Bill Hinkley, 1942-2010

Bill Hinkley, 1942-2010
Photos courtesy A Prairie Home Companion

Midnight on the Water: Bill Hinkley, in memoriam

The choice moments that suddenly arise when you can see a grand life coming to a close in front of you seem to have no respect for death -- and even less reverence for the heavy grief waiting in the wings to come next onstage. Life somehow goes on -- even alongside a deathbed -- as the living and the dying have learned. For the extraordinary musician and teacher, Bill Hinkley, who died Tuesday morning, May 25, from a series of complications, his last days were filled with the uplifting and haunting music and the daily preoccupations that marked his time as a life-long performer with his partner, co-conspirator and busking sidekick, Judy Larson, and their friends.

There were brilliant flashes of irony, fond reminisces and hilarious stories, and so many songs and tunes that define a good life. The so many songs and tunes that might expire, or never be played or passed on were it not for people like the West Bank duo, their peers and students. Numerous pickers, strummers, jazzers, blues and bluegrass players and others came in and out to serenade Hinkley in his hospice pad at the VA hospital. Many played the old troubling folk songs about loved one's departing through break-ups, sheer misery or murder. Not the kind of stuff you'd expect as a loved one lay dying, but for Bill, this was not a concern. It was a cratered landscape of themes and hallowed tunes that he knew well and loved.

On the previous Tuesday, Al Jesperson, known first as one of the bluegrass founder's of the Middle Spunk Creek Boys -- and second as the brother of Twin/Tone Records' co-founder Peter Jesperson -- transformed Bill's hospital room into a front porch, with Bill Geezy (The Promise Breakers) and two other friends on banjo and a mandolin player who also doubled on fiddle. Judy shared the hand-written lyrics someone had just sent her to the anti-German and Japanese WWII song called "Who Cut the Gorgonzola?" and was now in search of its melody. Heavily medicated, the patient slept and dreamed. Then Al called out the tune "Washington County" which brought Bill wide awake: "That's not 'Washington County," he grinned, as the fellas counted down to the real thing. He asked to be hoisted out of his bed to better take in the playing.

Even as he struggled to pick a few mandolin notes or to comment on a fiddle solo or someone's guitar and banjo (all of which he played and taught proficiently, plus the jug), Bill still had the air of the Master about him. Sitting in the hospital's community room later last Thursday in a wheelchair for a jam-packed jam session with the likes of Peter Ostroushko, Marya Hart, Dakota Dave Hull, and more fiddlers than the on-looking nurses and other VA patients gathered there, he kept apace of "Midnight on the Water" on his mandolin. The ancient Irish fiddle tune -- at times sounding orchestral in the space and equally romantic and hopelessly sad -- undid quite a few on the sidelines in this last waltz for a king. While the session surely tried his physical bearing, his spirit drank deeply at the well.

Historically Bill belonged to the West Bank music scene -- "the folk mafia" as Willie Murphy wryly referred to it trying to break some blues into the mix last week as players kept coming in to honor the Godfather. But the scope of his work with Judy and other musicians, from Papa John Kolstad, Dakota Dave Hull and Sean Blackburn, to Cal Hand, Stevie Beck, Koerner, Ray and Glover, and others, transcends time and place.

Bill Hinkley, 1942-2010
The Sorry Muthas

His first group with Judy and assorted amigos, the Sorry Muthas, today has its own MySpace page (!), and a viral community in the past couple weeks grew up quickly around the Friends of Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson Facebook page (worth reading if only to plumb the impact Mr. Hinkley had on us all). Songwriter Paul Metsa rightfully calls him the Patriarch of the folk music world in the Twin Cities. It's a fitting title and there are no heirs to it. Officially Bill (and Judy) have been honored by the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame and were recipients of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Minnesota Bluegrass and Oldtime Music Association, which reports on its website, "The question has often been posed as to whether Bill may know more tunes than anyone alive today. We've not stumped him yet and we've tried."

Bill and Judy frequently were featured on the formative and filmic periods of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. Those early shows, less heavily scripted than the format now, allowed for more of the world folk music Bill knew readily knew and regularly played. And you can see the Hinkley and Larson duo throughout much of the Robert Altman movie of the same name, playing themselves as musicians hanging about in the green room or alongside the curtains.

Bill Hinkley, 1942-2010

But it's Hinkley's and Larson's (then double-album in the late '80s on Red House Records) Out in Our Meadow that magically underscores Hinkley's brilliance as an interpreter, singer, instrumentalist and writer. Speaking as a former name on the City Pages editorial masthead, it's one of the 10 best records ever made in Mill City, or the outstate. Caustic topical tunes about money that never go out of favor, the smart choice of "Devil's Dream" and the heartbreaking version of "The Water is Wide" that will make you weep and moan at times like this are just some of its many gems.

Bill Hinkley made a good life. He learned many languages while in the US Air Force, however he wisely went on to teach hundreds of acoustic players whose names you most likely will never read in these pages or blogs, teaching at the Pickin' Parlor and the West Bank School of Music. But the master also instructively made the good death, complete with a timeless soundtrack, for those he leaves behind, and there's no measurement of gratitude for that and the music he made during his life, playing those grace notes right up to the song's finish.

Martin Keller is a former staffer, editor, writer and columnist for City Pages; and author of Music Legends for the Minnesota Series.

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