When I met Jack Hardy, he wore a purple pirate hat, held a half-drunk bottle of whiskey, sang cowboy ballads and romantic epics in a coyote tenor, the wink of a young devil in old eyes watching the hummingbirds as the Texas sun sank into the fields. Truth be told, I hardly knew him. Funny how teachers can sneak into our lives sideways. But that was Jack, a slanted trickster, famous to a few, influential to many more than he knew.
Jack Hardy was a songwriter’s songwriter, one of the definers of the Fast Folk era in New York City. He was born on November 23, 1947 in South Bend, Indiana and moved to Greenwich Village in 1974. He was literary. He was poetic. He founded Fast Folk Music, a loosely gathered crowd of like-minded folkies in NYC with a magazine and a venue that generated thousands of recordings of folk and acoustic musicians passing through in the ’80s.
In the late ’90s, a friend told me about Jack’s legendary Monday night writer’s gatherings in the West Village. I heard anyone could go, novices like myself, Suzanne Vega might even be there. I was just starting to play out in NYC, a new songwriter, tiptoeing into this mysterious craft. I was nervous. I declined the invitation.
I finally did meet Jack in 2005, when I was a New Folk Finalist in the Kerrville Folk Festival contest. I’d wandered down to Camp Coho late one night, long after the mainstage shows were over. Under a white tarp lit by lanterns I found a quiet circle of songwriters gathered in the center with guitars and fiddles, and a larger circle around them listening, standing, sitting in lawn chairs or on the ground. I leaned in with the watchers, hearing songs by Steve Gillette, Buddy Mondlock, Jack Williams, Jonathan Byrd and others whose names I did not yet know. Jack Hardy was there in the circle, his eyes closed, bottle of whiskey within reach. After each song, he’d snap his fingers in a beat poet’s applause. He was clearly in his kingdom and when it came his turn, he’d sing one of his own songs or maybe an old Irish tune. Someone would sing along. If he sang “Everything’s Bigger In Texas,” everyone would sing along with the line “Did I mention the blue margaritas?” I was invited to sit in the circle next to Jack, and, after I’d finished my first song, he snapped his fingers and turned to me and said, “Bellisima.”
Now, I’m not so foolhardy to disregard the whiskey or my own youth and Jack’s impish delight at young women, but I also know full well that no matter the carve of the leg, no matter the drink, Jack suffered no songwriting fools. And the moment Jack nodded at me, I felt invited. Not arrived. But invited to peer into the world of songwriters who took time with their craft, like clockmakers working to get it just right. Songwriting became a serious pursuit for me on that night.
On a Monday night a few weeks later, I was at Jack’s tiny apartment for the first time carrying a loaf of bread and a new song. I brought something unfinished, a few verses, a melodic idea for a chorus. David Massengil wrote of the meetings, “It was a chance to fail and fail grandly, but now and then there was magic.” Jack’s mission: Write songs constantly. Gather together with a group and share these songs once a week for critique. He wrote, ‘The only thing that makes you a songwriter is writing songs. Just write. Write now, judge later. Finish the song, even if you suspect that it is no longer good.”
Jack Hardy’s brother died in the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001 and Jack was one of the first to volunteer to help search and clean up the toxic rubble. Jack died of lung cancer in the spring of 2011 and during the first weekend of the Kerrville Folk Festival soon after, Camp Coho held a “new song” gathering in Jack’s memory. That night the circle was swollen with new songs. It took hours to get through everyone and, as the sun rose in the distance behind the hummingbird feeders over the lower meadow, a conversation began about starting similar gatherings around the country.
The next month, I began the East Nashville Song Salon on Monday nights. We had about 6 people the first night. The second week, 10. The third about 20. It grew. Strangers were showing up with new songs, telling their friends. We keep Jack’s rules. Bring a new song and leave your ego behind. I have been inspired and awed by the music I’ve heard in my living room for the past three years. Jack’s Manifesto, a mission statement he wrote passed down to me by David Massengil, has been available to anyone who comes through my door. Jack continues to mentor people he never met.
I may not have known him well, but he stays with me: his squinting eyes, his caustic wit, his sharp intelligence. Jack had a voice of the boy who sat outside your window to sing you down the oak tree to dance with you in the yard in the rain. Teachers come when we are ready, so the saying goes. Jack would respond: “Shut up and play the damned song.”
Amy Speace is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter. Her latest album, How To Sleep In A Stormy Boat, was released in 2013.