Last August 26th, I was one of 20,000 other folk music enthusiasts waiting for the long awaited return of Utah Phillips to the Main Stage of the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Much to our disappointment Phillips was sidelined with a heart ailment and couldn't make it. As we sat and tried to guess who the power brokers of the Festival would call in to replace the aging legend, the answer finally came. On stage walked none other than the singer/songwriter/steamboat driver extraordinaire, John Hartford.
Now Hartford wasn't scheduled to appear at the Festival but he was staying in the general area and was able to fill in for his old friend. He was backed up by a band of youngsters who have since gone on to win a Grammy for Best New Bluegrass Band, Nickel Creek.
We would have liked to hear him perform the playful "Steam Powered Aereo Plane", or even the weird and lecherous "Boogie". At that particular time of the day we would have appreciated hearing, "Granny Wontcha Smoke Some Marijuana", but the fact is that he had been away from the Folk Festival for so long, we were happy to hear anything he played. Gentleman that he was, he used a portion of his on-stage time to showcase Nickel Creek.
For those of you who were too hip to watch the Glenn Campbell Show in the '60's, John Hartford was the banjo playing guy who would pop up from the audience during the opening. He regularly backed up Campbell during his performances on the show, and he is the one who penned the song used in the opening credits,"Gentle On My Mind". The song has gone on to become Campbell's identification song, much like Steve Goodman's "City Of New Orleans" has gone on to become Arlo Guthrie's.
John Hartford died yesterday, June 4th, at his home in Tennessee after a long battle with cancer. I'm happy to have the many memories of John that I do, and even more grateful that my kids had a chance to see him once before he died. I'm sure the Julia Belle Swain will be blowing a long, lonesome note on it's steam whistle in his memory.