Blogger Jonathan Bekoff died at home in the night between June 14-15, 2015, after a 3-year illness. He loved this blog and asked some friends to help maintain the site after he died.
Jon was born May 8, 1959 in Staten Island, NY. Raised in Montreal, Canada, he also lived in Ohio, Virginia, Oregon, and Vermont before settling in Greenfield, MA in 1996. He attended the University of Oregon, and was a gifted middle school math teacher for 27 years, mostly in Guilford and Brattleboro, VT. As his former principal at Brattleboro recalled, “Jon was a gentle soul and loved to connect with people, especially with the kids. He came into himself in the classroom; he explained things so clearly. His students loved him. Everyone loved him.”
Jon had strong passions for studying, collecting, playing, mentoring, and sharing roots music of the world, particularly American Old-time and music of Africa (e.g. Malian, Congolese, Shona) and the African diaspora (e.g. Mento, Haitian.) The diverse content of this blog is testimony to his manifold tastes – although all his tastes share one thing in common, i.e., rhythm and groove. To listen to the African music alone in Jon’s iTunes library would take an entire month of continual playing. Jon had a scholarly interest in the people who documented and field recorded roots music. For example, he regarded Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, and Moses Asch as the “holy triumvirate” of Old-time music; having “huge, incalculable long-term cultural influence.”
Jon was a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar (excelling at several American and African styles), mandolin, banjo, kora, balafon, etc., but fiddle was his forte. Although he once played electric bass in a Zydeco band, and later fiddle in a Cajun band (the high point of his musical “career”), Jon shunned performance opportunities and large festivals in favor of creating music with small groups of friends (friends who considered him as their mentor). Despite his uncanny abilities on the fiddle, Jon was not elitist and regularly played with less skillful players of all ages. He was committed to sharing the love of music. He encouraged those who were drawn to his style to instead learn from source recordings. This self-effacing approach to music was sometimes frustrating, because regardless of the genre, Jon’s version of tunes sounded better, even more authentic, than the original recordings. One might attribute this phenomenon to his ability to intensively and actively listen to a recording, and to reproduce the music as it originally was played, embellished by his understanding of the genre from which the source recording emerged. Precious few recordings exist of Jon’s playing- especially of his Caribbean and African music. (Anyone with any Bekoff recordings or other remembrances are strongly encouraged to share them via Stuart via his tribute site )
Jon started fiddling in about 1980. Recordings from mid-late 80s reveal a powerful but smooth bowing style;
however, by the mid 90s or so, Jon had developed a distinct Georgia-fiddler, staccato style and played a lot of “Mountain Blues.” Jon also listened to Cajun fiddling early in life and later developed an affinity for “second” fiddling, whereby he would support and elevate the sound of the melody lead. Jon attributed this use of Cajun styling in the Old-time context to his exposure to fiddler Bob Naess (here they’re playing “Eunice Two Step”, then the beautiful “Aimer et Perdre”):
Regardless of the genre, in a good jam, Jon liked to play a single tune for no less than ten minutes and often up to 30-60 minutes, depending on the endurance of his musical partners. This reflected his need to exhaustively explore a tune’s harmonic and rhythmic dimensions. While faithful to a tune’s originally composed character, Jon experimented in a way that adds diversity and richness to an otherwise simple folk tune. After 10-15 minutes of playing a tune, one could start to hear delightful syncopated rhythms, evoking an ethnic feel from somewhere in the Caribbean or West Africa. This “second” fiddle ability of Jon had the effect of making anyone sound better than they could ever sound alone, and explains Jon’s popularity amongst his musical friends. For most musicians, playing music in a jam with Jon bordered on an ecstatic experience. For Jon, jamming seemed to be when communed best with others, and when he felt most at ease, “delighting in relaxed unity with the constant flow.”
One of Jon’s unique contributions to Old-time fiddling was his ability to “resurrect” forgotten songs which he converted into fiddle tunes, e.g. Watchman Ring the Bell:
or twin fiddle “compositions” with his musical partner, Nate Paine: e.g. Charlie Poole’s “Once Loved a Sailor,” which can be heard here amongst >5 hours of footage of Jon with Nate, or with other players:
This blog Oldtime Party, was Jon’s passion from about 2010-2015, as the 3rd (and most active) blog administrator. His original goal was to create an online community of like-minded music lovers, but the blog morphed into what he described as his repository of “cool stuff” that he discovered posted elsewhere or was submitted by subscribers. Basically, Jon wanted to make it easy for others to find “cool stuff.” He once said he would have expected that Old-time musicians to find interest in the content regarding Caribbean, African, Cajun and other genres he re-posted here, in addition to the exhaustive collection of Old-time articles, music history, CD/LP reviews, book reviews, links to other archives, and classic recordings. He was an acoustic curator and lined up posts for this blog until his last 2 weeks of life (as evidenced by the posts that continue to emerge under his handle, oldtimeparty, through mid July). Anyone who wants to help maintain the site, or submit something they think Jon would like to have had posted, contact the blog at oldtimepartyblog (at) gmail.
One of Jon’s fiddle students in his final year posted a highly personalized tribute movie for Jon. All the audio was fiddled by Jon or came from his personal audio collection. Audio borrows heavily from the Harry Smith Anthology and visuals borrow from Harry Smith’s 1950s stop-motion film “Heaven and Earth Magic,” as well as from photos/vdo contributed by Jon’s old-time musician friends. Astute blog followers will also note many world music images from posts of this very WordPress blog. Jon viewed this 22-minute tribute twice in April and liked it.
Jon’s last words were laid out in a letter to family and friends, in which he informed us that despite his illness, his last year of life was his “most peaceful, clarifying, and meaningful of my entire life.” In addition to connecting to others through music, Jon adored spending time these past few years alone, listening to music, podcasts, audiobooks, reading, meditating, or hunting material for this blog. Let us honor his life and most meaningful years by taking a moment now and then to browse through this blog’s pages. Remembrances can be posted at jonbekoff.net
P.S. It is remarkable how well Jon fiddled throughout his last year of life. Below Jon and Nate playing Omie Wise in March 2015: