Saturday, June 14, 2008

John Hartford

It's knowin' that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleepin' bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch
And it's knowin' I'm not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind

It's not clingin' to the rocks and ivy
Planted on their columns now that bind me
Or something that somebody said because
They thought we fit together walkin'
It's just knowing that the world
Will not be cursing or forgiving
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you're movin' on the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
And for hours you're just gentle on my mind

Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman's cryin' to her mother
'cause she turned and I was gone
I still might run in silence
Tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me till I'm blind
But not to where I cannot see
You walkin' on the back roads
By the rivers flowin' gentle on my mind

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin' cracklin' cauldron
In some train yard
My beard a rustlin' coal pile
And a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands 'round a tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you're waitin' from the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
Ever smilin', ever gentle on my mind

John Harford (he would change his name to Hartford later in life at the behest of Chet Atkins) was born on December 30, 1937 in New York City to parents Dr. Carl and Mary Harford. He spent his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. There he was exposed to the influence that would shape much of his career and music, the Mississippi River. From the time he got his first job on the river, at age 16, Hartford was on, around, or singing about the river.

His early musical influences came from the broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and included Earl Scruggs, nominal inventor of the three-finger bluegrass style of banjo playing. Hartford said often that the first time he heard Earl Scruggs pick the banjo changed his life. By age 13, Hartford was an accomplished old-time fiddler and banjo player, and he soon learned to play guitar and mandolin as well. Hartford formed his first bluegrass band while still in high school at John Burroughs School. After high school he enrolled at Washington University, completed 4 years of a commercial arts program and dropped out to focus on his music, however he did later receive a degree in 1960. He immersed himself in the local music scene, working as a DJ, playing in bands, and occasionally recording singles for local labels. In 1965, he moved to Nashville, the center of the country music industry. In 1966, he signed with RCA Victor, and produced his first album, Looks at Life, in the same year.

In 1967, Hartford's second album Earthwords & Music spawned his first major hit, "Gentle On My Mind." His recording of the song was only a modest success, but it caught the notice of Glen Campbell, who recorded his own version, which gave the song much wider publication. At the 1968 Grammies, the song netted four awards, two of which went to Hartford; just as importantly, it became one of the most widely recorded country songs of all time, and the royalties it brought in allowed Hartford great financial independence; Hartford would later say that the song bought his freedom.[1] As his popularity grew, he moved to the West Coast, where he became a regular on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"; other television appearances followed, as did recording appearances with several major country artists. The success on "SmoBro" was enough that Hartford was offered the lead role in a TV detective series but he turned it down to move back to Nashville and concentrate on his music. He also was a regular on Campbell's and Johnny Cash's television shows.


During the years 1968-1970, Hartford recorded four more albums for RCA: The Love Album, Housing Project, John Hartford, and Iron Mountain Depot. In 1971, He moved over to Warner Bros. Records, where he was given more freedom to record in his untraditional style. There, fronting a band that included Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor and Norman Blake, he recorded several albums that set the tone of his later career, including the acclaimed Aereo-Plain and Morning Bugle. Of the former, Sam Bush said "Without Aereo-Plain (and the Aereo-Plain band), there would be no newgrass music."[2]

Switching several years later to the Flying Fish label, Hartford continued to participate in the experimentation with nontraditional country and bluegrass styles that he and artists such as Bush were engaging in at the time. Among his recordings were two albums in 1977 and 1980 with Doug and Rodney Dillard from The Dillards, with Bush as a backing musician, and featuring a diversity of songs that included "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and "Yakety Yak".[3]

Hartford's Grammy-winning Mark Twang features Hartford playing solo, reminiscent of his live solo performances playing the fiddle, guitar, banjo, and amplified plywood for tapping his feet. At the same time, he developed a stage show, which toured in various forms from the mid 1970s until shortly before his death.

Hartford went on to change labels several more times during his career; in 1991, he inaugurated his own Small Dog a'Barkin' label. Later in the 1990s, he switched again, to the Rounder label. On that label and a number of smaller labels, he recorded a number of idiosyncratic records, many of which harkened back to earlier forms of folk and country music. Among them was the 1999 album, Retrograss, recorded with Mike Seeger and David Grisman, offering bluegrass takes on such songs as "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay", "Maybellene", "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Maggie's Farm".

He recorded several songs for the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, winning another Grammy for his performance, and made his final tour in 2001 with the Down from the Mountain tour that grew out of that movie and its accompanying album. While performing in Texas in April that year, he found he could no longer control his hands due to a more than 20 year bout with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and his career was finished.

Though Hartford is considered a co-founder in the newgrass movement, he remained deeply attached to traditional music as well. His last band and last few albums reflect his love for pre-bluegrass old-time music. According to an interview with Don Swain, he described his love for the rare and nearly forgotten fiddle tunes of the Appalachians and Missouri foothills.

The dichotomy is one of the most attractive characteristics of Hartford, that while he was on the leading edge of expanding the boundaries of traditional music, he remained deeply connected to the roots of American folk music as well.


The culture of the Mississippi River and its steamboats captivated Hartford from an early age. He said that it would have been his life's work "but music got in the way," so he intertwined them whenever possible. In the '70s, Hartford earned his steamboat pilot's license, which he used to keep close to the river he loved; for many years, he worked as a pilot on the steamboat Julia Belle Swain during the summers. He also worked as a towboat pilot on the Mississippi, Illinois, and Tennessee rivers.

During his later years, he came back to the river every summer. "Working as a pilot is a labor of love," he said. "After a while, it becomes a metaphor for a whole lot of things, and I find for some mysterious reason that if I stay in touch with it, things seem to work out all right." His home in Madison, Tennessee was situated on a bend of the Cumberland River and built to simulate the view from a steamboat deck.

An accomplished fiddler and banjo player, Hartford was simultaneously an innovative voice on the country scene and a thrilling reminder of a vanished era. Along with his own compositions, such as Long Hot Summer Days and Kentucky Pool, Hartford was a voluminous repository of old river songs, calls, and stories. He could spend hours talking about the glory days of steamboating or demonstrating the lead calls that the river's most famous chronicler took as his name, "Mark Twain" (or "two fathoms"). Hartford was also the author of Steamboat in a Cornfield, a children's book that recounts the true story of the Ohio River steamboat The Virginia and its somewhat comical beaching in a cornfield.
Final years

At the time of his death, Hartford was also working on the biography of the blind fiddler Ed Haley. Hartford's album Wild Hog in the Red Bush is a collection of Haley's tunes. Hartford also provided narration for several of Ken Burns' documentaries.

Hartford was given a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

From the 1980s onwards, Hartford struggled with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. On June 4, 2001 at Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, at age 63, he died of the disease.

In honor of his work, he was given a posthumous Lifetime Achievement award by the Americana Music Association in September 2005.


Hartford recorded more than 30 albums, ranging across a broad spectrum of styles--from the traditional country of his early RCA recordings, to the new and experimental sound of his early newgrass recordings, to the traditional folk style to which he often returned later in his life. Hartford's albums also vary widely in formality, from the stately and orderly Annual Waltz to the rougher and less cut recordings that typified many of his later albums.

Aereo-Plain and Morning Bugle are often considered to be Hartford's most influential work, coming as they did at the very beginning of a period in which artists such as Hartford and the New Grass Revival, led by Sam Bush, would create a new form of country music, blending their country backgrounds with influences from a number of other sources. His later years saw a number of live albums, as well as recordings that explored the repertoire of old-time folk music. He sketched the cover art for some of his mid-career albums, drawing with both hands simultaneously.

Hartford is remembered as an influential and pioneering artist. Never bound by the limitations of one genre, he recorded wherever his interests led him. Performing and recording until his illness rendered him incapable of continuing, Hartford contributed a vast and unique body of work to the library of American music.


* 1967 Earthwords And Music
* 1967 Looks At Life
* 1968 The Love Album
* 1968 Housing Project
* 1968 Gentle On My Mind
* 1969 John Hartford
* 1970 Iron Mountain Depot
* 1971 Aereo-Plain
* 1972 Morning Bugle
* 1976 Nobody Knows What You Do
* 1976 Mark Twang
* 1977 Dillard-Hartford-Dillard
* 1977 All In The Name Of Love
* 1978 Headin' Down Into The Mystery Below
* 1979 Slumberin' On The Cumberland
* 1980 You And Me At Home
* 1980 Permanent Wave
* 1981 Catalogue
* 1984 Gum Tree Canoe
* 1987 Clements, Hartford, Holland
* 1987 Annual Waltz
* 1987 Me Oh My, How the Time Does Fly
* 1989 Down on the River
* 1991 Hartford and Hartford
* 1991 Cadillac Rag
* 1992 Goin' Back to Dixie
* 1994 The Walls We Bounce Off Of
* 1994 Old Sport
* 1995 The Fun of Open Discussion
* 1996 No End of Love
* 1996 Wild Hog In The Red Brush
* 1998 The Bullies Have All Gone to Rest (accreditato a Jim Wood e John Hartford)
* 1998 The Speed of the Old Long Bow
* 1999 Retrograss
* 1999 Good Old Boys

No comments: