Thursday, September 13, 2012

I sure do miss you, John Hartford

Growing up urban as urban can be in 1950's and 60's San Francisco, I had no exposure to bluegrass music. Nothing like it existed within the confines of the Chinatown neighborhood, anyway. Even the primitive 2-stringed Chinese erhu, though lovely the sound and 'down home' the instrument - simply could not cut the rustic swath that bluegrass did for me.

Back then my music appreciation did not extend too much beyond the teen pop sounds of Motown, The Beach Boys and The Beatles. Mom's love of singing American standards flavored my repertoire a bit, as did the andante movement from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K.467 , which was featured in 'Elvira Madigan' (1967 Swedish 'art house' movie, popular with budding film buffs such as myself). I could not get enough of that andante, even as it repeated ad nauseam throughout the film.

I played no instruments, and our family owned few records. So my musical lust had to be satisfied by what was offered via AM radio and movie soundtracks. It was high time to broaden my musical outlook.

Well into my impressionable teens, Bluegrass just happened to jump out at that key moment to bite my 4/4 rock beat sensitivities.
My actual introduction came with the listening of a song penned by Missourian John Hartford.

It was Glen Campbell's popular 1967 version of 'Gentle On My Mind,
which eventually fell in place with  pop music history as an influence to the crossover of mountain music into the realm of folk-country-rock.

The tune and lyrics of Gentle On My Mind brought me to JH's music. I was 16 years young when that song topped the charts. I ran out to buy Campbell's album.

Here's a youtube of GC and JH singing on the song together. So nice.

Shortly after acquiring GC's hit album of the same name, I went on to buy 'Earthworks and Music' by Hartford, to hear the songwriter's rendition of his own piece. At the same time, I also purchased, on a lark, that they too would prove listen-worthy --- the  'John Hartford Looks at Life' AND 'Housing Project' records. Yep, I emptied the mad money change purse for those 4 albums.

No regrets.
Not a one.

For I immediately fell in love with the sound of a 5-string banjo and with fiddlin' as well - especially the manner in which JH pulled a bow across or picked at those strings. Hartford rolled notes off the banjo and sent them spinning round in mesmerizing melody. He plucked and pulled fiddle strings in such a way that I could feel it in my gut. And - that - my dears - was quite the depth of feeling when one is young and in need of something, anything - like music - to relate to for personal expression.

To be sure - what with his sad droopy hound dog eyes, long brown hair and slim form, you better believe I harbored a keen school girl crush on John Hartford. Yet it was the way he made the 5-string sing that made musical magic for this young teen.

After I married, HubbyDear and I were both avid John Hartford fans. Over the following decades, we acquired many more JH recordings.

I could wax John Hartford Poetic even further, but instead will leave you with this (not yet complete, but still representative) slide show about his life. It's at the official JH website, so do explore...

Life is short, so I'll get going now to dust off some old Hartford LPs and have another go 'round at listening to him draw his bow across the fiddle, pick n' strum at the 5-string, stomp in tune and play his mouth.

To be sure, my heart will soar and my feet will be a-tappin'.

xo to John Hartford.
Speaking for many more folks than myself, we really do miss you.

P.S. I credit JH's music for causing me to miss out on some of the ickier pop music trends from the mid-to late 1970's. Instead, I was listening to some pretty righteous old-timey bluegrass.

(image of bowler hat from

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