Jonathan Bekoff – May 8, 1959 – June 15, 2015
I have stories to tell about Jonathan Bekoff.
Before we met, I had unwittingly heard Jon’s nascent fiddle-playing on a tape recorded at the Glenville, WVA festival, circa 1980. The cassette tape is a now forgotten emblem of an exciting era of discovery, camaraderie and the sharing of arcana, and this one was recorded by a long-forgotten friend of the obscure and passed from hand to hand until it reached mine via Kerry Blech. The music on the tape was something quite special—a full 45-minute side of wonderfully spontaneous fiddle duets featuring the delightful playing of Pete Sutherland and a newbie fiddler identified only as “Jonathan Oakes.”
A favorite listening tape, I loaned it to Greg Canote just as he and his brother Jere were about to embark on a cross-country trip in an inadvisable old truck; a pilgrimage to the eastern festivals by a matched set of Californians itching to soak up the music in the mosquito-ridden, humidity-sodden atmosphere of the Southeast. Well, their cute old truck caught fire somewhere in the Rockies and, fortunately, the brothers escaped unscathed. But the treasured tape was toast. Fortunately for me, I have the gift of a mind’s ear that can still recall many details, and most of all the uncanny sense of interplay between the two fiddlers in that recording.
The year was 1982, and I had just moved to Corvallis, Oregon with my small family all in the name of higher education. On one of the many trips north to Seattle for yet another dance gig, Greg Canote, who had recently moved there with his brother, effused that a great young fiddler was living not far from Corvallis, and that I should meet him. Greg passed on his phone number, I called, we chatted, and the car-less Jon was very interested in meeting and making the three-hour drive with us to the Seattle Folklife Festival.
The first time we met was in the hushed halls of the Salem, Oregon public library, where we had arranged to rendezvous and drive north. I walked into the library, glanced to one side and noticed my former guitar hero, a rather largish and unmistakable John Fahey sitting at a table surrounded by paper clutter. I quietly decided to file that image away for later while attempting to locate an unknown face that must belong to a fiddler. Jon was slouching at a table, tattered tractor hat sitting atop a slightly hollow bespectacled face connected to a slender frame, the whole package engrossed in some improving book. After the formalities, Jon climbed into the back seat of the car next to my one-year old daughter, Gretchen, and away we went. I’m not sure we even had a chance to play music together while at Folklife, but we sure did in the ensuing few years.
As his story unfolded, it turned out that Jon had been living on an organic farm in the Willamette Valley with a group of non-specialist farmers who seem to have shimmered away when the going got tough. The tractor had broken down, the work had become overwhelming, who knows how rustic the living conditions were, and the only remaining farmers were Jon and his ex-girlfriend. An apparently awkward situation. Jon seemed at loose ends and I invited him to bivouac with us in Corvallis while he considered his options. He stayed with us for a few months camping in the back yard until he found a small apartment of his own. And since I had the temerity to begin school as a freshman at age 29, Jon warmed to the idea as a new beginning for himself as well.
The one constant was music. At the time, I was playing a load of dances with Tolly, playing a weekly restaurant gig with friends John and Sally, playing in a proto-lounge trio with Jeff Hino and Clyde Curley, and seriously rehearsing an early bluegrass brother duet act with old friend and homesick Texan, Robert Griffith. All this while carrying a full class load and spending every possible moment with the one-year old apple of my eye, Gretchen. In those days, I had energy to spare and, as it turns out, that’s exactly what was necessary to play tunes with Jon.
I thought I had died and gone to heaven—Jon and I played fiddle and banjo duets every chance we had for a solid two years. When he had time to spare, he sat in his small apartment with his tape recorder playing tunes just for the benefit of anyone who cared to listen and learn. This was my first hint of Jon’s knowledge of his own gift, and his firm commitment to share what he had with others.
Jon began teaching a fiddle course at the area community college, and he asked me to join him in the college recording studio to make some repertoire tapes for his flock of students, which I did gladly. I think we made three 90-minute tapes of tunes—which very well could have been only 90 minutes worth of three tunes without a small dose of reality check. I think I know where those tapes got to but I’ll probably never see them again.
Down the road, we were invited to old friend Mark McPherson’s house in the Portland area to record on some slightly better quality equipment. I’ll never forget that memorable session: I had a very bad cold and fever, but the tunes kept coming and I was incapable of batting them away. Most of the tunes I had never heard before. Jon would say, “You know this one,” before tearing into another keeper. After a moment of familiarity, Mark turned on the tape recorder and we played the tune for 5-10 minutes, just long enough to discover the really interesting bits. We each came away with a copy of the tape and Jon, who labeled it “Tunes from Heart of the Valley” promptly began sending it out across the Amerikee to the susceptible.
There are many stories that fill the gap of the ensuing 30 years during which time we kept in infrequent touch, checking in on the good times and the fresh hell and madness that caused yet another of life’s U-turns. There are also recordings of tunes, but those appear to be abundant elsewhere.
When I heard the recent sad news, I was just finishing Ian Zack’s biography of Reverend Gary Davis, Say No to the Devil. I found myself drawing parallels. The Reverend knew very well his phenomenal abilities as a guitarist and his worth as a musician. But he chose to dedicate his life to preaching the Gospel, and he chose to pass on his gifts to countless students via hours-long lessons for a pittance, all the while living in poverty. Jon had that same self-awareness, and chose to pass on his gifts at the expense of—perhaps in spite of—the many missed opportunities for advancing his station among the self-appointed big shots.
So many moments spent in Jon’s company live clearly etched in memory. The words here describe just a few early recollections of an amazing friend, companion of innumerable tunes, and a shining example of how one person lived a good life and called time on his own terms.