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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Bill Lightfoot (1940-2016)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rosalind V. Rini Larson

By Barry Lee Pearson (University of Maryland) with Sarah Lightfoot — 

Bill Lightfoot and his wife Elizabeth, whom he called Toot, came to Bloomington at the tail end of the 1960’s, first living in a University-owned concrete box on the east side of town.  My wife, Missy, and I met them and quickly discovered we had more than a great deal in common.  Our circle of friends grew to include Henry and Betty Jo Glassie, Pat and Phil Peek, Bill Clements, Bill McNeil and many others.

Bill and I took classes together learning Spanish by reading Spanish comics in order to pass the language exam. I also recall a seminar in American Folklore presided over by Dr. Richard M. Dorson, then head of the Folklore Institute. I always think of that Tuesday evening gathering as “The All-Bill Seminar” since it included Bill Clements, Bill Ivey, Bill Wiggins and Bill Lightfoot, along with Lucille Reese and Amanda Peck.  On reflection we teamed up to bully Professor Dorson into entertaining the idea that Jack Johnson just might be a folk hero, which of course proved to be the case.

Liz called Bill “Hog Ears,” and the derivation of that endearment remains unknown. Once calling collect from a conference, Bill told the long-distance operator to tell Toot “Hog Ears” was calling and would she accept the charges. However, the operator transposed the name, telling her a ‘Mr. Hogairs” was on the line, all the while Bill yelling, “Hog Ears, dammit; Hog Ears.”  Many years later Bill wrote to set me straight:

“One more thing: For once try to get my name right.  It’s Hog Ears and not Hogairs. To be quite frank, your mangling my name has bugged me for years upon years.  You must stop, do you hear?”

Himself an orderly person who looked for logic in all things and believed in hard and fast categories, Bill showed an impulse to subvert the order of others. Not in a mean or cruel way, but gently for his own amusement.  At worst, he manipulated people and situations causing disruption or confusion. Some have described him as a prankster, but his pranks were generally painless and too obscure to be really called pranks.

For example, he taught his four-year-old son, Daniel, to say “Rhododendron” in the voice of Gabby Hayes for guests, assuring him it was a convincing impersonation, leaving folks either confused or delighted. Another time in a store that promised “Everything costs a dollar,” he had all three of his youngsters running amok asking the price on item after item, eliciting the clerk’s increasingly agitated response: “A dollar!  Everything’s a dollar!” By now some of the more politically correct in the audience might think it abusive that he used his children as props in scenarios designed for his own amusement, but they worked these bits as a family, bonded partners in their own family folklore.

Sarah Lightfoot, Bill’s oldest daughter, writes: “My parents were both skilled storytellers and we loved hearing the same stories again and again. We know them well enough that we can tell them now. It was clear they delighted in one other’s company, and were in cahoots in pranking their hosts. My mom and dad would look behind couches and under couch pillows to see how thoroughly the host couple had cleaned. Then they made a big deal of the embarrassing trash and dust bunnies that my mom and dad had, in fact, planted.”

Bill didn’t need to witness the results of his bits or mischief, content to introduce and imagine the projected consternation they might elicit. At other people’s homes Bill would often quietly disappear and rearrange household items or add to grocery or other lists. One evening at Anne Marie and Ken Thigpen’s, Bill managed to alter a grocery list on their refrigerator adding the item: “Lonzos – seethe them until they writhe.” They were seriously mystified for weeks and those of us who suspected Bill remained silent.

While he has been called a prankster, I considered Bill more of a situational anarchist who saw the potential for humor in all things.  And while he set up bits, he relied on improvisation and his ability to stay in character, plying his craft with an arsenal of techniques including word play, physical humor, sleight of hand and an infinite patience that allowed him to choose the most propitious moment to strike. This could, and sometimes did, take months or even years.

Bill was a generalist interested in regionalism, humor, storytelling, and roots music. Moreover, he was a fine performing musician, including playing drums for the University of Kentucky in college. In 1958, a good ten years before we met, he recorded several sides as a drummer for Kentucky’s short-lived Summit label including Eddie Gaines and the Rockin’ Fives’ “Be-Bop Battlin’ Ball,” later re-issued on a Dutch compilation that described it as “…the wildest and now classic rocker.” This credential places Lightfoot as a figure in roots music history, a subject he not only studied but actually lived.

In his Bloomington days he and I put together several ad hoc groups attempting to play blues and primitive rock. One such outfit played under the name “John Brito’s Mexican Band”; another, including Rayna Green, played a department party at Stith Thompson’s home. Richard Dorson dubbed the group “The Hootchie Coochie Jug Busters,” a name that thankfully did not stick. I have a clear memory of Stith Thompson sitting at the end of his couch, fingers firmly stuck in his ears. Whether it was because of the volume or simply a non-verbal critical comment, I never knew. Some of you here remember the Fabulous Ducktones, anchored by Bill and myself, that served as the house band for the annual Peoples’ Pig Roasts held on the grounds of Jerry Cashion’s Pigeon Ridge Farm. And for many years, while in Boone, Bill also played in a jazz band at an upscale Blowing Rock, North Carolina hotel.

During our last years in Bloomington we lived in almost adjacent University-owned houses; his front porch overlooking our back yard. Tom and Betsy Adler lived around the corner to the East, and the Folklore Institute was less than 4 blocks away.  Bill and Toot’s children, Daniel, Sarah and Kate he always claimed to have three; one of each along with our daughter Segrid and Jens and Barbara Lund’s daughter Sara, attended a cooperative day care housed a block and a half up the street. It was a slow, small, uncomplicated world, even by Bloomington standards.

Bill and Liz were Kentucky to the core, and shared a coterie of Madisonville and Owensboro cronies who often visited to party and play music. Sarah writes that his love for UK Basketball was infectious, and they were all Kentucky fans way before they moved to the Tar Heel state. She goes on to remember:

“He told us our whole lives that there weren’t words strong enough to express just how much he loved his three children and family. He taught each of us a strong work ethic and singularly introduced us to the arts: literature, poetry, music, film visual art.  Family gatherings in the last decade revolved around great food, a fair amount of storytelling, lots and lots of laughing with hip music as the backdrop.  My children, Grace and Johnny, were my dad’s only grandchildren, and he simply loved them to pieces. He’d taunt Grace with corny jokes and enthusiastic invitations to sing folk songs. He poked at Johnny like the brother my dad never had.  Daniel, Kate and I called our dad “Dabs,” and when Grace heard the news that Granddabs died, she burst into tears. Moments later, she exclaimed, “Well, we won’t have to make that lima bean casserole at Thanksgiving anymore.” When Johnny heard, he looked solemn and said, “Well, he won’t have to live anymore with all the bad stuff that is going on in the world.”  He’s the one we want to talk to about great music and good writing. My dad didn’t want to become an old man who was in the way. He didn’t. He wasn’t. My dad wanted to remain relevant. He always was. And always will be.”

Billy was a man who took the time to savor life at his own pace, setting his own rules and boundaries. He found humor everywhere; wordplay delighted him and those around him were charmed by his wit and grace even after finding themselves ensnared by one his tricks. He was the only person I know who made you want to do favors for him and later were glad you did. He was my friend and teacher and it is still hard to imagine a world without him in it.

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