The Night John Hartford Came to Town

 

I remembered him from the late 60's, when he appeared as a regular on two national television series...The Smother' Brothers Comedy Hour and the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and I remember distinctly his banjo playing, fiddling and singing.

His show was last night, April 14, 2000, and it was terrific, but it was made even more memorable for meeting him, and seeing how he is a really courageous person. He has just finished radiation and chemotherapy for cancer in his leg, and he was so weak that he had a hard time making it through the whole performance, but he didn't let just how weak and ill he was on to the audience, and he and his band of three more musicians put on a great evening's performance for the crowd.

I met him before the show, when he came in to the "Green Room" or the dressing room, and he was just sitting quietly, all by himself, just practicing his fiddle. We chatted a little bit, and I told him I'd be keeping track of time, and I'd let him know when he could take the stage, and how long intermission would be, etc. He looked so fragile sitting there, with his signature derby on his head, and black vest over a white shirt.

But when it came time to perform, he walked out carefully, took his chair, and proceeded with some wonderful tunes, including "Gentle on My Mind", and many other classic songs. His voice was deep and clear, even though he had lozenges in his mouth the entire performance, and sipped hot tea because of his very sore mouth and throat, side effects of the radiation treatments.

The crowd was appreciative and responsive, and soon it was intermission. John explained to the audience that they would be selling CD's in the lobby, and that he would be remaining on stage to talk to anyone if they wanted, but because he had the treatments for cancer, his immune system was non-existent, and needed to keep some distance between himself and the members of the audience.

And he did stay on stage all through the intermission, tired though he was. I went up to him before the second part of the show started to see if he needed anything and he said he'd like a cup of hot tea, very weak, so I went and got this for him from the dressing room.

He really was as good the second half as he was the first. He switched from playing the fiddle in the first part to the banjo in the second and can he play the banjo! He did one tune with the banjo, where he kept loosening and tightening the strings to get new sounds, and each time, the sounds fit the melody perfectly...and a few seconds later, he would do it again! Again, the crowd was appreciative, and he seemed to gain strength from the audience.

Soon, the show was over, he thanked everyone, and headed off stage to a standing ovation. Now, 99% of the time, these days, with a standing ovation, the performer comes back on and does a few more tunes, but John was so tired and fatigued, that I knew when he headed off stage, that he was not to return. I think the audience realized this too, and soon stopped applauding and headed toward the exits.

After a bit of running around, I headed backstage, and John was there alone, with his head down, looking absolutely and totally exhausted. He raised his head, and I thanked him for a wonderful evening. He had refused to sign autographs all evening because he felt if he signed one, he would be obligated to sign many more, but I asked him if he would sign the program we handed out to the audience, and he was gracious enough to sign one for me, and I must tell you he has beautiful writing. He uses a Spencerian penmanship, which is really from the Civil War era, so it has many flourishes. I thanked him and said we'd try to get him out of there as soon as we could, since the financial stuff had to be done first.
 

It seems like John's mind and voice and talent and intensity are intact and flourishing, but his body is failing him miserably. He still has the drive to put on a great performance, though, and he made about 500 people very happy that evening. I walked with him to the bus a bit later and chatted about our appreciation for him coming, and he genuinely thanked me for having him. I think the performing is very important to him, and he looks forward to it.

All in all, it was a great evening and memorable in many respects. I didn't get any pictures at all last night, but that's okay....I have the signed program and the memories.

Afterword: John Hartford died in May of 2001, and it was a sad day for those who love music.
1

1