.[Following his lingering, recent death by cancer, so courageously
faced, with what impeccable grace and serene, light-hearted humor, its
been difficult to know what one could possibly add to the story of John Hartford,
riverboat pilot and entertainer par excellence. We saw him at Bloomsburg State
College in 1976, opening for the Newgrass Revival (his opening act, a young
guitarist, Perry Leopold, said ruefully from the wings, "I dont
know what would be harder, opening for John Hartford or closing for him!"),
clogging and fiddling simultaneously, incorporating Irish steps hed
only recently picked up from Eugene ODonnell; we saw him backstage at
Philly, in a gigantic fiddling session with Eugene and Norman Blake, Jean
Carignan and Gilles Losier, leading the orchestra in an impromptu Vivaldi
concerto before going into the Irish music; we saw him in his last appearance
at Philly, in an incredibly funny, minimalist tuning-joke become waltz, with
a beaming Bob Carlin and the teenage wizard-mandolinist Chris Thiele backing
him up, as he fought against his frailty with all the resources at his disposal;
but perhaps our favorite memory is captured in the interview which follows,
backstage at The Main Point in Bryn Mawr, where he paused for a moment or
two, at the top of his form, in a whirlwind tour in the Spring of 78,
to consider a couple of questions from an impertinent interviewer. Heres
what happened: if it can be considered a late bouqet for a departed hero,
may it lighten your day.]
John McLaughlin: John, the first question I wanted to ask you,
Ive been re-reading "Life on the Mississippi"
John Hartford: Youve been re-reading it?
J: Right. And the question I wanted to ask you was this. Towards the
end of the book, Mark Twain was looking at the river. And the way he sees
it and this is towards the end of the book is that its
always changing, its never final, its always complex, its
always interesting, but because hes become a riverboat pilot,
its too familiar to him any more for it to be mysterious, romantic,
beautiful, to him. The question is: do you look at music that way?
JH: Yeah, I think that what hes talking about there is that after
you start learning all about the mechanics of piloting a riverboat, you stop
seeing all the pretty sunsets and you start thinking about the weather, you
know, and I would say that to a certain extent, what was beautiful music in
terms of chords and structures is still that, but as you hear it youre
seeing all kinds of diagrams, all kinds of ways youd play it, and thats
the parallel I see to what hes saying about the river.
J: He also says that its always interesting too, its always
changing, because of the floods, because of natural disasters
JH: Well, yes, Id say that the river in that sense is very much
like music. Or anything else, really. Incredible variations on a real narrow
spectrum, or perhaps range, lets say, within a narrow framework theres
a lot of variation. Very much like the human face. Every face has got two
eyes and a nose and a mouth, ears in the same place, and generally the same
size forehead, the same cheekbones and everything. But theres such incredible
variations that we can look at any familiar face and know immediately who
it is and all about their background and so on. But thats incredible
variations within a tight framework.
J: You know, in instrumental terms, youre known mostly as a banjo
picker, I think its fair to say.
But Ive also seen you playing on the fiddle, and the clogging you do,
that kind of thing. I dont know do you ever play the guitar much?
JH: Oh, yup! On the stage I use the guitar, fiddle, the banjo, pretty
much what I can get by on.
J: Would you say that these instruments give you variations and breadth
in your spectrum?
JH: Oh, yeah! Well, what I like to do is, in the period of a stage set,
to be able to give them all at least even though I cant
give them all at the same time, if Im even getting them separately,
to try to give them all of the different tunes of a string band which
would have mandolin, guitar, banjo and fiddle. I mean, they can go around
in order and take breaks! So what I try to do is go and play one on one instrument,
then another on the next instrument, and so on. So youll have that same
rotation that youll have with a band, though it doesnt come around
as often. But within the period of a 25-minute set, you would have all of
them come around.
J: OK. Talking of something else, perhaps. Youre now a riverboat
pilot and I know we should congratulate you on that you know
the old one about "pilots advice captains orders"?
do you ever find yourself in the position, when youre putting
together an album, and youre not just giving "pilots advice,"
you bloody well have to be the captain?
JH: Yeah. I guess so. I think I understand what you mean. Now, Im
not a ships captain, not by any stretch of the imagination. Im
an apprentice pilot. I may have my license, but Im still an apprentice,
as far as Im concerned.
J: How long does that go on, by the way?
JH: As far as Im concerned it may go on the rest of my life!
[Laughter] Its an art, just like playing the fiddle or the banjo. I
started out to learn it a long time ago, and then I got sidetracked into playing
music. And Im going back to it now.
J: Hm. For most people and this is a matter of primary versus
secondary but most people see you primarily as a musician, not a pilot.
JH: Well, I am, I am primarily a musician! When I was in high school I
worked on the river, and I found out I was just not the temperament at the
time to do that properly. Much as I loved it, I was too "artsy,"
too much into music at the time. I mean, it seems like it wouldnt be,
but it was a very traumatic thing, to leave it and go into music. But, thats
what it took at the time. It was just the nature of me at the time
didnt have that practical bent I used to work on the towboats,
and Id be on the towboats for a long time, and Id get to playing
on the banjo, and I loved it. But well, also, the guy Im working
for now on the river understands artists!
J: Most of the artists, the musicians that I know, have a craftsmans
dedication to the music that I think many riverboat people would respond to
JH: Well, I work on a boat, "The Julia Belle Swain," based out
of Peoria, Illinois, and we run during the Summer, between Peoria and Liverpool,
Illinois, which is about thirty or forty miles. We go down and back. And I
do all kinds of things on the boat, among which I also play music.
J: Is that the stretch of river for which youre licensed?
JH: Well, I have an operators license, and the apprentice pilots
license we spoke of.
Which is, "waters other than the Atlantic coastline." Which is like
a hundred gross tone operators license. And the next step, which Ill
go for probably in a year, is a pure "pilots license," for
which Ill have to draw a map of the river and so on. Weve been
making a lot of trips between Chattanooga and Peoria. Mostly the Tennessee
River and part of the Ohio. And a stretch of the Mississippi and about half
of the Illinois. And thats way too much river to go for a license.
If youre going for a license, youd go for maybe thirty or forty
miles, to start.
J: I must say here, I have a very poor idea of American geography. I have
a very poor internal map sense of thsat part of the country. Trying to see
JH: [Taking out a pencil] Well, see, if we were on the telephone I couldnt
J: See theres some advantage to not doing it over the phone!
JH: OK. Heres Michigan. And heres Peoria. You go down the
Illinois River to Grafton. Go down to St Louis, and down the Little Mississippi
to Cairo. Cairo here heres St Louis, Missouri then go
up the Ohio, here, then the Tennessee River goes all the way down here to
Chattanooga. Nashvilles back here, see?
J: Hm! Boy, looking at the map through a riverboat pilots
eyes is not the same thing as
say, an airplane pilots eyes!
JH: Its weird, because its like an ancient, almost forgotten
art, still being practiced, but about the only place its practical is
on towboats and stuff. Or big excursion boats. Its not like piloting
an airline. I mean, river commerce is at a different rate. They dont
ship the small, express stuff by river! Its mostly big, slow cargoes.
J: Do you think they might come back to it, if conditions change?
JH: Well, there is a lot of traffic on the river, theres a lot of
tonnage on the river, but its all big, slow cargoes that can take weeks
or months to get there coal, iron, steel, petrochemicals, things like
that grain. You know. Whereas in the old days they had packet boats
I dont think those will ever come back. I mean, packet boats
were really the airplanes of their day. They got you there comfortably and
J: Doesnt Twain describe a packet boat race where one of them just
blows up because the boilers cant take that pressure?
JH: Well, he actually says though that as far as boiler explosions and
things like that, packet boats were safer. A race was the safest time, because
everybody was on their toes, watching out. The dangerous time was on a boat
when there wasnt much happening, and somebody would light up a boiler
chip, and get it in the doctor pump, and then you know thered be those
kinds of problems
J: I thought I knew that book pretty well, but I dont recall any
of that, except vaguely!
Amazing the difference! Can I ask you something else I dont think
its changing the subject, though maybe it is. You have that lovely song,
"Bluegrass Music Is All You Need," on one of those albums
Mark Twang? You go down that list, starting with "Tater Tate and Alan
Munde" and go all the way down, and its such a lovely tribute
to people, its such fun even to listen to just the names, and try to
figure out why this or that one is there
JH: Well, what happened with that was that I was working on a rhythm thing.
It was a matter of sequences of syllables, and which ones would work and which
ones wouldnt, scansion and so on
J: Like a Gaelic lilting song?
JH: Right. I just had to put in who would fit in that sense alone. So
in that way I left out lots of obvious people, put in people who were perhaps
not so obvious people, just because I was writing for sounds and so on, and
as soon as I wrote it I thought that I had people I hadnt put in, so
I rewrote it, and when I came to record it, it was changed again, I would
make it shorter or longer or different, each time. Because theres so
many people, you know. But I had to stop somewhere.
J: OK. What is it you like about reggae music? Its not "pickin"
music, right I mean, its drums, its
JH: Well, Ive got to the point with my musical appreciation that
I dont distinguish that much between pickin versus bowing, or
slapped, or struck, whatever, because the whole thing is that music, you see,
is rhythm. I believe that time is the most important thing there is. That
is the only element that you cant withdraw from the situation and still
have the situation exist. Everything depends on time. Right?
J: OK! Go on!
JH: Is that right?
J: I like it! Its beautiful!
JH: Yeah, but do you agree with that?
J: I can agree with that, I can see that as a principle.
JH: OK. In other words, we could subtract, we could change this situation
to black-and-white, it would still exist.
JH: But time is the one thing, even the solid stuff [touching the desk]
depends on. You cant take time away from that. OK. So how do we measure
time so we can cope with it?
By rhythm. Either in rhythm that you hear, or rhythm that you see, like the
repetition of all these threads in this lampshade [runs his fingers down it].
Rhythm is the way you cope with time. The best way to express rhythm is music.
J: Thats odd. Listening to reggae I got a whole West African thing
with that music.
JH: I just like Bob Marley and his lifestyle! The way he came across to
the press I thought, "Well, far out!" and went ahead. I hang
around with a guy in Europe who followed him around on tour. So he took his
band and a bus, and they carried a professional soccer player. And every thirty
or so miles theyd stop at the side of the road and have a soccer match,
and I thought that was really good! And Ive heard some of the music,
and Ive read about Bob Marley, and thats about it. You read about
somebody in a magazine or somewhere, and it doesnt really matter whether
or not they really exist like that, the point is that you get into them like
J: Hm. To me, the reggae music was a matter of colors, of light,
of Caribbean light on the water. That sparkle off the water, you know
thats what I got out of it.
JH: Well, whats the most important organ in the body?
J: The eyes.
JH: The eyes? Well, you could be blind, and get along with them.
J: True. I guess I was assuming the existence of the brain behind them
JH: Well, its either the brain or the heart. Can you have brain
life and heart death, heart life and brain death.
J: I see what you mean. There can be brain death, but heart life continues.
JH: Thats right. And the heart is primarily a rhythm instrument.
J: Youre right, this whole thing is based on the existence of, the
perception of rhythm!
JH: Right. Actually, it makes sense that the whole universe is based on
rhythms. Everything happens in circles, in spirals. You know what, I bet you
thats why everything is bilateral. You know, two eyes, two ears, split
down the middle? Everything repeats itself and back and maybe thats
because the lowest common denominator is two.
J: Yeah, but that also comes back to the one, ultimately.
JH: Even waltz time comes back to one, ultimately.
J: Did you ever see Wilfred Guillette clogging?
JH: Wilfred Guillette. He plays for Green Mountain Records. He usually
sits down to clog. Wont try to fiddle and clog at the same time standing
up. When he won at Amherst last June, he did ask Wes Dickinson to play for
him, while he clogged thank you to the crowd and the judges.
JH: Theres some guy up there who does that, though clogs
and plays at the same time.
J: Question: it seems to me that at certain points youre hearing
more, at certain points youre playing more. The musics you heard growing
up on the river did they influence you more when you were younger or
do they still influence you?
JH: Well, youd hear whatever was on the bank that was about
it. Good too. Ive been out a lot recently. Going around St Louis tomorrow
night -- Baton Rouge for a television show Natchez Cairo, Illinois
Chicago back to Washington DC fro the Cellar Door. Thats
it. Thats it in a nutshell.
[And that was about our cue. John had to get ready for his show there
were other people anxious to talk with him wed enjoyed it, we
thought the readers of The Folk Life now, The Digital Folk Life
would too. We appreciated his immense courtesy, and we thought you would too.
And now, the music
. Johns music is available through the Flying
Fish imprint of Rounder Records, so you could go over to their website, and
go from there. While youre about it, you could go to the John Hartford
homepage on the Web, and visit the "Tribute" page, and see the thousands
of people moved by John Hartford; you might also feel moved to add your own
tribute to theirs. This is ours.]