I said, describing my recently deceased former partner, “This train was bound for glory, but derailed at regular intervals.”

Betsy said, “I’ll bet there’s a story behind that.”

There is a story, but there are missing pieces in the telling because we can’t look straight into the character’s heart and mind.

The man, John Harper Lumsdaine, aka Johnny Harper, was bound for glory (and would have appreciated the nod to Woody Guthrie’s autobiography). Born the eldest son of a family of boys, he sang “Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail” to his spellbound elementary school classmates, having heard it a few times on the radio or around the house, spooling out the long tale of drinking, hell-raising and branding, dehorning and knotting up the devil.

At seventeen, Johnny met a girl who played the guitar. He began to play himself, first to impress her, and then because he fell in love with the combination of music, song and story. He fell so hard that he dropped out of Stanford University to pursue music, giving up a scholarship and landing in the Viet Nam war. He fell so hard that he determined to master not one, not two, but all the styles of American roots music, from blues to R&B to classic country, from gospel to funk to rock and roll. And master them he did, spending hours listening to records, copying licks, watching the hands of guitar-players when he went to concerts.

Johnny started out on acoustic guitar, but when he was in the Navy he heard The Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Transfixed by the sound of Roger McGuinn’s electric 12 string, Johnny moved to acquire the record and an electric guitar. He spent his shore leaves in Hawaii haunting record stores, ever eager to hear more, to learn more.

Released from the service as a conscientious objector with the help of an Episcopal priest, Johnny parlayed his love of music, his skill and dedication, into a career. He ran Down Home Music record store in El Cerrito for awhile, played in bands, DJ’d a radio show on KPFA Berkeley. He formed bands of his own and played all over the San Francisco Bay Area for years. He toured playing guitar behind Maria Muldaur. People who saw Johnny perform never forgot him: his patter, his impish grin, his command of his entire vocal range from the deepest half-spoken growl to the softest falsetto coo, and his incomparable, spirited, polyrhythmic guitar-playing. If you heard him play, Johnny Harper put a spell on you.

I came to know that Johnny was a versatile player. He worked solo, in duets, quartets and larger bands. An acoustic-based folksinger myself, I longed for Johnny to tone it down and play with the restraint that I would have played with had I had his chops. But in living with him, watching him rehearse, listening to him and attending his shows I came to understand that Johnny was at his best as a bandleader. He chose the songs, wrote the arrangements, selected the players and rehearsed them with care and patience and then let fly on stage a spicy gumbo of music long-simmered in his skill. He fronted his bands dressed in black with his red Telecaster strapped across his body, his long legs encased in black jeans.

People danced at Johnny’s shows. They laughed and cried and begged for the Mardi Gras beads he threw to them. They hired him to play at their weddings, funerals and street parties. They took guitar lessons from him. One of his friends followed him to every gig as sound man, roadie, whatever he needed.

When people heard Johnny play for the first time, whether he was fronting a band, hosting an open mic or playing behind someone else, they came away asking, “Who was that guy?” He was that good, that talented, that memorable.

So why, as our friend Dale Geist says, do you not know about Johnny Harper? Why isn’t he a household name? Why don’t you have a shelf of Johnny Harper CDs and a playlist of Johnny Harper favorites? What could stop this glory-bound train of talent, ambition, drive, energy and joy?

What indeed. Some time after Johnny fell in love with American vernacular music, Johnny fell in love with the bottle. No one is sure when it happened. Like many people, Johnny turned to whiskey and beer for solace, for company, for the buzz. The bottle sang a siren song to Johnny, telling him he could do whatever he wanted, that together they were invincible, immortal, telling him that she would always love him, inspire him, comfort him.

And so, after years of hard work, after some success, after promising beginnings, the Johnny Harper train began to derail. When Johnny felt under pressure from a project, under pressure from his impeccably high standards, almost always when he was on the verge of a success — a CD release party for a protege, a video shoot, a series of tribute shows to the music of The Band — Johnny ran off the rails, blew off the gig or the rehearsal or the studio date, holed up in his house with the blinds closed, hollow-eyed, drinking, watching videos for hours on end, letting his phone ring unanswered until the voicemail got full and, sinking further, letting go of showers, shaving, changing clothes, eating.

Every time he fell, Johnny got up again and gave life another try. Until this time:

On a February day or night in 2022, Johnny Harper breathed his last. He died alone on the floor of his bedroom, leaving behind students, friends, an ex-wife, a former partner, professional colleagues, fans and admirers, a beloved niece, some cousins and a brother, plus a huge trove of cassette tapes, CDs, video footage and other music that had not met his standards. He lives on in his students and in the minds and hearts of those who loved him.