“I don’t read music for guitar, because I never made the changeover from four strings to six,” she said. “It’s strictly by ear.”
She said she learned to play guitar in the 1960s with only three lessons from the wife of the assistant pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ.
The woman would teach Harlett the fingering for several chords. Harlett said she would go home and practice until she could switch easily from one chord to another. Then she would schedule another lesson and practice some more.
“I was practicing two or three hours a day, even with the little kids. The kids got such joy out out of it,” Harlett said. “Music has been a joy all my life.”
As for the vocals, Harlett said her mother always sang around the house, and professional artists were recording a variety of folk songs for Harlett to learn.
She also learned nursery school songs to teach her sons. Her younger son is about to turn 42, and Harlett has five grandchildren.
For about five years in the 1980s, Harlett was part of the Patchwork Singers with Nick Tiell and Dan Seifert. The group performed all over the states adjoining Ohio and Canada.
“We finally went our own ways but stayed friends,” Harlett said.
After the split, Harlett became a solo performer, Patchwork Nancy. She played with Duke Ellington’s orchestra and opened for Lulu Roman, Louise Mandrell, Richie Havens and Del Reeves. Harlett remembered a concert in Yellow Springs, at which Havens “stayed until they had to lock up the hall,” speaking with college students and fans.
Music did not generate much income, so Harlett worked about 10 years at Tiffin State Hospital. Although an injury landed her on disability, she still is able to make music. Some of her mother’s “old songs” have broad appeal to the nursing home residents Harlett often entertains.
“They pay my expenses. It gives me an outlet and an audience. I’m firmly convinced if a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound. I like to play where I’m heard,” Harlett said. “Besides that, it keeps you on your toes. You keep learning new stuff. I think when you stop learning is when you get old.”
Last winter, Dan Seifert, Nick Tiell and his son Jake Tiell reformed the group, calling themselves Eagle River. The Tiells were looking for a female singer, so they called Harlett to see whether she could help record a CD. After more than one call, Harlett agreed. The album appropriately is called “Together Again.”
“We only sell them where we play,” Harlett said.
The CD includes original songs by the Tiells, Seifert and Harlett, rounded out with folk ballads. Nick Tiell’s “The Sandusky” has become a regional favorite. When Seifert left the group, they obtained a replacement who calls himself Just Bob.
“He plays ‘doghouse’ upright bass,” Nick said. “We usually do arts and crafts shows. We play acoustic music and we stroll around.”
Tiell’s son, Jake, 16, plays lead guitar for Eagle River. He attends Old Fort High School. Nick said he taught Jake how to play guitar about four years ago. Since then, Jake also has learned some music theory.
“He worked very hard. I taught him some exercises to make his fingers move faster,” Nick said.
Like Harlett, Nick Tiell sought other employment to make a living. He does masonry restoration and repairs with music as a sideline.
The foursome performed in June for a Sandusky County Historical Society reenactment and this past September during the Heritage Festival. For these events, they play music from the 1700s and 1800s.
“When I play at nursing homes, I play what they courted to, the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s stuff,” Harlett said. “I just hope somebody comes to sing for me when my time comes.”
She said she has lost count of the number of songs she has committed to memory. She said she has played as many as seven hours without repeating any pieces. One song usually leads Harlett into another.
The singer also tells stories, many of which convey the background of the music. The tales come from books, reenactors and other performers.
Harlett said she enjoys the research as much as the music itself.
She related that the song “Little Brown Church in the Vale” honors the memory of a church paid for by a school teacher who appreciated the hospitality of a small community. In an effort to paint the church before winter set in, the man bought brown paint because it was affordable and available.
Harlett also calls herself “a voracious reader.” She plans to use her avocation to take a non-credit course in Ohio history for seniors at Tiffin University. Just recently, Harlett inherited a computer and is getting connected to the Internet. She is looking forward to more research on various songs and composers.
“I have found some great old songs, and people send me songs that they have found,” Harlett said.
“Preacher and the Bear” is “another good one” that Harlett first heard on a spindle record her grandmother had. The version Harlett adopted came from a 93-year-old banjo player she met 25 years ago at an event in Dayton.
“The Scotsman” has become a favorite at Celtic re-enactments. “The Possum Song” was given to Harlett on a tape with kazoo accompaniment. A friend who plays dulcimer gave Harlett a tune written by William Henry Harrison as a tribute to his ugly but faithful coon hound.
“There’s wonderful songs out there if people just care to look for them. Some are so funny, and those are the ones I really hunt for,” Harlett said. “When you’re smiling or laughing, you’re not worrying. That’s the best present.”
“Together Again” can be purchased for $8 by calling Harlett at (419) 448-4557.
PHOTO BY JIM SHOBE
Nancy Harlett donned seasonal attire as she entertained Dec. 12 for the Red Hat Christmas luncheon.