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An American Original

Renowned songwriter, picker and author John Hartford dies of cancer at age 63


"This is an album of memories. This is an album of growing up in a real happy time, with some great music and some great musicians."

The voice of John Hartford that opens Hamilton Iron Works, his last recording (due in September on Rounder Records), is noticeably weak. But the music that follows springs alive with energy. He pays tribute to many of his musical mentors--including James Cecil and Benny Goforth, Roy Wooliver and Homer Dillard, Walter Alexander and Clifford Hawthorne. And then, in true Hartford fashion, he thanks "all the kitchens and basements and dance halls that we played in, and all the banjos and guitars and fiddles we played."

It's a fitting finale to Hartford's career, which ended with his death on June 4 after a 20-year bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a slow-moving form of cancer.

Wes Lachot, owner of Overdub Lane studio in Durham, where Hartford recorded Hamilton (as well as the album Good Old Boys), remembers the first time he met Hartford. "He went into the bathroom, came back 10 minutes later, and had written two songs," Lachot says. "They were funny, they were well-crafted, they were in different keys, and he was already able to perform them in his relaxed, funny style. That's how prolific he was--he just did it obsessively."

It's a memory shared by many who knew Hartford. Mike Seeger recorded Retrograss in 1999 with Hartford and David Grisman. "He had so many ideas, and so much energy, that it could almost get aggravating at times," Seeger recalls of the sessions. "He'd be sitting on the couch, very tired, but coming out with all of these ideas--'We should do this, we should do that, or we could do that.' And you'd just have to say, 'Well, at some point you have to stop and actually do it!'"

But then, Hartford always had a sense of limitless possibilities. He was born in New York City, but grew up in St. Louis, Mo., where he was playing the fiddle for square dances by the age of 16. He spent his summers on the Delta Queen riverboat, imagining that working on the river could eventually make for a respectable career. In fact, he went on to earn a riverboat pilot's license as an adult. But while listening to the Grand Old Opry on WSM radio, he was knocked out by the sound of Earl Scruggs' banjo, Bill Monroe's mandolin and Benny Martin's fiddle. He took a job fiddling at Compton Hall, a St. Louis resort, developing both his performing and songwriting.

When one of his tunes, "Gentle On My Mind," became a breakout hit for Glen Campbell, Hartford was catapulted into the big time. In 1967 and '68, he worked on television for both the "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour," and "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" running back and forth from studio to studio to tape sketches and play music.

It was a "heady" time for the counterculture, and Hartford was an active participant. Seeger remembers seeing him at bluegrass festivals in the '60s, playing with fiddler Vassar Clements and guitarist Norman Blake. "It was a new kind of approach, in which he brought his special sense of imagination and songwriting into bluegrass," Seeger says. "He also brought in some more progressive ideas as far as the music was concerned."

In fact, some of Hartford's most adventurous and challenging music was made in the early 1970s: Morning Bugle featured Hartford, Blake and jazz bassist Dave Holland; Aereo-Plain featured Blake, Tut Taylor, Vassar Clements and Randy Scruggs in a session produced by David Bromberg. "It was so different that the record companies didn't know which way to take it," Clements says of the sessions. "But today, it still stands," Clements says, adding that current groups--Leftover Salmon, for one--are rediscovering and playing their music. "They say it's one of the best things they ever heard."

Central to the music's longevity is Hartford's singular skill at songwriting. He always carried 3-by-5 cards on which he would jot down tunes. An entire wall of his office is lined with library files stuffed with the cards, all of which were musically notated and systematically cataloged--and most of which he never got around to recording.

"He had his tunes, and you could tell they were Hartford tunes," Clements says. "I could listen to one of them anywhere, and even if I'd never heard it before, I could tell you it was John Hartford's tune."

Hartford knew how to entertain, and audiences knew that his shows would be unpredictable and full of good humor. He might fiddle while dancing on a sheet of plywood wired with pickups and a phase shifter; dancing toward different areas would produce different tones. Or he might take a wireless microphone into the audience, asking fans to mimic his vocal riffs, which would get progressively more complex until they had no hope of keeping up. "People would laugh, rather than feeling like they had failed," Seeger says of the shows. "I think it's an incredible gift to be able to do that in such an engaging way."

"Of course, he felt very warmly about his fans, especially in the later years," says Bob Carlin, who produced several Hartford albums and played banjo in the Hartford String Band. "At one of the last shows we did in Pittsburgh, we were sitting backstage and he said to me, 'You know, they think I'm here for them. But I'm here for me.' What he meant, at that point, was that playing was the only thing keeping him going."

As laconic as he might appear on stage, Hartford remained relentless about his musicianship. He always taped his shows, listening to them immediately afterwards to critique what he was doing. "He picked more than anybody I've ever met," recalls guitarist Chris Sharp, "and he played with a metronome every time he practiced. Before he had his morning coffee, he had a fiddle in his hand."

The fiddle became Hartford's obsession in his final years, particularly the music of blind Kentucky fiddler Ed Haley. Hartford recorded tribute collections of Haley tunes on Wild Hog in the Red Brush and The Speed of the Old Long Bow. He was writing a book about the fiddler at the time of his death, and it's rumored that the book will be completed and published in the future. "That was very important to him," says Art Menius, who wears the sponsorship, marketing and MC hats for Merlefest. "His ability to share his enthusiasm for the older generation of musicians was a great part of what made John such a wonderful person."

"He had an open, exploratory mind with a wide range of interests that he took great delight in sharing with people," Menius says. "Some of that sharing he did as performance, some as books [Steamboat in a Cornfield], some as recordings and collections of other people's music. And some of it, just like everybody else, in his own living room."

"For years, he was a great instigator of jam sessions," Menius says, adding that Hartford was especially successful at getting people who used to play back together, or rekindling a passion for music in great musicians who had lost interest in playing. "He'd get them to come over, and after a while they'd get the bug." Hartford was also a frequent guest on his jam buddies' recordings, appearing on such recent releases as Benny Martin's Big Tiger Roars Again, Larry Perkins' A Touch of the Past, and Bela Fleck's Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2.

Hartford's death at age 63 was not unexpected, but remains hard to swallow. "It's a loss for everyone in the bluegrass and Americana communities," Menius says. "People are really taking it hard, even though we've anticipated it for years." But Hartford leaves behind a host of legacies.

"The people who were associated with him, especially those in the band from the last five years, are going to go on and do some pretty amazing things in his name, and from his inspiration," Carlin says. "He gave us permission to be ourselves and to do what's in our hearts, rather than try to meet the demands of what people want."

David Grisman describes Hartford as an American original. "He was one of the architects of the new American song form, which is still being developed. And he was the most brilliant non-conformist I've ever known. I will miss him deeply."

Josh Graves, who played dobro during the glory days of Flatt and Scruggs, met Hartford while he was working in television in the '60s. "He was a down-to-earth person who could come down on any level, with anybody," he says. They jammed together regularly, and when Graves lost his leg a year ago, Hartford brought a group of musicians over to cheer him up with a jam.

It was a routine that continued up until Hartford's death, after he'd lost the use of his hands. Seeger visited in these final weeks, and watched Hartford interact with musicians and friends who came to pay their respects. Hartford, in a whisper of a voice, asked Seeger and the rest to play particular tunes, and commented on each one. Then he had someone put on a copy of Hamilton Iron Works, and they listened to songs from it.

"My sense of it all was that he was having an afternoon's entertainment, just as it would have been," Seeger says, "but the only way that he could play was to play the CD; he was entertaining us in yet another way."

Seeger--who also suffers from lymphoma--said that Hartford's experience of the final stages of his disease has also been instructive. "He is a mentor in that sense, too, because I have seen over the past three years what he's gone through."

"Critics didn't always understand him, because he was always doing something that they weren't used to," Seeger says. "I think people have begun to catch up with him a little bit, but never did quite, and that's a good sign--a sign that he was always moving ahead, and was still moving ahead." EndBlock

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