Sun Spin: John Hartford


Though the scope and influence of John Hartford‘s quirky musical stylings are well-known and appreciated in modern bluegrass/newgrass circles, his singularly unique musical vision is still criminally unknown and under-appreciated by the world at large. Case in point being that much of his massive discography is currently out of print and can only be found on vinyl or out-of-print CDs. Most notably, Hartford’s seminal 1976 album Mark Twang was last released on CD in 1989 and is no longer in print, though it is thankfully available for MP3 download on Amazon and itunes.

In the early ’70s, Hartford outwardly challenged the mostly square Nashville country/bluegrass scene with his only two albums for Warner Bros, Aero-Plain and Morning Bugle, which attached his own wild-haired, good-humored hippie aesthetic to traditional bluegrass music, resulting in two wonderful genre-busting albums of light-hearted, feel-good bluegrass. He then disappeared for four years, finally emerging in 1976 on the Flying Fish label with Mark Twang, an album which gives one of the truest portraits of Hartford’s musical personality and sense of humor captured on tape.

From the first few seconds of old-timey fiddling on “Skippin’ in the Mississippi Dew,” it is apparent that Mark Twang is an intimate affair. Hartford performs the entire album solo, accompanying himself with banjo, fiddle, guitar and his own feet on plywood. The album works so well because it is essentially approached by Hartford as an intimate radio show. You can easily picture him alone in the studio at night, baring his own quirky soul to whoever will listen, singing songs and about steamboats and workin’ on the river, and tapping his feet just for you. “Let Him Go On Mama” is a joyous tale of a steamboat worker lovingly plucked on banjo, and “Don’t Leave Your Records in the Sun” is a lovely performance good for a chuckle that could have fit right into any 1920’s vaudeville show. Hartford also gives his instrumental virtuosity showcase as well, with the fiddle workout “Austin Minor Symphony.” Throw in a few tracks where Hartford displays his quirky vocals and sense of humor, and Mark Twang ends up as the most well rounded portrait of Hartford’s multi-talented, inspirational one-man-show available. Bottom line, you come away from the album with a brighter outlook on your day – John Hartford tends to have that effect on people.

The one-man-band format on showcased on Mark Twang turned out to be the template Hartford used to perform live for the rest of his career. He would sing and play one of three instruments, all the while tapping away the rhythm on a piece of plywood that he stood on. This format showcased him as a bard of sorts, reminding the audience with his music to not take life too seriously, as there is nothing wrong with getting silly every now and then. It seems that the reason Hartford’s music is so special is because it is intimately attached to his own quirky personality, especially in Mark Twang‘s solo showcase. You can’t love John Hartford’s music without loving Hartford as a person, as he put so much of himself into his work – his personality and his music were inseparable. Hartford was a man who always followed his own muse, and it is obvious that he wrote to please no one but himself, and his good nature and humor shines through in every song. Because of this genuine approach, his music was always pure, timeless, and true.

Track Listing:

Side One:
1. Skippin’ in the Mississippi Dew
2. Long Hot Summer Days
3. Let Him Go on Mama
4. Don’t Leave Your Records in the Sun
5. Tater Tate and Allen Mundy

Side Two:
1. The Julia Belle Swain
2. Little Cabin Home On The Hill Waugh Waugh (Monroe, Flatt)
3. Austin Minor Sympathy
4. The Lowest Pair
5. Tryin’ To Do Something To Get Your Attention

Here’s a version of “Skippin’ in the Mississippi Dew” from the 1988 Philadelphia Folk Festival that showcases Hartford’s amazing multi-tasking (tapping and fiddling!) Just listen to this and tell me you can’t almost smell the magnolias and Mississippi mud.

This performance of “Long Hot Summer Days” from the late ’70s shows his amazing vocal range. The man could do it all.

Switching to banjo, Hartford plays the hell out of the beautiful song “Let Him Go On Mama.”

“Don’t Leave Your Records in the Sun” was always a live favorite for Hartford’s lively impression of a skipping record. This is from the 1987 Philadelphia Folk Festival.

We leave you today with a rousing full band version of the new standard “Aero-Plain” from the TV show American Music Shop, featuring Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas and the late Vassar Clements. If this isn’t feel-good music, I don’t know what is!