John Hartford died seventeen years ago today, but his influence on today’s bluegrass and acoustic scene remains as strong and direct as any other founding figure in the music, including Bill Monroe himself. That’s because Hartford, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, showman and historian, was a ground breaking pioneer of progressive, individualistic string band music from the 1960s until his untimely death from Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Hartford enjoyed the deep respect of the most traditional masters in the scene even as he made sometimes playful, sometimes far-out music that sparked the newgrass and jamgrass branches of the bluegrass tree.
Now a new book captures one of Hartford’s most passionate and personal pursuits, composing original music for the fiddle. John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes is an anthology curated from 68 spiral bound music notebooks that Hartford filled over the last 20 years of his life. The book presents the music in Hartford’s own unique hand, complete with his careful, calligraphic song titles and whimsical drawings.
“This is essentially John’s journal,” said Nashville fiddler Matt Combs, who helped edit the collection. “Because he wrote in it every day. Each title had the significance of what was going on that particular day. It had the date, the location. So it was just what this guy was going through all the time. You could track his mood by it.”
Also credited with selecting and annotating the collection are John’s daughter Katie Harford Hogue and Greg Reish, director of MTSU’s Center for Popular Music, where the notebooks were scanned for eventual use by scholars and musicians in digital format.
“John was an ardent student and scholar of fiddling, and I think he wanted to write himself into that tradition,” said Reish. “This is a very rich aspect of his artistic output that’s been mostly dormant for 17 years. He would have been gratified to have this out.”
The title of the ‘Mammoth Collection’ is an homage to a seminal volume of American fiddle repertoire called Ryan’s Mammoth Collection first published in 1884.
Combs, a widely credited musician and educator and a former Grand Ole Opry house band fiddler, enjoyed a close relationship with Hartford. As a new musician to town in the late 1990s, Combs sought out the tutelage of the late Frazier Moss, Dean of the Old Time Tennessee Fiddlers, who introduced him to Hartford. Combs transcribed numerous tunes to help Hartford in his study of the important fiddler Ed Haley, and he played in Hartford’s string band in the final year before the leader became unable to perform due to his illness.
Hartford was a fiddler who practiced at home with a metronome until he could no longer play. Combs remembers hours sitting with the artist at his long dining room table at his home on the bluffs above the Cumberland River in Madison, TN trading tunes and observing Hartford’s careful attention to how rhythm worked in traditional music. This got poured into the material that makes up the Mammoth Collection.
Combs said, “It shows what a student of old time fiddle John was and to the very end he was studying, working like a Trojan to learn more about the instrument and the history of it and just getting deeper and deeper into the nuances and minutiae of fiddling.”