Fresh Ideas: I now have discovered John Hartford’s music

Thanks to the internet, I can finally catch up on all the popular music I missed when growing up. My immigrant parents didn’t appreciate rock and roll, country, blues, or jazz, so there’s a huge gap in my popular culture index.

I didn’t know, for instance, the music and lyrics of “Gentle on My Mind” are the work of John Hartford (1937–2001), a folk, country, and bluegrass composer and musician known for his mastery of fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin; witty, often satirical lyrics; unique vocal style, and Mississippi River lore. Son of an infectious disease specialist doctor and an artist/painter mother, Hartford grew up in St. Louis, Mo., captivated from youth by the life of the river and its steamboats. His parents’ expectations didn’t foresee a career in music.

According to Ronny McCoury, a first-rate mandolin player who knew Hartford, “He told me he wrote ‘Gentle on My Mind’ after he had watched the movie Dr. Zhivago. And he said, ‘I wanted to drink Julie Christie’s bathwater,’” (a reference to the English actress who played the heroine). McCoury added, “He sat down at a picnic table and wrote the song in 20 minutes. He said it went against every rule that could be a rule in music. It didn’t have a chorus; had a banjo, and was four minutes long.”

The song became widely popular once Glen Campbell recorded it, and won Hartford two Grammys. Since then it has been recorded 400 to 600 times and performed more than 6 million times. No wonder Hartford once said, “It bought me my freedom because I never had to work again.”

There was more to Hartford’s musical life than that one song. He’d been playing fiddle since age 13 and after his early success in Nashville (Chet Atkins produced Hartford’s first album), he went onto play banjo for the Byrds on their 1968 “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album; appeared regularly on the Smothers Brothers and Glen Campbell shows; played with Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Steve Martin and Joan Baez. He did guest appearances on albums of James Taylor, Seals & Crofts. All told, he recorded nearly 40 albums, the best known probably Aereo-Plain and Morning Bugle which have been described as having a seminal free bluegrass feel, and with New Grass Revival led by Sam Bush created new form of country music.

Acknowledged as a brilliant performer, he interchanged guitar, banjo, and fiddle from song to song. He had his own shuffle tapdance, and clogged on plywood while he played and sang. Ricky Skaggs has said, “You didn’t want to follow John (on stage). If he was playing from 9 to 10, you could forget about playing after that because the crowd was his.”

Somehow Hartford also managed to become a licensed riverboat pilot; wrote a children’s book, “Steamboat in Cornfield” based on an actual incident, and did narration for Ken Burns’s PBS series “The Civil War.” Every other year at his home, designed to evoke a steamboat, and situated on a bend of the Cumberland River, he hosted a non-stop celebration from Christmas until New Year, during which everybody brought food and played music 24 hours each day.

Some of Hartford’s forebearers were from the South. A grandfather’s first cousin was the playwright Tennessee Williams. A great-great-great-grandfather, James Overton Broadhead, was born in Charlottesville, Va., in 1819, was a lawyer and statesman. Cousin to Patrick Henry and Dolly Madison, he was a “counseller” to President Lincoln, as well as a founder and first president of the American Bar Association.

Hartford died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma 21 years after having been diagnosed. His focus as that time approached was to practice his first instrument, the fiddle, all the more. Because, he said, “craftsmanship” is what interested him the most.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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