Gary Gordon Productions Homepage

In Memory

Don Beth

I got one of those calls the other day, the kind I fear will happen more and more frequently, the kind where you can hear immediately in the caller's voice that someone dear is gone.

Ken called to say Donny had died that morning.

Don Beth was not known to most of my friends from Florida, Atlanta, or L.A., because he was from my Chicago period, 1972-1974. And he wasn't known to many of my college friends there because the association had nothing to do with school.

But he was one of those singular individuals who contributed to changing my life. He was a sweet, generous, complex man, he played guitar so well, and he sang.

In my life of 48 years it was a relatively brief encounter; even though we played guitar together several times between the summer of '73 and when I left Chicago in '74, and a few times after that when I visited or traveled thru, the sum total of our music-making probably didn't add up in hours to more than two or three weeks.

But as someone said, it's the quality.

I had the good fortune in the Spring of '73 to be working as an intern on the Green Bay Press-Gazette where, at the end of May, I was assigned to cover the arrival of The Joliet-Marquette Re-enactment Expedition; a group of seven men from Chicago re-enacting that famous voyage of discovery on its tricentennial. They wore period costume, paddled two custom-constructed period-style canoes, and were in their second week of a four-month journey that would retrace the original route from St. Ignace, Michigan to the Mississippi River, down to south of Rosedale, then back up through Chicago and along the great lake back to Green Bay. Along the way they would stop at riverside towns like Dubuque, Thebes, St. Louis, and Cape Girardoux, perform French Voyageur songs and teach history to all who gathered to the riverside parks and embankments to hear and see them.

My internship was ending and after reading my story, the leader of the expedition, Reid Lewis, hired me to join the re-enactment as part of their land support team; I would help with press coverage and other arrangements.

I was the kid, 20 years old; they were mostly in their 30s, from a previous generation I was not too familiar with. It's the difference between Presley and the Beatles, beatniks and hippies, coffee houses and folk music and rock clubs and hard rock; it's the difference between those who were inspired by JFK, and those like me who were inspired by McGovern. Not that different, but not the same.

Reid's brother Ken, an actor and writer, was one of the voyageurs. At night around the fire Reid and I would play guitars-- Reid had more of a traditional folk style; I played more blues and rock n roll, influenced by Duane Allman and David Bromberg. Ken would sing with wonderful animation-- he had a knack for enthusiasm. Ken's girlfriend Judy, Reid's girlfriend Jan, the re-enactment director Phyllis and the rest of the voyageurs and land crew would fill out the circle. In Thebes, the mayor brought moonshine.

Don Beth showed up one day to visit his friends Ken and Reid, and we met briefly. I remember he wore a beret and a beard-- he looked like one of Jules Feiffer's legion of coffeehouse beatniks-- not unkempt, just very cool.

When the expedition reached Green Bay in September, Don and Howard Platt, another longtime friend of Ken and Reid, arrived to join in the celebration of the completion of the re-enactment. That time Don brought his guitar.

And we played.

And it was some of the most fun I'd had playing music since I was in my high school band with Steve Soar and Marty Jourard, playing Creedence songs.

But it was altogether different.

Don and Howard and Ken knew all kinds of Irish folk songs I'd never heard. It was as if a door had opened to the next library of music. And it turned out they'd had a comedy folk group years before, called the Debris. Their influences (and contemporaries) included Tom Paxton, early Dylan, and early Gordon Lightfoot.

And Don would sing Ramblin' Boy and The Last Thing On My Mind.

I had never thought of myself as a lead guitarist, but having listened incessantly to Duane and Bromberg, I just started adding fills and taking solos as Don and Howard and Ken sang the songs. City of New Orleans. Did She Mention My Name. Don't Think Twice. And numerous Irish ballads.

Don marvelled at my playing. And I had never had anyone marvel at my playing. To my ear, it was what so many people had done, and my playing was not as good; to their ears, with the bends and rock and blues licks, it was different than any of their circle had done, and it was tasty and exciting.

The truth is, Don, along with Ken and Howard, were the first ones to appreciate my playing, and for those you who struggle at anything, you know that appreciation is a powerful fuel.

When the re-enactment ended, I returned to Northwestern, but my heart was not in school. I worked on the alternative paper we had started and watched the Nixon regime crumble, but the excitement of the summer on the Mississippi coupled with these new friendships was too compelling. Whenever Don called to say "Come over, let's play guitar", I'd be there.

Don and his wife Margaret had a cabin, an A-frame, just outside of New Lisbon, Wisconsin, and it was traditional among their group to go there for New Years. I was invited. I met more of their friends, and we would play music and drink blackberry brandy, warmed by the heat of the wood stove, til three or four in the morning. Our fingers would ache, our throats would be tired, and once when I stood up I almost fell over I was so filled with alcohol. And although I'd done a little singing, it was there I started singing with some enthusiasm, and as with my guitar-playing, I got compliments and encouragement.

Without the friendship and encouragement of Don and Ken and Howard and their friends, I don't know if I would have pursued music at all, or with any confidence.

After I graduated and left Chicago I made it back a couple of times to the cabin for New Years. For years I would sip blackberry brandy and make a silent toast every New Years, but as with other rituals, self-consciousness and distance take a toll. I sent Don my band's album in '78, and visited in 1982 for another friend's wedding. I took the bus and jammed with Don for awhile in his converted garage. And that may be the last time we played together.

The last time I saw Don was two and a half years ago. I attended a reunion of the Re-enactment at Reid's farm in Wisconsin, and on the way back to Chicago, Ken and his wife Sandy and I stopped at Don's new cabin-- the old one had burned down. Don and Margaret were there, but he didn't have his guitar with him. I played a little. Margaret said, the moment I started playing "That's Gary", and Don said "yeah", and in that moment I realized it was fun to be recognized as having a style.

Don worked all his life as a printer. He was known for having great eyes. He was also an alley-picker, and had a great collection of dining room table legs, all different, on the walls of his garage. He was soft-spoken, but I heard stories of a temper. All these guys drank alot-- too much, maybe, but after a while they all quit. He had a quick humor, but he was not a showman. Once I talked him into coming to a club for us to play live. He did it, but it wasn't really his thing.

So much of my life has been about politics, but I don't know what his politics were. It really didn't matter. I remember being impressed when I learned he and Ken had gone to D.C. to mourn for RFK after he was shot.

Ken told me there would be no ceremony, that Don wanted to be cremated. I told Ken to tell me if there was going to be a gathering and I would try to make it.

As you can tell, I cherish these memories, and I don't want to let go.

When I was traveling with the expedition I wrote a song and titled it after one of the places we passed through, called Oakwood Bottoms. Although I wrote the line about music makin' before I met Don, everytime I sing the song, I think of him, and the cabin, and the blackberry brandy, and "Ramblin' Boy", and music til dawn.

Here's to you, Don.



Oakwood Bottoms
by Gary Gordon, 1973


I just seen the river flowin'
I just seen the dawn a-breakin'
I just seen the sunlight growin'

And I'm comin' home to you
I'm comin' home to you
After nine long years
I'm comin' home to you

I just heard the fish a-bitin'
I just smelled the bread a-bakin'
I just heard the music makin'

And I'm comin' home to you
I'm comin' home to you
After nine long years
I'm comin' home to you

I've roamed and rambled
'Round these United States
Seen a lot of different ways
But now I'm comin' home
And it feels like I'm gonna stay

I just seen the river flowin'
I just seen the dawn a-breakin'
I just seen the sunlight growin'

And I'm comin' home to you
I'm comin' home to you
After nine long years
I'm comin' home to you


Gary Gordon
Jan. 16, 2001


Gary Gordon Productions Homepage