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John Hartford -- Tickled to Death

The acoustic music and bluegrass communities bid farewell to an American original


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I was a freshman in college, and from the back row of Holstein's folk club in Chicago, I couldn't tell where all that sound was coming from. All I could see was the tall, lean man in the bowler hat with the banjo. Whatever was causing all that percussion was hidden from view.

In fact, I was only seeing a portion of the man. Seeing John Hartford from the waist up was like only seeing the tip of an iceberg. Out of sight, blocked by the crowd sitting in front of me, Hartford's feet were doing their own percussive dance, an entire subtextual accompaniment tapping out rhythms on a piece of mic'd plywood. From there on in, I vowed to make the extra effort to get feet seats.

Hartford was ceaselessly innovative right to the end, constantly adding to his bag of tricks and finding endless opportunities to engage and involve his audiences in a unique style of performance blending humor, musicianship, and a folksy approach to storytelling that made him an American original, a riverboat pilot who became known as the banjo's own Mark Twang.

Whether taking the stage as a soloist or as a humble member of his own string bands, he captivated audiences for as long as he held the stage. And he frequently left the stage, venturing into the crowd, fiddle in hand, orchestrating a 10,000-person daisy chain one year in Telluride and enticing the crowd to sing into his fiddle mic on a gravely rendition of "Boogie."

Hartford changed the acoustic music landscape in 1971. Warner Brothers, impressed with the success of "Gentle on My Mind," (which to date, has been recorded by over 200 artists, second only to "Yesterday") offered him an unprecedented budget to make a new album in 1971. He enlisted Norman Blake, Vassar Clements and Tut Taylor and the Aereo-Plain band was formed, with the album of the very same name.

"It was just a major transition," recalls Scott O'Malley, who represented Hartford in the '70s. "There was nothing gradual about it. He just went for it. The record company, I guess, wasn't all that pleased, but, boy, the picking community, it just became the new Bible."

"I've said many times without the Aereo-Plain album or band there wouldn't have been any New Grass Revival," said Sam Bush, talking to the Indy from his home in Nashville. "It was the first time where people truly used acoustic bluegrass instruments to create original contemporary music. It was new music for the times at that time, but done with these great bluegrass and acoustic players. It was the origins of what some people might call newgrass."

"He had sort of a Chaplin quality, or an Emmet Kelly--type quality," said his long-time friend and collaborator Norman Blake, speaking from his home in Georgia before heading to New York for an all-star performance of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album that both he and Hartford contributed to. "He was a little tongue in cheek with some of the things that he did, and he was not afraid to take chances with time hanging heavy on the stage."

Blake and his wife Nancy saw Hartford a week before he died, visiting him at home and playing songs for him while he lay in bed, unable to move much and barely able to whisper a request for a favorite song.

"He was a great musician and composer, and of course a poet," said Blake. "But he had a philosophy there with his poetry and his music and his general outlook. There was a whole little sort of unspoken scenario going down, I think, in John's philosophy towards it."

"It just almost felt like a hip secret," says O'Malley of the underground that grew up around Hartford's distinctive musical signature. "It was in the cracks, like everything that I've always loved. It was bluegrass, but it wasn't. It was old-timey, and it was some of America's best pot songs. It was just this eclectic mixture. There is no other and there will never be."

"If John could have played on the road till he was 90 years old he would have," Bush said, noting that retirement was never in the cards. "What he loved the most, was playing and singing. Be it at his house or whatever, he loved playing and singing more than anyone I ever met."

He only lived to be 63, but he played right up until the end. In November, he held an Aereo-Plain Band reunion with the original members augmented by Bush and members of Hartford's current band, and Nashville hosted a tribute to him earlier this year, a rare opportunity for his peers to tip their caps to him while he was still alive and playing on stage.

At his last Colorado appearance this past March, performing as Retrograss with David Grisman and Mike Seeger, he was clearly ailing, but engaging as ever. He led the Fillmore audience in clapping him a rhythm and scat-singing through "Gentle on My Mind," and when a fire alarm went off during the song he tried to change key to get in tune with it, never missing a beat and winning the audience over one more time when he outlasted the alarm.

"We're tickled to death you're here," he told the crowd. "We're tickled to death to be here. Shit, we're tickled to death to be anywhere. We just got back from Japan about ten years ago. Over in Japan you say 'I'm tickled to death to be here.' And they translate into Japanese, it comes out 'he scratches himself until he dies.'"

Hartford loved to tickle, and he loved to itch, and nothing pleased him more than an equally itching audience blessed with long fingernails. Calling him "the grandfather of the newgrass movement," The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is honoring his influence and his friendship by dedicating next week's festival to him and planning a tribute set for Sunday afternoon, led by Bush with dozens of musicians certain to join in to pay tribute to one of their seminal influences.

"I don't think I'm overestimating his importance to say that he was right up there with the great songwriters that came out of Nashville," says Bush. "Not only was he one of the most influential songwriters, but he became an influential picker and performer."

"He was just a character, all the way across the board," says Blake. When asked how his friend would like to be remembered, Blake has no hesitation in responding. "That's easy. He was a fiddler."

"A fiddlin' steamboat captain," adds Bush.

Some day about 25 years from now

When we've all grown old from wondering how,

Oh, we'll all sit down at the city dump

And talk about the goodle days.

Oh, you'll pass a joint and I'll pass the wine

And anything good from down the line.

A lot of good things went down one time,

Back in the good old days.

Yeah the goodle days have passed and gone,

A lot of good people have done gone on.

That's my life when I sing this song

About back in the goodle days.

-- John Hartford, 1971


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