John Hartford - songwriter, banjoist, fiddler and riverboat pilot. On December 30, 1937 he was born in New York City into an old Missouri family, and was in fact raised in St. Louis County, Missouri. His love for music and the river was nourished early in his life. His parents went to old time square dances in that part of Missouri and knew many of the old time fiddlers. His early love for the river was fostered largely by his fifth grade teacher, Miss Ruth Ferris, who was a local St. Louis institution on all things river. Her love and enthusiasm for the boats and the river were infectious and John was bitten for life, continuing his friendship with Miss Ferris until her passing many decades later.
Having learned fiddle and banjo at an early age, it was the local musicians around him, as well as the music of Flatt and Scruggs, that contributed to his inspiration and his respect for music. It was a respect he never lost. His very last studio recording was an album of the old Missouri fiddle tunes that he played while he was growing up. And as much as he was drawn to the music, it was the RIVER that was calling to him. As soon as he could, he went to work on the Steamer Delta Queen and then spent time with a couple of towing companies. But, he discovered (in his own words) that he was too “artsy crafty” to make towboating his profession, and the music won over.
During the following years, John went from being a DJ to being a prolific songwriter. With Glen Campell’s recording of John’s “Gentle on my Mind,” he relocated to California where he wrote comedy for the Smothers Brothers Show, was a regular on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and was approached to start his own TV show. Well on the climb to what many would consider commercial success, he left California behind and moved back to Nashville, Tennessee and the river.
In 1971, he met Captain Dennis Trone, who owned the Julia Belle Swain, and started to steer for him while working on his Pilot’s license. It was a friendship that lasted until John’s death. John now had the best of both worlds: the music and the river.
In Nashville, John became friends with many of the musical heroes of his youth, such as Earl Scruggs, Benny Martin and Bill Monroe. He continued to write, record and tour. In the span of his years, he won three Grammies, wrote a childrens book, got his pilots license, and was constantly researching anything that interested him. He fronted two of the most innovative ensembles in bluegrass/ newgrass/ old-time string band history; The Aereoplain Band and the Hartford String band (in his later years).
His love for the music and the river was surpassed only by the respect he held for the “old-timers” in those fields. When he finally succumbed to lymphoma in June of 2001, he left a void that will never be filled.
-Contributed to our site by an Anonymous Riverman