The Holy Trinity of John Hartford
John Hartford is one of the most unique and creative artists in American music history. Frankly, I consider a distaste for John Hartford bordering on a character flaw. Among other things, I look at the venerable fiddler, banjoist, and songwriter as a unifying force for traditional music fans of differing generations. In a recent post, I wondered if bluegrass music might be defined too narrowly, possibly in danger of limiting its audience and longevity. I certainly heard some strong opinions (and even some personal insults) from those who feel traditional bluegrass is sacred ground whose strength lies precisely in its preservation of tradition. I’ve found, however, that even the most staunch traditionalists typically revere and respect Hartford, even if they would never call his music bluegrass. This is because even though Hartford was a pioneer in Newgrass and experiments that veered even further than that, he was a true historian, advocate, and torchbearer for traditional American music.
Throughout his life, Hartford would travel, research, and dig deep to discover and preserve long-lost fiddle tunes, banjo jigs, and lesser known rags of all sorts. From all accounts, the man seemed to live and breath music during his every waking hour. So, even though he might have included pedal steel, electric bass, and drums in his music; and even though he might have been a long-haired hippie in his younger days singing about smoking weed as much as drinking corn liquor, Hartford’s music is often accepted with open arms by crew cut Republicans and dread-locked anarchists alike. The fact that his music was frequently an uninhibited expression of joy and humor probably didn’t hurt, either. Who can resist someone having as much fun as Hartford, especially when his talent was as great as it was?
For this post, I’d like to focus on what I’ll call Hartford’s “Baroque” period, a suite of three albums from the early 1970’s when Hartford seemed fully open to incorporating a wide range of genres and influences. Given Hartford’s prolific output of music ranging from radio-friendly Nashville country to experimental newgrass to stripped down fiddle and banjo tunes, you could probably ask ten Hartford fans to name their favorite albums and get ten different answers. For my tastes, however, his three releases between 1971 and 1976 comprise the Holy Trinity of John Hartford.
After his huge success with the classic country-folk tune, “Gentle On My Mind” (most popular as recorded by Glen Campbell), Hartford used the financial and professional clout the song afforded him to pursue more personal projects. Most famous among them is the much-revered album Aereo-plain, a collaboration between Hartford, Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, Vassar Clements, and Randy Scruggs. Sam Bush has said of the album, “Without Aereo-plain, there would be no ‘newgrass’ music.” Aereo-plain is possibly the first time accomplished traditional roots music found themselves free to express the ideas, opinions, and ethos of the counter-culture within a framework of love and reverence for the music that came before them (I say that with apologies to the Holy Modal Rounders and others whose earlier experiments seemed to be a little more self-conscious, winking, and less organic expressions of a personal nature.) Even while blazing new trails for traditional American music, Aereo-plain is a beautifully diverse album comprised of heartfelt love songs, uptempo instrumentals, and quirky tales told from a perspective clouded equally by exhaled bong hits and the dust of rural back roads. I will refrain from discussing the individual songs, because even though Aereo-plain is not exactly a linear, narrative concept album, I still tend to think of it as an unified whole – a manifesto for those long-hairs I imagine hanging around bluegrass festivals in the late 60’s, waiting their turn to interpret the music of Bill Monroe or Charlie Poole. I’m not sure whether Mr. Monroe thought it to be “no part of nuthin'” or not, but the album’s enduring legacy will no doubt last for years to come within bluegrass and roots music circles. Shockingly, this album has been out of print for many years, but thanks to a grass roots campaign, will be re-released sometime later this year (check out the facebook page devoted to the album’s re-release here.)
If Aereo-plain was the album where pot smoke began drifting into bluegrass and traditional roots music, Morning Bugle is where the buzz fully settled in. With Hartford manning his banjo and fiddle (and guitar), Norman Blake returning on guitar and mandolin, and the addition of masterful jazz bassist Dave Holland (famous for his groundbreaking work with Ornette Coleman Miles Davis and others), Morning Bugle is busting at the seams with creativity. Having lost a copy of the album (it, too, is out of print but set to be re-leased with Aereo-plain), it had been years since I heard the album before getting a digital copy a while back. I was shocked upon hearing the album anew that it is fully acoustic. Because the album has such an electric energy, my memory was that the album was full of amplified instruments. I think much of this kinetic quality has to do with Holland’s exquisite, energetic double bass playing which is a glorious departure from the standard I, IV, I, V bass line bounce so prevalent in bluegrass and traditional country music. Hartford’s distinctive banjo (often tuned way down to E-flat and fitted with unusually thick strings) also envelopes the recording with a rich, round fullness rarely heard from an acoustic stringband trio. One of my favorite tunes on the album is “My Rag,” which is indicative of a theme often found in Hartford’s compositions – where music itself is his songwriting muse. Midway through the song, Hartford’s lyrics discuss the guitar riffs he’s playing in the song:
Now about this lick I’m a pickin’ on the guitar, really feels down home
Gives me a little jazz and a little blues
Maybe I need me a buncha more notes and a mess of them fancy chords
Those weird ones like Arthur Fiedler uses
Hartford later begins to sing the chord progression he’s playing, “First it’s D and then it’s G, then A, then back to D; G a little more and then back to A…” This self-referencing of craft and form within a work of art is a hallmark of Postmodern aesthetics and is just one illustration of how Hartford was as instrumental in bringing about a paradigm shift in roots music as Andy Warhol was in the realm of the visual arts (though with a lot more soul in Hartford’s case). No doubt, Hartford was the first Postmodern roots musician, joyfully bringing traditional music into a new age while still respecting its origins. Morning Bugle, as the tile implies, was a confident call to awakening for a new day in roots music.
Nobody Knows What You Do
Another hallmark of a Postmodern sensibility is the collision of disparate styles, genres, and forms within a single work of art. That is an apt description of Nobody Knows What You Do, Hartford’s first second album on the Flying Fish label after Warner Brothers’ disappointing lack of support for Aereo-plain and, especially, Morning Bugle. The album is an absolute dervish of musical intelligence, fearless compositions, and the manifestation of influences ranging from electric guitar great and Miles Davis collaborator John McLaughlin (who has a song on the album penned after him) to old-time fiddle breakdowns. While Aereo-plain and Bugle seem to get more attention, I personally think Nobody Knows What You Do is Hartford’s greatest masterpiece and showcases all sides of his personality, both as a musician and human being. Hartford’s sensitivity as a songwriter is in full, heartbreaking bloom on “Tall Buildings,” a lament about one’s joy and purpose being stifled upon entering the corporate workforce:
Well, someday, my baby, when I am a man
And others have taught me the best that they can
They’ll sell me a suit, and cut off my hair
And send me to work in tall buildings
So, it’s goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew
Goodbye to the flowers, and goodbye to you
I’m off to the subway, I must not be late
I’m going to work in tall buildings
However, Hartford’s greatest gift as a songwriter and musician is his playful, good-natured sense of humor. Whether it’s the dadaist absurdity of “Granny Wonthcha Smoke Some Marijuana” or the slapstick “False-Hearted Tenor Walz” where Hartford bemoans in a strained, cartoonish falsetto his inability to sing in the high registers of Bill Monroe, the sense of play and inventiveness in his songwriting is only rivaled by those same qualities in his musicianship (and that of his collaborators.) Case in point is the aforementioned “John McLaughlin” as well as “Sly Feel,” both of which combine elements of a jazz-infused funkiness that no one had ever dreamed of introducing into a band of traditional acoustic musicians. Listening to those songs must have been like listening to a few moments of the future for people hip to Hartford’s music in the early 70’s. The whole of Nobody Knows What You Do still sounds just as fresh and new today, even as forty years have passed.
Thankfully, this album is available as both a digital download and CD. However, one of the tunes, “Joseph’s Dream,” has been replaced by “Get No Better” in the current version of the album (though the change is not reflected in the album’s song listings by mistake.) I can’t complain, however, because “Get No Better” is one of my favorite songs of all time, an upbeat ode to young love infused with a funky organ (or perhaps it’s a heavily effects-laden guitar) and wonderful layers of fiddle runs, guitar riffs, dobro slides, and mandolin arpeggios. The song is a fitting addition to a album that don’t get no better.
(NOTE: Unfortunately, any YouTube videos from this album have recently been removed. If any readers know of any available please let me know so I can embed.)
John Hartford, especially within these three albums, sometimes reminds me of another musical hero of mine, Frank Zappa. However, I guess Hartford would be more like the rural cousin of Zappa’s, hanging out on the riverbanks of Missouri and Tennessee while Zappa was stalking the urban landscapes of New York and Los Angeles. What unites the artists is a gleeful sense of play and humor combined with an obsessive dedication to music and a desire to build new structures atop the revered foundations of the musicians and composers who came before them. Of course, Zappa’s irreverent sense of humor was more like a sarcastic slap in the face to a culture he found exhausting while Hartford’s gentle cultural ribbing was more like an older brother lovingly messing up society’s hair before a big date. His joy was infectious, and I’ve yet to read an interview or hear an anecdote from a musician or anyone else that was anything but loving and grateful.
I went to visit Hartford’s gravesite a couple of weeks ago, which is only a few miles from my house, tucked away in the back of a Nashville cemetery not far from the Cumberland River. Also in the cemetery are the graves of Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Hank Snowe, and others. I have no idea if this was by design or coincidence, but directly centered only a few feet from his place of rest is a wooden gazebo, placed so that one could sit quietly and peacefully in front of his gravestone. The stone has a chiseled banjo head and fiddle body with the words “Ever Gentle On Our Minds” inscribed. One of these days, I’m going to take my banjo over there, sit in that gazebo, and play him a few tunes. Even though my playing won’t sound one tenth as good as his ever did, I’d like to think he’ll just laugh it off, tell me not to quit my day job, and sing the chord changes aloud as I fumble my way through a few more songs.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.