Mimi Hart’s Lifetime of Harmony< < Back to
Local musician Mimi Hart has been singing for nearly all of her life, some of her earliest memories composed of singing with her two sisters at age six.
“We performed at ladies’ luncheons and things but mostly for families, but we learned and we worked hard at it,” said Hart in an interview conducted several weeks ago in her Athens home. “At age six I developed my sense of harmony, and I learned that I was in love with forming a chord. Being one note in a chord is incredibly satisfying.”
Although never professionally trained, Hart found herself drawn immediately to performing, something that she started doing professionally in her mid-teens.
“By then, my older sister had graduated from college and had become a folk singer and taught me some chords on the guitar and all the latest folk songs,” said Hart. “I went from babysitting for 25 cents an hour to performing at Shaw’s Restaurant one night a week for $25 a night, for two hours of folk singing, and I was only 15 at the time. My mother had to drop me off when I started.”
Luckily enough, her folk singer training continued to come in handy as she transitioned from being a high school student in Lancaster to a student at Ohio University in 1967.
“When I started college, folk music was very popular,” said Hart, recalling performances at venues such as The Cellar Door and The Cavern. “I sometimes tell people I worked most weekends of my life, not in the last ten years, but before. People always think that music can get you into trouble, but it can also keep you out of trouble. You’re working while others are partying, you have a responsibility.”
During her first couple of years in Athens, Hart formed a strong bond with fellow folk singer Bruce Armitage, musician Johnny Borchard and legendary singer-songwriter JD Hutchinson, and many more.
After graduating in the early ‘70s, Hart continued to perform while always having day jobs, touring heavily with acts such as Bop Cats, Hot Cakes up and down the East Coast, while always maintaining a home in Athens outside of a two-year stint living in New York City with fellow musician Bob Montalto.
“I decided that I needed to hear more music, and nobody had been coming to town to play,” said Hart of her decision to move to NYC. “Bob and I had a cocktail act, doing lounge standards. I’ve always been grateful that I’ve never had to sing a song I didn’t like. I’ve sung backup on few songs I didn’t like, but I can ‘Ohh’ on anything.”
While in NYC, Hart said that she and Montalto met a number of impressive players, and played at a Brooklyn club called the Waterfront.
I’ve always been grateful that I’ve never had to sing a song I didn’t like. I’ve sung backup on few songs I didn’t like, but I can ‘Ohh’ on anything
Once in NYC, the two joined the Paula Lockhart band, something that Hart looks back on fondly.
“It was a great band, we did great songs, and we toured out of NYC. It was the ‘70s and there were a ton of great places to play and we played them all,” said Hart, mentioning that the band opened numerous times for acclaimed musician David Bromberg, for whom she later sang backup.
Although Hart developed a fondness for NYC, she found herself missing Athens: “Early on I decided that I was going to keep Athens as my base, and even though I spent years playing out of Cleveland, I would drive home every Sunday, such is my domestic attachment to my community,” said Hart. “Nothing could tempt me to leave. In Athens, I was surrounded by wonderful players and brothers and sisters that I’ve sung with my whole life.”
As Hart continued to play around, she was eventually found by Dickey Betts, the co-founder of The Allman Brothers Band. Betts saw Hart perform in a small venue in Columbus, took down her number and called her the very next day to offer her a job singing backup with the band. Although she initially turned down the offer, it wasn’t long until she heard from Betts again.
“He called me right back and said ‘I don’t know what you’re thinking. I saw you perform in a little dump in Columbus, and I’m offering you a great job. With benefits. With health insurance,’” said Hart, who took the offer after Betts invited her a second time.
“Going into the studio with The Allman Brothers was a great experience, especially because they recorded with world famous producer Tom Dowd,” said Hart. “We recorded in Miami, and it wasn’t astonishing so much because I sang a lot, because I didn’t, but because I learned a lot and listened a lot.”
By the time that Hart was about 38 years old, she said that she was tired of life on the road, as she had been touring for the majority of her life at that point.
“One of my girlfriends was getting her PhD at the time, and she said that I should try and do the same. It seemed far-fetched for a rock ‘n’ roll singer to get a PhD, at the time,” said Hart. “But I did it. And I loved it.”
Hart decided to go back to school for a PhD in English, allowing her to professionally study something that she had always loved: literature.
“Whenever I was touring I always brought a suitcase full of books,” said Hart. “And in places that we regularly played, I had a library card.”
Hart said that the transition from stage to classroom as a graduate professor pursuing her PhD was “remarkably easy.”
“It was the same as performing in many ways. If you’re a bar singer, as I was, you’re singing for young people who all share something: they like music and they’re your audience,” said Hart. “I took to it like crazy, and I fell in love with academia and with my students, and, soon, with Jane Austen.”
Austen served as the topic for much of Hart’s PhD work and continues to serve as the muse for the academic work she continues to do.
“I visited Jane Austen’s house back before she was as well-known as she is now – when I started doing my work on her there was only one movie of her novels, and now there are dozens,” said Hart. “I found her songbooks in terrible decay, people were treating them terribly and people said that they didn’t mean much because she was only an ‘amateur musician.’ But we’re all amateur musicians until someone pays us for it, and, as a woman in the 18th century, she could have never been paid for it without being suspect.”
The topic of Austen and music shortly became the basis for Hart’s thesis and dissertation.
“I’m a feminist, of course, and the whole point of my work is to elevate the status of women in music,” said Hart. “Back then, women were only allowed to play at home. A lot of my work is also about what music means to players, and that’s something that only players understand. I think that is why her songbooks had been ignored by so many people.”
Whilst in grad school, Hart continued to play music, although not quite with the intensity that she had pursued it before falling in love with academia.
“When I called my mother to tell her that I was going back to school, she said ‘Oh, honey you can’t miss your night gig,” said Hart. She resumed working with Hotcakes, David Bromberg and others while teaching.
In 1988 Hart and two other women, Brenda Catania and Gay Dalzell formed The Local Girls, an Athens-based group that would go on to play for the likes of Hillary Clinton during her 50th birthday party and on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and a White House Christmas tour.
“It was fun to be working with women. I had worked with women as backup singers, but this was fulltime with really, really difficult material,” said Hart, noting that much of The Local Girl’s repertoire comes from archival material that she had run across as a part of her passion for musicology and music history. “To be with a girl group is great fun, especially a group that is locally formed. It’s something that acknowledges the singularity of Athens. So many of us came here in the 60s and stayed because we fell in love with the hills and with each other. It still blows my mind that I can go to the farmer’s market and look across the way and see 20 people I’ve loved since I was 18 years old, it’s beautiful.”
During her tenure at Ohio University Hart also spearheaded the creation of a collection of songs especially for the university for its Bicentennial celebration in 2004.
“It was just after I finished my dissertation, and I asked President Glidden if, for our anniversary, we could do a musical collection of songs about Ohio University, with the songs only played by people associated with the university,” said Hart. Glidden agreed, and, before long, members of the extended staff of Ohio University were singing archival songs about Harvard on the Hocking.
“I had the staff, people like groundskeepers and housekeeping all on the compilation CD, they’re all playing banjo or singing or something. It wasn’t my strongest work musically, but it was a blast,” said Hart. The Local Girls will be returning for their annual Christmas show in December.
Another one of Hart’s projects, JD Hutchinson and Realbilly Jive, will be performing at the Peoples Bank Theater in Marietta on Sept. 24. For tickets for that performance, visit peoplesbanktheatre.com
“I’ve been extremely lucky in my small but satisfying career, but everything is because of my community. Athens is a place of nurturing talent and nurturing relationships and over time,” said Hart. “Some people think those of us who decided to stay in Athens are anti-success, and I find that kind of annoying. There’s nothing wrong with trying being good for the people you love and with singing with people you care about and people who care about you. Who could be a more ideal audience?”