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Skippin’ in the Mississippi Dew

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The Mississippi River holds a prominent, mythic place in the American psyche. Dating back to its days as part of France’s territory in the new world, the Mississippi has been a place where cultures commingled; where trappers and Indians traded pelts; where shipping fortunes were made; and where frontier forts were built. Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition left for the interior from the shores of that great River. And later, some of the country’s largest and most brutal plantations sprung up along its banks. Steamships, casinos, showboats, houseboats, and of course, rafts, all float in and out of our mythic notion of what it means to be American, a notion forever tied to the Big Muddy.

Writers have long spoken of our rich river tradition. Alexis de Tocqueville, Mark Twain, and John Steinbeck all wrote about Americans’ connection to their river. William Faulkner even likened the Mississippi to an long umbilical chord connecting us to our homeland and to one another.

And then there’s the music.

It’s called Mississippi Delta Blues for a reason. Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, B.B. King are only a few of the greats who grew up just miles from the muddy riverbanks. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan were also raised near the great river. Dylan’s home town of Hibbing, Minnesota is only a stones throw away from the Mississippi’s oft-disputed source. Not to mention all the music that came out of the strange commingling of cultures in New Orleans as a result of the city’s unique location at the Mississippi’s mouth.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Rock n’ Roll, Jazz, Blues, and Cajun/Zydeco music distant cousins of the River itself. But, it would be difficult to call any of these styles “river music.” But, that does not hold true for the music of John Hartford (bio). Many haven’t heard of him, but if there were a soundtrack to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn it would be Hartford’s music.

While technically a bluegrass musician (and human encyclopedia of bluegrass music), John Hartford’s music is a direct descendant of the sounds of the great river. The current whooshing over stones, the creaking of a willow bough along the banks, the long blast of a steamboat’s horn; they’re all the chorus for Hartford’s whimsical and strangely beautiful songs off of albums like Mark Twang, Down on the River, Morning Bugle, and his masterpiece Aereo-Plain (a notoriously difficult album to get your hands on).

(“Mississippi Dew”)

Hartford was himself a licensed riverboat captain and worked on the steamboat Julia Belle Swain, running up and down the Mississippi. One of his favorite pastimes was to sit on his back porch overlooking the river and play the old songs on his banjo, fiddle, or guitar.

There is little more than that by way of accompaniment in Hartford’s live music. Much of the time he performed solo. With just a banjo or fiddle, and a mic on the floor to pick up the shuffling and clogging of his feet. His studio albums are more colorful, though. In his earlier work (John Hartford, The Love Album), Hartford even employed some of the strings and overproduction that were a staple of bad country music in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. But, the riverboat captain quickly moved away from that and towards simpler sounding music.

(“Gum Tree Canoe”)

While steeped in the old timey and river lore, Hartford managed to innovate within the bluegrass aesthetic, particularly with his reefer-influenced Aereo-Plain. And unlike many others who’ve tried, Hartford changed the stubborn genre without upsetting anyone. Bill Monroe, the notoriously ornery and inflexible godfather/grandfather/father of bluegrass was a friend to Hartford even as the latter was ushering in a new wave of Monroe’s music that was to leave much of the original soul behind.

But, even after his death Hartford remains a link between the newgrass and the old grass, between old timey and bluegrass, between country and hillbilly. He was unique in his approach to river music and with albums like Aereo-Plain worked towards making a new genre of it.

(“Where Does an Old-Time Pilot Go”)

(Stream more John Hartford music from his website Here)

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Written by JustJake

April 8, 2008 at 8:12 am

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