The Old-Time Herald Volume 8, Number 1


John Hartford—Reminiscences

Edited by David Potorti and Alice Gerrard from interviews by David Potorti

John Hartford passed away on June 4 after a long battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. John was on the advisory board of the Old-Time Herald and was one of the original supporters back in 1987 when we were first getting started. He was always encouraging and helpful, and his music and his spirit will always be with us.

Following are reminiscences from some of his friends: fiddler Vassar Clements, Ronnie McCoury of Del McCoury's band, dobro player Josh Graves, recording engineer Wes Lachot, and musician Mike Seeger. Bob Carlin, who was a member of the Hartford String Band at the time of John’s death wrote him a final letter.—A.G

He meant a lot to me; we were the closest of friends, in fact, probably the closest friend. Even though we weren’t together all that much, we knew in our hearts how much we cared for each other. We always have, ever since I met him. He was a jewel out of all jewels. One of a kind,

Back when he got out of the Glen Campbell thing in California, and he came down here and put this band together, me and Tut (Taylor) and Norman (Blake), and Randy Scruggs played bass on that Steam Powered Aereo Plain. And then I think we’d go out, me and him and Tut and Norman, and if there was a bass player somewhere around, he played, and if there wasn’t, we just played ourselves. But that was so different that records companies didn’t know which way to take it. . . . But now, today, it still stands. It was so different that it still stands. People listen to it and play the music. They say it’s one of the best things they ever heard, the most different.

The other day I got cold chills trying to play (at the funeral), knowing that John wasn’t there with me. That was one of the hardest things to do.

— Vassar Clements

We got in the studio, and the way we wanted to do this record [Wild Hog in the Red Brush] was really interesting to me—we all sat in a circle, and he would have each musician take a song and arrange it themselves. One song was mine, the next was the mandolin player’s, the bass player’s—he said do it anyway you want to do it—when you look at the bass player and nod your head, that means he drops out. . . you can have him drop out, or look at someone else and have him drop out, or yourself, or go down to one instrument or no instruments, or whatever you want to do. That was the most interesting thing I’ve ever recorded. I walked away from that thinking, wow, this is really something special. The only way I could be a part of something like that again is if I did it. Cause he taught it to me.

I don’t think he ever had an idle moment. He was doing something or thinking about something constantly. Playing music at his house, or going out to eat, he would order and then he’d sit there and sketch you. I had some great caricatures that he drew of Earl Scruggs, Benny Martin, Vassar Clements. They’re really funny, and it’s really his view on somebody. He had such an eye and an ear for things. One time at a jam session—we always had them at Larry Perkins’ house—he walked over to the house, and he said, "You walk on the downbeat." And he had written this whole reason why, you know. I thought, "This guy is really something."

He had such an impact on people. He was just so different of an entertainer and a character. If everybody in a room says yes, John would say no, and have a lengthy reason why. You just don’t come across people like him every day. I told some people that I think that he was the most creative, original musician and composer in this town. There’s a lot of original guys here, but not many who can play all the instruments and have such a distinctive style on the instrument.

—Ronnie McCoury

I thought John was a great songwriter, and I loved his singing. He’s a genius when it comes to songs and writing stuff, you know. Met him back in the days of the Glenn Campbell show, I was with Flatt and Scruggs and got to know him then. He (and Earl) were close friends, I know we’d go to Earl’s home and have a pickin’ and John would come, and a bunch of us would get together and sit there and play. He sure idolized Earl.

I lost my leg a year or so ago. The week that I come home he called and wanted to know if I wanted him to come over and entertain me, and cheer me up. I said, "John, I don’t feel like having company right now but I’ll call you when I’m fittin’." So I called him in about three weeks, and him and a bunch of guys come over and set and played, and I played with them. I got that on tape—I wouldn’t take nothing for it.

—Josh Graves

Did you know he was buried in a Batman cape? Somehow it got thrown into his clothes that were intended for the funeral home, and they mistakenly dressed him in the cape. And when his wife saw it, she decided to leave him in it, cause it seemed so John.

The day I met him, he went into the bathroom and came back ten minutes later, and he had written two songs. And he played them both for me, and they were both good. . . . That’s how prolific he was, he just did it obsessively. Like he did everything. And they were funny, they were well-crafted, they were in different keys, and he was already able to perform them in his relaxed, funny style two or three minutes after he had written them. And apparently his mind was able to handle both of those things at once. That’s just the kind of guy he was, he was one of a kind.

John was a real intellectual, he had a lot of varied interests. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of him trying to play Ornette Coleman and crazy jazz players. I remember him working on weird out-of-tune crazy folk scales and stuff. He liked to push the boundaries. Somehow he managed to do that while sliding under the wire of being traditional—that was a real juggling act.

[He played] his version of Ornette Coleman. One day we were riding along and I happened to have in the cassette player some Charlie Parker stuff, and he knew immediately what it was. He said, "I love Bird, I love trying to play that stuff. Can’t really play it on a fiddle but I try anyway."

—Wes Lachot

What got to me with John was after he started working as a soloist, because of his ability to entertain people, to be in touch with people closely, without screaming and yelling at them, but by being almost Buddah-like quiet. Whimsically playing a few different twists on the Scruggs style, one where he riffs with his voice, chromatically, another where he played double time. Some new ideas that nobody else was doing at the time, which to me were major evolutions within the basically bluegrass style. It’s just his totally idiosyncratic, unique imagination at work in a very musical way. And in a way that was also accessible to people for entertainment.

Then, when he started dancing, I remember seeing him once in Charlotte [NC] where he had the 4x8 sheet of plywood wired with pickups, and he had a flanger on it. And he’d dance over to different parts of the board to get different tones, and basically play music just with his feet, using the different tones of the different places on the board with the flanger, the phase shifter. And of course, he’d be playing his fiddle or riffing. And then he had a wireless microphone where he could go out into the audience and he would riff with his voice and ask people to sing along, to mock what he was doing. It was a new twist to "Sing along with me." And then he’d get progressively more and more difficult, until it became totally impossible for almost anybody to follow him, but he did it in such a way that people laughed at it rather than feeling like they had failed. I think that’s an incredible gift to be able to do that in such an engaging way.

And then of course, he’s gone through all these different investigations of different ways of playing music with people. He can have that way of being on stage and being quiet, with maybe just him and Roy Huskey, Jr. And then of course with the String Band, he was exploring different ways of arranging string-band music. And his newest recording, which is basically him telling stories while he’s playing fiddle tunes that are dedicated to some of his mentors. He’s just gone through all these different investigations of ways to musically entertain people with his whimsy and craft, which he actually did work hard for and organized. He was a hard worker, a very hard worker. He told me how he did things, and he really worked at it.

I wanted to tell just a little bit about the day that we went down to visit him about two weeks before he passed. He lived on the Cumberland River, and he was on the porch there. And it was a point where he was barely able to talk, and had no use of his hands, or very little use of his hands, he could walk a hundred feet. Whatever he said, you could barely understand the whisper, (so) everything was to the point. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were there, and his agent, Keith Case at some point was there, and Bruce Molsky came in for a while. And what he did, was to ask each person to play a little bit. And he asked Bruce to play about five or ten tunes, by name, in a certain way, and then discussed them a little bit, or had a comment about each one. And then he asked me to play particular pieces, which showed that he knew my repertoire. Gillian and David played for a little while, and there was some discussion there. He beckoned to a neighbor or somebody to bring his newest, yet unreleased CD out, and we listened to it. My sense of all this was that he was having an afternoon’s entertainment, just as it would have been, but the only way that he could play was to play the CD. He was entertaining us in yet another way.

And there was a fellow there who had been there for several days, whose name I can’t remember, that John had had a long time relationship with, in a mentor situation, where John was trying to help this fellow with his fiddling. The fellow was from Pennsylvania. And so he listened, and he had a couple of comments, and evidently he had been doing this all along, and that’s a side of John that I’d never seen before. He’d had some suggestions for me that have been useful for me.

And in a sense, he was a mentor to me, too, even though he was younger, and since I also have lymphoma, he is a mentor in that sense, too, because I have seen over the past three years what he’s gone through. It’s a long, slow moving, chronic illness that’s dealt with by chemotherapy. And of course as you know he’s been dealing with it for 20-25 years. Almost 20 years ago we were at a festival, and he said, "Well, I just had an operation, what do you think about that?" We talked briefly, and then some guy, hippie-ish, came up and presented him with a hash pipe. And John was giving that kind of thing up at the time—I don’t think he’d mind if we said that, he was kind of giving up that end of things—and he thanked him in a very polite way. People had a way of being very personal with John. Even up to wanting to help him with his illness in a most insistent way. They really, really cared in a very personal way.

He had so many ideas and so much energy, that sometimes it could get almost aggravating, because he was on some other level. I remember when we were recording Retrograss he’d be sitting on the couch there, very tired, but he’d be coming out with all these ideas—"We should do this, we should do that, or we could do that." And you’d just have to say, well, at some point you have to stop and actually do it. Or pick out one of the possibilities. Some of the things are just totally impossible.

There were no fights. That was the most amazing thing about working with Retrograss. There was a way of working which is very rare in a group that I’ve ever been part of. If there were things to be done, there would be a way to figure out how to do this in the best possible way. I had trouble with some of the chords, some of the simple chords, I couldn’t follow some of the things, because I’m kind of a funny old-time musician. And John and David’s sensibilities of improvisation are far beyond my understanding. And so when it became evident that I just couldn’t do it, they figured out a way to let me know that in the easiest terms. And as far as deciding what had to be done, well, it was done in an easy way, and everybody got along. It was an amazing occasional group.

I had this idea about a Midwestern sensibility that Woody Guthrie and Roger Miller and John had, that’s just unique. I mentioned this to John once and he said, "Oh, Roger Miller was a hero of mine." In fact, one of the things he said he wanted to do about a year ago was to put out a whole album of him doing Roger Miller songs with Buddy Emmons.

John was a wonderful man, and critics didn’t always understand him because he was always doing something that they weren’t used to. I think people have begun to catch up with him a little bit, but never quite, and that’s a good sign—that he was always moving ahead, he was still moving ahead. And I think people will probably have mixed feelings towards this thing (on his new CD) where he chants his thanks to his mentors—well, now that he’s gone, they probably won’t be as rough on him. But that’s the way it is.

He was sitting on the couch once, and we were talking about Ed Haley, and there was a mandolin handy, and he picked up the mandolin and started playing it like Mrs. Haley. He had that ability to be so musical he could play other people’s music too. He mocked Stringbean on one song on Retrograss where he played clawhammer banjo. And so forth and so on. You undoubtedly heard the recording Good Old Boys? When he did some banjo break on "Billy the Kid," just went off on a fling somewhere, I just thought that was tremendous. To me, those are Hartford moments.

—Mike Seeger


John Hartford
General Delivery
St Louis, MO.
June 18, 2001

Dear John:

By this time, you’re probably piloting the Twilight or some other favorite steamboat of yours, with a round-the-clock jam session on one of the decks. I’m sure that Benny Martin, Ed Haley, Monroe and many of your other favorite musicians have joined you in playing endless fiddle tunes. I’ll bet you’ve even organized a contest or two, with Clayton McMichen, Arthur Smith, and Howdy Forrester battling it out for the grand prize.

You’d be happy to hear that your book about the legendary West Virginia fiddler, The Search For Ed Haley Volume One, is near completion. Grey Larson is finishing the musical transcriptions of Ed’s extant home recordings, and your co-author Brandon Kirk has given your wife, Marie, a copy of the manuscript to engage a publisher. Your tribute to the fiddlers back home in Missouri from who you learned to play, Hamilton Ironworks, will be issued by Rounder Records at summer’s end.

It shouldn’t surprise you that you’ve left a gap that will be hard to fill. There aren’t many performers with your clout to carry traditional fiddle tunes to the audience outside of the The Old Time Herald’s readership. Who else besides you would have gotten fiddling onto the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou? or the tunes of Ed Haley onto bluegrass festival and concert stages? Who else will have the resources, let alone the committment, to invest 10 years into researching Haley and his mileu?

Luckily, everyone who has known you will carry a bit of your enthusiasm, your curiosity, your love of tradition, and your gift of melody with them throughout everything that they tackle. In the coming years, lovers of old-time music, players of the fiddle, and the greater public beyond our immediate circle will benefit from your investigations and performances. Whether we realize it or not, we all owe you a debt of gratitude.

All my affection, Bob Carlin

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