The first time I saw John Hartford perform was in 1998 at Central Michigan University, I had been a fan of his since being introduced to his music while attending CMU in the late 1970′s. His music became synonymous with having a good time, many days were spent with friends sitting on the front porch of our rented house with music blaring out of the stereo, enjoying the passage of time. It was fun taking my son Andrew around before the concert and revisiting some of the old houses I lived in and where Hartford’s music was first heard, many happy memories and stories were shared.
The show at CMU was recorded for the public radio show “Our Front Porch”, it was interesting just being a part of that, it was like an old-time radio show. During this period and for the rest of his life Hartford played a lot of old-time tunes, a tribute to his musical heritage and honoring those he learned from. They used the traditional method of one microphone in the middle of the stage, when it was time for a musicians solo they would step up to it, there was some awesome guitar, banjo, bass and fiddle playing that night! Being able to meet him after and chat a little was great, Andrew asked him about a tape we purchased wondering if the child pictured on it was him, it was not but he told us who it was, I wish I could remember.
On the way home my son said, “Dad, that’s the best music I’ve ever heard!” I suggested we go to his show in Tawas City the next day, he agreed.
The next night was like another trip back in time, he played in a church hall and fiddled himself right off the stage into the audience where everyone pulled back their chairs and made room for an old fashion dance-calling by John Hartford!
About a month later I was delivering a new car to my brother-in-law, he was living in Atlanta Georgia at the time so we met about halfway, somewhere in Kentucky. On the way back home I spent the night in Lexington where Hartford was playing at the Kentucky Theater, a neat old place to see a show. For my road music I brought along the “Anthology Of American Folk Music” which I had recently purchased, it was a great opportunity to listen to many hours worth of “The Old, Weird America” recorded in the late 1920’s, driving through the hills of Kentucky added to the experience.
Sometime between spring and fall of 1998 I was contacted about helping sponsor a local historical event called the “River of Time”. I selfishly suggested, arranged and paid for John Hartford to play at it. I was very excited to have him perform in our community, to have him share himself with us, and I hope we shared a little bit of and about ourselves with him. That evening my wife and I had dinner with John, Bob Carlin, Larry Perkins and Chris Sharp. Mike Compton had the first driving duties so he was sleeping on the bus.
John greeted my wife Janet with, “you know my first love’s name was Janet”, what a smooth talker. We walked into the five star restaurant looking like bums, I loved it! John was unshaven, wearing his derby hat, t-shirt and an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt. Bob had his porkpie hat on, jacket and the thinnest old plain white t-shirt, he promptly removed his jacket and hat, looking like he was sitting in his underwear. Larry had on bib-jeans and a sport coat, he is the most polite, mild-mannered gentleman of them all, at the end of the night he said goodbye to my wife with…”thank you Miss Janet for the most lovely evening”, and Chris Sharp had on a black “Elderly Instruments” t-shirt and jeans.
That meal lasted three hours, we talked about many things and John was very open and sharing of himself with someone he hardly knew. When asked what my favorite John Hartford album was, I told him “Old Long Bow”. John said, “Bless you son, you just made me the happiest man in the world, that album I put more of myself into than anything I’ve done, we spent more than 4 years on that!”
And there was a discussion of working on a “part II “of his 1971 album “Aereo-plain”, Bob Carlin mentioned there’s a song that John does not want on the “part II” release… John asked Janet’s permission to use foul language… he said it’s a song called “Smoke Shit and Fuck“, it’s about smoking pot and screwing. John then proceeded to sing a few verses! He said it’s a place he was at almost 30 yrs ago and it just doesn’t pertain any more, and he also feels that kind of language is uncalled for!
At the end of the night John handed me a 3×5 card and asked for my address and phone number, he then wrote out his address and phone number on a 3×5 and gave it to me. I also got to shake his hand, which he doesn’t allow people to do often. The first time I approached him at CMU for an autograph I offered my hand to him and he said he didn’t shake hands but would be happy to “do-sa-do” me and offered his elbow to lock my elbow with like you would do square dancing, which I did and was probably more thrilled with that than a hand shake at the time. But it was now a great pleasure to finally shake his hand and look him in the eye and thank him for all the wonderful music!
I will never forget that time I spent with him.