I'm undoubtedly the least famous person with a boxed set," Hardy said.

Through all the twists and turns, the Monday night sessions have continued. Mainly, Hardy explained, the song-swaps force him, like the other participants, to keep writing.

On one recent evening, with five pounds of noodles cooking next to iron skillets filled with tomato sauce and hot peppers, he and the other songwriters, a half-dozen veterans of the swaps, all male as it happened, took their turns through two cycles of tunes in a collegial, relaxed atmosphere. When it came time to sing, each participant unfolded some scribbled or typed sheet on a stool.

Hardy's new song about a little boy with pirate dreams was gently dissected by Tim Robinson, a magazine illustrator from Brooklyn who is a regular at the swaps and performs almost every week at a handful of clubs that present acoustic music.

Robinson, 35, questioned Hardy's choice of a calypso beat. "I'm borderline sappy anyway," Hardy explained. "Besides, I've done so many dirges lately I just thought I needed an upbeat one."

Michael Laureanno, 38, an electrical engineer who drove nearly four hours from Wakefield, R.I., tried out a tune he co-wrote, via E-mail, with a friend from western Massachusetts.

Bob Hillman, 28, a high-school tutor, sang about the bleakness of Las Vegas at dawn, something he experienced on a visit for a bachelor party two weeks earlier: "In the morning there's an Oklahoma man playing two-dollar hands with his wife/And the keno brigade meets the lowlifes who played through the night."

Hardy broke the respectful silence that followed. "You've hit a home run, Bobby," he said. Hillman reacted with a knowing smile that intimated he knew as much.

At the end of the evening, the circle returned to Laureanno. "Did you have another one, Mikey?" Hardy asked.

"Yeah, but it's pretty lame," said Laureanno.

"Don't take our work from us," Hardy pleaded, with a chuckle.

Laureanno, backed into a musical corner, complied.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company