Updated December 29, 2016: Found two old pictures, one of Townes and Rex, and one of me and my baby son Jack Berry at Unk’s place.
The other day, I was wondering just what constitutes “family” anymore? It seems that in one or two short generations, the definition of family changed from a mom, a dad, and 2.2 kids to include ex-husbands, your kids, his or her kids and your kids together. Does a relative have to be blood or marriage related? Last Thanksgiving, I had dinner with my sister’s ex-husband’s daughter from his first marriage and her children. Can’t that be family, too? And now, on June 26, 2015, I add a family of two dads or two moms to the possibilities.
This post is a very late tribute to Uncle Seymour Washington, affectionately called Unk. No, not my “real” uncle, but a treasure of a man who adopted, like family, a whole lot of folks in Austin during a time in the late 60’s-mid 70’s.
A retired blacksmith, Unk had worked on many ranches in South Texas including the famous King Ranch. He was a simple but wise, peaceful, Christian man who opened his front yard and home to a motley crew of people–hippies, musicians, elderly neighbors, and more. I’m not sure how it all started. I am sure he did not understand many of us, but accepted us into his life and his heart with kindness and some of the best smoked chicken and sausage I ever ate.
Unk came by his home in the Clarksville area of Austin, just off West Lynn, by way of his ancestors. Clarksville was land originally deeded to freed plantation slaves after the Civil War. Most of the people who lived there were actually descendants of those slaves. The streets were unpaved and many did not have indoor plumbing.
Unk’s front yard consisted of a few wooden benches under a tree, a big wash tub for icing down the beer, a really big Bar-B-Q smoker, and an outhouse. There was frequently something cooking, guitars playing, kids chasing each other and the dogs–we were all feeling the love. Unk would hang out with us until he got tired or it just got too rowdy and then he would go in his little house and take a nap. His neighbors didn’t know what to think about all these white kids hanging around, but they finally warmed up and joined the gatherings when they saw we were helping take care of Unk.
Besides musicians like Joe Ely and Jessie “Guitar” Taylor, Townes Van Zandt always came by when he was playing in or around Austin. Heartworn Highways, a music documentary, includes the late, great Townes sitting in the Uncle Seymour’s kitchen singing “Waitin’ Around to Die” tears running down Unk‘s face.
When Unk passed, his “adopted” family, along with his one nephew, packed the Sweet Home Baptist Church for his funeral.
So, what is family? I like to think it is the human family, but, I am not sure we have all caught on to that yet. I miss Unk, I miss those days; but as humans, we keep on creating our own unique family relations. How’s yours?
If you were a friend of Unk’s, please leave a comment.
Also read my blog post “And we all shine on” about a March 2020 Townes Van Zandt Tribute in Austin. Flashbacks and fun.
Thanks for this, I watched Heartworn Highways tonight. I bought the DVD several years ago but decided to re-watch it tonight. Good stuff.
I am glad you enjoyed my little rememberance and revisited the film. I watched the clip several times as I placed it in the post. Brought it all back.
[…] Van Zandt picks a heartbreaking version of ’Waitin’ around to Die’. The Walking Blacksmith‘s face in the background, calm, listening and eventually crying moved me to […]
Hey Laura, yes we were family and Unk was our anchor, wasn’t he? The only thing about your article that I’d like to correct is that the “outhouse,” as I recall, was really an outhouse-size building, possibly originally an outhouse, that contained all his blacksmithing tools.
I know, because one day he and I were on the porch when this big pickup pulling a horse trailer stopped in front and these two UT student sorority sister cowgirls hopped out, excited to come see Unk, whom they’d known as young children when he came to work on their horses. In fact they had brought a horse that needed shoeing. Unk was the courtly gentleman as usual; they walked the horse down the ramp and held his bridle whie Unk went to the little building and put on his leather apron, brought out his horse tools.
Well, the rest is in my autobiography. HA!
I wish I had the pleasure of knowing him personally. Seems, to me if there where more “Unk’s” in this world, it would be a much better Place. I too have watched Heartworn Highways, and was very moved by him. God Bless
Thank you for your comment. I think about him a lot and those days of barbeque and beer and good friends.
This great. I just came across it now. Thanks!
I watched the DVD a couple of years ago, thought it was good so I got one for a friend too, but I didn’t know who the old man was. Now I do. Sounds like good days were spent with good people around having fun, making music and getting wasted, unaware of what the future would hold.
I am interested in learning more about Uncle Seymour Washington. Is there any way I could get your contact to ask you a few questions about him?
I used to reall enjoy laughing and talking to uncle Seymore. At the time I did not realize it because I was such a small boy but there was a lot of musical talent coming in and playing music in his front yard. Some you are big legends today in the music industry .
I used to send you random things that has stopped now as i am retired and I drink less, but still i send more than I should yes… chris
yo more than….I love this song….
happy new year….
[…] Several years when I lived in Austin, and was eschewing my parents’ traditions, my young son and I had Thanksgiving at Uncle Seymour’s with the neighborhood hippies and others. I previously wrote a little story about those times. […]
Hey Laura Happy new year. And good luck with the next. Take care and be careful in this new world of twitter and uncertainty. Chris (a poster of uncertain value from the past). My own country NZ. No paradise, violent and full of disparity. Polluted and abused a country of beauty, but one where Rodney Richpigge rules. A link to an old song from the nineties. Hoping for better in 2018.
I never had the privilege of meeting him. But, I was his friend. Thanks for sharing. We need more people like Unk.
Unk was my Dad’s (Chito) hero. He even became a farrier after retiring from the Navy in his honor I assumed later in life. I have some great pics of them that George took
Thanks for reading this post. It gets more hits than any other except the homemade ice cream recipe. Who knew? I’d love to see the photos. Can you post or email? I am connected with Chito via Facebook, though not sure when that connection was made. Peace, Laura
This is Michael K I stumbled across your blog trying to get more info on my grand mother Jannie Washington I’m sure if Jannie was his wife or sister. When I was in San Marcos , TX my father be sure and go see your uncle Seymour and I did I hung around his house it was early 70’s . My father said they consider him to be the mayor of Clark’s Ville
Thanks for reading my blog. If I remember correctly, Jannie was Unk’s wife. She had already passed by the time I knew him. Unk was a beautiful man and many people came to gather in his yard. His funeral at Sweet Home Baptist was a full house.
Thanks for the reply . Yes Jannie had passed away she was laid to rest in Santa Fe at the Veterans memorial park. she lived down the street from me. So were a friend of Uncle Seymour ?
Yes, I was one of many living in the neighborhood surrounding Clarksville, who came to visit Unk on a regular basis. He sat out in the yard and welcomed anyone who wanted to stop by to talk or play music.
[…] I knew Townes back in the middle-hippie ages in Austin. He was one of the persons who gravitated repeatedly to Uncle Seymour Washington’s house in the Clarksville section of Austin in the 70’s. read more here. […]
It’s hard for people to get past what they see and not fall into the trap of judging others by the shade of their skin or the cadence of the voice.when I was 18 I met a man who tried to teach me these things even though he had been looked down on and thought less of for those very reasons.honor and integrity comes in all shapes and voices but so does dishonesty and evil.
Thanks much for this post in remembrance of Uncle Seymour, Laura. I had seen some of the Heartworn videos on YouTube, and Like many, I had wondered what the backstory was with the two folks sitting there listening to Townes sing Pancho and Lefty. There’s been wide speculation as to who was the young woman sitting next to Unk. Do you happen to know who she was? I remember a wonderful health food story in Austin in the early 70s, where we would buy turkey eggs for ten cents each, I think. A great time to be in one’s early 20s, indeed!
Steve, I need to watch the video again to check on the identity of the young woman. It may have been Townes’s girlfriend at the time. I think about those days often. For me, that time in my life was both reckless and magical. Full of wonderful music and people. Good Foods I think was the name of the store. It was there before Whole Foods. Thanks for reading.
What an elegant, and accurate, phrase, Laura: “both reckless and magical” perfectly conjures up volumes for those or us who “experienced” that era, and live to tell the tales. Re: the brunette; Yes, that was the vibe — that she was probably his gal-pal. A classic Good Foods, Zilker Park natural beauty. Thanks again for the great posts.
One more really piece of interesting information on the house that we see in that Heartworn Highways scene with Townes, Susanna and Unk: yes, in the mid 70’s the house did indeed become a health food store called Good Foods. Then Good Foods closed down and was shortly thereafter reopened as a similar store called……Whole Foods. Yes, that spot became the very first ever Whole Foods store. Amazing.
I think you’re mistaken there friend. I was still living in Austin thru 1980 and Unk’s home did not become Good Foods. I shopped at Good Foods alot and it was not in Clarksville where there were still dirt roads.
Check out this video on Uncle Seymour. Particularly at about 4:45 mark. https://youtu.be/lLDyC2vV9T4
That young woman next to Unk is the incredibly special Susanna Clark. She was married to Guy Clark but was, by her own words, “soulmates” with Townes Van Zandt, Susanna was considered the muse of the entire scene. She is spoken of in hallowed tones by everyone who knew her. She passed away from cancer in 2012 but by all accounts she really died on January 1, 1997 – the day her soulmate Townes died. After Townes’ death, Susanna sort of became a recluse and suffered from agoraphobia. Guy passed away in 2016. There is a great new documentary which centers on Susanna and her relationship to Guy and Townes as well as the Austin & Nashville singer/songwriter music scenes. The doc is called Without Getting Killed Or Caught.
Oh, my! Thank you so much for reading my post and for telling us about Susanna. I have seen the Guy Clark film and cried a bunch at the Townes scenes. Those were magical times for me and all of us who were privileged to be a part of this little group of friends in Clarksville.
Thanks much, Rick, for the great info, and for the pointer to the documentary! Much appreciated.
Hi Laura, i really enjoyed reading your post about Unk Seymour. He was a loving deep person. Shame the director of the film didn’t have more footage shot of him at the time. Hard to believe Townes has been gone so long. He was a true talent, that is dearly missed. I recorded this last year on the day of his passing just to honour him. Orv.
It’s lovely. I’m happy to share your song on my blog. I get hits every day on the Race Relations post and a few others thru out the 11 years I’ve been sharing my thoughts. I mostly write to help me remember how fortunate my life has been.
Hi Laura, Good hearing from you. Glad you liked my cover of Townes tune. However, think you might like this original even more. Although I wrote this before the killing of George Floyd, a lot of people seemed to gravitate towards it due to the lyrics I think. Quite appropriate for this Blog Subject as well. All the best, Orv. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9jiZ79R-dM
Seymour Washington’s house was demolished in 1977, after the City denied historical zoning for the neighborhood
I was still in Austin until end of 1979, but didn’t remember this. I had moved to another part of town by then.
[…] never been to heaven, but I have been to the Sweet Home Baptist in Clarksville. When my dear friend Uncle Seymour Washington passed, his friends, family, neighbors, and his one nephew, packed the Sweet Home Baptist Church for […]