October 25, 1998
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The Headbone Zone for Kids

For troubadour, a career beyond the `Fast' life

Jack Hardy defers to others; his songs gain folklore status

By Daniel Rubin

NEW YORK -- Jack Hardy, probably the least famous singer-songwriter with a boxed set, is marching through Greenwich Village, his white hair swept under a black witch's hat. Halloween is a month away.

A knot of preschoolers nudge and point, but since they're on a leash, who should be afraid of whom is not clear.

"The hat seems to make people happy," Hardy says. Actually, it's a bard's hat, he says, like the one the little-known Irish poet James Clarence Mangan wore.

"Play a song for us," taunts one of three slackers huddled under a movie marquee as the curious figure passes, his guitar case strung across his back like a quiver.

"Hey, are you Irish?" one calls, and Hardy pauses.

"Yes, I am," he says, smiling as he heads toward his sound check at the Bottom Line, where Prime CD, the label that has reissued his first 10 records, is staging a fifth-anniversary concert.

Hardy is getting out a little more these days -- he makes a rare Philadelphia appearance at the Tin Angel tonight. He's the man who pushed such talents as Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, John Gorka, Tracy Chapman, Julie Gold and Cliff Eberhardt to prominence, as founder of Fast Folk magazine and organizer of a weekly songwriting workshop held in his Greenwich Village flat.

Behind a battered door identified only by a discarded Jack of Hearts, the Monday night sessions go on, fueled by pasta and praise, its 10 or so young songwriters dubbed Jack's Crows.

"There are many who think that Jack's promotion of others is the only reason why he's not as well-known as them," says labelmate Christine Lavin. "He's a brilliant writer, probably the most serious of all the songwriters I know. He's a true descendant of the bards and storytellers of ancient Scotland and Ireland."

"I love Jack Hardy," says Philadelphia folk DJ Gene Shay of WXPN-FM. "I think he's one of the best singer-songwriters around and he has been for years."

The title song of a Gorka album has this refrain:

Jack's crows, where everybody's from and nobody goes.

In many ways, Hardy never left. "I sort of live my life in a whole different frame of reference," he says. When not in his rent-controlled flat on Houston Street, Hardy is upstate in his Catskills cabin, surrounded by forest and fields. He has no television, no computer and a couple of ex-wives. He writes a song a week and two letters a day, often in his Ford Escort, which has logged 42,000 miles this year. "I realized the urban environment is necessary to get together with other artists, but my writing comes from a much more pastoral set of images," he says. "It's sort of a Jekyll and Hyde existence. I try to keep in touch with real people and real things rather than just hanging out with musicians and writing about how tough it is to be on the road."

Hardy grew up in Indiana, and moved around as a child. His father was dean at Juilliard and head of the Aspen Music Festival. The songs started coming at the Pomfret School in Connecticut when he was a teen-ager and continued at the University of Hartford, where he edited the campus paper and was sued for libeling President Nixon.

Hardy lived on the road for five years until moving to New York in 1975, where he found he had much to learn from the many fine songwriters getting nowhere together. "In New York, even if you're one in a million, there's eight more of you here." But he found a way to work around the big record companies in 1982, starting Fast Folk, and including recordings from young artists that were so essential the Smithsonian has plans to release them on CD.

"I don't begrudge myself doing it, but it completely obscured my career," Hardy says. "Fast Folk became the story." He is 50 and fine-featured, bearing a likeness to Johnny Carson, though the reference means little to him. His speaking voice is high and raspy, but when he sings it's deeper and whiskeyed. His eyebrows are red and barbed--"antennae," his three children, ages 9 to 13, call them. "They say it's where I get my stories from. They think I'm an elf."

Hardy is lost when topical references show up at his songwriting workshops. "I have never knowingly seen an episode of Seinfeld, so when everyone was talking about the last episode, I just didn't get it," he says. "I don't know whether that leaves me at an advantage in writing or a disadvantage. I can't imagine 100 years from now, people will still be singing songs that refer to Seinfeld. I like to flatter myself to think some one might want to sing one of mine. "That, to me, is the true test of whether you've succeeded as a songwriter, and you won't even be around to tell."

Many other artists have recorded his songs, whose styles range from folk to western swing, country to Celtic. his canon includes "The 111th Pennsylvane," based on the Civil War experience of his great-great uncle; "The Wren," which Shay says is "one of the most frightening songs I've ever heard"; and "The Tinker's Coin," which led to the best compliment paid to Hardy. David Seitz, who runs Prime CD, was traveling in Ireland recently when he heard a singer introduce the song as a traditional number, learned from a friend in Galway. "To me," Hardy says, "that's a greater accolade than having a hit of some sort."

Jack Hardy and Chuck Brodsky will be co-headliners tonight at 7:30 at the Tin Angel, 20 S. Second St. Admission: $8. No smoking permitted. Information: 215-928-0978.

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