Daniel Johnston putting his guitar strap over his neck

A Celebration of the Late Great Daniel Johnston at Mohawk

By Jillian Jacobs
Music Journalist

On Sept. 11, 2019 a legend passed away. His name was Daniel Johnston. Johnston was a key figure in the Austin music scene. He made his debut to the town in the ’80s by passing out his tapes to musicians not to gain fame but to share what was on his mind.

On Oct. 10, 2019, World Mental Health Day, lovers of Johnston gathered together to celebrate his life and legacy. Local musicians set up on stage to play covers of Johnston’s vast discography. These artists included: Jane Ellen Bryant, BluMoon, Thanks Light, Little Mazarn, Luvweb, Half Brown Whornet, Moving Panoramas, Walker Lukens, Amy Annelle, Jad Fair, Kramer and Kathy McCarty. Some of them stuck to a minimalist take as Johnston did and some added their own touch, all in honor of a musician who spoke to their hearts. 

The celebration was put together by the Hi, How Are You Project, a non-profit organization that strives to generate a new conversation about mental health issues by funding and creating projects, events and media content. This organization was inspired by Jeremiah the Frog, who can be found on 21st Street and Guadalupe. This mural was painted by Johnston in 1993 and is seen on his album Hi, How Are You. This friendly gesture of checking in on someone and simply saying, “Hi, how are you?” can generate that conversation leading someone to better their mental health. Johnston himself struggled with mental health issues and got the help he needed to better take care of himself.

In many of Johnston’s songs you can hear the honesty of his struggle with mental health. That’s what made him so real. Johnston made himself vulnerable and out as someone you could trust. Many of the artists on stage felt a connection with Johnston’s music, saying that they had grown up listening to him and appreciated his ability to lay all his troubles and feelings on the line. Johnston had the ability to do all of this with his wobbly voice, an untuned guitar and an old church organ

BluMoon sang a beautiful rendition of “Some Things Last A Long Time” a softer song of Johnston’s  that highlights how some memories can’t seem to fade, and in Johnston’s case he didn’t want them to. As Blumoon’s vocalist sang with a pure articulate voice accompanied by simple instrumentation you could feel the weight of her words fall on the audience as we all mourned the loss of Johnston.

The crowd that night was filled with people of all ages. Despite the varying of age, we all had that one commonality, a love for an artist that made movements in our lives. The large diversity in age was also a great reminder that Johnston’s music is for everyone and gives hope in that his music will continue to be passed down. Although that night was all about Johnston’s music, his art was displayed on a majority of the audiences shirts. Johnston expressed himself through his music and art, and there’s lots of it.

Little Marzan’s vocalist, who had last played the Mohawk opening for Johnston, played the banjo along side a band member who eerily played a saw. A hardware tool sounds divine when contorted and strummed by a violin bow. Little Marzan sang a minimalist cover of “Story of An Artist” a song where Johnston describes how different he is when compared to society. 

We don’t really like what you do/We don’t think anyone ever will/It’s a problem that you have/And this problem’s made you ill.

 As an artist Johnston was shamed by others for his way of life. In society we’re accustomed to going to school and getting a job. But for someone like Johnston being an artist was all he could manage to do. And he wasn’t scared to embody that.

Some would try for fame and glory/Others just like to watch the world

As this line closes out “Story of An Artist,” you can hear the sincerity in young Johnston’s voice as he reminisces about his future. Almost longing for it before it even happens. Johnston experienced a lot of negative comments on his way to fame, which I believe gave him the fuel to create. As Johnston grew older his loved ones began to accept him. I think that’s when Johnston enjoyed watching the world peacefully, without the heartache of not belonging.

Although Johnston played in a homophonic texture, his voice accompanied by a single instrument, LuvWeb brought out a quartet and played some of Johnston’s more rock and roll inspired songs like “I Had Lost My Mind”. When playing this song they included tape recordings that Johnston included on the album Don’t Be Scared. Johnston included many recorded conversations on his other albums as well. The quartet illustrated musically the trouble one might have when they lose their mind. Although Johnston didn’t seem too troubled from “losin’ that dang thing”.

Amy Annelle came out with her Don’t Be Scared t-shirt and spoke on how she too has struggled with mental health. She said once she had gotten help she knew how to take care of herself. I believe that many people in these current times may be struggling and are too afraid to realize that it’s an illness. There’s this stigma built around mental health that can make one feel ashamed of their illness, making it foreign to help yourself. The Hi, How Are You? project is working to shatter that stigma. Amy Annelle sang “Peek A Boo” a song where Johnston presents his mental health issues plainly, he sings of the battle he has with himself everyday.

But I’m tired/From being kidnapped/By a dark wolf that would do me in/Please hear my cry for help, and save me from myself

As Amy sang this line you could hear the same tonality that Johnston has on his tapes. Pleading for help, in Johnston’s case from crippling fears, painted as a dark wolf.

The last three acts of the night personally knew Johnston. Jad Fair, Kramer and Kathy McCarty had all worked with Johnston musically. Stating that they all had the opportunity to work with genius. And a genius Johnston truly was. As Kramer McCarty and Fair played “Some Things Last A Long Time” the energy that went into Fair’s distorting guitar notes completely snapped the neck of his guitar. The chords on the keyboard felt so melancholy creating a solemn energy in the crowd. A feeling of sadness that was pleasant to share.

Before Kathy McCarty, Johnston’s “ex-girlfriend”, went on stage we got a few words from Dick Johnston, Daniel’s older brother. He spoke of his brother and his lasting impact on the world.You could hear the hurt in his voice and the fondness he had of his late-brother. He mentioned how we have yet to see Johnston’s full discography and how it’s in the works of being released as well as a biographical film. If you have yet to see “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” it is a must see documentary that came out in 2005. In this film you see the madness behind Johnston’s artistic abilities. Madness that you wouldn’t expect to be behind the scenes of such aptitude. 

As the night ended Kathy McCarty invited all the artists back on stage for one last song, “True Love Will Find You In The End”. As everyone sang along to an a’capella version of one of Johnston’s most famous tunes you could hear the scensarity in the audiences best take at singing. All trying our best for Johnston. “True Love Will Find You In The End” is a simple song composed of two verses, there’s no catch or metaphoric lyrics. The song displays itself simply giving it the ability to resonate with just about anyone. If there’s one message I received from this night it was that love can be found in anything, you just have to look for it.

Featured image courtesy of Paul Calypse via Creative Commons.

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