Paul Hawthorne

A Memoir by Will Fastie

Many of Paul's friends who have written here knew Paul from much earlier in his life and knew him personally, as a friend or colleague. My path to Paul was different. This is that story.

Failure to Launch

In early 2003, my wife told me that we had to redecorate my younger son's bedroom so it would be ready when he came home from college. This differed from my plan, of course, in that I felt things should be made as uncomfortable as possible so my son would successfully "launch" into his life and out of our house. I leave it to your imagination to determine whose plan prevailed.

We have an older house with limited closet space. Spencer's closet had been used for some of our overflow storage, including my guitar, mandolin, a family heirloom violin, and my banjo. The plan called for turning the closet over to Spencer, so I had to pull out the instruments and find other quarters for them. They had been almost untouched for three decades and I was suddenly faced with the question of what to do with them.

The guitar was a rather nice but ordinary 1966 Epiphone MC-30 classical model. I always enjoyed playing it but it was not my style. The flat-bodied, round-hole mandolin had been purchased in the early '60s from the son of its maker, the noted Baltimore violin luthier Carl C. Holzapfel. It was the first new instrument I ever bought and thus carried a certain emotional attachment. But as I contemplated these two instruments, I realized neither held much interest for me.

The banjo was more complicated. It is a late-'50s Harmony. I had purchased it used from the venerable Ted's Musician's Shop located behind Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music. Ted's is well-known for cut-rate used instruments and the Harmony was no exception, right in keeping with a '60s teenager's budget. My Harmony became the fretted instrument I usually played with friends during my high school years and I later toted it to Viet Nam and back.

Suddenly, almost inexplicably, I had the urge to play again.

But now, 40 years later, I had the resources to obtain a banjo made of something other than Bakelite. I decided that I wanted to learn to play banjo reasonably well before I died and, to fund the purchase of a "real" banjo, I would sell all my current instruments.

That's how I came to meet Paul.

The Whyte Layde

I was introduced to banjo not by Earl Scruggs, like most of my generation, but by the great, versatile, under-rated folk musician Michael Cooney during the folk music craze of the early '60s. At the time Cooney had a long-neck banjo that he had put together from a Whyte Layde pot and an Ode neck. It was a fantastic instrument.

I had to make up my mind what style I would study. At first I thought I would follow in my own footsteps and learn how to frail again. It had been my preferred style (clawhammer was considered unusual and so my friends had encouraged me in that direction). That put me in mind of Cooney's banjo.

I didn't really know what a Whyte Layde was, so I began some research. I sent off a few emails but didn't get very good information. Then I found a passing mention on Paul's site in the Asian Banjos section. As I began to read more of the site, I realized Paul was more thoughtful than most and might actually be able to give me an intelligible answer. I also sensed a tone in his writing that made it clear he would not tolerate fools. Carefully, respectfully, addressing him as Mr. Hawthorne, I made my inquiry.

Almost immediately I received a courteous, crisp, and clear reply with exactly the information I needed and a pointer to an authoritative source, Mugwumps. Boldly, I asked a few more questions; all were well answered. I was not only impressed but grateful - I had gotten the information I sought in a blink of an eye after having spent fruitless hours on the Web.

I felt that I owed him something. I noticed that he was using a particular trick to prevent his email address from being harvested off his site by those nasty Web bots and spyders. I pointed Paul to a demonstration of a better technique on my site and he quickly asked for my help.

This simple exchange formed the basis of our association. He advised me on music; I advised him on computing. After a few months, our electronic pen pal relationship evolved into trust and soon after, friendship. Once it was clear that we were friends, our emails roamed far and wide, from the philosophical and ethereal to the plain and earthy.

And just because my son came home from college and I found my banjo in his closet.

Banjo Quest

Many of my exchanges with Paul concerned my learning to play again and my quest for a more serious banjo. Paul influenced both in the extreme.

Anyone who has perused Paul's site knows his views on studying and effective learning. I got it first hand, in detail, and it has had a profound effect on how I view my "retirement hobby." I continue as a student of Gestalt Banjo. One point I especially remember is about practicing. Paul said that practice was the chore hated by every player of every instrument. He encouraged me to "rehearse."

Where Paul helped me more decisively was in my quest to find a new banjo. I was really stumped. I wanted a good instrument and thus had the thought that I should be pursuing a Gibson, but I certainly did not want to spend that kind of money. At that time I planned to buy only one instrument, making it vital to choose wisely.

Paul first helped me to put aside my long-standing affection for Gibson. As a kid, I was often in one of Baltimore's better music shops buying sheet music. Upstairs was an instrument room where high on the wall hung a Gibson 5-string All American, the most beautiful banjo I had ever seen, its image still burned in my mind. Paul gently eased me out of my banjo childhood, steering me instead to sound and playability over brand. In computing my life is about effectiveness and suitability to task, substance within style, yet 40 years later I was still remembering the look of the All American without being able to recall its sound. This was as evident to Paul as if I had tattooed "stupid" on my forehead.

And so Paul guided me to have a banjo built by a local luthier. I had never even considered the possibility. Not only did he open my eyes, he pointed me in the right direction. When Paul taught himself to play left-handed by applying the principles he developed in Gestalt Banjo, he had borrowed a lefty Imperial from his friend Dan Palmer, thinking he would eventually buy it. When Dan later decided to keep all his instruments, Paul bought a used Woodsong (#23, 1995, in Pennsylvania aged walnut, ebony, and gold) from its original owner ("Ron" is inlaid at the 21st fret). Paul played the Woodsong every day because he "rehearsed" left-handed every day. But he did not like playing inferior instruments, feeling that he deserved quality. He found that quality and playability in his Woodsong.

I was by that time planning to buy a Gold Tone Orange Blossom+, which I had decided fit my goals and budget well. Nonetheless, Paul's comments about the Woodsong led me to call Corky Wirick, just three hours northwest of me in Bedford, PA. It was a pleasant call during which I made arrangements to visit Corky to see and hear a Woodsong banjo. I stunned myself with this decision. Paul commented in an email:

"Everything comes together... I hope you'll not think me out of line or pedantic to say that I am used to this kind of thing/ synchronicity happening.....not just in instruments. I suspect it probably infects your life too. <G>"

My trip to Bedford was a treat, one of the nicest days I had spent in a long time with one of the nicest people I had met in a long time. When I got back I sent a note to Paul describing the day, my order (!) for my Woodsong, and my feelings about it. His response was simply to chuckle, as if he knew the outcome before I even left Baltimore. It was just the first of many times this would happen - I never quite lost the notion that Paul had a plan for me and that I was following it quite nicely.

If I thought that was the end of my banjo buying, I was wrong. I eventually bought a Saga Bella Voce that Paul coveted enough to buy from me when I found my Gold Star G12 (accompanied by chuckles from Paul). And I bought a dirt-cheap, broken-necked Fender FB-59 (walnut, rosewood, and gold) with Paul's enthusiastic encouragement (more chuckles - my Woodsong is maple, rosewood, and nickel).

In a twist, Paul willed me the Saga BV, about which I cannot begin to express my feelings.

Frugal Paul

Much of my computer correspondence with Paul surrounded his intense desire to do more with less. Although it is clear this was part of Paul's character, in computing it was explosively fueled by Microsoft's addition of product activation into Windows XP. Paul despised Microsoft for what he considered a violation of his privacy and, despite my attempts to calm his fears, steadfastly refused to advance beyond Windows 98. There is much here on his site that reflects his opinions and the steps he took to do useful computing without ever sending Microsoft another nickel.

He was very interested in Linux and spent considerable time trying to learn it well enough so that he could entirely exclude Windows from his life. He was also taken by the fact that many variants of Linux run on "lesser" hardware. The potential for living well on hand-me-down computers was tremendously appealing - in his last few years he spent nothing on PCs despite acquiring several. He did invest in things like larger hard disk drives, but even there he was buying yesterday's capacities at rock-bottom prices. When I was struggling with 100GB in my contemporary laptop, Paul was tooling nicely along with two 10GB drives in some retro PC.

Paul told me about a "dump" in Tehachapi that was actually a high-end recycling service. One dropped off unneeded or defective items and could take other items. Paul was a regular at the place, where he obtained several PCs from which he scavenged parts and even whole units that he managed to bring back to life. One of his favorite exchanges involved taking three lawn mowers, all of which he restored to operation and two of which he returned to the dump in working condition.

Paul was not averse to spending money but it was clear to me that every penny was spent as wisely as he could manage. When he did spend, he preferred quality and was willing to pay for it. He always looked to the future and considered the cost over time, not just how much cash was coming out of his pocket. Value was his watchword, not cost. He drove older cars he maintained himself and he considered his choices in vehicles sophisticated - in terms of their value to him and their engineering quality, not in terms of elegance.

A Legacy of Email

Paul and I never met in person. We talked by phone just a few times, mostly during the last months. Our entire relationship was electronic.

It was a rewarding experience, with far-ranging conversations that could take months. The subjects were broad - music, musicians, the business of music, banjo, Bluegrass, jazz, religion, philosophy, politics, government, geography, engineering, aeronautics, space, money, women - and probably many more that I've forgotten. We did not agree on everything and we debated and we argued but neither of us ever came to anger.

The result was an archive of nearly 4,000 emails saved out of an estimate of over 8,000. Even today when I'm trying to remember something he taught me I'll search them looking for a particular conversation.

When Paul was afflicted, he had trouble typing (and also picking). I did not sense any cognitive problem, but it became obvious that he was embarrassed about the typing and thus retreated from email. I was amazed at how quickly I felt the loss, something I still feel today after more than two years.

I remember a scene from the movie "Absence of Malice" in which Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) is remarking to Megan Carter (Sally Field) about her typewritten correspondence with her father. Gallagher says words to the effect of "Most people telephone" and Carter replies "Yeah, but then what do you have?"

She was right.

 

Copyright ©2009 by Will Fastie.

Edited 12 Jul 2009 by WF