Album 1: Headin’ Down into the Mystery Below
- The Mississippi Queen, 3:30
- Mama Plays The Calliope, 2:45
- See The Julia Belle Swain, 2:30
- On Christmas Eve, 3:20
- Natchez Whistle, 2:55
- Kentucky Pool, 2:30
- Miss Ferris, 7:00
- Paducah, 2:10
- Headin’ Down Into The Mystery Below, 5:30
- Beatty’s Navy
- In Plain View of the Town, 2:30
Album 2: Slumberin’ on the Cumberland
- Slumberin’ on the Cumberland, 4:44
- Greenback Dollar/Careless Love, 2:57
- Love In Vain, 3:16
- If I Can Stay Away Long Enough, 2:55
- Hillman, 2:15
- Southern Moon, 3:11
- I Can Read Between The Lines In Your Letter, 2:15
- Blue Writin’ On White Paper, 3:15
- First Fall of Snow, 3:13
- Fiddle Faddle, 2:06
- Go Fall Asleep Now, 3:50
A Word from the Producer – Michael Melford
In a recording career spanning a third of a century, John Hartford released 35 studio albums of his own and numerous record projects with other artists. He experimented with a wide variety of album concepts, lyric themes, musical styles, and combinations of backup players and singers. During the years 1976 to 1981, I had the pleasure of producing around a dozen of those records. The two albums reissued here, originally released on Flying Fish Records as LPs and until now out of print, are each unique in their own way. Yet, taken together, they provide a snapshot of a time when John was completing a transition from his Hollywood years back to his roots in Middle America.
Headin’ Down into the Mystery Below
John had a lifelong love for riverboats, particularly the paddlewheel steamboats that plied America’s inland waterways in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was introduced to the romance of the paddlewheeler as a boy at the St. Louis Community School by a teacher, Ruth Ferris, who John always referred to affectionately as Miss Ferris. A song he wrote in tribute to her in 1977 is included here.
In the early 1970s John became friendly with Dennis Trone, the owner of one of the last steam-powered paddlewheelers, the Julia Belle Swain, which carried tourists on summertime day trips on the Illinois River at Peoria. Whenever John had a few days off from his touring schedule, he would take his banjo and ride along, often giving impromptu performances for the passengers. The river at Peoria froze in winter, so in the fall Captain Trone moved the boat up the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers to warmer waters at Chattanooga. He invited John to come along on these passages. In order to legally pilot the boat, John studied for a U.S. Coast Guard master license. I remember how proud he was when he called me from New Orleans to say that he had just passed the examination.
All of the songs on the Headin’ Downalbum concern John’s fascination with river life. The stories for some of them came from author and steamboat owner Frederick Way, Jr., of Sewickley, Pennsylvania. John greatly admired Captain Way, who became a mentor to him. John refers to him in his “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” recorded for his 1971 album Aereo-Plain. While he had also written about river boating for our Grammy-winning 1976 album Mark Twang, with Headin’ Downhe probed more deeply into his own emotional attachment to the river and to the people who make their lives on it. The long transits up and down the Tennessee on the Julia Belle Swain, when he would often be alone in the pilot house late at night, inspired him to write about what these experiences meant to him.
The musical arrangements for Headin’ Downare unlike any we used before or afterward. John’s earliest albums for RCA and for Warner Bros., all featured backup musicians. By the time he made Mark Twang, his first solo album, he was doing live shows as a kind of one-man band, playing, singing, and dancing on an amplified plywood board. This added percussion to his sound as well as a visual element to his shows. Part of the rationale for doing Mark Twangsolo was to give listeners a recorded souvenir of his live performances. As he continued to develop his stage show, he encouraged audience members to sing along with him. For Headin’ Down, John sought to capture that sing-along quality by inviting a few friends, including Grand Ole Opry stars Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely, to sing backup with him. He played all the instruments himself, including his amplified dancing board.
Like some of his earlier albums, on Headin’ Downalbum John designed the LP cover, featuring pen and ink drawings and hand-lettered notes. It was part of John’s artistic impulse to control as many aspects of record making as he could to personalize his work product insofar as possible. In his youth he had enrolled in a commercial arts program at Washington University but left after 4 years of a 5 year program to pursue his career in music. Now he could put his visual art skills to use.
Slumberin’ on the Cumberland
It was during this period of intense involvement with river boating that John, having resided in Los Angeles since 1968, decided to move back to Nashville. In Hollywood he had become a television star, appearing on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (John’s “Gentle on my Mind” was the theme song), and hosting his own CBS show, ”Something Else.” Although John owned a series of houses and apartments in L.A., by the mid-1970s he was spending most of his time on the road, without a real home. He had taken to wearing journalist’s jackets with as many pockets as he could find, in which he filed 3 x 5 cards filled with his song lyrics, his calendar, addresses and phone numbers, and reminders to himself. In this pre-digital era he referred to his jacket as his office desk. It was time for him to get a proper place of his own, where he could devote himself to his interests when not traveling.
John bought a small house just outside Nashville, in Madison, Tennessee. He could have afforded a much grander property, but this house had special meaning for him because it was right next to the Cumberland River, on the high side of a bend, where he could watch boats traveling upstream and down and exchange greetings with the pilots. It was here that he conceived the idea to make an album with two friends, Pat Burton and Benny Martin. The result was Slumberin’ on the Cumberland.
John met Pat in Central Illinois in the early 1960s, while he was working as a DJ on radio station WHOW in Clinton, and playing weekend shows at outdoor parks across the region. Among the performers who played on WHOW were the Bray Brothers—Harley, Nate, and Francis—talented bluegrass musicians from Urbana, who sometimes brought along their friend and guitar player Pat Burton. John recruited Pat and the Brays to perform with him on his shows. He came to love Pat for his sense of fun as well as for their shared enjoyment of bluegrass, and they stayed in touch when John moved to Nashville in 1965. In 1974, John encouraged Pat to make an album of humorous songs, backed by the Brays, Vassar Clements, and himself, which I produced for Flying Fish.
Although Benny Martin, a powerful fiddler as well as a songwriter and singer, had been in Nashville since the 1940s, John did not meet him until he moved back to town. Benny had played with many of the early greats of bluegrass, including Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Don Reno, and his childhood friend from Sparta, Tennessee, Lester Flatt, and his partner, Earl Scruggs, before becoming a star of the Grand Ole Opry himself in the 1950s. By the time John got to know him, Benny’s health had declined and his career had stalled, but he was still a wonderful musician and a hilarious storyteller. John helped revive Benny’s career by convincing Bruce Kaplan, the owner of Flying Fish, and me to make an album for Benny, which resulted in his Tennessee Jubilee, featuring appearances by John and by Lester Flatt.
John briefly told the story of how Slumberin’ on the Cumberlandcame about in his hand-written liner notes for the LP. “The first time Benny and Vera came over here, Benny took one look at how close we were to the river and said, ‘man, this is slumberin’ on the Cumberland.’” That line became the title of a song they put together and eventually the title of the album.
John, Pat and Benny got together at John’s house to swap song ideas and work out what to record—a combination of original compositions by each of them with some old-time favorites of theirs, such as the Delmore Brothers’ “Southern Moon” and Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain.” Photographer JD Sloan took shots for the cover that captured the slightly wacky spirit of the gathering. Everyone then moved on to the Sound Shop recording studio, where Rich Adler, who engineered many of our records, and an A-list group of musicians were waiting. These included Buddy Emmons on steel guitar, Sam Bush on mandolin, Henry Strzelecki on electric bass, Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano, and Larrie Londin on drums, as well as John’s upright bass player, Roy Huskey, Jr. It was one of those recording sessions where everything just flows naturally. All the tracks came together in one or two takes. There was nothing elaborate, but there was great spirit and inspired playing, much of it improvised on the spot.
After almost forty years, this happy recording of great friends and gifted players making music together sounds as fresh to me as it did when we made it.
Michael Melford is an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer in Boston. From the 1960s to the 1980s he was a studio musician and composer, and a producer of over 100 record albums. His credits include albums by Michael Bloomfield, Lester Flatt, Buddy Emmons, Rose Maddox, Doug and Rodney Dillard, Geoff Muldaur, David Bromberg, and records featuring Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, and Doc Watson as guest artists. He met John Hartford in 1963 in Central Illinois and began working with him in 1971, when he was asked to produce albums by each of the members of John’s Aereo-Plain band, Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, and Tut Taylor.