Saturday Eye Candy: John Hartford


"A banjo will get you through times of no money, but money won't get you through times of no banjo."

These words greet you when you visit the official website of John Hartford, a massive though often uncredited influence and spiritual ancestor to what's become known as "newgrass." Mostly familiar to those outside the bluegrass/string band world for penning pop standard "Gentle On My Mind" and his many TV appearances on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, Johnny Cash Show and Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Hartford was the rare musician who could absorb the past and pour it through a modern sieve to create something truly original. Without Hartford it's unlikely we could have Sam Bush, Yonder Mountain, String Cheese Incident and others who've happily mutated bluegrass in such wonderful ways.

Besides being a boffo banjo player, he was a devilishly skilled songwriter throughout his long career, writing protest music of the soul that makes one hum along, feeling free even if they're not sure why. As a composer, Hartford also delved into darkness with uncommon strength and clarity, lifting human failings into sunlight. In Hartford's songs we are neither all good nor all bad but a wondrous muddle. He wrote the finest Best Dylan parody/homage ever with "The Category Stomp" but also genuinely creepy pieces like "There Are No Fools in Heaven (Anyman's Lament)," which drags us into the afterlife with haunting detail.

When 1971's Aereo-Plain came out it hit a young generation just discovering bluegrass and traditional American string music like an atom bomb. The other members of the Aereo-Plain Band were Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor, and Randy Scruggs – in short, a who's who of late 20th century string band pioneers. The exploratory spirit and uncorked sense of play on Aereo-Plain (out-of-print for many years but you can hear it on Rhapsody) remained a constant in his work right up until Hartford's last album, Hamilton Ironworks, a fine mixture of old fiddle tunes and his inimitable brand of storytelling released September 11, 2001.

John Hartford passed away June 4, 2001 in Nashville, where he was a beloved fixture to musical icons like Chet Atkins most of his life. He would have turned 70 this Sunday. This week we celebrate the life and work of a true musical pioneer with some vintage clips of the man in action. His family recently regained control of his catalog so we can look forward to a proper reissue program. In the meantime, the uninitiated are steered towards Australia's Raven Records anthology Natural to Be Gone 1967-1970 and his son Jamie Hartford's excellent Part Of Your History: The Songs of John Hartford.

Saturday Eye Candy begins with two takes on "Gentle On My Mind," the first a vintage music video and the second a wistful live performance with Roy Huskey Jr.

Here he is doing a bluegrass medley with Johnny Cash. And here's a wonderful live take of "Where Does An Old Time Pilot Go" and one more vintage music video shot in Washington, D.C. in 1970.

[Published on: 12/29/07]

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heynowBeKynd starstarstarstarstar Sat 12/29/2007 08:46AM
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not enough people know about this guy! especially those who follow yonder or LoS....JOHN HARTFORD IS AMAZING!!!! goood article jambase! :-) without this guy we wouldn't have 'up on the hill where they do the boogie,' 'steam-powered aeroplane,' 'two hits and the joint turned brown,' or 'holding' (and plenty more I can't think of right now)....peace & Love and LISTEN TO JOHN HARTFORD :) :)

rdawson124 Sat 12/29/2007 09:34AM
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"some folks say a hippie won't steal but caught three in my corn feild." great article guys.

vicfirth Sat 12/29/2007 02:22PM
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dont leave your john hartford records in the suuuuuuun because they don't make them anymore.......

philhitz Sun 12/30/2007 08:44AM
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if you don't already have it -- got get 'aereo-plain' now - like right this second!

Souljive starstarstarstarstar Sun 12/30/2007 07:33PM
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"now, you asked if i was holding,.... lets get down and start rolling."

...Met John Hartford @ Rockygrass (Lyons, CO) in 2000 at a fiddle workshop he had... Downright funny guy, and Humble. While Watching him, his personality shined through, and it made it make sense how he was so innovative in 'Mutated Bluegrass'.

Happy Birthday John, and with all due respect, its about time that the jambase community acknowledge this guy.... (Great Article).

guitardave starstarstarstarstar Mon 12/31/2007 06:49AM
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Aeroplain, Live From Mountain Stage, Morning Bugle, Mark Twang: Get Them.

This article makes no mention of his absolutely savage fiddle playing.

"How much money do I have to get, to get me set where the jet set get?"

I'm loving the "Boogie" quotes on this thread.

guitardave starstarstarstarstar Mon 12/31/2007 07:54AM
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Youtube is loaded. If your mousing skills can drag, copy, and paste this cumbersome link:

breadloaf starstarstar Mon 12/31/2007 08:03AM
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John Hartford is a perfect example of the type of musician that the often younger crowd here on JamBase should seek out. His sense of history (Twain and riverboat culture), storytelling skills, musicianship, and hilarious humor will last through the ages. I believe the fanatastic "Hippie won't steal" line from "Boogie" is borrowed from old-time public domain tunes that use the phrase "... a preacher won't steal." A great example of taking tradition and making it pertinent to current culture.

guitardave starstarstarstarstar Mon 12/31/2007 08:53AM
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The loaf speaks only wisdom. "Morning Bugle" is still available. Having jazz legend Dave Holland on bass gives that record such an incredible vibe.

Not to discount the great Norman Blake, as well.

sweetjames Mon 12/31/2007 09:02AM
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John Hartford is amazing, I just don't understand why so many of his albums are out of print??

Whomever controls the rights to his recordings needs to re release them so that everyone can hear classics like Morning Bugle, Nobody Knows What You Do & Slumbering On the Cumberland!

kooch starstarstarstarstar Mon 12/31/2007 10:41PM
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hartford is one of the best musicains i have ever heard. i always liked the storytelling and the humor in his lyrics.

Marcsmall Tue 1/1/2008 01:52PM
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"Well I'm not a student and she's not a teacher, but we both still love the Mississippi River"

QuantumTuba starstarstarstarstar Tue 1/1/2008 03:21PM
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Glad they posted this; I had never heard of this guy. The bluegrass medley with Johnny Cash and Vassar Clements is absolutely phenomenal.

mikaufman starstarstarstarstar Thu 1/3/2008 01:50PM
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Thanks for the props to this amazing artist - and I miss them groovy puddles on the floor.....=)

ilessmifer Tue 4/22/2008 05:31PM
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Every John Hartford fan should try to listen to a band called "Bawn In the Mash". They have a tribute song to John Hartfor called "Hey John" that is amazing, pays a great deal of respect to him and exemplifies his many talents.