David Royko Psy.D
This brief piece was written prior to a Chicago-area appearance of Hartford's. My editor said, "I thought you were going to write about John Hartford, and instead I get an article on someone named Ed Haley!" "I couldn't help it," I said. "As soon as I mentioned how much I enjoyed his Haley-based projects, Hartford said 'Anyone who likes Ed Haley is a friend of mine!' and that's all he wanted to talk about from then on." Not that I minded...
July 24, 1998
JOHN HARTFORD FOLLOWS HEART TO HALEY
By David Royko
By 1981, John Hartford was a 43-year-old veteran of the music business, with a string of popular and critically acclaimed songs and albums stretching back to the mid-1960s, including "Gentle On My Mind," one of the biggest tunes of a generation. Where another musician would have been content to coast, Hartford found something that changed the course of his musical life.
"When I discovered Ed Haley, it was like the first time I discovered [banjoist] Earl Scruggs," says Hartford with a hint of awe.
When Hartford stumbled upon an LP's worth of tunes recorded in the 1940s by Haley, a relatively obscure West Virginia fiddler, "it pinned my ears back."
Haley (1883-1954) was precisely the kind of musician that would appeal to Hartford, one who played from the soul more than from a manual on how to make it in music.
"I do what's in my heart," says Hartford. "If it works, that's great. If it doesn't work, then at least I haven't wasted my time. I've been accused of doing an awful lot of things that friends of mine in the music business say are not necessarily good career moves. But I can't help it. I have to follow my heart."
And since Haley has entered his heart, Hartford has dedicated much of his creative energy to disseminating the unique sounds of Haley's fiddling through two double-CD sets of ancient yet powerful Haley recordings and two Hartford albums of material Haley played but did not record (all on Rounder Records).
Hartford has also assimilated the enigmatic giant's art into his own, with a noticeable change in his approach to the fiddle.
"I like my bowing better now," says Hartford. "Bowing is the handwriting of fiddling, [determining] the shapes of the notes, the textures of the notes, the way they taper down and dovetail into the next note. From that you get into the phrasing and the tonality.
"Haley's sound is impossible to describe because it starts conjuring up pictures right away, and the pictures get in the way of description. It goes to a whole other level, almost like you see places, feel temperatures, smells, all kinds of stuff."