The Last Time I Saw John Hartford

by Mark Dvorak

The story begins in Philadelphia, and it's the summer before John passed away. There's this huge folk festival, called the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where tens of thousands of people come every summer to this big field, this big grove, and they camp out and they listen to concerts and they jam. There are people everywhere at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. It is the largest folk music festival, I think, in the lower forty-eight states.

We were invited there to do something or other a couple summers ago, and our group went. We had a brief appearance on the main stage and these other appearances as individuals and as a group on other stages scattered around the festival grounds.

There was a considerable amount of down time involved between our appearances at Philadelphia that summer. The festival grounds are something like thirty miles away from the hotel, and if you want to go back to the hotel you have to go to a certain place and wait in line for a shuttle bus to return. It's a very involved process, so generally speaking, when you get to the festival site in the morning, you stay there for the entire day.

It was Saturday, as I remember, and all of my other appearances for the day were completed. I did a lot of walking around the grounds in the hours between my last appearance that afternoon and before the main stage concert was to begin that evening. I did a lot of snooping and listening and watching people enjoy themselves. Utah Phillips was originally scheduled to perform on the main stage that evening, but he was sick and couldn't make it. The word was his doctor wouldn't let him fly in from California where he lives, so they called John Hartford. And John said he would come.

I have seen John Hartford play on maybe a couple dozen occasions. Maybe more. And I've listened to his records, some of them till they wore out. I realize now there are players you listen to so much, like John Hartford, that after a time it's as if you keep them inside of you. And when you see them again in person, it seems almost as if they hopped out of you to come before your eyes and ears before they go back in.

It was late afternoon at the Philadelphia Folk Festival on that Saturday, the summer before John Hartford died. The sun was getting low in the sky and it was warm. I was walking in the field just outside the fence surrounding the last row of the main stage area. And that's when I saw him. I saw him across the field and over the rise, way over on the other side of the vendor booths. He was walking from the place where the shuttle bus drops people off from the hotel and he was walking with his fiddle. And he was bent over and he looked old. He was far away, but I knew it was him, and I watched him walk all by himself, carrying his fiddle case. He had white shoes on, and it turned out that he wasn't wearing any socks, but he had white shoes. He was wearing brown pants and a white shirt and he had a bowler balanced on his head and his hair was messy. And he was wearing a vest; two vests, maybe three. It seemed he always put on more than one. And there he was walking toward the performers area to the right of the main stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. 

Often at a folk festival, you see people like myself, walking with all sorts of things strapped across their shoulders. Instruments, gig bags, cases of albums; hauling all your stuff to the festival site. And I've seen famous people with entourages surrounding them wherever they went. And I've seen these same sorts of famous people with hoards of fans coming up to look at them or to touch them or to ask them for an autograph, or some other sort of affirmation.

But there was John walking across the field all by himself. He was taking little steps and walking towards the performers area, and he seemed to be in a hurry. It's a long way from where the shuttle drops you off to the performers area, maybe a couple hundred yards. But there he was walking.

And I found myself walking towards him. I thought about going over to meet him, to say hello, but I stopped and just watched. I realized it would take a long time for him to walk that entire distance at his current pace. I watched for just a little longer and went off to find something to eat.

After supper, I wound my way around the back of the big main stage area and got into the performers area from behind the main stage. I don't remember how much time passed since I first saw John walking, but by the time I had my supper and got to the performers area, he was there. And he had his fiddle out of the case and he was playing.

John had brought his string band with him for this trip to Philadelphia. Mike Compton, the fine mandolin player was there. And so was the young man whose name I've forgotten, who plays guitar. He wears an old-time hat and he backs up John on the guitar. He plays a big old Martin and uses a thumb pick the same way Mother Maybelle Carter did. I want to say his first name is Chris. He's a very tasteful musician, and he was there. Also, Bob Carlin was there, the clawhammer banjo player. Bob is originally from Philadelphia, and I once heard John call him, "The only Yankee banjo player I'd ever play with." And Bob with banjo, and Chris with his guitar and MIke with his mandolin and John with his fiddle were all jamming in the performers area.

John was playing the one fiddle of his that has the scroll carved into the shape of a person's head and shoulders. As I remember, that fiddle was ornate, but not overly so. Like John, it was unique; a one-of-a-kind.

John was sitting there jaw cocked, his elbows up, bowler tilted on his head playing the fiddle, and the boys were picking right along. Some of the folks hanging around in the performers area had their instruments out. Some were just watching and listening, and some were quietly trying to play along, bewildered to find that John and the boys were picking in the key of E flat. John likes to play his fiddle music in keys other than the ones they're most often heard. 

Some performers were there. I remember seeing Saul Brody, and he had his harmonica, and there were others whom I didn't recognize. And this lovely jam session began to unfold. There was no talking and there were no rules laid out. But it was in the key of E flat. If you could figure that out, you could get your instrument out of its case and tune it up right along with everybody.

It seemed apparent that John comes to these festivals to play music like this. I don't know how long it took for him to walk across that field, but I can't imagine he arrived as early as he did and walked that distance to sit and wait for something to happen.

I stood in a place where I could watch John play and still keep my eye on the rest of the circle. The music was good. It wasn't too fast, but it bounced along, right in the pocket. The fiddle, the mandolin and the banjo took turns picking the lead while the others settled into a comfortable groove.

John had been battling leukemia for the longest time, and I had known that he had recently been sick again. I decided to get my long neck Vega out of the bag and I tuned it up to E flat. I went back and joined the circle and the group was playing a new one, "The Soldier's Joy." But by the time I entered the circle, it wasn't "The Soldier's Joy" anymore. Fiddle tune players and banjo players who play fiddle tunes, always start with the melody and then they begin taking it apart. They embellish it, and they change it. They add things to it, and they add themselves to it. And then they take things out again. The instrumentalists were playing and twisting that simple melody this way and that, entertaining themselves and each other with new inventions and variations on a tune each has probably known his entire life.

So by the time I entered the circle again with my long neck banjo, the tune being played wasn't "The Soldier's Joy" anymore, only the chord progression of the tune being played could be called, "The Soldier's Joy." 

I took the chair to John's left. I watched him and I chunked along with the rhythm, feeling for the warm groove going about. John had laid out for a time and let some of the other boys play. He was under that bowler, jaw cocked, expressionless, eyes watching things, plucking the rhythm out on his fiddle with his thumb. A bystander may have guessed he was half asleep, but I do believe he was very alert. This is how music gets played when John's around. He was watching and listening to everybody. And "The Soldier's Joy" was pouring out of those instruments. 

Saul Brody was standing on the other side of John wearing his cowboy hat. Pretty soon, John reached over with his fiddle bow and tapped him on the shin. That must of meant it was Saul's turn to play. The boys looked at Saul and their backing was polite and solid; maybe they were glad somebody else was going to do the work for awhile and Saul seized his moment. He blew a most intricate and beautiful thirty-two bars, and left a little of himself in the version of "The Soldier's Joy" this group of strangers had been fashioning out of the thin air that one summer afternoon in eastern Pennsylvania.

John kept thumbing the rhythm on his fiddle as one of the boys picked up on Saul's solo. The music surged a little bit on Saul's energy and the boys and the rest of us hung on as a new crispness settled into the rhythm. Around and around the tune went, to banjo, over to someone else on the fiddle, then over to the mandolin, then some young fellow who tried to pick hot on his guitar, then Saul again. All the while John kept thumbing the rhythm on his fiddle watching and listening. As the tune wound down on the current pass, John stopped thumbing and cocked the fiddle under his jaw. He drew back the bow and his fiddle drawled and bubbled and sang and soared. I watched him play, still chording along on the rhythm. John finished up and went back to thumbing. Someone else picked up on the tune and that's when it dawned on me. 

I had been playing the banjo up to that point for twenty years. Twenty years I had been playing the banjo, and I had known "The Soldier's Joy from almost the beginning. Since then I had been playing it straight, taking it apart, adding things of my own, taking things from other people and adding them and throwing things out to make room for still others. And it dawned on me that afternoon at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the summer before John Hartford died, that never once had I asked myself the question, "How would I play 'The Soldier's Joy' if were I sitting next to John Hartford?"

And then it happened. John's fiddle bow no longer dangled as his thumb brushed the chords. He held it firm in his hand and drew it forward, towards me. He didn't look at me, but his fiddle bow touched my knee as if he were brushing away a fly. I looked at him and the words, "Play, son," came out of his mouth. It was my turn, and I realized that this was the exact wrong time to be asking the question first formulated a few moments earlier.

I didn't know what to do, but the time was here. I picked up the tune as the last pass ended, and was nervous; thinking too much. I did get a a good piece of the melody started and thought I'd just stay with that. After the initial burst of excitement, the melody to "The Soldier's Joy" came washing back inside my ear and soon ran down through my arms to the fingertips working the banjo neck. The second A part started and I began settling in some.

My notes were a little more articulate and the authority started to come back to my right arm and I started feeling good again. I thought to try and play it as simply and as straightforward as I possibly could. 

"Whoosh," went the strings, and a good roll got the B part started. I whipped up those high notes on the first string and double-thumbed right on through to the second B part, ending my pass with the little flourish I have used to end "The Soldier's Joy" ever since I can remember. 

Someone picked up the tune and I eased back a little in my chair. I settled again into the rhythm and my heart was pounding. I thought I did okay. After a time I looked again at John.

Expressionless, he thumbed along on his fiddle with the bouncing tempo. Two A parts went by and then two B's. John again cocked the fiddle back under his chin and raised up his bow one more time. I looked at the way his jaw was set against the fiddle. I looked at the way his hat was tilted on his head, wisps of gray hair spilling out from under the brim. I looked at his eyes and they were far away. We were far away. How many times had I sat like this and played myself into this same trance? And I wondered how many more times John had done the same.

In that moment I remembered again how he walked across the field earlier in the afternoon. I could see again how slowly he walked, yet how much in a hurry he was. And I remembered again, how nobody in the circle had said a word, how we just played and reached out for one another, and allowed good music to happen. And it seemed at that moment, as it has seemed to me ever since, that music like this is no more and no less than an on-going conversation between hearts. 

As daylight faded on the big field at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, it seemed then as if "The Soldier's Joy" had always been there. It seemed as if it had no real beginning and that it had no end. It seemed at that time, as if "The Soldier's Joy" and all the other tunes, are always around us and everywhere, going along somewhere beneath the routines of daily life. And they appear again when the instruments are in tune, and when the folks sitting in the circle wish for them to arrive again.

I was still looking at John's eyes when his bow touched the fiddle strings. 

And then he winked at me.


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