(Banjo * Newgrass)
Montclair State University
Citation: Brooks, Ron. “John Hartford.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r13
Abstract: As a banjo player, John Hartford would eventually go on to found an entirely new genre of music (Newgrass) one that would open up possibilities for many of the musicians we know today: Noam Pikelny, Allison Brown, Bela Fleck, Danny Barnes--they all trace some part of their lineage back to him. But what draws me to Hartford is the writing, and the way that his writing reflects the obsession to compose.
Keywords: Bluegrass, Newgrass, John Hartford, Banjo, Gentle on my Mind.
The first song I remember hearing on the radio, and the first record I ever bought with my own money was “Gentle on my Mind.” It was a 7” vinyl record, and I can still see the yellow and orange swirl and the title on the label with the word written out GENTLE ON MY MIND. It would only be later that I would notice the smaller letters in parenthesis spelling out “John Hartford,” as I knew the song because Glen Campbell sang it, and had made it a hit, the most played song on the radio.
But it wouldn’t be until my early 30s, when I finally decided that I needed to learn to play the banjo, that my connection to John Hartford would come clear. And for a few years in my early 30s, whenever I would sit down to write, the voice inside my head would want to put down “It’s knowing how your door is always open and your path is free to walk…” The iambs that open Gentle on My Mind captured the kind of stretched out, casual, and radically specific rhythm I aimed for in my own, albeit academic, prose.
Composed by Hartford in the mid 60s, supposedly in a thirty minute frenzy after seeing Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago, it would be that song that would earn Hartford the songwriter’s version of tenure, security in the form of royalties for a single song that would free him to pursue whatever passion that came up in him thereafter: a return to old time music, tap dancing, and writing about steamboats. But as Hartford makes clear in an interview, he had not intended to write a hit. Had he intended to write a hit, he said, it certainly would not have sounded anything like that song, a song with no chorus, no bridge, and composed on the banjo. He wrote that song at a time when he was writing about anything, as he says, and throwing away what didn’t work.
And I can’t think of anything that underscores how the writing process works anymore than that. As a banjo player, Hartford would eventually go on to found an entirely new genre of music (Newgrass) one that would open up possibilities for many of the musicians we know today: Noam Pikelny, Allison Brown, Bela Fleck, Danny Barnes--they all trace some part of their lineage back to him. But what draws me to Hartford is the writing, and the way that his writing reflects the obsession to compose.
Even when I do not share an interest in what he’s writing about, like Steamboats or the Mississippi River, for example, I am still drawn to his work, because I recognize his passion for what it is: obsession.
Who else but an obsessive would make a list of his influences and sing that list almost acapella save the sound of his own tap dancing on a piece of plywood?
Who else but an obsessive would drop a classified ad for a banjo he really needed into one of his songs?
But obsession doesn’t really represent who John Hartford is either. At the heart of it, as would eventually be evidenced in the genre of Newgrass, his obsessions were always coupled with a desire to play with others, and what may represent John Hartford the most is his ability to compose songs that other musicians want to play.
“Steam Powered Aeroplane” may represent this impulse in Hartford the best.
I dreamt I went away on a Steam Powered Aereoplane
I came and I went and I damn near didn’t come back again.
Obsession and the desire for connection. These are the twin engines that drive us all.
I dreamt I was there too.
Songs About Anything
I had watched Dr. Zhivago, yes, but I think even more important than that was that the song was written at a time when I was just writing about anything. I’m sitting here remembering a time that I played pinball. And that’d be one try, and I’d do like that. And then I’d say be alright here’s another time that I’m sitting with my wife watching a cooking show. And that’d be another try. And I would write all these things down and then I’d actually make up what I wanted to say as I went along. I’d say “well let’s see we did this one in G, so let’s do this one in A,” and then I would just get a chord progression going and then improvise the melody, so I was writing on a good day seven songs, and most of them were throwaways, but it was something that came out of that.
I’ve thought about it a lot. Dr. Zhivago. There was a lonesome quality about that movie that brought out a lot of scenes in my childhood, and I went home and I started writing these things down, and I didn’t even know it was a song, except I’d get down to the end and there would be a little couplet there. And I didn’t even know what I had until 2 or 3 months later somebody said sing that song and I sang that song for a friend of my wife’s who’d come over to the house and she started crying and said “that’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard” and I said “is it?”
And people like to remind me that I could retire after that song, that I made enough from the royalties that I could be set, but I wasn’t. I came back as a wasp lighting on the wheel, a bird flying through summer sky, a fish, a firefly, the soul of an engine, a song about anything.