John Hartford

John Hartford

Written by Paul McGowan

One day about twenty-five years from now,
When we’ve all grown old from a-wondering how,
Oh we’ll all sit down at the city dump,
And talk about the Goodle Days.
Well you’ll pass the joint and I’ll pass the wine,
And anything good from a-down the line.
A lot of good things went down one time,
Back in the Goodle Days.
—John Hartford, from Aereo-Plain, 1971

In 1541, long before bread slicers were invented, Hernando DeSoto supposedly became the first European to see the Mississippi River. I say supposedly because he had to have had a scout who would’ve seen it first, but History is a cheating mistress.

No matter the circumstance, that had to have been a sight. The namesake of some of the ugliest automobiles in history, DeSoto had come from Spanish Florida and with 600 men went north and west to discover gold. He never found gold, but he did find that river, the heartbeat of America, a mile wide at some points, and at other places you could walk across without getting your socks damp.

John Hartford was born in New York City in 1938. While young his family moved to St. Louis where the river grabbed his ears and started singing to him. He grew up with two fascinations, the River and Music. He often said he would have worked on the river all his life but music interrupted. Thank you Lord.

At 13 John was an accomplished old time fiddle and banjo player. By the time Hartford was in his 20’s he’d moved to Nashville and had impressed enough people with his playing and songwriting that he recorded his first album in 1966.

In 1967 his second album was released with a new Hartford tune called “Gentle On My Mind”. The song was a sadly beautiful love song, and it caught the attention of Glen Campbell who made it his first #1 hit. Won 4 Grammys in 1968, two for Hartford. I still prefer hearing John sing it with just banjo, it’s a real killer lyric. You’ve all heard it but few have listened. The royalties followed John the rest of his life, and financed his simple career.

Hartford moved to the West Coast and began appearing on The Smothers Brothers Show and the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. If any of you are old enough to remember the Campbell show he did an occasional spot where he’d take a guitar and sing a song, accompanied only by a pre-long haired hippie Hartford playing banjo, or fiddle, guitar or mandolin. I remembered even though young and not listening to Bluegrass yet, and certainly couldn’t relate to Country. I remembered because I’d never seen this on a mainstream variety show, and had definitely not seen a format like this on any TV show period. Couple of guys just jamming on a park bench.

In 1970 Hartford became fast friends with David Bromberg. John wanted to make a non-traditional bluegrass/folk album that was deeply rooted in old time music and pot smoking. He talked Bromberg into producing Aereo-Plain with some of the master studio musicians of the day. Tut Taylor on dobro, Vassar Clements on fiddle, Norman Blake on guitar, and Randy Scruggs on electric bass. Except for the bass all instruments were acoustic, and recorded without overdubs or playbacks. They just played the song until Hartford and Bromberg were satisfied they had the right one in the can. Didn’t listen to any of the takes until they mixed it. Given the beauty of the tracks, that is fantastic. Without a stretch of any means, this was the Kind of Blue of Newgrass/folk/whatever.

Either because of that approach or in spite of it, Aereo-Plain changed bluegrass and not a few of my friends for the rest of our lives. Sam Bush (New Grass Revival) said “Without Aereo-Plain there would be no Newgrass”. Warner Brothers wasn’t impressed, and hardly promoted the album. Didn’t matter. That thing went from hand-to-hand across this country like DeSoto with the clap. Still considered one of the greatest string acoustic studio albums, ‘Aereo-Plain’ was and is a delight.

Bluegrass, an old and gasping genre, got a huge shot in the arm. There were many influences of the Newgrass/Bluegrass awakening, and those influences all blew up together with Hartford. Sam Bush started New Grass Revival with Courtney Johnson in 1972. Suddenly every summer there were fiddle contests everywhere. Guys like Doc Watson, Bela Fleck, Marmaduke, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Buddy Emmons, Commander Cody, David Grisman with Old and In The Way (with Jerry Garcia on banjo), and The Country Gentlemen appeared out of nowhere and appeared everywhere. The class still breathes today with the likes of The Punch Brothers, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, and Trampled by Turtles. Hartford himself pointed back at Earl Scruggs, the nominal inventor of the three finger banjo style as the guy who started it all.

But above all of them John Hartford played with beauty, an obvious passion for his instruments, and a humble humor that shone through his smile and laughter during his live and studio performances. Mark Twang, a studio vinyl released in 1976 featured John by himself with a mike for his voice and instruments, and a mike for a piece of plywood he tap danced on for percussion. He talks and laughs through the introductions as well as the songs, all river songs and other ‘eccentric gems’ (critic).

This album was done specifically to capture the magic of a John Hartford live performance, where he’d get on stage with no amps, a few instrument cases, and that piece of plywood he miked up for his happy feet.

I had the true honor to see him a few times at an old stone mill turned nightclub in Willimantic, CT called the Shaboo Inn. That old barn seated 900 people, maybe 937 if you were willing to sit in the rafters. The stage was a platform maybe 4 inches high and gave a real close view to any act there. Artists loved the place, and often stopped in between gigs in Boston and New York. Situated between 2 rural colleges (UConn and East CT State) the audiences were appreciative, wild, and close.

I was in line with Diane before the doors opened one night and there was a commotion at the back of the line. I felt someone brush past me, a guy with long black hair carrying a couple of cases. It was John Hartford carrying his crap in by himself. As he went back out for his second and last trip, we saw him pull his stuff out of an old Ford Falcon wagon. I swear he had a couple of maple leaves stuck to his back like he slept in the back of that thing. Hartford often said he lived his life on the royalties of “Gentle on My Mind” by living simply, and I believe it.

He had a love of old folk and bluegrass, and he dedicated his life to reliving it. We enjoyed that trip, but it was his originals that always captured the imagination of millions with his passion, and especially that sense of humor. You have to hear “Don’t Leave Your Records in the Sun” to truly appreciate it.

Sometime during the 70’s Hartford got his river pilot license, and in between touring he worked on the steamboats and tugs on the Big Muddy as well as the Tennessee and Illinois rivers.

Also during the 70’s I picked up the guitar, fiddle and mandolin, and later the banjo. All because of John and his music. I was listening to Mark Twang last night while I was working on this piece, but I got completely distracted. You can’t listen to that and do anything else. I ended up listening to that album and had to finish this thing tonight.

John played all his life with the song of the great Mississippi singing in his ears. In the 80’s he contracted Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and by early 2001 he had to stop playing. The combination of that loss and the disease took his life on June 4 2001. My 47th birthday. I will never forget that moment.

Watch this video of two songs with my love and joy, to get a small sense of who and what was a John Hartford.

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