New York singer-songwriter Jack Hardy realized a hard-core folkie's dream last year after the president of his record label returned from overseas.
"[He] told me he heard a group in Ireland . . . play one of my songs," said Hardy, 51, by telephone from his flat on Houston Street, which splits Greenwich Village and SoHo. "Only they had no idea it was mine.
"They said it was a traditional tune they learned in Galway. To me, that's much more of an accolade than having a hit song," Hardy said. "They learned the tune because it meant something to them--not because it was written by Bob Dylan or some other famous person."
Hardy certainly can't be accused of being famous, though many participants in the song workshops he has hosted for the last 17 years have gone on to be: Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett, Michelle Shocked and John Gorka, to name a few.
But Hardy's always been more interested in the art and craft of songwriting than in the tangible rewards of commercial success.
"In our popular culture, everyone is focusing on all the wrong things, like fame and fortune," he said. "It's purely entertainment, not art. . . . It's all sizzle and no steak.
"I'm of the opinion that it's the song that really matters; that's what moves people emotionally. It should exist on its own. If we're successful as songwriters, we won't be around to know it because it means that someone a hundred years from now will still be singing one of our songs."
Long life is just what Hardy has been shooting for in the songs he's recorded on 11 albums since 1970. For years those were available only in Europe or by mail-order from Hardy's own label, Great Divide.
That's finally changing. Hardy signed with New York-based Prime CD, which has released his latest album of new material, 1996's "The Passing," plus "Jack Hardy--The Collected Works," a 10-volume box.
The silver-haired, raspy-voiced Hardy, who plays solo tonight in Anaheim as part of the Living Tradition folk-music concert series, brings a poet's touch to songs steeped in history, politics, mythology and folklore. His vast repertoire spans country, American folk and traditional-sounding Celtic ballads.
Hardy's themes are both personal and global, from a mini-epic about a Civil War regiment in which Hardy's ancestors served ("The 11th Pennsylvane") and a eulogy to his grandmother ("The Passing") to haunting recollections of a concentration camp ("Dachau") and a look at child abuse ("Black-Eyed Susans.")
Hardy's lighter side emerges when he weaves yarns of wonder and merriment in such ditties as "Willie Goggin's Hat" and "Morgan's Dance."
Musically and lyrically, Hardy is difficult to pigeonhole.
"If a song's played with a fiddle or bagpipes, they call it Irish. . . . If it's played with a steel guitar, it's considered country," Hardy said. "But to me, a good song is a good song, no matter what style it is."
Hardy was born in South Bend, Ind., but grew up mainly in New York City and Aspen, Colo.: For years, his father was dean of students at the Juilliard School in New York and director of the Aspen Music Festival. Hardy--who wrote his first song at age 14--rebelled against his classical environment and became a political radical at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
After playing briefly in a rock band called Some Dead Bears, Hardy created a ruckus as editor of the student newspaper, the News-Liberated Press: In 1968, Hardy was convicted of libeling President Richard M. Nixon by publishing a cartoon that was ruled "obscene" by local courts. With the support of the ACLU, the conviction and $50 fine were overturned on appeal.
Seeking to be part of the Village folk scene, Hardy settled in New York in the mid-'70s. By 1982, he had founded a musical cooperative, Fast Folk Musical Magazine, which compiled and distributed songs--along with a newsletter--to subscribers and radio stations. The selections were drawn from the Hardy-organized Songwriter's Exchange, a weekly gathering at which songwriters tried out material to get constructive feedback.
"The process works because we're not judging one person against another. . . . It's each person against his or her own body of work," said Hardy, who continues to host the sessions in his apartment.
"We worked fast, but if you commit yourself to writing a song each week--which not everyone is willing to do--you are going to improve. It forces you to pay attention to the world around you. Looking for something to write about leads to reading, going to movies, conversing more often . . . doing anything stimulating to make your life more interesting."
Although dedicated to the power and beauty of language in song, Hardy is quick to point out that words alone aren't enough.
"I think the biggest weakness of some folk and classical music is an utter lack of melody," he said. "No amount of harmony, chord progressions or words can make up for it. Melody is the direct line to the emotions. If you're too cerebral, you will not move someone--physically or emotionally--to another place."
* Jack Hardy and the Tinker's Own play tonight at the Anaheim Community Center, 250 E. Center St. 7:30 p.m. $9-$10. (949) 646-1964.