I am a John Hartford fan of monu-“mental” proportions. I have most of the recordings he made over his 34 year professional career. I saw him perform live more times that I can possibly remember, and I have an autographed copy of his book “Steamboat in a Cornfield” dedicated to me personally. I took up playing the banjo because of his influence on me. I could play a lot of his music back in the day – although I could never quite master his technique, and I know the lyrics to all of his songs.
If you don’t know John Hartford, I’ll get you up to speed. His most famous accomplishment was writing the song title of this essay. The song won two Grammies in 1968 – one for John, himself, for Best Folk Performance and one for Glen Campbell, for best Country & Western Solo Vocal. Campbell’s version was definitely more famous, and has been played over 5 million times on radio. The tune has been covered by over 300 performers!
John admitted in later years that the money he made from Gentle On My Mind set him up so he could live his life “his way.” I think he would have lived it “his way” no matter what, and he would have become just as big a celebrity. To call John unique would be like saying Jimmi Hendrix could play the guitar, or that Tiger Woods can golf.
John was the quintessential performer. He was a master of the five-string banjo, fiddle, and guitar, and he played all three alternately in his performances and albums. He was the first person I know who hooked a microphone to a piece of plywood so that he could tap shuffle to his singing and stringed instrument playing to provide a percussion element. It was great fun to watch him.
He had a very wide vocal range, and many of his songs contained vocal sound effects that added an element of mirth. He could imitate washing machines, skipping records, steamboat whistles, you name it.
In addition to his career as a performer, John was a licensed river pilot, and his love for the Mississippi and steamboats were frequent topics in his music.
John, succumbed to non-Hodgkins lymphoma after a very long struggle, on June 4, 2001, at the age of 63. He was a unique performer. A genuine southern gentleman.
Where does a poor old love song go,
After it’s off the charts?
Does it hang around like the distant sound,
Of last year’s broken hearts?
Does it then come back on a brand new track,
That’s sure to bend your head?
Or it might be old,
But it just went gold,
By the talking heads,