March 2002

John Hartford - Hamilton Ironworks
Rounder Select 82161-0442-2
Released: 2001

by Doug Blackburn

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment *****

[Reviewed on CD]America lost a national treasure in June 2001, when John Hartford died after a decade-long battle against non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Up to the end, he remained the performer his fans knew and loved -- funny, in that inimitable ironic, sarcastic way that made his point with a laugh rather than drawing blood.

His career spanned the last 40 years. In the hippie days, he wrote "Gentle On My Mind" and appeared regularly on The Smothers Brothers' Comedy Hour. He achieved artistic success in the 1970s as a uniquely American solo folk artist, playing on The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and releasing Aereo Plain; in the 1990s, his amazing albums ran the gamut from good-ol’-boy pick-fests to historic folk-music chronicles. His love of the Mississippi and riverboats culminated in his receiving a coveted river pilot’s license late in life, but still early enough to enjoy the accomplishment. Perhaps only John Hartford could pull off "Granny Woncha Smoke Some Marijuana" and a "Somewhere My Love/We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart" medley on the same album -- Nobody Knows What You Do.

Hamilton Ironworks is Hartford’s last recording. It continues his unique series of recent albums, exploring different aspects of the music Hartford loved -- some were tributes through music he composed, others were chronicles or histories. Hamilton Ironworks is a collection of songs Hartford grew up with, songs that resonated with him over his entire life. Another incarnation of the Hartford String Band swings, sways and bounces through some very fine music. The songs here are not familiar old-timey chestnuts. I recognized only two of the 21 tunes. Everything else was new to me and may very well be new to you. All of the instruments are acoustic -- fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass.

Sound-wise, there’s nothing particularly outstanding nor is there anything worth criticizing. The soundstage is modest in size, but the tonality of the instruments is good. The music isn’t of the sonic-spectacular genre, so the recording quality is perfectly OK for these performances.

Hartford's approach to these tunes is unique among all my musical experiences. Hartford takes these wonderful fiddle tunes, virtually all instrumentals, and, when the feeling hits him, he chants out a story or remembrance he associates with the song. Could be about Roy, who gets drunk at an all-weekend party and falls face first into the woodpile and skins up his nose. Or maybe about Chester Arthur, the one-armed fiddler who played the hell out of "Woodchopper’s Breakdown," possibly a line or two about the unfortunate whose "backbone broke and his ass caved in" -- or perhaps something about the danger of tossing an unopened can of beans into the fire. The reminisces are narrative chants, not lyrics in the conventional sense. They sound as if they may even be ad-libs, too casual and natural to have been planned out in advance. If they are ad-libs, Hartford’s genius for timing and minimalist tale telling is a musical gift you shouldn’t miss. I wasn’t sure what to make of this the first couple of times I listened to this disc, but Hamilton Ironworks has grown on me to the point that it is in near-constant rotation, if not at home, then in the car.

The celebration of life in Hamilton Ironworks is almost powerful enough to compensate for my now-lost dream of being a guest on a sternwheeler with Hartford in the pilothouse by day, and on the decks by evening, pickin’ and fiddlin’ tunes that float out across the river that’s too thick to navigate and too thin to plow. Not having a new John Hartford album every year or so is going to be quite an adjustment.