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John Hartford, Gone But Not Forgotten

John Hartford died in 2001 but his music and legacy live on at the John Hartford Memorial Festival, which starts today at the Bill Monroe Campground in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks to Andrew Vaughan, author of “John Hartford: Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain,” and musician Jamie Hartford, John Hartford’s son, who says his dad “was all about looking for that melody that you couldn’t get rid of.”

The two things I miss about the Midwest are the prairie and the big rivers. When I was a kid, my parents’ friends had a small houseboat and we used to cruise the Mississippi above the lock and dam at Alton, Illinois. I grew up reading Mark Twain’s “Life On The Mississippi” and later discovered the music of John Hartford, a guy who probably loved that river more than anyone ever did, even Mark Twain.

Like the famous author, John Hartford became a riverboat pilot. He used to pilot the steamboat the Julia Belle Swain on the Illinois River.

I used to go visit the Julia Belle when it was docked over in Peoria. I never got to go out on the Illinois River on it, but I felt like I did when I listened to John’s music.

I think the first John Hartford record I bought was “Mark Twang,” which was released in 1976 and won a Grammy. I had to backtrack to find the record that really turned a whole new generation of listeners on to bluegrass. That one is called “Aereo-Plain” and it was released in 1971.

By then, Hartford had already the huge mainstream hit, “Gentle on My Mind,” which Glen Campbell recorded. He was also a regular on Campbell’s TV show and on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

But he turned his back on that life, grew his hair long and got together with Norman Blake, Vassar Clements and Tut Taylor and recorded an incredible set of songs that still resonates with contemporary artists performing today, like Sam Bush. Critics said it turned bluegrass into newgrass and opened up a new audience to the world of old-time artists like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.

David Bromberg produced “Steam Powered Aereo-Plain,” and it’s still in heavy rotation on my old turntable. Robin Young spoke to David Bromberg a few years ago and asked him about that experience.

John Hartford left us way too soon. He died on June 4, 2001, at the age of 63 in Nashville.

According to Andrew Vaughan, author of “John Hartford: Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain,” John Hartford spent his final days sitting with fellow musicians like Earl Scruggs and Mark O’Connor doing what he loved best, playing music.

That’s what folks will do this weekend at the John Hartford Memorial Music Festival at the Bill Monroe Campground in Bean Blossom, Indiana.

It will be one long jam session.



  • Andrew Vaughan, author of “John Hartford: Pilot Of A Steam Powered Aereo-Plain.” He tweets @AndyJVaughan.
  • Jamie Hartford, musician and son of John Hartford.

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Alex Ashlock