The Fiddle in the Shetland Isles
Sep 01, 1997

Bruce Greene: Carrying on Kentucky's Old Time Traditions
Jun 01, 1997

The Romance of the Kentucky Fiddler
Jun 01, 1997

Dale Russ: Irish Fiddling on the Pacific Rim
Mar 01, 1997

John Hartford: A Fun and Open Discussion
Mar 01, 1997

<< Newer / Older >>
John Hartford: A Fun and Open Discussion
Peter Anick

Many of us "baby boomers" remember John Hartford's appearances on the Glen Campbell TV show in the mid-sixties. The deep-voiced composer of "Gentle on My Mind" went on to become a fixture in the folk scene, combining his prolific songwriting, instrumental virtuosity and indefatigable footwork into a one-of-a-kind one man show that cheerfully bridged the gap between old and new. This past summer, as John was finishing up a song-writing workshop at the Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival, I asked him if he would share some thoughts about writing fiddle tunes. He suggested that we actually try composing a tune and we retired to his bus to do just that. In this interview, John intersperses his composing with his insights on a whole range of fiddlistic topics.

How would you compare writing a song to writing a fiddle tune?

Well, writing a fiddle tune is just writing a melody, and there are songs that are fiddle tunes, or of course you can play any song as a fiddle tune, I guess. About the same kinds of things apply. I jot 'em down as they come into my head. A lot of times, I wake up in the morning, I got something on my mind, or I can just start writing, put something down and see what comes out.

Do you have a particular goal in mind when you write a fiddle tune?

I guess I'm always trying to write "the fiddle tune," "the melody." And I don't want it to be too complicated. I just want it to be something that's memorable. The whole study of fiddle tunes and melodies and everything really probably boils down to why you like one melody over another, which is of course the 64 dollar question.

Any guesses?

No. That's the one I don't understand. Sometimes I'll be working on a melody and say, "There's no way anybody could like this." I'll change one note in it or something, and then I'll fall in love with it. Or I'll think, "Oh this is the greatest melody I ever heard," and then I'll go to play it and it won't be worth a dime...

Do you remember all the tunes that you've written?

No, no, lord no! If they're good tunes and stick with me, yeah, then I remember them. I remember a lot of tunes that I wrote, but I certainly don't remember everything, and not everything I write would be worth remembering...

Who would you say were the main influences on your fiddling?

Well, I'd have to say Gene Goforth, Benny Martin, Ed Haley, Dr. Jimmy Gray, Texas Shorty, Benny Thomasson, Major Franklin.

Quite a range of influences. I couldn't help but notice all the variations and different bowings you put into "Billy in the Lowground" yesterday.

That seems to be something that I can't avoid. I'm a chronic improviser.

When you play something like that, how much is pre-arranged and how much is on the spot?

It's all off the top of my head. If I sat down and played it for you right now, it would just come out different... You've got to be able to improvise in the language of fiddle tunes. I mean, you can't start playing bebop scales and things like that. Although I've been experimenting with a thing I really enjoy, where you start, you leave the first 16th note out as a rest, and then start. Or, instead, if you don't want to confuse anybody, you just play something there and then you start your thought process in one 16th, or two 16ths. [Demonstrates on "Billy in the Lowground."] You do the same tune, everything right in place, you just put your phrase endings in funny places. I guess, to do a tune like that, improvise on it, you've got to have a pretty good handle on it. I've got tunes that I can play note for note, but, if I relax myself, I'll usually start fussin' with it.

What do you consider the "language" of fiddle tunes?

Boy, that'd be real hard to say! It's like Clifford Hawthorne -- an old boy I grew up with -- he used to say, "I may not be the best fiddler you ever heard, but, by God, I can tell when one's a bein' played!" I don't know how to tell you that. I can just listen to one and tell whether it's in the ballpark or not. Benny Thomasson and Mark O'Connor are wonderful improvisers, and it's all in the fiddle tune language. The improvs almost sound like they were engraved in stone.

Another good exercise that I really love to do is take a tune that doesn't have a whole lot of parts and just start making up parts as you go, just playing it as if it had a whole bunch of parts... I think the one thing that helps in improvising is always try to play in time, even when you're working something out, try to keep it going and try to keep it in time. Don't stop and noodle it out, or do that as little as possible, because then if you don't hit something, something else will come out. It'll be okay. And then the next time around, you can go for the thing again, and if it doesn't work, you've got something else.

How'd you decide you were going to become a professional musician?

I didn't decide. It just kinda took me over. I was originally going to be a riverboat pilot and music was my second choice, and it just wouldn't let me alone. It tortures me by not allowing me to be quite as good as I want to be. My lifelong quest now is trying to teach my body how to reproduce what I hear in my head...

Have you done some historical research on tracking tunes back?

I sure have. Well, I read through these old tune books and every time I find a tune that sounds like something else, I try to figure out what it is and then I make a notation on a 3X5 card and drop it in the card file. I love the fiddle tunes of the Big Sandy River Valley [between Kentucky and West Virginia] and I like the tunes from back home in Missouri, and I like the stuff in Texas and when I hear one, I try to figure out where it's from and what it's like... The study of fiddle tunes is a whole lot like studying words. If you read the Oxford dictionary and it starts talking about the history of words, it talks about it in terms of where was the first time this word was published, or where was the first time that we heard this word... So I kinda put that to fiddle tunes, too...

Do you think there's a difference between tunes that came over from the British Isles and tunes that were written here?

Yeah. The British Isles stuff is mostly real dotted. But I feel very confident that the old time fiddling even in the Big Sandy River Valley and in Missouri in the vintage of the War Between the States was probably sounding a lot more Celtic than what we're used to. I think we've had a lot of ragtime and black influence that's made it sound like what we hear today, which I dearly love. Or it also may be that what we're hearing might be a lot closer to the way it was originally and that it didn't change here and it changed back there. It was one of the two. [Plays "Paddy on the turnpike" with a dotted feel.] Now, if you take that lilt, that dotted note feel, and just swing it just a hair, then you're pretty close to what Ed Haley's doing.

So he kind of bridges the gap.

Yeah... Count Basie's playing with a lilt.

Do you know much about how waltzes got into old time fiddling?

I think the waltz is the German influence. Most of this country got settled with Scotch-Irish and German. My background is Scotch-Irish, with a little bit of German and a tiny little bit of French and a little bit of English. Here Scotch-Irish is the main channel, and the tributaries are the German, and Afro, and Scandinavian. The river of music comes down through Shetland Islands and down through Scotland and then down through Ireland and then over to this country, and all up and down the east coast, and then into Pennsylvania and down into the Appalachians and down through the Ohio River Valley and up the Mississippi and down the Mississippi and out the Missouri and then just swinging out through Texas. It's a whole river of Celtic music...

[This article is from the (out of print) Spring 1997 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]

[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” plays fiddle with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (]