Remembering John Hartford: An Appreciation of an Unsung Collector of Missouri Fiddle Music
John Cowan Harford was born December 30, 1937 and died June 4, 2001 of non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 63. He fought off the cancer for twenty years before finally succumbing. The papers and journals have carried announcements, but I’d like to add a few words here.
Many of us mourn the passing of John Hartford (the “t” was added by Nashville record producer Chet Atkins). Many of us first knew Hartford for his smash hit, “Gentle on My Mind.” This great song was on John’s LP “Earthwords and Music” but it became a monster hit record, after John moved to Nashville, when Glen Campbell recorded it in 1967. (John wrote “Gentle on My Mind” after watching the hit movie “Dr. Zhivago”.) Everyone from Elvis Presley to Hank Snow, Patti Page, Dean Martin, Earl Scruggs, Aretha Franklin, and Frank Sinatra covered “Gentle on My Mind,” one of the most-recorded songs in history. Many of us also remember John’s appearances playing banjo on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and the Smothers Brothers television shows in the 1960s, and John also did a lot of the writing for the shows. His last major musical event was his strong role in the musical sound track for the controversial but riveting 2000 Hollywood movie “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?”
One element in John’s saga that hasn’t been stressed in the articles and tributes is the weight he placed on growing up around St. Louis. Though born in New York City, Hartford moved with his parents to University City, a wealthy suburb, while he was an infant, and John used to tell me how his parents took him to local square dances as a child. John’s father was a doctor and his mother a painter, and John attended Washington University as an art student for a year. It was in St. Louis and environs where he learned to play fiddle and banjo. The fiddle was his first instrument, and he spent much of his time in his final years studying and exploring its possibilities and history in great depth. He amassed an incredible library and archive of fiddle-related materials.
This location gave him access not only to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and those boats he loved, but also to the fiddling scene in Missouri. The late 1950s was a lively time for fiddling, with the Folk Song Revival cranking up (with only rare attention to fiddling) and commercial country music turning away from reliance on the time-honored fiddle (in favor of the steel guitar). As early as 1958 John visited and tape recorded legends like Cleo Persinger of Columbia, Roy Woliver (Wooliver) of Salem, Ed Tharp of Fulton, and Gene Goforth of High Ridge. He knew and admired many other important fiddlers such as Jake Hockemeyer of Mokane and Taylor McBaine of Columbia. I hope those recordings John made with his guitar-picking running mate Marvin Hawthorne can be distributed on CD at some future time. John was a storehouse of rare Missouri tunes, like “Moselle” and “Hamilton Iron Works,” a number of which John published in his own transcriptions in journals such as The Devil’s Box and Fiddler Magazine. His video, teaching elements of his fiddle style, is a delightful personal statement from this creative and restless genius and leaned heavily on his Missouri experiences.
John’s field trips, if you wish to call them that (not a term John used), were fabulous journeys that yielded terrific and historically important recordings. But, since John never pretended to be an academic or scholar, very few people are aware of these recordings. And since he was a well-educated city kid, and since he was vastly successful commercially, most of the folklore snobs who only wanted to study stereotypical backwoods folk did not pay attention to him. Since he was not interested, until very late in his life, in writing about his experiences interviewing and recording people, we know little of this part of his career and life. Yet John Hartford is precisely the kind of person who whom we owe a huge debt. Not only was he working hard to seek out and record Missouri fiddlers in an era when we assume only people like Max Hunter or Bob Christeson were doing this, but later in life he set about sharing these wonderful recordings with anyone who took time to seek him out.
Among John’s admirable qualities was an ability to make you feel like you were important. Rather than jabber about his latest exploit or Grammy Award, John would ask you about your thoughts about the music. His letters to me about “fiddling Tommy Jefferson” (helping me with an article I was writing for Fiddler Magazine), as well as his musings about the rather mysterious fiddlers on the Lewis and Clark expedition, were delightful, since John was a great writer even when writing a letter. He was a generous person and took pains to give due credit to others instead of trying to grab the credit for himself. He had a way of complimenting you not for the sake of courtesy but because he meant it, such as saying he was playing our “Fiddling Missouri” CD on the show bus and trying to learn some of the more obscure tunes we put on it.
The last time I was with John was on his trip to Fulton, Missouri, in November 2000, when he booked a date with his band at Westminster College. Everyone had a great time and lots of old timers in our area knew John from way back. Some of John’s Cowan kinfolk are buried a few miles north of Fulton in the Auxvasse cemetery. John was in good form and this band — Mike Compton, Bob Carlin, Chris Sharp, Curly Perkins — is an exceptional group. In this band, John mainly played fiddle, while featuring Bob Carlin’s fine clawhammer banjo style.
I chauffeured John around while he was here and we talked about his rambles around Missouri recording fiddlers in the old days. The depth of his knowledge was superb and he was full of theories about every aspect of the fiddler’s art. Knowing I try to write about fiddling, he sat me down in his bus and let me pour over the latest draft of his massive book on the legendary blind Kentucky fiddler Ed Haley, and hopefully this book, which the scholars will delight in, will now be published.
A highlight of John’s last visit was a reunion with Ron Lutz, who for many years was the top DJ on KFAL AM radio in Fulton. John stayed with Ron and Mary during his time in Fulton some 40 years ago. Some of John’s incredible stage presence and stage personality was honed working on stations like KFAL. Ron is a legend himself, and Hartford kept breaking up at Ron’s colloquialisms; always the curious thinker, John got out his three-by-five cards (always handy in his “filing cabinet” black vest) and scribbled down one of Ron’s current sayings, “It ain’t right, but it’s so.”
During his visit here, John and his band were guests on Ron’s live radio program on KFAL, “The Rooster Creek Show” (started in 1957). The show is a rather unpredictable affair, with a mix of classic country and bluegrass standards together with the patter and commercials done without rehearsal by Ron and the band members. Hartford’s friendship with Ron and Mary Lutz went back to 1961-62, when Hartford came through town selling Starday records out of the back of his Chevy station wagon. He stayed with Ron and Mary for two months while Ron found a trailer for him to live in, and Ron got John a DJ job at KFAL. Hartford played fiddle and banjo with Ron’s band, and here John got a good dose of the fine art of playing dances in tough local country dance halls like the old Sportsman’s Bar in the mill bottoms section of Jefferson City. John played fiddle (and occasionally banjo) in this memorable ensemble; Lutz played trumpet and guitar and was the band’s leader, Seth Bradley played violin, George Rutherford played rhythm guitar and provided many of the lead vocals, Warren Gordon played lead electric guitar, and Jack Brammer played drums. That was one hot band!
Ron’s Rooster Creek Show is now one of the few live country music radio shows left standing in the wake of the avalanche of FM stations and Talk Radio the swept across the radio dial from the 1970s onward. The show’s theme tune is “Chicken Reel,” and when we taped the November 2000 live show, John rendered the evergreen in his fluid, swooping fiddle style. Playing a tune was like a conversation with the music, and an exciting thing to see as well as hear. I was also a guest fiddler on the show, and it was a thrill to hear John introduce me on the air. He suddenly turned to me and said, “Play me a tune I’ve never heard before,” and my mind raced to think of something that a guy like Hartford had never heard (almost an impossibility). It was a pleasurable, exhausting two days with Hartford and an experience that will stay with me. While his health was obviously failing, he was in fine spirits and seemed to drink in every bit of the old Missouri scenery.
John Hartford was an original, and a superb entertainer. And he is gone from us. “It ain’t right, but it’s so.” Rest in peace, John.
Dr. Howard Marshall, Dept. of Art History and Archaeology, University of Missouri, Columbia 65211.