John Cowan Hartford (New York, 30 dicembre 1937 – Nashville, 4 giugno 2001) è stato un violinista, suonatore di banjo e compositore statunitense specialmente dedito al folk, al country, e al bluegrass, conosciuto per la maestria nel suonare il violino (soprattutto nella variante del fiddling) e il banjo, così come per i testi arguti e spiritosi, l'originalissimo stile di canto e l'approfondita conoscenza della musica tradizionale della zona del Mississippi.
Hartford ha saputo condurre gli stilemi e i linguaggi fondativi della musica americana verso fini a lui propri, pur avendoli nel sangue. Lungo la sua carriera, egli ha continuato a rielaborarli per allargarne la portata e dimostrare l'enorme potenziale espressivo della musica popolare. Pur essendo un compositore estremamente variegato nell'approccio stilistico, non c'è dubbio che il marchio distintivo di Hartford si possa ritrovare in questa capacità di rendere presente - non solo musicalmente ma anche "culturalmente" - ciò che sembra passato (in ciò ricordando Randy Newman e Leon Redbone).
Per quanto Hartford sia considerato cofondatore di quel movimento di rinnovamento del bluegrass chiamato newgrass, egli è sempre rimasto attaccato con altrettanta forza alla musica tradizionale. L'ultimo gruppo con cui suonò e gli ultimi album testimoniano il suo amore per la old time music e le altre forme di musica tradizionale pre-bluegrass.
La dicotomia è una delle caratteristiche più attrattive di Hartford, il quale, proprio nel momento in cui sembra dare corso all'espansione massima dei confini della musica tradizionale, rimane profondamente connesso alla radici del folk americano.
John Harford (la modifica del cognome sarebbe avvenuta su "comando" di Chet Atkins) nasce a New York da Carl e Mary Harford. Passa l'infanzia a St. Louis, nel Missouri. È qui che ha occasione di conoscere la musica tradizionale del Mississippi. Fin dai 16 anni è impegnato a lavorare nella zona.
I programmi radiofonici del Grand Ole Opry di Nashville includevano Earl Scruggs, l'inventore dello stile banjoistico detto "delle tre dita" (three-finger style). Già all'età di 13 anni, Hartford è un esperto suonatore di banjo e di fiddle, anche se nel frattempo impara anche la chitarra e il mandolino. È uno studente della John Burroughs School quando forma la sua prima band di bluegrass. Dopo la high school, si iscrive alla università Washington di St. Louis e vi studia per quattro anni, inizialmente senza laurearsi (ciò accadrà nel 1960). Abbandonata l'università per concentrarsi sulla propria musica, Hartford si immerge nella scena musicale locale e lavora come DJ, suona in vari gruppi e, occasionalmente, registra dei singoli per etichette locali.
Nel 1965, si trasferisce a Nashville, nel Tennessee, tempio mondiale dell'industria musicale country. Nel 1966, firma per la RCA Victor e lo stesso anno produce il suo primo album, intitolato Looks at Life.
Nel 1967, il secondo album Earthwords & Music presenta il suo primo e forse più importante hit, Gentle On My Mind. Non che l'edizione dell'autore sia un successo. Accade piuttosto che ad interessarsi della canzone sia Glen Campbell, che incide una propria versione. All'edizione dei Grammies del 1968, alla canzone vanno ben quattro premi, due dei quali a Hartford (migliore performance folk e miglior canzone country e western). Il pezzo diviene in breve una delle canzoni più interpretate di tutti i tempi, il che concede all'autore - attraverso le royalty - di raggiungere una grande indipendenza economica: Hartford avrebbe poi detto che la canzone gli comprò la libertà. Mentre la sua popolarità cresce sempre più, si trasferisce nella costa ovest, dove diviene un habitué del programma televisivo Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Seguono altre apparizioni (tra cui quelle agli show televisivi di Glen Campbell e di Johnny Cash) e incisioni con importanti artisti della scena country. Il successo di SmoBro è tale che i produttori offrono a Hartford il ruolo del detective protagonista in una serie TV. Hartford rifiuta e decide di tornare a Nashville per concentrarsi sulla propria musica.
Tra il 1968 e il 1970, Hartford incide altri quattro album per la RCA: The Love Album, Housing Project, John Hartford e Iron Mountain Depot. Nel 1971, firma per la Warner Bros. Records, dove potrà trovare maggiore libertà e minori condizionamenti al suo stile assolutamente irrituale. Con Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor e Norman Blake incide diversi album che daranno il tono anche alla produzione successiva, inclusi Aereo-Plain e Morning Bugle. Del primo, Sam Bush ha detto: "Senza Aereo-Plain (e la band che vi suona), il newgrass non sarebbe mai nato".
Diversi anni dopo, Hartford passa all'etichetta Flying Fish Records. Hartford continua a muoversi con grande libertà nel campo di un folk assai poco tradizionale e, pure, molto addentro ai suoi linguaggi.
Mark Twang (1976) è un altro album imprescindibile nel percorso dell'artista: Hartford suona da solo, accompagnando la voce con il banjo, il violino o la chitarra e battendo il piede su una base di compensato amplificata.
Nel 1977 e nel 1980, Hartford lavora insieme a Doug e a Rodney Dillard dei Dillards.
Gli ultimi anni
Il culmine della sua carriera è raggiunto con la collaborazione alla colonna sonora di Fratello, dove sei?, che gli dona un altro Grammy. Il tour Down from the Mountain (2001) è il suo tour finale, nato dalle session di registrazione della colonna sonora. Trovandosi in Texas, nell'aprile dello stesso anno, scopre di non riuscire più a controllare le proprie mani. Passa poco più di un mese e il linfoma di Hodgkin che ha da vent'anni lo uccide. Si trovava al Centennial Medical Center di Nashville e aveva 63 anni.
Nei giorni che precedono la sua scomparsa, Hartford era impegnato a scrivere la biografia del violinista cieco Ed Haley. L'album di Hartford Wild Hog in the Red Bush è una raccolta di composizioni di Haley. Hartford aveva anche dato la propria voce per numerosi documentari di Ken Burns.
Ad Hartford è stata data una stella nella St. Louis Walk of Fame.
Nel settembre del 2005, l'Americana Music Association gli ha assegnato un riconoscimento postumo (il President's Award).
John Cowan Hartford (December 30, 1937 – June 4, 2001) was an American folk, country and bluegrass composer and musician known for his mastery of the fiddle and banjo, as well as for his witty lyrics, unique vocal style, and extensive knowledge of Mississippi River lore. His most successful song is "Gentle on My Mind" which won three Grammy Awards and was listed in "BMI's Top 100 Songs of the Century". Hartford performed with a variety of ensembles throughout his career, and is perhaps best known for his solo performances where he would interchange the guitar, banjo, and fiddle from song to song. He also invented his own shuffle tap dance move, and clogged on an amplified piece of plywood while he played and sang.
John Hartford was the great-great-great-grandson of Karl von Rotteck and the great-great-grandson of James Overton Broadhead. His grandfather, Edwin Marvin Hartford, was a first cousin to Tennessee Williams.
Harford (he would change his name to Hartford later in life at the behest of Chet Atkins) was born on December 30, 1937 in New York City to parents Dr. Carl and Mary Harford. He spent his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. There he was exposed to the influence that would shape much of his career and music—the Mississippi River. From the time he got his first job on the river, at age 16, Hartford was on, around, or singing about the river.
His early musical influences came from the broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and included Earl Scruggs, nominal inventor of the three-finger bluegrass style of banjo playing. Hartford said often that the first time he heard Earl Scruggs pick the banjo changed his life. By age 13, Hartford was an accomplished old-time fiddler and banjo player, and he soon learned to play guitar and mandolin as well. Hartford formed his first bluegrass band while still in high school at John Burroughs School.
After high school he enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, completed 4 years of a commercial arts program and dropped out to focus on his music; however, he did later receive a degree in 1960. He immersed himself in the local music scene, working as a DJ, playing in bands, and occasionally recording singles for local labels. In 1965, he moved to Nashville, the center of the country music industry. In 1966, he signed with RCA Victor and produced his first album, Looks at Life, in the same year.
In 1967, Hartford's second album Earthwords & Music spawned his first major songwriting hit, "Gentle On My Mind". His recording of the song was only a modest success, but it caught the notice of Glen Campbell, who recorded his own version, which gave the song much wider publication. At the 1968 Grammys, the song netted four awards, two of which went to Hartford. It became one of the most widely recorded country songs of all time, and the royalties it brought in allowed Hartford great financial independence; Hartford would later say that the song bought his freedom.
As his popularity grew, he moved to the West Coast, where he became a regular on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour; other television appearances followed, as did recording appearances with several major country artists. Hartford played banjo and sang the vocal harmonies on the Guthrie Thomas song, "I'll be Lucky". He also played with The Byrds on their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
His success on the Smothers Brothers series was enough that Hartford was offered the lead role in a TV detective series but he turned it down to move back to Nashville and concentrate on his music. He also was a regular on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (the banjo picker who would stand up from his seat in the audience to begin the theme music) and The Johnny Cash Show.
In live performances, John Hartford was a true "one-man band"; he utilized not only a multitude of stringed instruments, but also a variety of props such as plywood squares and boards with sand and gravel on which to stomp, kick, and scrape to create natural and organic background noises.
During the years 1968-1970, Hartford recorded four more albums for RCA: The Love Album, Housing Project, John Hartford, and Iron Mountain Depot. In 1971, he moved over to Warner Bros. Records, where he was given more freedom to record in his untraditional style. There, fronting a band that included Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor and Norman Blake, he recorded several extraordinary albums that set the tone of his later career, including the acclaimed Aereo-Plain and Morning Bugle. Of the former, Sam Bush said "Without Aereo-Plain (and the Aereo-Plain band), there would be no newgrass music."
Switching several years later to the Flying Fish label, Hartford continued to participate in the experimentation with nontraditional country and bluegrass styles that he and artists such as Bush were engaging in at the time. Among his recordings were two albums in 1977 and 1980 with Doug and Rodney Dillard from The Dillards, with Bush as a backing musician, and featuring a diversity of songs that included "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and "Yakety Yak".
Hartford's Grammy-winning Mark Twang features Hartford playing solo, reminiscent of his live solo performances playing the fiddle, guitar, banjo, and amplified plywood for tapping his feet. At the same time, he developed a stage show, which toured in various forms from the mid-1970s until shortly before his death.
Hartford went on to change labels several more times during his career; in 1991, he inaugurated his own Small Dog a'Barkin' label. Later in the 1990s, he switched again, to the Rounder label. On that label and a number of smaller labels, he recorded a number of idiosyncratic records, many of which harkened back to earlier forms of folk and country music. Among them was the 1999 album, Retrograss, recorded with Mike Seeger and David Grisman, offering bluegrass takes on such songs as "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay", "Maybellene", "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Maggie's Farm".
He recorded several songs for the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, winning another Grammy for his performance, and made his final tour in 2001 with the Down from the Mountain tour that grew out of that movie and its accompanying album. While performing in Texas in April that year, he found he could no longer control his hands due to non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, and his career was finished.
Though Hartford is considered a co-founder in the newgrass movement, he remained deeply attached to traditional music as well. His last band and last few albums reflect his love for pre-bluegrass old-time music. According to an interview with Don Swain, he described his love for the rare and nearly forgotten fiddle tunes of the Appalachians and Missouri foothills.
The culture of the Mississippi River and its steamboats captivated Hartford from an early age. He said that it would have been his life's work "but music got in the way", so he intertwined them whenever possible. In the 70s, Hartford earned his steamboat pilot's license, which he used to keep close to the river he loved; for many years, he worked as a pilot on the steamboat Julia Belle Swain during the summers. He also worked as a towboat pilot on the Mississippi, Illinois, and Tennessee rivers.
During his later years, he came back to the river every summer. "Working as a pilot is a labor of love", he said. "After a while, it becomes a metaphor for a whole lot of things, and I find for some mysterious reason that if I stay in touch with it, things seem to work out all right". His home in Madison, Tennessee, was situated on a bend of the Cumberland River and built to simulate the view from a steamboat deck. He used to talk to the boat captains by radio as their barges crawled along the river. That bend of the Cumberland River, known as "Hartford's Bend" or "John Hartford Point," is denoted on official navigational charts with the "John Hartford Light".
An accomplished fiddler and banjo player, Hartford was simultaneously an innovative voice on the country scene and a reminder of a vanished era. Along with his own compositions, such as Long Hot Summer Days and Kentucky Pool, Hartford was a repository of old river songs, calls, and stories. Hartford was also the author of Steamboat in a Cornfield, a children's book that recounts the true story of the Ohio River steamboat The Virginia and its beaching in a cornfield.
Final years and legacy
From the 1980s onwards, Hartford had Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. On June 4, 2001, he died of the disease at Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 63. Prior to his death, Hartford co-authored with Brandon Ray Kirk a biography of the blind fiddler Ed Haley. Hartford's album The Speed of the Old Longbow is a collection of Haley's tunes. Hartford also provided narration for the Ken Burns' documentary series Baseball and The Civil War.
Hartford was given a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
In honor of his work, he was given a posthumous Presidents Award by the Americana Music Association in September 2005.
The annual John Hartford Memorial Festival is held at the Bill Monroe Music Park & Campground near Beanblossom, Indiana.
Hartford recorded more than 30 albums, ranging across a broad spectrum of styles—from the traditional country of his early RCA recordings, to the new and experimental sound of his early newgrass recordings, to the traditional folk style to which he often returned later in his life. Hartford's albums also vary widely in formality, from the stately and orderly Annual Waltz to the rougher and less cut recordings that typified many of his later albums.
Aereo-Plain and Morning Bugle are often considered to be Hartford's most influential work, coming as they did at the very beginning of a period in which artists such as Hartford and the New Grass Revival, led by Sam Bush, would create a new form of country music, blending their country backgrounds with influences from a number of other sources. His later years saw a number of live albums, as well as recordings that explored the repertoire of old-time folk music. He sketched the cover art for some of his mid-career albums, drawing with both hands simultaneously.