John Hartford-Preserving the Legacy of the Father of Newgrass
“Play it like it was wrote, boys,” Bill Monroe said.
“We never verbalized about an arrangement and the only requirement for a song to be in the band repertoire was that one person could perform it all the way through.” John Hartford said.
John who?The Father of Newgrass. The inadvertent shepherd of the Roots music movement, the bassy-voiced, dancing fiddler/banjo picking songwriter who put the American in Americana, the Free in Freedom when it came to music. John who? Read on.
In the beginning, before the Golden Age of radio and recorded music, there were formal rules for performers of formal music. The legacies of the great composers were taught along with the music. Those wishing to be recognized had to be schooled in the classics. Stuffy. Of course, to be “successful” one had to have the approval of the aristocracy. Still, there were those who played music the way they wanted to, around campfires, at peasant dances and such. Rebels, rule breakers. With the dawning of radio and record, a handful of entrepreneurs decided that music could be lucrative and from there, a new “aristocracy” was born…the Recording Industry, which gave way to formulas for hits, interpreted what should be a “hit”, morphed into a controlled thing that dictates what most of the public hears. Not overnight, but through a succession of years of sales records and a definition of what the “public wants.” Thank the Muse that “beginnings” happen every second.
I “play by ear”. Ever since I first sat down at a piano and pecked out the melody to the early 60‘s Winston cigarette commercial, at around 4 years of age, I began to love, listen and play the music my parents sang and the music they tuned me into on the radio. When I was subjected to “learn” piano, in the 2nd grade, I looked out the window and missed what the instructor was teaching about the rudiments of notation. Other kids plinked out the melody, I heard it, and played it. “Are you playing by ear?” the teacher asked. “Yes. It’s easier.” I remembered saying. I was scolded, told never play by ear and was sent home with a note; a note which alarmed my mother, who also “played by ear”. Mom took me out of the class and I never learned to read music, properly anyway. Mom broke the rules, I broke the rules. This was the early 60s when rules were beginning to be seriously broken in all areas of life, all over the place, especially in music, for instance, Bob Dylan’s famous 60‘s electric folk set at the Newport Folk Festival, that nearly caused a riot.
Mom made sure I had country and bluegrass legends to listen to, Lefty Frizzel, Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers. Dad made sure I had Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, even Guy Lombardo. Legends now. Legacies now, recorded and preserved for future generations. I’m glad I had those musical diversions to roll around in my noggin and bump and grind and mix and blend and keep my ear channels wide open.
All of that social upheaval of the 60‘s was good, healthy and life changing. I went from “Father Knows Best” to “hell with the rules” except for the “thou shalt not steal” rule, which when applied to today’s music could very well be the reason a lot of what we hear these days sounds sort of the same. Turn your radio on, find a mainstream music station and read on.
Our species is the only species on earth that strives to be remembered, in general at least. For as long as there has been recorded history, humans have wanted to be noted; we’ve marked our graves, written our history, searched and recorded our genealogy, written autobiographies, had others write our biographies and we scribble, carve and spray paint our names and the names of our lovers just about anywhere we can reach. Being remembered is important to most of us humans, so we find some way or another to leave our mark, our legacy.
With music, at 56 years of age, I am just now beginning to ponder what really drives someone to pursue the life of an entertainer. What ever made me think, as a teen-ager, that my music was so important that folks would pay to come hear it or buy one of my cds?
What drives us, the Americana/Roots music folks, to pursue the stage, sometimes all night at a near empty dive or gig mid-afternoon at a public library or even sit on a sidewalk and busk? What little light goes off in our heads that causes us to leave the porch or the woodshed and head for the tour circuit? I mean, it’s obvious that the career of a singer or songwriter who breaks through the industry gates and “makes it” will never have to dig a ditch. Heck, if you can even build a fan-base of say 15,000 album buyers, you can make a comfortable living and avoid menial labor, at least for a while. So what drives us, the Roots folks, we who have selected a dirt road in music instead of an avenue, to pursue a life of hoping, dreaming and trying to be significant, while for the most part grinding away at some day job? Isn’t it the notoriety that comes with being the best picker around, or being able to turn the phrase that raises the brows and gets your name in some printed review? Isn’t it our ego? Our drive for fame, fortune, regional, national, interstellar notoriety? Sure it is! But certainly not in every case. Some folks want to do nothing but play music 24/7 and making a living at it is the icing on the cake. Now and then there’s the prima donna who feels like they’re doing the world a favor by showering all of us with their blessed talents and beauty.
Too often though, for the rest, we are drawn to a trend, and fall victim to the cycle’s reality, so we set out, then sit out, then maybe tune out and realize that in a world full of artists and creators, we may be just mediocre. Back to the porch. Then… along comes the rare one. The one who could care less about fame…the one upon whom the Muse has decided to show favor and bless with success, the one who inadvertently creates his/her own legacy.
I do not believe John Hartford set out to carve a legacy. I believe John Hartford was one of the rare ones. The one upon whom fortune smiled, although he was taken away much too early in life. John Hartford started something by doing things his way. His music consisted of deep serious lyrics that would burst into whimsy or vice versa. Just when you started to take him seriously, he would break into some falsetto just to have fun, or just when you thought he was all about having fun, he’d make you sit up straight and bring tears or deep contemplation with a heartfelt original. John Hartford was a tall, deep voiced man who did not fear the falsetto. He had fun. He danced while he sang and fiddled. He entertained completely. John Hartford was a true trail blazer. John Hartford was free.
At the time, he probably had no idea what was to follow when he penned “Gentle on My Mind”, experienced a little of the Hollywood high life, only to pack up and head home with some money and the idea that he would play the music he loved- bluegrass, which under the direction of his mind, would evolve into a genre all it’s own that’s influences can be heard both directly and indirectly since then through today. In recognition of his dedication to bluegrass, John Hartford was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2010, nine years after he succumbed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
John Hartford’s legacy is important. His influence spiderwebbed out from the seminal, game-changing, Aero-plain album, to all of the facets of Americana-Roots music. (note: the title ‘Aero-plane’ is spelled two different ways on the album and is registered a third way with BMI, so in keeping with tradition, I’ve followed suit.:) To quote John Hartford in the intro to his collection of old time fiddle tunes, Hamilton Ironworks, “That’s what this, is about.”
Now, John who?
“If you want to learn about something new, start in the past.” Jeff Mankin, of the Steam Powered Preservation Society, says.
The following lyrics come and go in my mind as they have since the song was a mainstream radio hit by Glen Campbell, in 1967.
“It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch
And it’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds or the ink stains that have dried upon some lines
That keeps you on the back roads by the rivers of my memory, that keeps you ever gentle on my mind”
Glen Campbell and John Hartford on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on March 3, 1968:
“Gentle On My Mind” is one of the most played songs in the history of recorded music. It’s just been nominated for IBMA Song of the Year for 2013, by Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out. It’s been recorded over four hundred times. It won two Grammy awards in the same year, 1968. It was the theme song for the “Glen Campbell Good Time Hour” TV show and it introduced the world to the talent of this young St. Louis songwriter, banjo-picking fiddler, John Hartford. Who?
In October, 2011, I met two men whose passion is to preserve great non-mainstream music. Jeff Mankin from Chicago, IL, mentioned above, is the co-founder of the Steam Powered Preservation Society, an educational/archival group that collects and restores old recordings, primarily of Americana string band music, and distributes material for educational and archival purposes.. (www.thespps.org) I met Jeff at the Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Festival down here in Arkansaw. Jeff told me about his friend, who was also there with him, John Hotze, from St. Louis, MO. John Hotze was a lifelong friend of John Hartford, and even joined in with John in one of his first bands, The Missouri Ridgerunners. As teenagers, John Hotze, and his pal, John Cowan Harford, would take bus trips from St. Louis to Nashville to see the Grand Ole Opry. Both Johns befriended Earl Scruggs there. John Hartford says Earl Scruggs was one of the reasons he came back to Nashville. John did his own part to preserve the legacy of many great musical influences such as Earl Scruggs, Benny Martin and Bill Monroe.
John Hotze and Jeff Mankin convinced me to come to the second John Hartford Memorial Festival, held in Bean Blossom, IN, at the end of May and the first of June, right around the anniversary of the death of John Hartford. (see “Meet John Hotze, The Man Behind the John Hartford Memorial Festival”)
The festival is the brainchild of Hotze and fellow Bluegrass junkie, Dan Dillman, whose family owns the legendary Bill Monroe Music Park, or Bean Blossom, as it’s most often called. Together, these two have assembled a team of hard working dedicated Hartford heads to help pull off this festival honoring the music and life of John Hartford and furthering the legacy. After struggling the first two years, the 2013 John Hartford Memorial Festival was a success featuring a line-up of 57 bands such as Jamie Hartford (John’s son) and Friends, Great American Taxi, Larry Keel and Natural Bridge, Eric Lambert and Friends, Mike Compton, Bawn in the Mash, The Indiana Boys, Wil Maring and Robert Bowling, Betse Ellis, the Hillbenders, The Flatland Harmony Experiment, Town Mountain…so many hours and hours worth of great music with practically every band playing at least one of John Hartford’s songs. Now, John who?
Why do I say, “John who?” I came from a musical family who would gather around the old Magnavox black and white TV to watch the Johnny Cash Show and the Glen Campbell Show, Hootenanny and Hee-Haw, just about any variety show that featured music. I learned who John Hartford was when I was a child, but not really. I loved “Gentle On My Mind” as a song that hit me and stayed with me up to this day. I banged it out on the old upright piano. Still, it was later in life that I began to discover John Hartford.
My first real taste of John Hartford outside of the TV appearances was a loaned bootleg cassette tape of Aero-Plain, which promptly hung up in my pick-up truck tape player about half way through “Steam Powered Aero-Plane”, which I didn’t hear again until I heard a local banjo picker do a real nice cover during his bar gig, re-kindling my interest. Still, I didn’t pursue finding any more John Hartford music for a few more years. Like most, I kept busy writing and pursuing what was handy in my area, although the chord progression to “Steam Powered Aero-plane” kept rolling around in my noggin and I remembered only the first verse (not unlike quite a few bluegrass campfire jammers these days).
I was fortunate enough to have seen John Hartford perform several times in my region-Arkansas and Kansas. I even made close eye contact with him in 1988 at the Walnut Valley Festival, Winfield, KS, while he was walking between stages. We exchanged head nods, “Howdys” and he gave me a great big smile. I never would’ve dreamed that 25 years later, his young grandson, who looks so much like him, would be driving me around Bean Blossom in a golf cart. Official business! But…it was much later, after this flat-picker I knew gave me his copy of Hamilton Ironworks, that my eyes began to be opened to what I had been missing. This collection of Ozark and Appalachian fiddle tunes, released by Rounder Records in 2001 was the last album recorded by John Hartford.
Hamilton Ironworks is filled with oral commentary (in John Hartford’s voice!) and stories about the tunes and source fiddlers: Gene Goforth, Homer Dillard, Douglas and Rodney Dillard, just to name a very few. I’m primarily a song writer, but my deep passion for playing and listening to music is old time fiddle music, and Hamilton Ironworks was a Godsend! My next Hartford album was a similar collection, Wild Hog in the Red Brush followed by Speed of the Old Long Bow, a tribute to Kentucky fiddler Blind Ed Haley.
To enhance my own gigs, I started playing a little solo fiddle and was inspired by the fiddling of Sam Bush of the immensely popular but now defunct, Hartford inspired “Newgrass Revival”, especially the song “Mississippi Dew”, which led me to order his 1976 Grammy winning “Mark Twang” and the now legendary Aereo-Plain album, the one that started the Newgrass movement, the movement that led us to modern day Roots music. I can’t get enough. I only possess about half of the discography, but I plan to get everything I can find that has been re-released. Manic fan? Really, no. True fan and appreciator of what John Hartford has done for Americana/Roots music and Bluegrass? Most definitely. When Sam Bush was asked who his greatest influence in music was, he replied “John Hartford”. Back to, “John who?”
My wife,Patti, co-writer and Hartford fan herself, and I attended JHMF II as volunteer workers. We did some pre-festival PR work, and Patti and I wrote the festival theme song “Tribute to John Hartford”, and I also did some emcee work there, and we made a lot of new Hartford enthusiast friends, including members of John Hartford’s family, Eric and Katie Harford Hogue of www.johnhartford.com, who carry on John’s own company, “Small Dogs A-Barkin’ Records”. They also have a booth at the festival where one can peruse all sorts of John Hartford memorabilia: albums, cds, books, guitar picks, T-shirts- some with John’s hand printed lettering, Photo-Shop lifted from John’s writing to form words from some of his sayings. I met John’s son, Jamie Hartford, who performed with former John Hartford band members, Mike Compton and Larry Perkins, two very talented and legendary men whom I also met and befriended. These men spent a great deal of their lives performing with and being friends with John! It seemed like everywhere I turned there was some direct or indirect connection to John Hartford. Lots of excitement from various band members who, like us, felt one step removed from one of their favorite singer/songwriter musicians. We picked up some more John Hartford music and took on a little deeper role for JHMF III by organizing a “John Hartford Old Time Fiddling Contest”, keeping the fiddling old time in honor of John Hartford’s last years of collecting and recording old time fiddle tunes from the Ozarks and the Appalachians, and a “John Hartford Songwriting Contest”, in which contestants had to write a song that either mentioned John Hartford, was about him or the festival, or used at least one of his song titles. The songwriting winners performed their tunes in a prime time Main Stage showcase set that opened with our “Tribute to John Hartford” song performed by Cincinnati songwriter Jeremy Francis, formerly of Heathen’s Halo, two members of the Whipstitch Sallies, who performed at the festival and were also songwriting contest finalists, Allie Burbrink and Katie Burk from Brown Co. IN., and me! The lyrics are about the festival and several John Hartford song titles are mentioned in the body of the song.
Thanks to Timm Hertel for the videos in this article. (www.mytalltripod.com)
Again, we helped with PR and I did some more emcee work there as well. All volunteer work. Why? To help preserve the legacy of a man who, out of the mainstream, has become one of America’s most beloved songwriters, and industry rebels. John who?
John Hartford. This festival has, so far, been attended mostly by musicians and folks who love and know of John Hartford and his music. It’s still small, but growing… large enough this year to keep it going for yet another year, 2014.The mood of this gathering reflects John Hartford’s spirit and personality. It is the most laid back event I’ve ever attended and very friendly. John’s music can be heard from the stage and throughout the campground and his influence is made manifest at this festival. (www.johnhartfordmemfest.com)
John Hotze told me, “The mood I hope to achieve at the Hartford fest is a party mood. A mood of having lots of fun. I think that’s what John would like. He would be all over the campground (Bean Blossom) picking and jamming all night long. I would like to see the jammers get up and dance to the jamgrass and others to get up and flatfoot when some good fiddlin’ goes down. I’d like to hear lots of laughter.” John Hotze and company pulled it off in grand fashion, wrapping up the festival with an all-star “John Hartford Festival Band” made up of just about everybody, jamming on the mainstage. The smiles and sincere “How ya doin?”’s show that the musicians and festival attendees are having a ball, being well aware that they are together to celebrate the music, life and spirit of John Hartford.
Why preserve this legacy when, based upon the info and history cited here, it seems to be thriving? Sometimes we take life outside our own box for granted. If you are not a Roots musician, writer or fan, chances are very real that here in 2013, you’ve never heard of John Hartford or even “Gentle on My Mind” as well as many other popular “tap-roots” of Roots Music such as Tim O’Brien or Darrel Scott. Really.
When I told some friends and co-workers where we were going for vacation, the question I got was, “John who?” So I replied, “Remember the guy who wrote “Gentle On My Mind?”, and I’d get, “Not really.” Even the mention of Glen Campbell in 2012 raised a few a brows. “C’mon, John Hartford.You know the tall guy who danced and played fiddle at the same time on the Johnny Cash show?” I’d ask. “Ummm, no,” I’d get in response.
So, I am determined to help folks learn about and remember John Hartford and his contribution to what we call Americana/Roots music and, of course, Newgrass.
It all started with this young man who as a teen, developed a passion for the river that stayed with him for all of his life. He earned his riverboat pilots license in the 70s, all the while taking his banjo and fiddle, along with a bunch of us old hippies and bluegrassers, tap-roots of the Roots movement, to a different galaxy, then bringing us back down to earth. Down to earth.
“Gentle On My Mind” catapulted John Hartford to a lofty position amongst the Who’s Who in the songwriting music world, leading him to Hollywood where he worked as a writer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Show, and made cameo appearances on several Hollywood variety shows and sitcoms. John even had a short stint as a host of “Something Else” traveling the country, visiting music hot spots, and was even offered a starring role in a detective series for television.
This notoriety led to many close ties with the likes of folks like Tommy Smothers, Mason Williams, Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash, but “Gentle On My Mind” also broke the formula for the music industry’s definition of a “hit”. The song has no chorus or bridge. The hook is at the end of each verse. John Hartford wrote this song in less than half an hour after a night at the movies,inspired after having watched “Doctor Zhivago.”
The success from “Gentle On My Mind” allowed John to follow his inclination to break all of the rules. John Hartford came back to Tennessee from “Hollow-weird Cauliflowernia” with some money and a longing to let all of the music inside him come dancing out. He took a genre, one his heart was endeared to, and expounded and pounded it into a music all it’s own, Newgrass, folks began to call it. In the liner notes of John Hartford’s debut album, John Hartford Looks at Life, Johnny Cash says, “He is himself and will not be told how to write or sing because he has only his own world.”
You have to remember, the Industry really hadn’t taken it’s current stranglehold yet, although it was well on it’s way. The music of the 60‘s was being altered and molded to the tune of civil and social upheaval. Oh, there was mainstream radio alright, but the number of “stars” to be heard there, were fewer and strictly controlled. John Hartford was in the thick of it all, on the West Coast when Timothy Leary was in Berkeley, telling us to “Tune Out.” Which is what John did.
Thus began the legacy, the trail about to be blazed by John Hartford: an album from 1971 that broke the purist bluegrass rules and also slid right under the industry gate keepers, an album that stressed the importance to John that music be what it is, and that musicians be who they are, regardless of salability, AERO-PLAIN. 1971, the beginning of the confusing decade for music that was left in the wake of all of that movement of the sixties, with no real place to go. Not recognized as a commercial success, AERO-PLAIN was lightly regarded by Warner Bros. but has sold around 3,000,000 copies, mostly by word of mouth.
For this project, John Hartford brought together flat-picking guitar legend Norman Blake, the early master of Dobro Tut Taylor, and the late Vassar Clements, whom Peter Rowan says “was the space the Steam Powered Aeroplane flew around in.” Vassar, a fiddle genius who, when still in high school played with Bill Monroe, said, “John turned me loose on anything so I began to spread out into other things I never would’ve thought about.” Vassar went on to record 27 albums on his own and played on 200 recordings. Vassar Clements died in 2005 from lung cancer.
Nashville writer/author/historian Andrew Vaughn, in his newly released book John Hartford, Pilot Of A Steam Powered Aeroplane, touches on John’s life, but centers around the events leading up to and covering the creation of AERO-PLAIN. Andrew’s endeavor came with the blessing of the Hartford family. Andrew was allowed to access the “vortex”.
John Hartford was a meticulous organizer, having logged tons of writings, from original songs to fiddle tunes to tidbits, and notes on 3×5 index cards. In the “vortex” there are scores of un-released recordings: studio recordings, jam recordings and live concert recordings and video footage. In the book’s introduction, Andrew quotes Katie Harford Hogue, John’s daughter, “The man kept everything. The room smells like old papers and the river. Pick up any item and risk being there for hours. I have to believe this is what the inside of my Dad’s brain looked like.”
Andrew was able to load up with pics and photo-copied notes for his book. He gathered quotes from John’s son, a great songwriter and performer himself, Jamie Hartford, as well as Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, and also members of the original Aeroplane band- “The Dobral Plectrum Society”, consisting of Tut Taylor, Norman Blake and Randy Scruggs.
This book is essential for anyone who has taken bluegrass to another world, like so many of the up and coming Roots bands of today; to know where they are going, based upon where they have come from. It is centered on passing on the legacy. It reflects the importance of preserving and celebrating the life and music of John Hartford. This book covers the life of John Hartford, touching on his early days as John Harford. The “T” in Hartford came later at the urging of Chet Akins. The book reflects on the mood and mechanics of the late 60’s and early 70’s recording industry in both Los Angeles and Nashville. It winds up focusing on the album that changed everything, Aero-plain.
Jamie Hartford, a great musician and songwriter himself, who toured with his father, says about Aero-plain, “The only real concept, I think, was that there was no concept. He’d spent years trying to play the record company game and this time around he just wanted to let the music do the talking. The album is so good because it’s all about great songs and allowing some incredible musicians to play at their very best.”
Sam Bush whose band Newgrass Revival took the genre to another level, and who is arguably the greatest Hartford fan, said, “AERO-PLANE made Newgrass a reality.”
John Hartford, Pilot of a Steam Powered Aero-Plain is available at www.johnhartford.com. This first edition comes with a 14-track CD of the 1994 live concert at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium that saw a reunion of John, Vassar and Tut, joined by Roy Husky Jr. on bass and Bluegrass guitar legend Tony Rice. This concert captures the rich improvisational talent of the band while they were in their prime. The last track, “Banks of the Ohio”, was provided by Tut Taylor. It was performed by John Hartford on banjo, and vocals, Norman Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on Dobro and Sam Bush on bass. This bonus CD is dedicated to the memory of John, Vassar and Roy.
Nashville based songwriter and entertainer, Colin O’Brien, a veteran performer of the John Hartford Memorial Festival, devotes a full set to the songs of John Hartford. Colin could pass for a John Hartford double, right down to the white shirt, black vest and black Bowler hat covering his thick dark hair. He even dances on a miked board while fiddling, the way John did. Colin is not a John Hartford impersonator. He does Hartford songs in his own unique style. Colin told me “As long as people enjoy playing or listening to John’s music (which they will) his legacy is alive and well. So I don’t think of it as needing to preserve the legacy of John Hartford, but rather delving into it (studying the music) and sharing it with others. The rest takes care of itself. My immersion in John’s music has shown me parts of my musical self that are unique to me. So for me it’s been more about discovery than preservation. As my friend (and John’s) Larry Perkins said ‘The more I pick like Earl (Scruggs) the more I get like me’. I have a hunch John would appreciate that approach.”
Winner of the 2011 MerleFest Chris Austen Songwriting Contest Wil Maring, who tours with Bill Monroe’s final guitar player, songwriter Robert Bowlin, told me about her John Hartford influence, “I began listening to John Hartford as a child, during his early days on the Glen Campbell show. Later, in college, as I was learning the ropes as a musician and writer, I developed a true appreciation for his genius, as expressed in his songwriting imagery, virtuosity on both banjo and fiddle, and his ability to connect with a crowd. There is hardly a day that goes by, where I am not reminded of, and thus inspired by, one of the dozens of John Hartford songs or tunes that I have running in the soundtrack of my rural southern Illinois life, bounded by the two big rivers on either side. His music is THAT pervasive in my life, as a Roots musician and songwriter. He had a unique way of looking at the same world, the same landscapes I look at everyday, and that is inspiring to me. As a songwriter, I study his lyrical and musical style as a prose writer might study Shakespeare, Hemingway or Steinbeck. John Hartford’s music is as timeless, and deserves preservation, honor and celebration for generations to come.” (Wil Maring, Cobden, IL)
John Hartford’s life and music are no secret. Much has been written about him. Rare concert performance video and covers of his songs are all over YouTube, and several Facebook pages have emerged in his honor. Just about every online music related E-zine and blog site has some sort of direct or indirect story about John Hartford and his influence, especially with the current popularity of the festival. Still, there is a world of Roots musicians who could benefit by immersing themselves in his story and music. His legacy.
After the Aeroplane era, the band stayed together about a year and a half. John Hartford went on to record on 35 studio albums, 3 live albums, 8 compilations, and 3 singles. He even broke back into the mainstream country charts with the single, “A Little Piece of my Heart”. He went on to help narrate part of Ken Burns’s Civil War series, participated on the Old Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack,which gave new life to the Roots/Americana music scene by opening up the eyes and ears to millions; took part in the Down From the Mountain performance at the Ryman and subsequent TV documentary of the show. He earned his steamboat pilot’s license, worked on the Julia Belle Swain and authored a children’s book, Steamboat in a Cornfield.
2012 marked nine years that Aero-Plain had been out of print. To commemorate the Aeroplane/Morning Bugle era of his life, the Hartford family worked with re-issue specialist, Real Gone Records, on a special release, Aero-Plain/Morning Bugle: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings, which consists of a two cd, 35 track, set.
The cd set devotes a cd to each of these groundbreaking albums and comes with an extra 4 unreleased tracks from each album’s recording sessions for a total of eight bonus tracks.
There have been many truly great songwriters who drifted in and out of the mainstream. Singer-songwriters like Steve Goodman and Jim Croce broke through the gate-keepers, leaving a number of hits before their untimely deaths. Even Ricky Skaggs started out with Bluegrass, broke through to dominate mainstream country, then went back to Bluegrass. But still, John Hartford’s break away from the industry, his defiance of control, created a genre and a philosophy. Basically, be free with yourself and your music. Use those Bluegrass instruments to create, not to stagnate. His influence has been contagious. His legacy is important to Roots music. His legacy defines Roots music. John Hartford’s legacy is being carried on with lots of good energy.
The Steam Powered Preservation Society was named after John Hartford’s song “Steam Powered Aeroplane”. It is backed by hundreds of donors, volunteers and supporters, with 50 countries downloading and streaming these archived recordings, with more on the the horizon and bands requesting to be affiliated with SPPS so fans can learn of their musical creations.
SPPS co-founder, Jeff Mankin told me in a recent interview, “Archiving is crucial to the growth of any music genre, it allows future generations of musicians and fans a resource for education and entertainment. From this type of resource they learn, share and appreciate the music which helps in forming who they become as musicians and fans. Music is generational and all music builds and is influenced from what was created before it. Without a past to watch and listen to, how would this generation’s musicians be influenced? Archiving live recorded music is a key to the past, giving musicians and fans an important building block into the future. Archive some of history today, your grandchildren’s grandchildren will thank you for it.”
The importance of preserving any artist’s legacy is to make it available for up and coming musicians, writers, historians, to learn from and appreciate and build upon, to improve. In keeping the legacy and memory of John Hartford alive, we’re also keeping alive the legacies of many other contributing and innovative personalities of the time, such as Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, Vassar Clements, Tony Rice, Mike Compton, Larry Perkins, Mason Williams, Roy Husky, Sam Bush, Mark Schatz, Peter Rowan, Jamie Hartford, even Bill Monroe and Blind Ed Haley and the rebels and innovators of the Glaser Brothers’ Hillbilly Central Studios in Nashville, to name a few. New York old time fiddler and friend of John Hartford, Bruce Molsky, said, “One of John’s greatest assets was his refusal to build walls between the past and the present. He allowed all that incredible old music to seep into our lives in a totally appropriate and wonderful way. What a renaissance man.”
In summary, when you think of legacies in music like Johnny Cash, Elvis, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Ray Charles, all rebels who broke through at the right time and fought to stay there, churning out hit after hit, well, these names are nearly household. No effort is needed to keep the music and memory of these mainstream greats alive right now. But John Hartford? Although he would never be another Johnny Cash, or Bob Dylan for that matter, John Hartford was expected to be. Warner Bros. wanted him to come right back out with another “Gentle On My Mind”, but he said no. Still, he made a big, lasting mark in mainstream music, in Hollywood and also in Nashville. He won Grammies; then he quit feeding the machine and began feeding his passion, his music. His approach paved the way for so many, these days, who choose to follow their Muse instead of the market, which, by the way, is rarely open.
In the beginning, there were rules in music. Then came along the Rare One. The One who didn’t need industry marketing to catch the ears and admiration of listeners. I can’t help but think that somewhere right now, some developing fetus or some newborn, is hearing the music, either in an elevator, or on a sidewalk or in an automobile, a department store, a concert somewhere, maybe catching Muse beams from the mother-ship, whatever, but, somewhere, a young brain is collecting all of these notes subconsciously, and throughout a series of accidents and incidents will re-assemble some of those notes, wake up some morning or night, perhaps when the moon is full, and whistle an original tune or turn an original phrase and keep doing it with total disregard or unawareness of the industry and it’s rules. Another “rare one” in the process of breaking out.
The legacy? I’ve done some research and collected a lot of his music, worked to help create and preserve awareness, but to this day, I do not know where John Cowan Harford is buried or what is inscribed upon his headstone, or if he even chose to be buried and have a headstone. I haven’t gone there, nor do I plan to. I do know that his life has affected mine and so many more around me. His legacy is alive in me, my wife and our children, our friends, the folks who read my blogs and stories and hear my music.
It is not my intention in helping to preserve the legacy, to create a world of John Hartford clones. It is my intention to make sure that I share my love for his music and cutting edge approach that fathered a new genre, one that will always be new and forever changing, going against the flow.
I know, when I go to festivals and hear all these young folks marching to their own beat, playing Roots music the way they want to, conforming only to their imaginations, that the old “Steam Powered Aero-plane” is smiling down. John Hartford’s legacy, so important to preserve, is well and will long be remembered, followed and enjoyed. John who? John Hartford!
Written by Ernie and Patti Hill
For the complete discography and other John Hartford related information visit
For a complete understanding of concert taping and archive sharing visit
Other sources for John Hartford info, tales, pics etc…
http://johnhartford.org http://twangcentral.org and to keep up with all of the doins concerning John Hartford, I recommend,