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John Hartford:Riverboat Pilot song writer and Minstrel on the Mississippi

Updated on September 13, 2012

Hartford anthology

album cover
album cover

Melefest, NC 2000

Hartford playing. released into public domain by Fiberthockey
Hartford playing. released into public domain by Fiberthockey

Early music experience

A live performance by John Hartford was a unique experience. But Hartford was a unique performer.

               Someday my baby, when I am a man,
               and others have taught me
               the best that they can
               they'll sell me a suit
               they’ll cut off my hair
               and send me to work in tall buildings

“Tall Buildings” song by John Hartford.

Back in the 1990’s we were living in Moline, Illinois and heard that John Hartford was going to be playing at a local restaurant and bar. I was surprised that the space was rather small for a concert by someone pretty well known. When Hartford arrived he was late and came with a bunch of friends that about filled up the place. As I recall they came in, what appeared to be, an old school bus. It was clear that Hartford was not one to work in tall buildings. He listened to his own drummer, as the saying goes.

Once he started playing I knew that the waiting was well worthwhile. His feet drew my attention as he was shuffling them and using them as a percussion instrument. When in 2001 he died I regretted I had not followed his music more. I’m glad that I got to see him at least once.

Hartford was close to my own age. He was born in 1937 as John Harford in New York City. but spent his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. He changed his name to Hartford at the suggestion of Chet Atkins. Like Mark Twain, the river fascinated Hartford and like Twain he also got a River Pilots license. Having lived in river towns most of my life I can understand the appeal of the river. I used to take walks by the river during my lunch hour when I was working.

Harford was a composer as well as musician and worked in American folk , country and bluegrass music. As well as master at fiddle and banjo, he had witty lyrics and a unique style. He was also a folklorist and had extensive knowledge of Mississippi river lore. The foot shuffle I was impressed by was his own invention of clogging on an amplified piece of plywood.

From the age of 16 he was on the river or singing about it. Broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville were an early influence on him. Hartford said that that the first time he heard Earl Scruggs pick a banjo changed his life. He became an accomplished old-time fiddle player and banjo picker himself when he was 13 and added guitar and mandolin as well. He formed his own Bluegrass band in high school. After high school he went to Washington University and completed 4 years of a commercial arts degree but put off graduation until 1960 while he immersed himself in his music.

Working in Tall buildings

Goes to Nashville

He worked as a DJ, played in bands and occasionally recorded singles for local record labels. In 1965 he moved to Nashville and the next year signed on with RCA Victor and produced his first album.

His second album in 1967, “Earthwords & Music” brought his first hit song “Gentle On My Mind”  Thanks to Glen Campbell whose recording was more popular than his own, the song got four Grammy Awards—two went to Hartford. The royalties were enough to allow him to pretty much do what he wanted to do.

I first became aware of Hartford when he sang, “Gentle On My Mind” on the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”.  After that show he did several other TV appearances and recorded with top country artists. He appeared regularly on the Glenn Campbell and Johnnie Cash shows. He was offered the lead in a detective show but turned it down and went back to Nashville.

According to Wikipedia “A live John Hartford concert was an intimate and engaging experience.”  He used various stringed instruments and a variety of props like plywood squares and boards with sand and gravel on which he would stomp kick and scrape to create background noises. That is what I experienced at his show.

He had a major influence on “Newgrass” music with his album “Aero-Plain” Later he turned again to traditional music and in 1999 recorded “Retrograss” with Mike Seeger and David Grisman with bluegrass versions of Dylan and Beatles songs.

A major accomplishment was his contributions to the soundtrack to the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” which won him another Grammy. His final tour in 2001 was with “Down from the Mountain” tour that grew out of the movie. That April while touring Texas he found he could no longer control his hands due to non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and ended his music.

Like others who started out singing folk music Hartford kept his interest in traditional music. His last albums show love for pre-bluegrass old-time music.

To quote Wikipedia “While he was on the leading edge of expanding the boundaries of traditional music, he remained deeply connected to the roots of American folk music as well.”

Hartford and Hartford

Album with John Hartford and his son.
Album with John Hartford and his son.


The river was always captivating to Hartford. He got a pilot’s license in the 1970’s. He worked as a pilot on the “Julia Belle Swain” during the summers and did piloting on towboats as well. He was familiar with all sorts of old river songs, calls and stories and is said to spend hours talking about steamboating of the past. He also wrote a children’s book “The Steamboat in the Cornfield” which tells about a steamboat comically beaching in a cornfield.

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