Where Does an Old Time River Man Go?
John Hartford Remembered
By Derek Halsey
In the cool autumn air the sounds of the riverboats were everywhere. There is nothing like the whistle of a ship like the Delta Queen blowing as it comes up river and into port. In October of 1988, at the port of Cincinnati on the mighty Ohio River, there were the sounds of over twenty riverboats in port at once. Steamboats were in town from all over the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and all points in between. It was a festival called Tall Stacks. There also were many bluegrass, jazz, and country musicians in town for the festival as well. One artist in particular would not have missed it for the world as he was a licensed riverboat pilot as well as a musician and that was John Hartford.
John Hartford, songwriter, banjo and fiddle player, has probably recorded more music about the river and riverboats and river life than any other 'modern times' musician. On the banks of the Ohio River that fall he was definitely in his element. He was up on the stage with his instruments and his 4 by 4 piece of plywood. The miced plywood, with a little sand thrown on it, was what he did his shuffling on. He would play the fiddle or the banjo while at the same time keeping rhythm with his feet on the board. As he played on the open-air stage the steamboats would be off in the background behind him. When he would stop playing for a second and turn and wave to the boats the captains and pilots, most of whom he knew, would see him from the river and blow their whistles and it was great. He was a one-man show, in the tradition of all the old traveling minstrels and musicians that played the river ports of this country for hundreds of years.
I had not seen John for a long time. I was trying to remember what bluegrass festival I first saw him play live at. All I know is I remember seeing him first as most of us middle age ex-hippies did on the late sixties TV show "Glen Campbell's Good Time Hour." He was the hippie with the 'banjer'. The one who wrote Glen Campbell's hit song of the day, "Gentle on My Mind" in about twenty minutes of absolute brainstorm. It is still to this day some of the best lyrics ever written. The crowd that night recognized that song above all of the other songs and clapped as he started it. It was a crisp October night. There was a river full of steamboats. John Hartford had the crowd in his favor.
After he finished his set he would always greet what people he could backstage. I stood back and let him talk to the other fans before I went into my recollections and musical questions and such. As I was standing off to the side I overheard some of the older ladies talking. They were amazed at how he could dance and shuffle his feet to the rhythm on the plywood for such a long time. They approached him for an autograph but seemed too shy to ask him about it. So I brought it up in front of the others standing there and walked right in to the dry wry humor that was John Hartford. " So John, how is it that you keep your legs up like that?" "Well", he answered without missing a beat, "They are attached to my hips I guess".
John's classic song "Gentle on My Mind" should, as picker Ricky Skaggs said about it, "encourage young songwriters out there to write that one mega-classic hit." As Ricky further explains, a song like that could "set you up for your children and your children's children". And so it was for John. 'Gentle on My Mind' is the second most played song in the history of man, second only to the Beatles "Yesterday." It has been played over 6 million times on radio and television. Over 300 people have recorded it. Such entertainers as, and I am not joking here, Frank Sinatra, Aretha, Burl Ives, Lawrence Welk, Lou Rawls, and Elvis! After John's appearances on the Campbell show and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour he was even offered a detective show on television but turned it down to head back east and south. Hollywood was fun for a while but there were not enough rivers in California to suit him.
The royalties from 'Gentle' enabled him to pursue the music he really wanted to play. And thatâs when the album entitled "Aereo-Plain" came out in 1971. This is the album to start out with if you are new to his music. The album, now CD, featured John playing with Tut Taylor on dobro, Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, Randy Scruggs on bass, and the great fiddle player Vassar Clements. John did not play just traditional music. With this album especially he set into motion the idea that bluegrass string music could be strange and progressive as well. One listen to "BOOGIE" and "Steam Powered Aereo Plane" played loud and you will see what I mean. Yet the instrumentation was smoking.
Other songs to look for on other albums of his would be, of course, "Granny Wontcha Smoke Some Marijuana" from the "Nobody Knows What You Do " album, 1976. Also on that album is a song called "The Golden Globes" which is the best song I have ever heard in tribute to the fairer sexes wonderful female protuberances. Crazy. Or you might try finding the 1977 album he made with the Dillards of Andy Griffith show fame (on the show they were called the "Darlin's"). Look for a tribute to Bob Marley entitled "Two Hits and The Joint turned Brown". You never knew what you were going to get with Mr., Hartford. And you southern rockers should look for a self titled album by Vassar Clements on the Mercury label, 1975, which featured John and others such as Charlie Daniels, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, members of Barefoot Jerry, and Marty Stewart.
The next time I saw John was in 1991 or '92 at the next Tall Stacks celebration. I ran into him sitting out a steady rain in a vehicle with Cincinnati-Kentucky musician Katie Laur. He recognized me after a few seconds and invited me in the car to talk and wait out the rain as he was supposed to play if it let up. I gave him a tape I had made for him of unusual music I had found such as 'Lillie Mae and the Dixie Gospel-Aires' and other cool stuff. The next day after the rain brought in a cold front behind it I saw Katie and John at the outdoor stage where banjo legend J.D.Crowe was playing. It could not have been more than 45 degrees outside and you players out there know how rough it would be to get your fingers to move right in such conditions. So J.D. tells the audience that if they have any requests to yell them out and if they could they would play it. John, way in the back, disguises his voice and yells out "Train 45", which is one of the hardest, fastest picking songs you could play. The band gets this collective frown on there faces, look at each other, look at their hands and instruments, and after a few seconds J.D. looks out into the crowd saying, "Hartford is that you?" J.D. finally figured out what was up. John was laughing hard, but J.D. and his band played it any way.
The last time I saw John was in 1999. It was the last of the three Tall Stacks and it was known through the grapevine that John's health was not good. John had been fighting Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma for 20 years and it was finally wearing him down. I had found a country cookbook written by Ronni Lundy of Louisville titled "Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken" which featured a picture of John taken of him in 1958. I wanted to show it to him and have him sign it. He got a big kick out of it. The second I saw him though I knew he was in trouble. I walked away from him that day praying and stunned at what I had seen. It's amazing how things can change someone for the worse from one time to the next. He kept on playing until April of 2001 when in Texas, in the middle of a run of shows, he lost control of his hands. In the days leading up to his death in early June of 2001 he had a parade of visitors to his Madison, Tennessee home overlooking the Cumberland River. Though he could not play himself he had others such as Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck play for him. His wife Marie put his bed where he could see the river. As John said at an earlier time, "You look out at the river and it looks like its full of crushed diamonds·.I can't be anywhere else".
After his death on June 4, 2001, an amazing thing happened. On his web site, 'Johnhartford.com' (which he originally wanted to name 'Delusions of Banjer'), a message board was started for people to share their stories about John. As of November 2001 there have been over 1,500 postings. There are postings from Germany, Italy, Brazil, New Zealand, Netherlands, Bolivia, Canada, and all of America. The stories are touching, unusual, and goofy.
One recurring story is of John at the Skyline Music Festival in Ronceverte, West Virginia. Back in 1977 some idiot burned down the barn that held all the generators that supplied all of the electric for the stages. According to attendees Jan Worthington and Austin Troxell, whose picture you see with this article, after it got dark John invited people to the stage anyway. People gathered around and surrounded the stage with their camping lanterns and witnessed as good and as unique a show by John as you could ever want to see. Plywood and all.
Even near the end of his life John never lost his sense of humor. The radio show called "Live at Mountain Stage" wanted to do a tribute for him while he was still alive. Many great musicians came and played many of his songs and it was released as a CD as well. At the end of the concert John came out to play a short set. He started by talking to the audience and the other musicians telling them that, "If I'm going to be true to form, I got to tell you like it is·I know why everybody's here. They think I'm going to croak." He went on to say that if he was going to do his part then he should croak within about three weeks so it would still be fresh in every ones mind. The problem with that was, as he put it, " We got the whole month of October booked".
I am sure the irony of what happened to his career at the end of his life was not lost on him either. In 2000 there was a hit movie that came out entitled "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?", starring Kentucky native George Clooney and written and directed by the Coen Brothers. The music in the movie was an integral part of the story that was set in Mississippi circa 1930's. The Coen's hired T. Bone Burnett to gather up some real 'old time music' musicians to create the critical soundtrack to the movie. He brought in Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss and Ralph Stanley, and others. And John Hartford. The soundtrack of "Oh Brother" sold more than two million copies. It sold more than any other country CD sold in 2000. It topped the charts smoking all of the other so-called modern country artists. Ouch!
There is a movie out there now called "Down From The Mountain" that is a documentary of the musicians from "Oh Brother" coming together for a concert in celebration of the music of the movie, of the south, of the mountains, of the delta, of America. It is hosted by John Hartford and should be in video stores shortly. It is now part of his legacy as well. A hit song in the beginning of his career and a hit CD at the end of his 63 years here on earth. But there is also a bunch of wonderful music in between for us to explore and enjoy and have fun with and to learn from.
There is a song by John from the "Live at Mountain Stage" CD called "Old Time River Man", where he asks the question;
"Where does an old time riverman go
After he's passed away?
Does his soul still keep watch on the deep
For the rest of the river day?
Does he then come back as a channel cat
Or the wasps that light on the wheel?,
Or the birds that fly in the summer sky
Or the fish swimming under the keel?"