"Nothing would please John more than knowing that the library that he collected over a lifetime is going to live on and be available for years to come. This is an important and original collection of material, and one that the Blair School of Music is lucky to have.”
- Matt Combs
John Hartford had an extensive collection of steamboat memorabilia that is now held by the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library within the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The Mercantile is the oldest historical library west of the Mississippi and was founded in 1846 by a group of business executives with an abiding interest in the nation's inland rivers, particularly the Old Miss. The Pott National Inland Waterways Library was created in 1985, when the Mercantile greatly expanded its waterways-related holdings.
A John Hartford Memorial Music Festival takes place annually at the Bill Monroe Memorial Park in Bean Blossom, Indiana.
The John Hartford String Band (Bob Carlin, banjo; Matt Combs, fiddle; Mike Compton, mandolin; Mark Schatz, bass; and guitarist Chris Sharp), made a recording Memories of John at the Blair School of Music in 2010. It was nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award in the Best Traditional Folk Album category. Memories of John features guest artists Alison Brown, George Buckner, Béla Fleck, Tim O’Brien, Alan O’Bryant, and Eileen Carson Schatz.
John Hartford (1937-2001) remains best known for the country-pop song "Gentle on My Mind," a major hit and theme song for Glen Campbell and later covered by hundreds of musicians. This song brought Campbell and Hartford to national prominence through appearances on television shows staring and produced by Tom and Dick Smothers. Hartford was a multi-talented old-time musician, a riverboat captain, a DJ, a satirical songwriter, and one of the founders of both progressive country music and old-time string music revivalism.
Growing up in St. Louis near the Mississippi River, he worked on a barge as a young boy. He liked the traditional country music he heard on the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts and by age 13 he was an accomplished fiddler and five-string banjo player whose main influences were Stringbean and Earl Scruggs. In 1965 he moved with his wife and son Jamie to Nashville to work as a DJ at radio station WSIX. While in Nashville, he connected with the Glaser Brothers, who owned a state-of-the-art recording studio and promoted Hartford and his songs around Music Row. Signing with the RCA label in 1966, Chet Atkins produced his first two albums John Hartford Looks at Life and Earthwords & Music, which features the hit "Gentle on My Mind."
With his career as a songwriter well-established with “Gentle On My Mind”, Hartford went to California in 1968, where he played on the Byrds' classic album, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, and worked as a scriptwriter/performer on CBS's Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. He spent two years in Hollywood before returning to Nashville in 1971 to record a groundbreaking acoustic album, Aereo-Plain. The album's experimental "jam band" approach is credited with challenging the boundaries of acoustic music and laying the groundwork for what is now considered the "new-grass" genre of bluegrass.
In 1976, Hartford's lifelong love of the Mississippi River led him to record an album of river-oriented songs, Mark Twang. Inspired by his summers working as a pilot on the Julia Belle Swain steamboat, it was the first album by Hartford that was unaccompanied and featured him switching between banjo, fiddle and guitar, while tapping his feet rhythmically on plywood. The album earned Hartford a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording.
By the late '80s Hartford was battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but he continued to record and perform until he lost the use of his hands shortly before his death in 2001. He performed and recorded with his son Jamie, re-recorded and reissued his earlier work on his own Small Dog Barking label, and kept busy with several projects such as the narration for the Ken Burns public-television series The Civil War.
In the final year of his life, Hartford received a Grammy for his contributions to the soundtrack of the O' Brother Where Art Thou movie. Along with Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley and other artists from that platinum-selling album, he performed as part of Down from the Mountain, a documentary and recording of their concert at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium.
Known to be a librarian at heart, he collected books while on tour establishing a large collection of materials rich in biographies of musicians, histories of the fiddle and banjo, fiddle tune books, and music of the South. He was an avid music historian and was working on a book about the blind fiddler Ed Haley at the time of his death.