(Used with permission from C.L. Garvin, photographer.)
When I was younger, I had a very good friend, Billy. Billy was a lot older than me and he loved bluegrass music. He would play and loan his bluegrass records to me, he would take me to concerts and festivals and he taught me how to play a great many songs on guitar and banjo. I can say with no hesitation that it is he who is responsible for me listening to and learning about bluegrass and Appalachian music. The thing is though, he liked what he liked and he didn’t like what he didn’t like. Sometimes when we would be at a festival if a band came on that he didn’t like, Billy would leave the stage area and go find someone in the parking lot to play music with. I was mostly OK with that because I liked both listening and playing but occasionally I would stay at the stage and watch the music and meet up with him later. Billy liked traditional music and didn’t have much tolerance for new or untraditional bands or music and so when one of those types of bands would come on-stage, off Billy would go. One such time we were at a festival at Ed Allen’s Campground in Chicahominy, Virginia. John Hartford was scheduled to play and I had always wanted to see him. As the band before John finished and were walking off the stage, Billy started fidgeting around a bit and I could tell he wanted to go to the parking lot. After a little while, a stage guy came walking out carrying a big sheet of plywood. He laid it down in front of the one mic stand that was left on the stage and walked off. Then out came John Hartford. He was tall and had longish unruly hair- I liked him instantly. He stood on the plywood and started tapping his feet while the sound crew adjusted things. I looked over at Billy and he was getting more uncomfortable by the minute. Soon we could hear John Hartford instructing the sound guys about the volume he wanted the plywood to be mic’d at. That was too much for Billy so he got up and left and I settled in for what I hoped would be an exciting and odd set of music from a guy who was going to play the stage apparently.
John Hartford at Peacock Park, Coconut Grove, Florida (Used with permission from Patricia Milone- photographer.)
As it turned out, John was indeed playing the stage- when he started playing the first song, he also started almost tap dancing! It wasn’t really tap dancing I guess, more of a shuffle but he had taps on his shoes and the sound of them on the plywood ended up being the accompaniment to his playing and singing. I had never seen anything like it before or since. Here was this guy playing banjo or fiddle while he was singing, AND he was pretty much dancing in time with it at the same time. I loved it. I loved his songs too because they were kind of traditional but also kind of not traditional at the same time. Sadly, I don’t specifically remember anything that he played that day, but I do remember how excited I was to be there seeing and hearing it.
After his set, the next band that played was one I didn’t much care to see and I didn’t know exactly where Billy was, so I wandered off a bit from the seating area and sat on the ground in front of a big tree where I could see the parking lot. I figured sooner or later I would spot my friend and go down to meet him. As I sat there leaning against the tree I must have been daydreaming or something because I didn’t notice that someone was standing beside the tree looking at me. Much to my surprise and delight, it was John Hartford! John asked if he could share the tree with me and I said sure and he sat down right there on the ground next to me and started talking. I remember it like it was yesterday. He talked about how good it felt to sit on the ground leaning against a tree and he asked if I played music and what kind. I remember so well how his eyes crinkled when he smiled and how he told me that when I was playing music I should play what came natural and not to let anyone try and change that. After a while he thanked me for letting him share my tree and he wandered off to brighten someone else’s day. I’ll say that at that moment I was his biggest fan.
Another time that I saw John play live that was memorable for me was in 1992. He was playing at a small club near my house and when I went to see the show I brought along a poster that I wanted him to sign. At his set break, he was sitting outside at a table and was surrounded by people all laughing and talking. I made my way up to him and showed him my poster and asked if he would sign it. He looked right at me and smiled that crinkly-eyed smile and took the poster and laid it out on the table in front of him. He took out his pen and slowly and carefully wrote in the most beautiful script I can remember ever seeing. He took his time- ignored everything around him and it was as if signing that poster was the most important thing in the world at that moment. I remember noticing that the people gathered around the table were all watching him too. When he finished he put his pen away and looked at the poster a second or two, picked it up and handed it to me and smiled again. He was a special guy for sure.
Over the years I listened to A LOT of John Hartford’s music and I never tired of it. Some songs were better than others of course and some albums spoke to me more than others but when I listened to them I could ALWAYS hear John telling me to play what came natural to me and not to let anyone try to change that. I think those words were a great gift to me and looking over John’s massive discography, I think those were words that he himself lived by. And speaking of words, the song I most quickly think of when I hear John’s name is probably not one of his most popular ones, it is one though that hits me hard- In Tall Buildings . It tells of someone who has come of age and has to leave to go work in a city. He has to leave what he loves and go off to live a life he doesn’t necessarily want to, one of conformity and punctuality that is in direct contrast to his natural tendencies. It’s sad and beautiful, and he says so much in that song that I can barely think about it sometimes.
So, who was this odd fellow you might be wondering?
John was born Dec 30, 1937 and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. The way the story goes I believe is that he was not a stellar student. Thankfully though, one of his teachers, Ruth Ferris, saw his potential and worked with him and used her love of riverboats and rivers to help excite him about learning. This love of river things stayed with him his whole life, and he even got his professional pilot’s license so he could captain one. His love of music and his love of riverboats battled it out in his mind and lucky for us, the music won out and John became a full time musician. He would often write and sing about riverboats though, especially the Julia Belle Swain, and I am pretty sure he maintained his pilot’s license most of his life.
John was a talented musician and could play fiddle and banjo very well. He loved the tradition of the music and he knew a great many rare and little heard songs that he had learned from old timers. He could also write a great new song, and it was this that propelled him to fame and fortune. His most well known song is one called Gentle on My Mind and it was recorded and made famous by Glen Campbell. It also won 4 Grammy awards in 1968! One time I heard John say that of all his songs, Gentle on My Mind was his very favorite…….because it made it so he could do whatever he wanted for the rest of his life. That song certainly gave him the opportunity to be well known because it landed him regular work on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and the Johnny Cash Show.
John Hartford was pretty well irresistible. His calm dry sense of humor, his amazing musicianship, and his quirky clothing (he always wore a bowler hat and vest) helped him become friends with most all of the musicians in acoustic music. He had long term friendship and association with such musical visionaries as Sam Bush, Butch Robins, Benny Martin, Glen Campbell, Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor, Norman Blake etc etc etc. He recorded twenty-some albums under his own name and several more with other people. The players on his albums were often like a Who’s Who in acoustic music and the joy and love they all shared come through in the music in a big way.
The last time I saw John play live, a rainy day in North Carolina, I had my wife and daughter with me. I spoke to him briefly and asked if I could get a photo of him. He looked down and saw my tiny daughter wearing a sun hat and he quickly stooped down next to her, his own bowler hat on his head, but safely in a plastic bag and put on the best smile he could. At the time he was dying of lymphoma but he still managed to put on a smile to pose with a pretty little girl after the strain of doing a live show. When I heard the news in June 2001 that he had passed away, the first thing I did when I got home was to turn on my stereo and play a song for John. I played “In Tall Buildings” of course and to this day I can’t hear that song without getting a lump in my throat. He was a special guy and there won’t soon be another like him.
The CDs I am highlighting today show the range of John’s work, he could switch from novelty song to beautiful love song to recreating historically important old songs to anything else that popped into his head. I tried to pick three CDs here to show that, I could have picked many many things to highlight but I kept it at three. So, without further ado, my music recommendations are….
Gum tree canoe [sound recording]/ John Hartford
This is one of John’s “serious” albums. The songs on here are all very solid musically and are not novelty songs at all. It’s a great album.
A few highlights:
Take me Back to my Mississippi River Home- I saw John do this song a few times and it just makes me happy.
Gum Tree Canoe– This song is very sweet, it’s a love song of sorts and it just has a carefree feel that I like.
I’m Still Here– One of the things that I always liked about John was that he would sometimes sing what he was playing on the banjo while he played it on the banjo. People do that when they listen to music a lot, they sort of “sing” an iconic guitar lead for example, anyway, John sings his banjo parts occasionally in this song and that delights me.
Mark Twang [sound recording]/ John Hartford
This album is all just John, much like many of his concerts were. It’s got a nice variety of John’s novelty songs and some of his serious ones. I saw him perform a lot of these songs off and on for many years and a lot of these became his signature pieces.
Let Him Go On Mama- This song is another earworm for me, and apparently I sing parts of it outloud A LOT (and apparently that drives my wife crazy). Anyway, aside from the part of this song I sing a lot, there’s also this great phrase that I love about the Ohio River- “It’s too thick to navigate but it’s too thin to plow.”
Don’t Leave Your Records in the Sun- I definitely remember John doing this live the first time or two I saw him. Of course back then we listened to records and now we don’t so maybe for you younger listeners this song won’t have as much impact as on us older folks!
The Julia Belle Swain-John loved riverboats and especially this one. There is some great banjo playing on this song and you can hear him using his foot as an instrument/timekeeper in here. I guess I really like that he imitates the sound of the riverboat with his banjo too in this song.
Hamilton ironworks [electronic resource]/ John Hartford
This album is part of McConnell Library’s Internet Resource collection (that means you can listen to it from your house and you don’t have to come to the library to get it), it is also very charming and delightful. The music on here is very serious old-time music and it sounds very good. This is a collection of old-time fiddle tunes that John remembers from his younger days and as he plays them, he talks about the people or situations he learned them from in an almost-but-not-quite singing style. Hearing his personal memories of these songs while they are being played is just beyond delightful and they do not in any way detract from the beautiful melodies or listening enjoyment. The band that is playing on it is The Hartford String Band (Bob Carlin, Mike Compton, Larry Perkins, and Chris Sharp). This album shows another side of John Hartford, the serious student and musician who knows the value of musical history. Picking highlights was kind of difficult here, give the album a listen and see what you like but these three stand out for me.
Woodchoppers Breakdown– During this song, John tells a bit about a one-armed fiddler who could “play the hell out of Woodchoppers Breakdown”. “Armed” with that tidbit how could you help but want to listen to this song? The music is solid and well played but the image of the fiddler is kind of intriguing!
Wooliver’s Money Musk – There was a fiddler who liked to play this song and once at a dance the people wanted him to play it faster. He didn’t want to play it faster so he sent them all home and he went to bed. Again, very solid playing and a nice song.
The Quail is a Pretty Bird- This song has a pretty melody and it sticks with me for a good while after I’ve heard it. In this song you can hear Larry Perkins and Bob Carlin doing some really nice banjo work together in the background while John talks and fiddles.
Steamboat in a Cornfield- This is actually a book and not a recording, but it’s a childrens book John wrote. It’s about a steamboat in a cornfield. John used actual photos and newspaper stories to retell a true story about a flood and a riverboat named The Virginia and how ingenuity and hard work moved the boat back out of the cornfield.
Steamboat in a cornfield/ by John Hartford