Monday, May 4, 2009

Of Canoes and Tall Buildings . . .

John Hartford is one of my alltime favorite artists and an early inspiration for creating a separate country-ish blog in "Weed, Whites & Wine." I chanced upon this songwriter and renowned instrumentalist through his most famous song, "Gentle On My Mind." Of the hundreds of versions out there, it was Elvis' version from his Elvis in Memphis sessions that initially won my heart. While some might roll their eyes at this pop-country staple, to me it was new and the lyrics were extremely vivid, simple and honest - all three things speak to Hartford's musical legacy. Hartford wrote and sang about what he loved: freedom, boats, the Mississippi river and love.

I'd been meaning to get around to doing a post about some Hartford tunes so when this Monday morning rolled around and I struggled to face another week, I thought of one of my favorite anti-corporate anthems and no, we're not talking about a Rage Against the Machine song. We're talking about Hartford's, "In Tall Buildings." This song hit me back when I had just moved to New York City and I was working at a great job on the Upper East Side. As I got ready for work one morning, I put on a record as I often did while getting dressed. As I wrestled with my neck-tie the words of the song sank in:

Someday, baby, when I am a man,
and other's have taught me
the best that they can
they'll sell me a suit
and cut off my hair
and send me to work in tall buildings

and it's goodbye to the sunshine
goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers
and goodbye to you
I'm off to the subway
I must not be late
going to work in tall buildings

now when I retire
and my life is my own
I made all the payments
it's time to go home
and wonder what happened
betwixt and between
when I went to work in tall buildings

and it's goodbye to the sunshine
goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers
and goodbye to you
I'm off to the subway
I mustn't be late
going to work in tall buildings

Damn! I nearly quit my job that same day. I kept the job and eventually upgraded to one that didn't require a suit, though I still find myself rushing to the subway. I think of this song often and how Hartford managed to have his cake and eat it too, leading a particularly unconventional life.

As the story goes, Hartford rode the post-Dylan wave with a run of solo albums on RCA in the late sixties that yielded his biggest hit and one of the most recorded songs in history, "Gentle on My Mind." Hartford was known to say that that song bought him his freedom. With this freedom he took some time off and got his license to be a riverboat pilot. This pretty much sums up Hartford from the biography on his website, "Summer days might find him piloting the Julia Belle Swain on her afternoon run, before entertaining the passengers at night. During festival season, his amazing instinct for single-handedly captivating an audience would often have him leaving the stage and leading a processional of joyful dancers through the grounds, like a fiddle-playing pied piper."

I've picked two songs to showcase today, the second being "In Tall Buildings" and the first being the title track from his mid-80s album, "Gum Tree Canoe". Above is a picture of John and his wife in their own gum tree canoe. I feel like the two songs combined present a picture of how I, for one, would want to rank my personal priorities in life and live them out in the spirit of John Hartford. RIP.

John Hartford - Gum Tree Canoe
My dad has always had a canoe and I grew up with these simple, yet elegant boats on every summer camping trip. In fact, we're in the midst of planning the next one for this summer and I can't stop thinking about taking the canoe out in the early morning before the rest of the campers are awake.

John Hartford - In Tall Buildings
Wouldn't it be nicer to say:
hello to the sunshine
hello to the dew
hello to the flowers
and hello to you . . .

Both of these songs as well as my favorite version of "Gentle On My Mind" are collected on an excellent compilation of Hartford's Flying Fish sides, called "Oh Me Oh My How The Time Does Fly."

1 comment:

David C. said...

I saw John Hartford live but once, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, in the late 80s or early 90s, with the Dillards. I think they were touring in support of the album "Dillard, Hartford, and Dillard". What a great show and what a fabulous venue! We were about 15 feet from the stage. I read somewhere that one of the only things in the contract rider that John insisted on was a sheet of plywood for the stage. He danced and clogged and made the rhythm track for the performance, singing and/or fiddling and/or playing the guitar or banjo or whatever at the same time. Now that I think about it, he may have even traveled with a sheet of plywood instead. His stage presence was warm, unaffected, engaging, funny, musical, entertaining, and engaging (worth repeating).

I never heard him sing a song that I didn't fall in love with. Two of my favorites were "I Didn't Know the World Would Last This Long" and "I've Heard the Tear-Stained Monologue You Do There by the Door Before You Go". I listened to those on my stereo more times than I cold count or remember. As you seem to imply for your take on "Tall Buildings", I felt that those two songs were written to speak for me personally, with my early years of seemingly sad and unrequited love.

It was John, along with Pete and Mike Seeger, that inspired me to take up the 5 string banjo. I agree with your wish that he RIP, but the world was simply a better place for his having been in it, and my life stood a better chance of running long and prosperous because of his music. Thanks.