A farewell to Bill Hinkley

  • Article by: PAUL METSA , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 29, 2010 - 1:37 PM

He was a hero, mentor and friend to hundreds of Minnesota musicians.

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Judy Larson, Bill Hinkley, Garrison Keillor, Bob Douglas and Rudy Darling in Worthington, Minn., in the late 1970s.

Photo: Provided by "A Prairie Home Companion"

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I am not sure they make men like Bill Hinkley anymore.

The patriarch and godfather of Minneapolis' West Bank music scene, Hinkley was a master musician, an Air Force veteran who spoke five languages (including Greek and Mandarin Chinese), a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, a human jukebox of thousands of songs, storyteller, teacher, sit-down comedian, devoted lover-then-husband of Judy Larson for five decades, historian, hero, mentor and friend to hundreds of musicians and thousands of fans.

He was both Will Rogers with a mandolin and a philosopher king who held sway in saloons, concert halls, radio shows, campfires, kitchen tables, festivals and benefits -- the kind of American who defines this country, and one I was honored to call my friend.

Hinkley, who died Tuesday at age 67, had been fighting a blood disorder for the past couple of years that sapped his strength but never his love for music or his God-given calling to entertain and enlighten with his encyclopedic knowledge of music -- in all styles, from every country and in all time signatures.

As a performer he swung and improvised with an abandon that reminded one of Joe Venuti, Django Reinhardt or the Mississippi Sheiks. He could quote anyone from Shakespeare to Dick Tracy. He had a sense of humor that recalled, at turns, the likes of Mark Twain, H.L Mencken or Lord Buckley. And believe me, you have not lived until you've heard Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson sing "Amazing Grace" to the melody of the "Gilligan's Island" theme. Simply brilliant.

A Twin Cities musician friend referred to Hinkley as "our Socrates." Witnessing the dozens of friends who made the pilgrimage to Hinkley's hospice at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center -- most with instruments in hand, to serenade and play with him when he was able -- confirmed that. It was a folkies' Nordic Viking ritual to bid farewell to the king.

As we assembled there in the community room on May 20, right before dinner, the wheelchairs of disabled vets rolled in. You could sense a solidarity with one of their own -- brothers in arms, enjoying the fruits and flowering of their service and sacrifice via Brother Bill.

I recently learned that Hinkley attended the same St. Louis grade school as John Hartford, the Mississippi River banjo virtuoso. This makes perfect sense. Both were masters steeped in the grand tradition of folk music, and they shared an abiding love for American culture, music and history. They passed on that love and knowledge to a couple of generations of musicians. It is now our obligation to do the same.

Hinkley's greatest lessons to me were distilled in two simple concepts: "End every story with a smile or a laugh," and "the best music is played without pretension."

While Hinkley and Larson never got rich playing folk music -- he was never in the music business, but rather was in the business of making music, a servant to the song -- all of us got richer listening to them play.

Paul Metsa is a Minneapolis singer/songwriter.

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