Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Johnny Hartford - Gentle on My Mind

It seems like each spring I re-discover the music of John Hartford. I suppose it has to do with the river. The Mississippi was Mr. Hartford's place. He even held a river pilot's license for the Big Muddy. Its waters ran through his veins. And each year when spring arrives I picture that river coming back to life after a long, hard winter. I see the old riverboats in my minds eye; and Mr. Hartford is always on board, playing the banjo, or guitar, or mandolin to entertain the passengers.

Most of us became aware of this incredibly talented musician/singer/songwriter/historian/poet/storyteller/foot dancing minstrel during the opening moments of The Glen Campbell Show on Sunday nights. Mr. Hartford was the lanky, long haired fellow in a vest who stood up in the audience each week playing his banjo as Glen Campbell sang "Gentle On My Mind", which was written by Mr. Hartford. And for many folks, that's as far as it went.

I was captivated the first time I saw this guy with sleeve garters and a vest, looking as if he'd just stepped out of a saloon circa 1870. And with time I realized that that's exactly who he was. He was just born in the wrong century. He had a passion for Civil War era music and what has come to be called Americana in general.

His version of "Lorena", the most popular song from the Civil War, is probably the best ever recorded, in that it captures so well what the music must have sounded like at the time it was written. Many people have recorded the song; some before Mr. Hartford; but none have captured the song as it was originally written, as Mr. Hartford has. But then again, I may be a wee bit biased.

The most incredible thing about Mr. Hartford as a performer was that he used his whole body to create the music he loved so well. For example, in the above video of Mr. Hartford performing "Gentle On My Mind" you will hear a tapping sound and wonder where it is coming from. That's his feet. By the end of the song you will be able to see those feet in action beneath the bell bottoms, but at first you can only hear the sound.

There are times when he would use those same feet to slide on the stage floor to create a shuffling sound to accompany himself. He was like a train. He pulled the weight of all the music which defined America in the years before and after the Civil War. And when he played a song from the Civil War, he didn't do "Dixie" or the "Battle Hymn of the Republic". He did the one song which soldiers on both sides of that conflict sang each evening around fires, thinking of the loved ones they had left behind.

"Lorena" was a favorite of both sides in the war simply because it spoke to every man. It was universal in its expression of longing for home and the fear that when you returned all would not be the same. Lovers move on and hearts are broken.But through it all there is an acceptance of that failed love. When he sings the verse about "We loved each other then Lorena", he sings about what might have been but never could be again. And then accepts it without bitterness. The pain was the price payed for the memories, and was well worth it. It was also written in 1857, before the war began, and so served as a powerful and common reminder of better days for both sides.

Here is Mr. Hartford playing "Lorena" dressed as I will always remember him;

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