Thursday, March 22, 2007

I Miss John Hartford (Fiddler Friday...?)

The other night as I skipped over the music offerings in my local library's cd bin, I picked up a recording by John Hartford and Bob Carlin, The Fun of Open Discussion. (These two gentlemen played and recorded together often. More on that another time.) It's just what the doctor ordered to lighten the mood this week.

If you really love fiddling, or if you love steamboatin', you loved John Hartford. He's not just a great fixture in a tradition near forgotten. He was a fiddlin' pied piper, a soul gentle and happy and full of a million tunes. He's a real American hero.
John Hartford could fiddle any old tune you could name, but also allowed himself to play around a great deal, enabling the "newgrass" tradition to come into form in the 1980s. After a long battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Hartford finally gave up fiddling when he could no longer control his hands, and died in June, 2001. Some of his last performances were part of the O Brother! soundtrack and subsequent "Down from the Mountain" videorecording, which also features backstage footage of John.

It's a little strange because while I've been listening to these tunes in the car and around the house, suddenly he made an appearance a few times on Folk Alley. If I thought I had the power to conjure him, I'd have done it a lot sooner, with or without that cloud of herbal goodness that followed him about.

I never had the chance to see and enjoy John Hartford in person, but he's touched the lives and influenced the work of so many musicians that I feel we have been introduced many times. My friend Jawbone had the pleasure of discussing with him Kentucky fiddler Ed Haley, whose fiddling repertoire was chronicled in a four-disc release stewarded by Hartford and Carlin.
John Hartford was an American treasure and a joy to all who knew him. His fiddling and his singing just had this raw, unabashed, laid-back, life-on-the-river joy, nothing fancy or cute, just straight up good honest music making. This weekend I will pick up my guitar and play along with him.
Here are a couple of tunes to enjoy. The first, Old Joe Clark is not what you're thinking, but you won't be disappointed. The second is another version of Blackberry Blossom that invokes the image of James Garfield as a young general fiddling to his troops. I hope these gems ease your mind and get you to put your feet up, maybe pick up your instrument or gather up a few more John Hartford moments into your collection.

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