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Not everyone likes bluegrass music as much as I do. And that’s ok. I don’t like coffee. To each his own. But like it or not, bluegrass music is an American invention, and has shaped American history and culture in deep ways. For that reason, I ask you respect it, even if you don’t enjoy it.

John Hartford was undisputably one of the great bluegrass performers of the 20th century. It was not his first love though, that honor went to the Missippippi river, and the steamboats that travelled upon it. He saved his shekels from performing, and bought his very own steamboat on the river.

John could take anything and make a song out of it. He once listed all the bluegrass performers he could think of, rolling them off at an astounding clip, while playing the banjo and tap dancing. Tap dancing? Yes, when performing he’d lay a sheet of plywood on the floor and cover it with sand and lay microphone on it. While playing (banjo, or fildde, or guitar) he’d tap, slide, scuff, and generally be an excellent percussionist.

Here’s a video and the  lyrics to a favorite song of mine, they make a good story so be sure to read to the end:

Well, I would not be here if I hadn’t been there

And I wouldn’t’ve been there if I hadn’t just turned

On Wednesday the third in the late afternoon

Got to talking with George who works out the back

And only because he was getting off early

To go see a man at a Baker Street bookstore

With a rare first edition of Steamboats and Cotton

A book that he would never have sought in the first place

Had he not been inspired by a fifth-grade replacement

School teacher in Kirkwood who was picked just at random

By some man on a school board that couldn’t care less

And she wouldn’t’ve been working if not for her husband

Who’d moved two months prior to work in the office

Of man he had met while he served in the Army

And only because they were in the same barracks

An accident caused by a poorly made roster

Mixed up on the desk of a sergeant from Denver

Who wouldn’t’ve been in but for being in back

Of a car he was riding before he enlisted

That hit a cement truck and killed both his buddies

But a backseat flew up there, spared him from dying

And only because of the fault of a workman

Who forgot to turn screws on a line up in De-troit

Because he hollered at Sam who was hateful that morning

Hung over from drinking alone at a tavern

Because of a woman he wished he’d not married

He’d met long ago at a Jewish bar mitzvah

For the son of a man who had moved there from Jersey

Who managed the drugstore that sold the prescription

That cleared up the sunburn he’d caught way last summer.

John died in 2001.

8 thoughts on “John Hartford

  1. I like bluegrass and not coffee, too. Have not heard any of this man’s music. Can you bring the CD next time you are up. 🙂

  2. hey – was thinking about this song, and mentioned it to a friend – googled it, and
    there it was! Loved it in the 60’s – and
    great remembrance. Miss John Hartford

  3. I loved it, too, and like Jane, Googled and found it. It’s bittersweet to me – on a disc my Godfather gave me, and now he’s gone to his rest. I think of him when I hear it and wonder at the contortions and concatenations of circumstance that bring us, moment to moment, to wherever we are.

    Shawn

  4. You have the last part wrong. I can’t remember the VERY end, but it’s…

    Who managed the drugstore that sold the prescription
    That cured(?) up the illness he caught way last summer
    He wouldn’t have caught, except for kid all
    Contagious with fever who sat in his lap….

    It fades out shortly after that.

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