John Hartford

Musician and songwriter John Hartford penned the country classic “Gentle On My Mind.”

I often wonder why we remember some of the smallest, most insignificant things.

I have a very clear memory of a day in late winter during an art class at Greeneville Middle School. We were all working diligently on some art project and the teacher, Jeanne Trusty, was wondering around the room, keeping an eye on our progress. As she walked by the classroom window, she said, “It’s snowing!”

As we all looked up and started to murmur in excitement, she continued, “that your door is always open,” in a sing-song voice, and then laughed at our collective groan. She loved doing stuff like that.

What’s interesting about it now is that we all immediately recognized the song lyric. We may not all have known the title or whose record was being played on the radio at the time, but we all knew that it was the opening line of a popular song.

I knew it was a Glen Campbell song because my mama listened to country music. A lot. And my younger brother, Shane, used to call himself Glen Campbell because people said Shane looked like Glen when he was little. I think it was the hair.

The other thing that I knew was how the song made me feel. The words were so descriptive, and even at that age, I saw how words and music could paint a picture. “I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’, cracklin’ caldron in some train yard…” So evocative. My mind’s eye can even see the rusted barrel that he’s probably sitting on and the steam rising “through cupped hands ‘round the tin can.”

The melody that accompanies the words and keeps the stanzas from having to rhyme also gives the song a flowing feeling, much like the river of the singer’s memory that he mentions throughout. And I can’t help but smile every time I hear the last stanza, “by the rivers of my memories, ever smilin,’ ever gentle on my mind.”

I was reminded of “Gentle On My Mind” recently when Chip McLain, a musical friend who teaches others about bluegrass and who played bass for us in “Always…Patsy Cline,” posted a video of John Hartford playing the banjo, singing the song, and ‘dancing’ to provide his own percussion. I hadn’t thought about Mr. Hartford or his music in years, but the video brought it all back.

For those not familiar, John Hartford was an incredibly talented musician and songwriter. “Gentle On My Mind” is his most famous song, and I’m sure the success of it allowed him some freedom to create rather than having to be pushed to be “successful” in the music business. He always performed in a white shirt with a vest and tie and wore a black bowler hat. It was an iconic look and worked extremely well for his later career on the General Jackson Showboat in Nashville.

My mama is responsible for my knowledge of John Hartford, too. She so admired his persona and his creativity. She saw him perform at a bluegrass festival and then she insisted that we see him, too. I can remember her excitement when he performed his “washing machine song,’ as she called it. In it, he sings about how he doesn’t like their new washing machine because it just sits and hums, while the old one made great noises and “groovy puddles” on the floor. Then he would vocally make the noises. She thought that was such a hoot!

Besides his vocal talents, he could play the acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle. He also had a piece of plywood that he would “play” during his show. It was wired somehow to create sounds as he danced on it or even just poked it with his fiddle bow. I don’t know how it worked, but work it did. I’m certain, in this day and age, I could research it and find out how he did it, but I continue to be content in my fascination with it. It was also the first time I saw a one-man show be able to hold the attention of a field full of music-lovers, many of whom had been fortified with adult beverages.

I knew from my mama that Mr. Hartford wrote “Gentle On My Mind,” so I did a quick internet search and learned that he penned those wonderful melodic lyrics in about half an hour after watching the movie, “Dr. Zhivago.” I’ve yet to watch that movie, but my limited knowledge of it can’t figure out why it would lead to a song like “Gentle On My Mind.” I may have to move that one to my must-watch list now. Inspiration comes from the strangest places sometimes. Thanks, Chippy!

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Greeneville native Paige Mengel is a Tusculum College alumna, CPA, arts admirer and business coordinator of Greeneville Theatre Guild. Contact Paige at paigemengel@gmail.com.

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