Trial Balloon

R.I.P. Bill Hinkley

Posted at 6:00 AM on May 26, 2010 by Dale Connelly (46 Comments)

Radio Heartland has tickets to a concert featuring Bruce Molsky and Ale Möller at the Cedar Cultural Center this Thursday, May 27th at 7:30pm.

Enter the drawing.
Obey the rules.
Good luck.

A true V.I.P. died yesterday. Bill Hinkley wasn't a Governor or CEO of anything and he didn't invent or manipulate credit default swaps, but he was a very important person if you cared at all about acoustic music or wanted to learn to play the fiddle or couldn't remember all the lyrics to that song you once heard that included the line about the bumblebee and the words "root hog or die".

Longtime Hinkley friend and collaborator Adam Granger will stop by in the 8 o'clock hour (repeated at noon) today, and we'll raid the library for some recordings that feature Bill.

There is a lovely salute at the Prairie Home Companion website. Garrison Keillor sang a song for Bill Hinkley on last week's broadcast, identifying him as "The very first guitarist on our show when it started back in 1974. He and his partner Judy Larson played our theme song for the first few seasons. Our very first musician."

Reading the tributes to him and the reminiscences of his friends, one theme that emerges is that the man has a truly remarkable brain. Bill Hinkley could see things and hear them and remember it all exactly.

The Homestead Pickin' Parlor website says this: "The question has often been posed as to whether Bill may know more tunes than anyone alive today. We've not stumped him yet and we've tried. Challenge him if you must, but make sure you look good with humble pie on your face."

Bill once said in an interview, "There's a lot that I do remember. I'm a great storehouse of dubiously applicable information. One of the things that I've learned from teaching - I've learned how to read and write music. A lot of students - they couldn't learn the way I did, through mimicry and eidetic (or photographic) memory of process. The important thing is to get a sound out of the thing. Even just a primitive little sound - a note."

Bill Hinkley used his excellent brain in the best way possible - to play music, to teach others to play, and to bring some pleasure to anyone who would listen.

What is the most amazing feat of memory you have performed or witnessed? Or can't you recall?


Comments (46)

i have a terrible memory. i really admire folks like Bill H who can pull things out of a deep hole. i saw Bill and Judy at the Eagles club about three years ago, i think, at a fundraiser for the West Bank School of Music. just as good as those old days on the first GK shows.
i'm off to a "Pickle" workshop at Extension in the Cloquet Forest. this is for general interest, not to pickle goats.
good day, All and RIP Bill, indeed.

Posted by barb in Blackhoof | May 26, 2010 6:10 AM


Dale -- thanks for the tribute to Bill. I saw the news yesterday and was hoping we would hear some Bill today.

When I was a little girl (about 8 or 9), on one of my family's endless car trips, we passed a grader on the side of the road. When my dad said it was a gravel grader, for some reason it kicked off a tongue twister session where we just kept adding to it. For some reason, all these decades later, I can still remember it... Gregarious gracious Grandmother Greta gathered grapes for Grandfather Gert who wore the garter that held the gavel for a group of greater gravel graders. Like Bill said....dubiously applicable.

Posted by sherrilee | May 26, 2010 6:15 AM


Good morning all. I heard Bill Hinkley preform several times and always enjoyed his preformances. He will be missed.

I am better at supressing memories than at remembering things. I am sure that I can't recall the names of some people due to certain associations I have with their names. If I can't remember a name and ask some one else to remember it, they usually can't. Don't tell any one you can't remember some thing if you want them to remember it.

Posted by Jim | May 26, 2010 6:25 AM


The first time I heard Bill Hinkley play was on an early Prairie Home show...when it was free and all we had to do was phone in a reservation...which took a half an hour of a busy signal before we got through. The last time was at a dear friend's memorial service...a friend who was lucky enough to play and jam with him and Judy and Pop Wagner and I don't know who else...hope I am remembering this right...memory...working on that a lot lately...50th class reunion coming up and all.

The only time I can think of wowing someone with my "memory" was spouting off Willie Mays' early battng statistics in a NYC cab with my father. All present were duly imporessed. I promptly forgot the statistics and could not even invent them at this time.

Lovely temperate day up north here. Good one to all.

ps: has anyone heard follow-up on the bees let loose in the traffic accident on Monday? Did they catch them all (she says with tongue in cheek)?

Posted by cynthia in mahtowa | May 26, 2010 7:17 AM


Greetings! In high school and college when I was in plays, I would usually memorize the entire play. This came in handy when my fellow actors forgot their lines.

I remember one time during an intense scene with just me and one actor from "A Doll's House", I momentarily blanked during a performance. Several seconds went by and the fear was immediate as we looked at each other and saw it in each other's eyes. In my mind, I went through the entire scene, went forward and worked back to the point where we were at and picked it up again. It was an extra long pause of several seconds, but it felt like forever on stage.

Posted by Joanne in Big Lake | May 26, 2010 7:18 AM


I am sad that I din't know more about Bill while he was still with us.

One of the other treasures lost to us was a geneticist at the University. Bob Gorlin was brilliant and had the most amazing memory. For example, he would learn the name and face of every medical student and address them by name over the years. His photographic memory made him invaluable for diagnosing rare conditions. Once he took me out to lunch. He was in his late 70's and there was a name not at the tip of his tongue. Amazingly enough I remembered it. Dr Gorlin looked at me and said,"You have a good memory." It was a compliment to take to the bank.

Dale any chance we could hear "Try to Remember" the Fantastiks?

Posted by Beth-Ann | May 26, 2010 7:20 AM


When I was a grad student living on the West Bank (back before the library was built), the Scholar Coffeehouse was my second home. I got to enjoy Bill and Judy there. It meant a lot to me that Garrison included them in the Prairie Home Companion movie.

I recently completed writing a book about my parents' lives, from 1916 to 1999. For the early part of that I could draw upon family legend and the two books of memoir that my father wrote. But all the stuff from the 1950s up until my folks died was dredged up from memory, which in some cases was the memory of a kid eight years old.

It got to be almost spooky to see how much came back to me and how accurate my memories were. I worked hard to get confirming impressions and fact checks. All I can say to those who might want to try this is that it gets easier with time, one story triggering memories of another.

Posted by Steve in Saint Paul | May 26, 2010 7:33 AM


We once had a virus attack our computer and it was obscuring the screen, so I had to remember exactly where the virus program icon was on the screen and try to click it on to get it started . It worked and I was pretty proud of myself.

Posted by Renee | May 26, 2010 7:34 AM


I learned from an interview on NPR that memorory is not always what we think it is. You can think you remember doing or seeing some thing when it is really some thing you were told. Also you can be sure you saw some thing when you really didn't see it. Better keep a written record is you really need to remember some thing.

Posted by Jim | May 26, 2010 7:36 AM


I have a lot of dubiously applicable information stored in my noggin (Fig Newton jingle from the 70s?...do I really need to remember that?). Seems like when I need some useful information, the disc space is full of detritus from the pop culture of my youth and not, say, the name of the person I knew for 7 years in that organization...

Posted by Anna | May 26, 2010 7:37 AM


Steve, thanks for mentioning that one story leads to triggering memories. I've been working with a group of elders to trigger their memories of the organization we are members of and find that it triggers my own memories...as does many of the questions posed here on the TB.

Thanks for that, Dale and all...

Posted by cynthia in mahtowa | May 26, 2010 7:38 AM


I have to jump back in here. I just lost this post to computer gremlins.

My former wife used to jeer at my poor memory. It was a family joke. She could remember whole conversations with strangers she met twenty years ago, and maybe I wouldn't remember having been at that party at all.

Then I learned that I had perfect recall of complicated events involving Kathe and me, events she couldn't remember at all.

What I've learned is that many of us have better memories than we know because we aren't aware of the way our memory is focused on specific types of events. The glassy eyed slacker who can barely remember his phone number might have perfect recall of every line of every song Neil Young ever wrote.

It is also true that memory is like a muscle that atrophies if not used well but hardens when challenged often.

I came to learn that I have the memory of a storyteller. Events that take the form of scripts or stories are locked forever in the vault of my memory. Facts that aren't associated with stories drop into the ether of nothingness a day or two after I experience them.

Posted by Steve in Saint Paul | May 26, 2010 7:56 AM


Once, when I was moving my office from one city to another, my very hard to get along with head of the agency, stormed into my new site and demanded a certain report. I looked at the piles and piles of paperwork that had not yet been filed, put my hand in the center of the fourth pile and pulled out exactly the report she was looking for. She seemed shocked that I'd found it and I was, too.

Posted by patricia | May 26, 2010 8:00 AM


My bike ride in this morning evoked one memory I will never forget and would wish to smell with my last breath—the early morning smell of dewy hay cut the day before.
My big memory failure these days is with software. If I understood underlying structures better, I would remember better. Example: when I played football, I thought only about my part in each play and had trouble remembering that. When I became a coach, I looked at the whole picture and the logic of the sequence of plays and so now easily remembered what everybody did on each play. This is a lesson for educator—a discreet piece of information not tied to purpose and over-arching system is very difficult to remember.
This story is for Elinor especially. The man who builds the databases at the company that took us over thinks redundancy in buttons, pull-downs, etc is a waste. He built a db for setting up customers to access to multiple tools online for created periods of time. So you enter a new customer by school district name, That name appears as you entered it in two places with all other customers: 1) in a pull-down window and 2) in field as a link. If you open that customer link either way you get exactly the same entry screen. But, and here’s the thing, you are in two different places in the db. But there is nothing anywhere that tells you this. I was supposed to remember that he told me this as he walked me through it. It is buried in the lousy written instructions, which he also thinks are stupid to write. Thus I entered about half of our first 50 customers in the wrong place. Figuring this out and fixing was all of the one-person staff meetings I held last week.

Posted by Cly de eh, what, when, who, really? | May 26, 2010 8:19 AM


I have several memories of seeing Bill and Judy perform (or at least I think I have several memories). The first was from one of the early (1976) PHC broadcasts, and the last was from the 2005 PHC show pictured on the tribute page. But the one I remember best was at a private party on St. Patrick's Day in the mid-90s. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought they had spent their entire career as an Irish band.

Remarkable memories? There's the fictional "Mr. Memory" from Hitchcock's "The 29 Steps." For real, I met a fellow last year who can tell you what songs were on the Billboard top 10 for any given week since 1974. Not a skill of much practical use, but it sure amazes people at parties.

Posted by Don in West St. Paul | May 26, 2010 8:23 AM


Make that "The 39 Steps." Proofread, Don, proofread!

Posted by Don in West St. Paul | May 26, 2010 8:24 AM


It's always sad to lose anyone that is a large repository of unique and 'hard to find' knowledge. At least he found and took advantage of his purpose in life while he could.

I seem to have a large capacity for all sorts of miscellaneous knowledge. My wife says that I'm a living Tivo.

Posted by That Guy in the Hat | May 26, 2010 8:41 AM


My memory has always been quite sharp. I began playing piano at age 5 and often times would have all my pieces memorized within the first week. To this day I can still play some recital pieces that I performed in grade school. My biggest feat of memory was my graduate piano recital where I performed Bach's Italian Conerto, a Beethoven Sonata, Liszt's arrangement of Saint-Saens Danse Macabre and Prokofiev's 7th Piano Sonata. Shortly after my recital I had my Graduate School Exams and a professor recommended that I memorize the Opus Numbers of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, the key of the sonata, and the number of movements for each sonata. Of course I passed with flying colors.

I do not mean to brag about my feats of memory, but it seems that music for me is easy to memorize because it becomes ingrained in my soul. I currently have 20+ piano students and it amazes me how some students who are quite good sight readers have a lot of difficulty memorizing, but maybe today's educational system is focusing more on general concepts and putting ideas together rather than memorizing the Gettysburg Address (which I did in 8th grade).

Posted by Christina Harbaugh | May 26, 2010 9:09 AM


Dale,
Lovely tribute to a lovely man. Fun to hear the vintage Garrison bits, especially Golden Eggs. I remember seeing Bill and Judy at the Cedar as part of a reunion of Prairie Home original musicans around the time that the movie came out. He was in fine form as well as Judy. Jon Pancake was there as well as that Cowboy guy I forget his name. Tomorrow, Dale, can you play Hello Love from that five year anniversary album in honor of Bill and what used to be? Thanks,
Aaron

Posted by Aaron | May 26, 2010 9:11 AM


I know husband and I saw Bill and Judy once in the late 80s somewhere...thoroughly amazing. I'm sorry he's gone.

Once in a while the new bookkeeper at my old job calls me to ask me where a certain file might be. I can always tell her. Scary.

Our chorus just gave the final concert on Sunday, and I only had to look at my music a couple of times the entire hour - memorizing it comes easy to me.

Glad we're cooler here - hope you're warmer, Renee. Have a good Wednesday, all.

Posted by Barbara in Robbinsdale | May 26, 2010 9:12 AM


Christina H - I wish I had your memory for the piano pieces; I could just get rid of that whole box of music.

Posted by Barbara in Robbinsdale | May 26, 2010 9:18 AM


TGITH - so those lists you used to post were from memory?? I always assumed you did a copy and paste from somewhere on the internet...

Posted by Barbara in Robbinsdale | May 26, 2010 9:38 AM


I had an uncle Arlo who was like Bill Hinkley; he taught himself to play several instruments, could play any song on one hearing, gift for language etc. But he did not appreciate this gift, did not have the discipline to develop the gift, and could not sing very well. My point is that it took a deeper talent as well for Bill to become what he did. Many people out there have great gifts but lack the additional gift to make it great.
I got to be Uncle Arlo last night: phone rang, I said "hello," and a man said "do you have diabetes?" So I said, "Do you have syphillis?"

Posted by Clyde | May 26, 2010 9:43 AM


Okay, I do remember one remarkable feat of memory. My son-in-law played a very long and very dificult classical violin tune from memory at a concert at MacAlester when he was a student.

Posted by Jim | May 26, 2010 9:55 AM


My wife remembers every number she ever used--budget codes from U of M, library patron card numbers, everyone's old and current phone number, ours and other people's license plates, etc.

Steve--if you are on today, continuing a thread from yesterday: do you have a photo of your cabin or its view of the lake? I just did a monochromatic pastel of Superior at Grand Portage. Maybe I could work up something from a photo of yours. . . .

Posted by Clyde | May 26, 2010 10:07 AM


Bill Hinkley -- that was a melancholy way to start the morning. May he rest in peace, indeed.

That piece of tape you played from '73 was priceless. You could do that stuff in public radio then. Things were a lot loosier and goosier, and all in all, a lot more fun. At least we have Radio Heartland to listen to when we don't want to take ourselves too seriously. Hang in there.

And yes, it's Jujuy, as in Hoo Hooey. Amazing performance of that piece by Bill & Judy, somehow managing to make a piano sound like a traditional Argentine stringed instrument.

Finally, as to your question about feats of memory... I can't remember.

Posted by Hodgram | May 26, 2010 10:08 AM


Clyde -- Yes, I'm still here. I used to post early and run, but I learned that I missed a lot of wonderful Clyde wit and commentary doing that.

I certainly have photos of my place. I've been almost as much of a professional photographer as writer, not that I got rich with either skill.

What do you have in mind?

Posted by Steve in Saint Paul | May 26, 2010 10:12 AM


It's fascinating to see the musical memory and progression over the years of Suzuki string students. The repertoire becomes like a language for them, and they refine new techniques using previously learned pieces.

Posted by Renee | May 26, 2010 10:14 AM


Steve--been looking for subject matter for painting L Superior. Maybe a photo would work for a pastel or drawing in some form.

Posted by Clyde | May 26, 2010 10:16 AM


Clyde -- how would I get photos to you?

Posted by Steve in Saint Paul | May 26, 2010 10:27 AM


Thanks for the comment, "Hodgram".

The 1973 canoe trip episode with the Breakfast Hymn comes from an LP called "A Prairie Home Album", produced by MPR back when it was still called MER (Minnesota Educational Radio). Our lp collection still has a handful of these beauties, several of them still in the original plastic wrap. Think we could sell them on EBay?

Posted by Dale Connelly | May 26, 2010 11:02 AM


Why not auction them on here? Although we may be a cheap bunch; I know I am.

Posted by clyde | May 26, 2010 11:07 AM


Steve--do you have versions you could scan and email? I'm not looking for big pix. Just an idea, not worht pursuing very far.

Posted by clyde | May 26, 2010 11:09 AM


Steve,
Try addressing the envelope -- Clyde de blogger the World.

Posted by Donna | May 26, 2010 11:10 AM


Clyde -- so you are as famous as Mark Twain now?

Email is all I have. What I don't have is an address for you. Sometimes Dale acts as a middleman so the boogiemen lurking on the internet don't learn your address.

Posted by Steve in Saint Paul | May 26, 2010 11:16 AM


Cute, Donna. I sure am hoping we hear from you a lot during the summer.
I have about 5 email addresses. This one gets about 250 smapns a day because it is listed on three internet sites, where spiders find it. So how could it be worse.
cbirkholz@tensigma.org

Posted by Clyde | May 26, 2010 11:20 AM


Wow, Steve. Nice.
I once did a drawiRest of you. You should see the cabin and sunsets!!ng of a fishing skow in Door County.
Who designed the cabin?

Posted by Clyde | May 26, 2010 11:33 AM


Last post--I put the cursor in the wrong place. Corrected version with additions:
Wow, Steve. Nice.
I once did a drawing of a fishing skow in Door County, which I sent back to you.
Rest of you. You should see the cabin and sunsets!! Steve knows what he is doing with filters. Filters are an advanced art in photography.
Who designed the cabin?

Posted by Clyde | May 26, 2010 11:49 AM


Glad you liked that, Clyde (my ex never did).

Oh yeah, I'll be on here more often. Still finishing up some end of year stuff that was put on the back burner with my trip to TC's last weekend.

Wonder if Steve would let Dale post his cabin picture.
If I send a photo of Carlos, would you do a sketch for me?

Posted by Donna | May 26, 2010 12:06 PM


Donna--sure, but I never said I was good; just willing. People are tought tough tough. But sure.

Posted by Clyde | May 26, 2010 12:09 PM


Donna-I think the more germane question will be ,"Is Carlos willing?"

Posted by Beth-Ann | May 26, 2010 12:37 PM


First heard Bill and the Sorry Muthas at a lightly attended outdoor concert at South Dakota State University in Brookings back in Spring 1971. It was the most fun and memorable concert of my years there. About three years ago, I talked to Bill after a state fair Heritage Square performance and I was surprised that he remembered so much about that particular concert out on the prairie.

Posted by Tim | May 26, 2010 12:50 PM


Weird -- I remember the Sorry Muthas. My oldest sister had their Volume III album (which I think was their only album -- the volume 3 thing was a joke as I remember). I still remember a couple of the songs ... "Give me a train with an all night bar, wherever I go it won't be too far./Come on and rock me to sleep in a Pullman Car, I'm going to ride those trains again."

Fun stuff ...

Posted by Joanne in Big Lake | May 26, 2010 1:15 PM


Beth Ann,
I'll just have to take a picture of C-man while he's sleeping. He sleeps like a log so it'll be a cinch to scotch tape his eyes open.

Posted by Donna | May 26, 2010 1:15 PM


Beth-Ann--aren't you curious what she is going to come up with? She no doubt pictures Guy Williams. I will draw Henry Calvin.

Posted by clyde | May 26, 2010 1:19 PM


Way off topic, but the Sorry Mothas reminded me of a guy I knew named Bruce Purucker, who was of course nicknamed "Mother."

Posted by Barbara in Robbinsdale | May 26, 2010 10:10 PM


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