Memories of John Hartford, Gentle on My Mind
Living in a small Indiana town of under 2000 people offers little opportunity to see big name entertainment locally. In the early 1990’s, our park board of which I am a member converted the old town athletic field into an outdoor amphitheater. The seating was already in place having been constructed of field stone and concrete set into a hillside by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930’s. The uncovered stage was used for our annual Mint Festival which featured three days of mostly local bands.
At the time the stage was new, one of the festival organizers managed the local hardware store. Larry played the bass in a group called the Hesitation Blues Band in the early seventies during his days at Indiana University with a singer named Tad Robinson who went on to have a successful career singing in Chicago-area bands and a few commercials. Tad also had parts in a couple of movies, including Under Siege with Tommy Lee Jones and Steven Seagal. For several years, Larry was able to get his old band mates to reunite on our stage. That was as close as we ever got to big name entertainment until one year when Larry came up with another plan.
In the spring of 1996, I went into the hardware store for something one day and asked Larry how the festival plans were coming. He said, “Do you know who John Hartford is?” I had to think for a minute. The name was familiar. Larry reminded me that John Hartford was the banjo player who appeared each week on a show called the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. He was also seen on the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour and was probably best known for having written the song, Gentle on My Mind. Yes, I knew who he was. I remember him wearing a derby hat while playing happy little tunes on the banjo.
Booking John Hartford would be risky. The cost would be several thousand dollars and the open venue layout did not allow for collecting an admission charge. Larry hoped that sponsors and concession revenue would at least allow the festival to break even. I was excited that our little outdoor stage would be graced by someone who was somewhat famous, even though every time I told someone about it, I had to explain who he was.
Thinking I might get an opportunity to rub elbows with somebody famous, I asked Larry if he needed any assistance from us park board people in preparation for Mr. Hartford’s appearance. Larry said he planned to grill steaks for the group at his home before the show, but Hartford was on a strict diet and requested a vegetable tray. I offered to get a vegetable tray and bring it over to the house. Larry said that would be great. Hartford was scheduled to play Sunday evening and I was to bring the tray to Larry’s house about 4 o'clock.
The weekend of the festival was typical June weather, warm and muggy. That Sunday evening, I took my $35 veggie tray and went to the festival grounds to look for Larry. The sky was overcast when I tracked him down. He told me to leave it on his dining room table. The house was open. Larry was a lovable little stocky Italian with long black hair and beard to match. He never seemed too concerned about anything, including being burgled, I guess. His house was indeed open despite the throng of strangers in town. Entering Larry’s house, I saw little evidence of preparations for a celebrity guest. Somewhat disappointed that my donated veggie tray was not going to get me a face-to-face meeting with John Hartford, I placed it on Larry’s table and left.
On my way home, I saw a large tour bus parked by the town water tower. I also saw the sky getting dark in the west. Larry was standing not far from the bus, so I stopped to ask if he was going to need anything else from the park’s standpoint. I also wanted to know if he had a contingency plan in case of rain. Unfortunately, he did not, and about an hour before the performance was to start, the skies opened. It rained and it rained and it rained.
Show time came and went. It was still raining with no sign of stopping. Larry said he was going to go home to make some phone calls. Perhaps he could get permission to hold the concert at the high school. I asked if there was anything I could do to help. He told me to go knock on the door of John Hartford’s bus and tell him he was trying to find an alternate place for them to play. I did so, and a man who I later learned was one of the musicians, opened the door. After I delivered the message, he asked me if there was anywhere they could get some distilled water. I knew of only one store that was open on Sunday evenings and I offered to see if they had any. Apparently, John Hartford drank only distilled water and he requested several gallons. I went to the store and purchased three jugs and took them back to the bus. The gentleman at the bus door offered to pay for them, but I refused. What’s a few more dollars after a $35 veggie tray?
Larry returned a short time later. He looked defeated. His long hair was soaking wet. He was unable to get permission to use the school on such short notice. What about the firehouse, I asked. It was right next door. It wouldn’t hold too many people, but there weren’t too many people left. The fire chief was nearby so I asked him if the performance could be held in his station. He said he could not give the okay without permission of the town board. As is usually the case when the festival is going on, town board members don’t answer their phones – too many complaints apparently. No one of authority could be reached and Larry was running out of options.
By now it was getting late. Most people had gone home, and it was still raining. I went back to Larry and told him the fire station was not going to work out. Out of ideas, we went over the bus to explain the situation. The man who came to the door said, John had been paid and he would really like to perform. Larry had one more idea. He knew the proprietor of a small restaurant and bar on the west side of town. It was closed on Sundays, but Larry called the owner who agreed to open up.
The next problem would be finding an audience. It was about two hours after the original show time. Where was everyone and how does one get the message out that John Hartford would be playing at Muggly’s bar in a half hour? We called as many people as we knew might be interested, and a few who wouldn’t be, just to get bodies in the building. Surprisingly, there were a few hardcore John Hartford fans who had traveled some distance to see his performance. They were still waiting nearby and followed the bus to the bar.
On that dark rainy Sunday evening in June, about two dozen people watched John Hartford and the two musicians who accompanied him for an intimate performance that I remember fondly. Despite my earlier efforts, I had not seen John until the moment he appeared in the barroom. His skin was a pale gray color and he did not look well. It was as if everyone else was in color and he was in black and white. He was thin and gaunt. I would later learn that he was suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Accompanied by a mandolin and stand-up bass, He sang and played the banjo and violin, more appropriately called a ‘fiddle’ in this genre. I suppose his musical style would be described as somewhere between old-timey folk and bluegrass. Hartford relished life on the river in the days of sidewheel steamers, and much of his music had an 1890’s flavor which I grew to appreciate. There was a certain sadness to some of his music. He didn’t say much between songs and smiled only occasionally. The small crowd enjoyed his performance and he seemed to find comfort and strength performing his music.
When it came time for a break, he sat down at a table where some of his CDs where displayed for sale. I perused his recordings and picked out one called No End of Love because it contained Gentle on My Mind, the only song of his that I knew. Larry introduced me to John and I asked him to autograph the artwork label on the CD. His calligraphic signature was itself a piece of art, beautifully inscribed with great care. We exchanged a few pleasantries before he continued his performance. After about an hour and a half, he concluded his time with us and rode off on his bus into the dark rainy night.
My appreciation for his talent grew immensely after I listened to that CD a few times. I only wish I had the talent to adequately describe his ability to take the listener back to another place and time. Two songs in particular are my favorites. Both of them tell stories of sidewheel steamers on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the late 1800’s. When the Guiding Star Came to Tell City is the story of the first time the folks in Tell City, Indiana were introduced to “Honest to God” electricity. Hartford uses the vernacular of the period, along with great attention to detail, which allows the listener to feel like he was living through the experience.
This technique is especially effective in The Burning of the Grand Republic, which describes the night when the sidewheel steamer “burned to the water’s edge”. Hartford describes an event that happened near St. Louis on March 13, 1898 when the Mississippi excursion steamboat went up in flames. According to the report that appeared in the New York Times the next day, “Nothing was saved, and Capt. W.H. Thorwegen, his wife, and two children narrowly escaped death.”
Hartford’s account tells of a man “runnin’ at breakneck speed, over the road, past the dog pound, out of breath and he found a policeman on DeKalb corner and quickly turned in the alarm.” “The watchman awoke when he heard the flames, bedding, carpets, painting, railings – too late, he woke up much too late to save the Grand Republic.” Hartford goes on to describe the sky glowing and fleecy clouds turning to vermillion. And the red glare had a brilliance that made the moonlight green. “Even the trees on the Illinois shore stood out in bold relief.” The crowds on the levee “stood as close as they could dare, which was not very, and by twelve thirty, the fire had done its work. And by this late hour, they tried to find Thorwegen, but the captain of the Grand Republic was no where to be found.”
Hartford’s musical imagery contains many more vivid descriptions of the events of that night. Having listened to the song many times, I feel like an eyewitness. I can picture how “Lightning fingers of thirsty flame through layers on layers of dried out paint on filigreed wood curled out of the windows (or ‘windas’ as Hartford says it) eating their way to the roof.” I have seen the eerie look of trees illuminated by a nighttime inferno, but I could never describe them as accurately as Hartford did.
I was at work on June 4, 2001, five years to the month after our special evening with John Hartford, when I heard the radio report of his death. He was a true artist with a God-given talent for painting musical pictures of events long ago. Thank God we did not have video recorders in 1898. The subtle details, described so beautifully by Hartford, would be lost in our contemporary world of thirty-second sound bites. Descriptive writing is becoming a lost art. Today, a person can throw paint at a canvas and declare himself an artist. In my view, an artist is someone with a special talent for doing something the average person is not capable of doing. John Hartford had the ability to transport a person to another place and time through his music. God blessed him in that way. And Larry, the young man who introduced me to John, also left this world a few years later. May they both rest in peace.