[I'd like to make anecdotal remembrances of important fiddlers a recurring part of this magazine. Biographical information of even seminal figures in fiddling is hard to come by. I hope these type of pieces will help our readers learn something about the personalities of some great players. - the editor]
I suppose that most musicians can point to one or two artists that at some point grabbed their attention and inspired them, someone who's work excited them and made them want to be a part of it all. For me the first person on that list would have to be John Hartford. While many other artists stimulated my imagination, no one put it all together in a way that I related to so strongly. Nearly forty years after I first heard him I still hear his influence in my own music.
Like many folks, I first became aware of Hartford through his appearances on Glen Campbell's network television show. I was a teenager at the time and totally in love with folk and bluegrass music. My record collection included not only Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers but also Led Zeppelin and Cream. Along came John Hartford. With his long hair and irreverent sense of humor he seemed to have one foot firmly planted in tradition and the other in the emerging counter-culture. This attitude resonated for me and I became a big fan. As a banjo player and later a fiddler I grabbed any recordings I could find and studied his unique style. He always surrounded himself with great players such as Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, Sam Bush and the like who would influence a generation of acoustic musicians like myself.
I never thought I would get to meet John and spend a little time with him. In the early seventies I was in a progressive bluegrass band called The New Morning String Band that caught the attention of the illustrious festival promoter, Carlton Haney. He booked us for his festival at Berryville, Virginia and later on some other memorable shows (including a downright surreal opening spot for Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn). He then somehow got us on a show with Hartford at the well-known Cellar Door in Georgetown. Here we were at this prestigious club opening for a guy that I held in such high esteem. I was nervous to say the least, but we played a strong set and were well received by the audience. As we left the stage Hartford met me in the isle and insisted that we do an encore. He could not have been nicer to us.
That turned out to be the first several encounters we would have over the years. No doubt the most memorable occurred when John was playing at a festival near my home in Virginia. He mentioned that he wanted to visit the Mariner's Museum near me and I suggested that he come to our house for dinner. To my great delight he accepted and the next day his big tour bus slowly made it's way down our little street and parked in the front yard. Our little house was in a community of Mennonites, wonderful but very conservative folks. I could feel the eyes upon me as I went out to great our dinner guests. As if the Silver Eagle bus was not enough of an attention getter, John jumped off cradling a big brass steam whistle. He went to the back of the bus, shoved the whistle up to the tailpipe and yelled to the driver to "Hit it". The low wail of the whistle could be heard for some distance. Later in the evening he wound up taking my landlord on board the bus and again was quite gracious.
Our little house was perched at the top of a long sloping hill above the Warwick River. I kept a wooden skiff tied to a small dock. It was an old boat with an even older outboard motor, which on a good day was totally unreliable. I still don't know what possessed me to invite them for a boat ride. We squeezed aboard- me, John, Marie (John's wife), and his bus driver and off we went. I rounded Jail Island and headed up the James River, which is a large body of water at that point. I wanted to show them the "Idle Fleet", a collection of mothballed ships moored together awaiting the salvage yard. It is a truly awesome thing to see from a fifteen-foot runabout. While I was secretly praying that the motor would make this one last trip, John practiced knot tying with a piece of bow line and the others seemed to enjoy themselves. Thinking back I suppose it was a nice break from the road. I saw Marie years later and she remembered it fondly. Mercifully, we made it back to the dock. Not long after that the boat sank, motor and all. I saved the boat but the motor was finally junked. The excursion with the Hartfords may well have been its final journey.
Even back then my wife, Pam, was an excellent cook. We had bought an expensive bottle of wine that we probably could barely afford. She fixed a great dinner after which John got his fiddle and we played some tunes. I was new to fiddling but had a good time playing twin parts with John usually playing the harmonies. He had just started incorporating flatfoot dancing into his stage act and suggested we move out on the front porch. The wooden floor was better for dancing than the carpeted living room. Needless to say, this was a dream for me.
Eventually they all loaded up on the bus and left for Nashville. I would see John periodically over the years that followed, sometimes opening shows for him. At one festival I was backstage waiting to go on as Hartford was coming off. It had been at least eight years since I had seen him. Thinking he might possibly remember me, I thought I would speak to him. Before I had a chance to do so he called my name and walked over to shake my hand and greet me. All those years, all those miles, all those names and faces and he remembered me and made me feel special. That was indicative of all my encounters with him. He never failed to encourage me in my music and make me feel good about what I was doing.
As the years passed I would hear about his illness. Of course, it was no surprise when I heard he had passed away. I was a little surprised, however, at how hard I took the news. I don't claim to have known John well, but I felt as if some little special part of my life was gone. It has only been since his passing that I have come to realize that he affected many fellow musicians and fans alike in much the same way. He was a truly original character and we loved him for it.
I have a letter that he wrote me, written in his beautiful long hand (a work of art in itself). I keep it in an old tobacco chest with all of my important papers. Occasionally I will take it out to show someone who may have been a fan and we will talk a little about him and his music. Given enough time I will eventually tell the story of the day John Hartford came to dinner, a great memory of a great guy.