Jon Campbell: True Wit; True Grit
What propels you along is not the outcome. If you have any maturity, you lose interest in the outcome. You just want to do what you do as evocatively as you can. —Tom McGuane
In 1975 I met a guy named Jon Campbell, who I ended up in a band with that played Irish music. The minute I met this guy I knew he was very sharp, and was the smartest guy in the room. His knowledge of music came out on the fretboards of guitars, mandolins, banjos and
bouzoukis. Moreover, he played tin whistle, flute and Irish bagpipes (Uilleann bagpipes); none of these instruments lie and you need serious chops to play these things. Campbell had these chops in prodigious amounts. After we left that band we agreed to work as a duet. However,
there was a hitch, as there always was when working with Campbell. In ’75 my four guitars were old and beat up; Campbell had it in his mind
to change this.
“Houlihan, you need a better guitar if we’re gonna do some gigs,” said Campbell. “How much cash do you have?”
“About two-hundred bucks,” I said.
“OK, take two of your guitars that are of little value, and we’ll go see this guy I know, I’ll pick you up at ten.” he said, “Now remember, don’t
say anything until I ask you to show this guy your roll. You got it?”
“Got it,” I said “I’ll keep quiet.”
When we got to this guy’s place in Providence my attention latched on to a beautiful Guild D-40 as Campbell was telling the guy that I needed a guitar. The haggling began. The guy had a price and so did Campbell. I watched and listened. The guy told Campbell that it was hybrid Guild. It had a Hoboken body and a Westerly neck—Guild had two factories in those days. This guitar with a long story sounded beautiful as I played it softly. I could see Campbell’s wheels were turning.
“Eh, not too wild about the Westerly neck, and I see a brace issue,” said Campbell. “How much for this, Houlihan seems to like it.” (Campbell was a luthier but the guy didn’t know this.)
“For the Guild? Three-hundred, cash,” says the guy.
“Too much,” say Campbell, “I’ll be right back.”
Campbell goes out to his car and comes back with my two beat guitars and a canvas bag.
“I’ll give you these two guitars, and the two banjo necks and tuners in this bag,” says Campbell.
The guy looks at the guitars and banjo necks and doesn’t say anything and didn’t seem impressed. Campbell then tells the guy we want the hard-shell case with the Guild. At that direct request the guy raises his eyebrows and I’m thinking the deal’s blown because Campbell overplayed his hand.
“Houlihan, show him your roll,” says Campbell.
“Here you go mister,” I said peeling off two hundred wrinkled dollars in ten- and twenty-dollar bills.
“Deal,” says the guy.
We walked out to Campbell’s beat-up car as I carried the best guitar I ever would play or own in my life. He pulled off a major deal for me and I told him that I thought he was going to bring back a goat and a chicken with my guitars and the bag of banjo necks to barter with the guy for the Guild. We laughed as we headed back to Narragansett after pulling off a solid caper—one of many we pulled over the next 35 years. So began a long friendship with this street-smart, intelligent, cynical, cantankerous and very witty guy named Jon Campbell who sadly left us on January 9, 2022.
I’m writing this respectful nod to Campbell on my sailboat in Newport Harbor about two hundred meters from Bannister’s Wharf. In ’76 we would busk on the cobblestones where now stands the Black Pearl for food and rent money. Campbell’s mandolin and whistle playing got
people’s attention while I just held down the rhythm shots on the guitar and sang old sea songs. The guitar case filled up with cash as we played and flirted with girls and goofed on the whole scene. (Campbell found humor at every turn of his head, and missed nothing.) Those busking gigs served two purposes for us. First of all, we could practice our material for the paying bar gigs, and secondly we’d score some extra cash. Like many traditional barroom folk singers in those early sketchy days we would sing Bob Dylan, Jimmy Buffett, and other identifiable songwriters’ material because saloon owners wanted and expected this. One night at a gig at the Green Inn In Narragansett, Rhode Island that would change. Campbell and I got tired of singing other people’s songs and decided to write our own stuff and play it in
our sets between Dylan and Buffett songs. Subsequently, people liked our local material and we didn’t get fired; therefore we just kept writing. Over the next several years we recorded three decent projects and sold our product at gigs for side cash.
In those early days we recorded our songs for short money, and could cut corners by getting some generous musician friends to contribute tracks. Most important, Campbell had this uncanny ability to arrange our material and help the engineers do their jobs and help mixing the
songs. This resulted in saving money in the studio. He was a very knowledgeable guy about recording music in those days; he was like a sponge and learned things on the quick. Keeping up with Campbell was not easy; I had to outwork him to simply keep up; this guy was way ahead of his time.
Campbell lived a deliberate life on his own terms. He was also a very complicated man but his various artistic capabilities were hard to deny, especially his witty compositions. This man’s take on the world was hilarious and his songs make this clear: “Winnebacome Winnebago
(The Tourist Song),” “Fredricks of Gallilee,” “Tangueray Martineo,” “Roomful of Quahogs,” and “Keep on Fishin’” are a few of his songs that have been played in many different parts of the world by other musicians. These songs will stand in the future as solid contributions to the folk music and oral traditions. Finally, one of the greatest things I ever learned from my friend Jon Campbell since our younger days, was that the work was the reward for what we did with music. We both worked hard to do our best because we loved what we were doing, and I’ll be forever grateful for learning this from a man of many other talents. My deepest condolences to all. Godspeed Jon Campbell, I’m going to miss you.
Nota bene: The most memorable gig Campbell and Houlihan ever did on Block Island was being part of the fundraiser to help move the Southeast Lighthouse.