John Hartford, died June 4th, 2001 after a 21-year battle with non-Hodgkin's
lymphoma. He was 63. In his 35-year Nashville career, he was a radio disc jockey, a
studio musician, a hit songwriter, a mainstream country up-and-comer, a Music Row rebel
and a television personality. He also was an avid amateur historian who collected archives
of material from favorite musicians and from the history of riverboats. He was a renowned
bluegrass and traditional musician who devotedly studied the work of his heroes and who
practiced meticulously with a metronome until the end of his life. He also was a gifted
raconteur, one whose loping Midwestern baritone could enthrall an audience either
speaking or singing.
Hartford is best known as the songwriter of Gentle On My Mind, a song that became a hit for Glen Campbell in 1967 and which went on to become one of the most
recorded and performed songs of all time. In addition to three Grammy Awards for that
song, Hartford earned a Grammy for his 1976 solo album Mark Twang. On his first
album, John Hartford Looks at Life, Johnny Cash contributed liner notes.
Gentle on My Mind, noted for its literary quality, was a modest hit for Hartford, but he didn't pursue the standard Nashville career long. After Glen Campbell's
recording, the song was covered by Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin and
Tammy Wynette, as well as hundreds of others from all genres of pop music.
In his later years, Hartford proved to be a formidable music historian who
found endlessly creative ways to keep early country music relevant. His voice could be
heard in Ken Burns' television documentary series The Civil War. He has also written a
special for the Nashville Network, Banjos, Fiddles and Riverboats. The special stars
himself, Capt. Edgar Allen Poe and the almighty General Jackson riverboat. In May
1991, the Gasoline Alley comic strip featured Hartford in a storyline that paralleled that
of the children's book he wrote, Steamboat in a Cornfield.
One of his last concert appearances was filmed when D.A. Pennebaker shot
Down From The Mountain in April 2000, a concert tribute to the film O Brother,
Where Art Thou?, to which Hartford contributed.
The eccentric Hartford, played banjo, fiddle and guitar, always
sported a trademark derby hat and invented his own brand of soft-shoe shuffle dance.
He taught himself to play, sing and dance all at the same time and performed his music this
way. He did a one-man banjo, fiddle, guitar and soft shoe dance on a piece of amplified
plywood. He amplified it, so his feet would be his percussion. He loved for his audience
to dance and, space permitting, would call a square dance figure or two at the end of his
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