Final Notes, Jonathan Bekoff

Jonathan Bekoff died at home in the night between June 14 and 15, 2015, after a three-year illness and the culmination of a lifelong spiritual journey. Jon was born May 8, 1959, in New York. Raised in Montreal, Canada, he also lived in Ohio, Virginia, Oregon, and Vermont before settling in Greenfield, Massachusetts, in 1996. He was a gifted math teacher in Vermont for 27 years; as his principal recalled, “Jon was a gentle soul and loved to connect with people, especially with the kids.”

Jon had 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, cumbia). Jon was a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, mandolin, banjo, kora, balafon, etc., but old-time fiddle was his forte. Jon started fiddling in 1978, and quickly mastered several regional styles, though he seemed to prefer the excitement and danceability of early Georgia string bands and favored the “great Southern waltzes” of the 1920s and 1930s. Jon developed a unique style of “complementary” fiddling, drawing from the Cajun tradition, but applying his own characteristic countermelodies, harmonies, and syncopated double-stops. When asked why he developed this accompanist approach to fiddling, Jon simply said it was “fun” and he never understood why others didn’t also do it.

Jon was extremely self-effacing and shunned performance opportunities and large festivals in favor of jamming with small groups of friends around Western Massachusetts, Upstate New York, and Vermont. He exerted a subtle yet pervasive influence in his music community through his enthusiasm for source recordings, playing with “mentees,” and seeing the excitement of discovery in others. Anyone who came in contact with him came away with his or her curiosity awakened and courage bolstered. As a gifted teacher, he had an intuitive ability to assess the strengths of his playing partners; his sensitivity and giving nature drew the best out of players, while gently buoying their weaknesses. 

The blog Oldtime Party (oldtimeparty.wordpress.com)was Jon’s passion from about 2011 to 2015. Jon described it as an archive of collected material including articles on music history, album and book reviews, and links to other repositories of “mostly southern American vernacular music.” The content reflects his scholarly interest in the people who field-recorded roots music (e.g., his “holy triumvirate” of old-time:  Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, and Moses Asch), and the diversity of posts underscores his multi-cultural interests in roots music.

Jon’s last words were laid out in a letter to family and friends, in which he informed us that his last year of life was his “most peaceful, clarifying, and meaningful.” In addition to communing with others through music, Jon adored spending his last few years alone, exploring alternative healing, spirituality, reading, listening to audiobooks, podcasts, and his vast music collection, and hunting material for his blog. Jon left this world without fear and with profound gratitude for his 56 wonderful years. As our folk acoustic curator, he lined up blog posts until his last two weeks of life. Let us honor him by taking a moment to browse through the blog’s archives, which includes a more detailed musical obituary with links to learn more about Jon’s music. Jon never made commercial recordings, but hours of his unique style can be observed at the MoonshineV Old-time Field Recordings YouTube channel. Anyone who wants to contribute content can contact the blog at oldtimepartyblog@gmail.com.

Moonshine  (Excerpted with permission from oldtimeparty.wordpress.com.)

 


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