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Healing With Nature: As time ticks by, ‘Harmonica Jack’ makes beautiful music in nature

A man shows off his harmonicas.
John Keslin — and his harmonicas — can often be seen around Monee Reservoir. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

This is the third story in a Healing With Nature series that focuses on Forest Preserve District visitors who benefit physically and mentally from being in nature. 

John Keslin eats a banana and drinks a Pepsi for breakfast every day, then he heads to Monee Reservoir or some other favorite nature hangouts to do what he has been doing for decades, make beautiful music. 

On a recent hot morning with temperatures in the 90s, the 71-year-old Beecher resident opened his case of harmonicas and chose one to start playing a variety of music including blues, gospel and country. Dressed in a polo shirt, khakis and a White Sox cap, Keslin rocked back and forth while playing some tunes. 

“This is my favorite Monee Reservoir song,” he said before he cupped the harmonica to his mouth and began playing a sweet and sad rendition of the folk song "Shenandoah." He also played the song, "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven (But Nobody Wants to Die)."

Keslin, dubbed “Harmonica Jack” for his affinity for the instrument, always seeks out shade and a place to sit due to his serious medical conditions before playing some tunes on one of the eight dozen harmonicas he owns.

Staff at Monee Reservoir are fans of Keslin and his music. 

"We open up the windows and just listen," said Jason Stevenson, facility concessions manager. 

If you want to catch a performance, Keslin will be performing at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, July 13, at Monee Reservoir during the annual Surf-n-Turf concert. 

Serious heart issues

Keslin is spending as much time in nature as he can these days. After triple-bypass surgery four years ago and 2.5 years of being on a heart transplant list, Keslin said his prospects for a new heart may be fading after he turned 70 years old because of the high risk of the transplant surgery. 

He wears a special pack around his midsection that sends vasodilator medication directly to his heart through an IV line taped to his arm. Because of the poor condition of his heart, he said doctors are amazed he can still walk around as well as he does. 

Keslin attributes his lasting strength to the years spent walking in nature, climbing hills and fishing. He even took up marathon running after the age of 42. 

But the previous years of heavy smoking and the second-hand smoke from playing music indoors at crowded bars and piano lounges, took their toll on Keslin’s body. By the time his heart condition was discovered, it was too late to do much except hope for the donor heart, he said.

Peaceful, relaxing

Growing up in Calumet City with 10 brothers and sisters, Keslin started playing his father’s chromatic harmonicas at the age of 5. He had a blues band after graduating from high school and he played in blues clubs and fests on the South Side of Chicago and in Mississippi as an adult, back in the days when Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor and fellow harmonicist Big Walter Horton were also playing similar venues.

Keslin not only inherited a love of music from his father, but Keslin’s dad, who was always walking in the woods, also passed on an affinity for nature. 

“While the other kids were off playing tennis, football, golf, I was always in the woods,” Keslin said. “I had a big bug collection before I had to have one as a sophomore in high school. I was a reptile nut. I always had a huge snake collection in the summer, and I’d turn them loose in the fall. I drove my mother crazy.”

His childhood love of nature has lasted his lifetime.

“I don’t like being indoors – ever,” he said. “So, as soon as I get up, I get out. … I find it peaceful, relaxing. Maybe that’s why my heart still works at all. … I can still walk 1 to 3 miles a day, no problem.” 

He first visited Monee Reservoir in the late 70s and 80s before it was owned by the Forest Preserve.

“We would park along Route 50, climb over the railroad tracks and fish,” he said. “It was pretty swampy back then.” 

Years later, when he found out the Forest Preserve had improved the site with sidewalks and fishing areas, he visited again and spent years angling for catfish. Eventually, he started moving his harmonica practice outdoors.  

“I never liked playing indoors if I could be outside,” he said. “I’m an outdoor guy.”

To pass along his love of music, he invites kids to play along with him on percussion – jingle sticks, tambourines, maracas and washboards – when he’s out at a preserve or park. On a recent holiday, Keslin said he had eight kids playing alongside him as he sat on a retaining wall at Monee Reservoir.

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Still having fun

Keslin, who worked for 48 years in the steel tubing industry and is the father of one and grandfather of three, plans to keep playing his music for as long as he can. He visits other preserves, including Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve, but Monee Reservoir is his favorite place to play.

“I’ll sit here for hours and play,” he said. “It is my passion and my obsession.”

And even with his severe heart condition and an unknown future, Keslin is still optimistic. 

“I’m the happiest guy I know,” he said. “I’m serious. I get in my car and travel all over Mississippi and Arkansas fishing and chasing some of the same women I’ve known for 30, 40 years and stuff like that. I have a lot of fun. Every day, I do get out of bed thinking, I want to have some fun today.”

If you have a Healing With Nature story to tell, contact public information officer Cindy Wojdyla Cain at [email protected]

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