Thursday, December 13, 2007

John Hartford: An American Classic

John Hartford is described in his AMG bio as "a multi-talented old-time musician, a riverboat captain pilot, a satirical songwriter, a one-man showman of exceptional talents, and one of the founders of both progressive country music and old-time string music revivalism." Impressive. Add to that list: master of the five-string banjo and session man on The Byrds seminal Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album. Given his many talents and compelling life story, its surprising that John Hartford isn't more well known.

If you are one of the many music fans who has not yet discovered John Hartford, I encourage you to read about his life in the bios, reviews, and other materials linked here. But first let's get to the music...

The Big Hit: Gentle On My Mind

This is the song that made John Hartford's career (and paid his bills for years). Glen Campbell's version was a hit in the late 1960's. It's a simple classic that still sounds fresh today.

John Hartford - Gentle On My Mind (buy album).
Glen Campbell - Gentle On My Mind (buy album).

The Lost Classic: Aereo-Plain (1971)
Hartford might have been more of a commercial success if he had tried to capitalize on his big hit by sticking to precisely the same formula (or by copying Glen Campbell), but that wasn't his way of doing business. Hartford continued to follow his own muse, which meant doing exactly what he wanted to do (including working as a riverboat captain). Aereo-Plain was the musical result, and it is a must-have album for anyone interested in bluegrass, country, alt-country, Americana, or folk music. Unfortunately--and inexplicably--it's now out of print. (Time for a deluxe re-issue!) The lynchpin of Aereo-Plain is the song "Back In The Goodle Days," a friendly, laid-back celebration of the future good old days, i.e., the present. For more information about Aereo-Plain, read: Stylus Magazine and The Rising Storm.

Back In The Goodle Days
Presbyterian Guitar

The Companion Piece: Steam Powered Aero-Takes
Oddly enough, this great collection of outtakes from the Aereo-Plain sessions is still in print. It makes a nice compliment to Aereo-Plain. There are also some alternate versions of some songs from the out-of-print Morning Bugle.

Because Of You (buy album).

Another Out-Of-Print Classic: Morning Bugle (1972)
Morning Bugle is almost just as good as Aereo-Plain and a bit less eccentric. My favorite track is "Nobody Eats At Linebaugh's Anymore," a poignant piece about the changes in downtown Nashville during the 1970's.

Nobody Eats At Linebaugh's Anymore
Howard Hughes' Blues

Mark Twang (1976)
This album is 50% riverboat folk music and 50% humor/novelty tunes. "The Lowest Pair" is sure to offend some, but it has one of my favorite John Hartford lines: "Give us today hors d'oevres in bed..." And it's a great example of Hartford's infectious sense of humor, which is present throughout all of his work. The Julia Belle Swain (pictured above) is the riverboat that Hartford captained in the 1970s.

The Julia Belle Swain
The Lowest Pair (buy album).

Nobody Knows What You Do (1976)
This album features a classic Hartford song that makes me want to quit my job. Gillian Welch did a nice live cover at the Mountain Stage tribute concert.

John Hartford - In Tall Buildings (buy album).
Gillian Welch - In Tall Buildings (Live) (buy album).

Live From Mountain Stage (2000)
Hartford returned to a more traditional style in his later years, as this nice live set demonstrates.

Lorena (buy album).

O Brother Where Are Thou? (2000)
Just like the Soggy Bottom Boys, John Hartford was steeped in the old-timey tradition, so it made perfect sense for him to contribute a few tracks to this popular soundtrack, including this fiddle piece.

Man Of Constant Sorrow (Instrumental) (buy album).

Video: Gentle On My Mind (with Glen Campbell), Bluegrass Medley (with Johnny Cash).

More information: Wikipedia, The Tennessean.

John Hartford died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2001. Before his death a tribute concert was held in his honor. The final track from that concert, recorded by Hartford, says a lot about his engaging personality:

Give Me The Flowers While I'm Alive (buy album).

Hopefully the fine American music featured in this post will encourage you to further explore John Hartford's catalog. And tell your friends too!


B said...

Soooo soo good. Mark Twang is great for a road trip. It's a little recorded presentation of sorts. I think this is the album where he had an electric pickup on a 2x4 that he would stamp on with delay pedals... something like that. Got to give my props to Morning Bugle: I think every track on that one smokes.

A fine tribute here, and about time from the blog world. What an innovator, what a master, and what a loss.

Paul said...

Thanks! Morning Bugle is aweswome. (It may be his best record from top to bottom, but I give big points to Aereo-Plain for "Back in the Goodle Days"). I can't believe either one is out of print, but someday they will be back, I'm sure.

Nicolas said...

Gentle On My Mind is an instant classic
I guess I heard it first one year ago
through Johnny Cah's version, on the "Unearthed" album, which consists of studio outtakes of his collaboration with Rick Rubin. Glen Campbell does the background vocals on that one.
Then I heard Elvis' version on the "From Elvis in Memphis album", then the two versions you posted.
At first listen, I was hit : it's a classic, as if you had known it and benn listening to it for years.
I guess Glenn Campbell is the one who sings it best.
In only knew and owned "Back in the goodle days" by John Hartford, with this great bass line. It is the Hartford track I had picked for my historic compilation about country music. Great song..
I'm fascinated by the great songwriters of the 70's (Townes Van zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Tony Joe White)and I guess I found another one.
It's a pity Aereo Plain is out of print. You can buy it on Amazon for 200 Euros !!!!
Another record I'll have to put on my list of "waiting for reprint"
Thanks Paul.

Paul said...


Your comments are great. Very informative. Thank you. I think you picked the right Hartford track for your compilation. I working on a Kristofferson post but its a ways off yet.


Anonymous said...

hello . . . great site . . . my pal andy sent it to me . . . i work in a library and i'd never heard of john hartford and we have 9 works by him and i ordered them all . . . i can't wait.
i'm more of a psychedelic collector . . . have you heard of neal skok. . . he wrote a book on graham parsons . . . i go to his house (rarely) because he has literally thousand and thousands and thousands of records . . . he told me some very mean stories about barry remains ripping him off . . . so i think the dude is pretty lame.
i couldn't figure out how to vote for my favorite country song . . . so i'm telling you here . . . del reeves version of "this must be the bottom". keep up the good work . . . i had a blast reading your blog . . . (guess what? it's the first one i've ever really read) . . . fishspit out.

paul said...

Anon, Thanks for checking in. Glad to see that your library has 9 Hartford albums. Probably some out of print ones in that collection. If you like psychedelic music, check out The Rising Storm. Great website, even if it does endorse the Remains. Never heard of Neal Skok. I’ve read Ben Fong-Torres Parsons’ book, but that’s the only one. Good pick on your country song.

Anonymous said...

i was wrong again. . . at the library we only have 3 john hartford c.d.'s. they've started coming in for me. the others are comp records with single songs by hartford. i don't know why they catalog them under hartford. then again i'm not a librarian . . . just a grunt worker. fishspit.
p.s. i hope they all come while i'm cat sitting as i only have a c.d. player in my car and it broke. but they got a nice c.d. player at the cat house.

Anonymous said...

My uncle used to be the riverboat captain on The Julia Belle Swain out of Peoria. He used to take me around to bluegrass festivals in the summertime. I really like your blog, glad I stumbled across it.

Marchbanks said...

A small, but very important point: Mister John was not a riverboat captain, but a riverboat pilot—a far more demanding, important and responsible (not to mention sometimes dangerous) job. For the best description of what being a riverboat pilot entails, I recommend you read the first part of Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. Twain was a riverboat pilot during the 1850s, and he tells exactly why the pilot was the A-number-one important person on every boat on the river, and tells it with humor and without being tedious.

Paul said...

marchbanks - Thanks for the correction. I fixed it. And thanks for the book recommendation. Sounds interesting!