John Hartford

From Academic Kids


John Hartford shortly before his death in 2001

John Cowan Hartford (December 30 1937June 4 2001) was an American bluegrass composer and musician known for his mastery of the fiddle and banjo, as well as for his witty lyrics and unique vocal style.

Hartford was born in New York City. He won a Grammy award in 1968 for his song "Gentle on My Mind", after Glen Campbell's cover version became a hit. He won another Grammy in 1976 for his album Mark Twang for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.

More recently, Hartford performed on the soundtrack for the film, O Brother Where Art Thou? and his voice can be heard narrating Ken Burns' documentary Baseball.

Hartford was known to draw with both his left & right the same time. He earned his steamboat pilot license and was an expert at the history of our rivers and boats. John Hartford long maintained a parallel existence as a Mississippi riverboat pilot. Hartford grew up in St. Louis listening to stories and songs of the old steamboating days. His musical impulse came from seeing Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs's trendsetting bluegrass band, and from the old-time dances that were still being held in the area during his youth in the 1950s. He later moved to the West Coast, where he became a regular on the Smothers Brothers television show, and on to Nashville, where he put together a band featuring Vassar Clements and Norman Blake that became the cutting edge of a "new traditionalist" movement on the country scene. During his later years, Every summer, he came back to the river. "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."

Along with his own compositions, Hartford was a voluminous repository of old river songs, calls, and stories. He could spend hours talking about the glory days of steamboating, or demonstrate the lead calls that the river's most famous chronicler took as his name, "Mark Twain" (or "two fathoms"). A virtuoso fiddler and banjo player, Hartford was simultaneously an innovative voice on the country scene and a thrilling reminder of a vanished era.

He was a graduate of John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri, and an honoree of that city's Walk of Fame. Hartford died from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in Nashville, Tennessee.

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