John Hartford was a young man that played old-time music on his fiddle while he clog danced. With his bowler hat and a genuine smile, he was hard to miss. Until his untimely passing, John was a mainstay at bluegrass and folk music concerts as well as PBS documentaries. His voice was one of those in the Ken Burns Civil War documentary on PBS, but his stylish fiddle dancing is probably how many of the people who loved him see him whenever he is remembered.
John Hartford and the Dillards. Here is how those two iconic names in old-time and bluegrass music came together.John grew up in St. Louis where he and the Dillard family became friends. Homer Dillard, known to all as “Pop”, worked at the Swift packing company in East St. Louis, and every evening after work, he would come home, pick up his fiddle and start playing with his sons, Douglas and Rodney, and their friend John. To understand the story is to see how music, especially old-time music, is passed from generation to generation through the family unit. Songs that came from the Celtic regions of the British Isles made it to America’s shores and continued to be played, mostly by rural families in the new world.
That was how Pop’s had been passed on to him, then to his sons and John. Pop knew all the old songs and taught them to the boys, giving them a full-blown understanding of that old-time music. Pop not only knew the songs but could play them on the fiddle while he clog danced. I’m not sure whether he was dancing to the music or if the clogging was serving as the rhythm section to his fiddle playing. Either way, it all came together in a beautiful and touching rendition of the old songs.
I met the Dillards on their first road trip out of Salem, Missouri. I was playing with a newly formed folk group at Faragher’s Back Room in Cleveland in the summer of 1963 or 64. It’s hard to remember dates back that far. I do remember I had recently graduated from college and that this bluegrass group was like nothing I had ever seen or heard. Oh, I used to see Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt when they came to town, but this kind of bluegrass was much more like folk music. I also remember that their opening act was Bill Cosby who had come in from The Bitter End in Greenwich Village.
When I was in Hollywood trying to make it with Brewer and Shipley, we did a lot of shows with the Dillards who, by then, had become good friends. And, as luck would have it, 15 years later I found myself living about 30 miles from their home town. I had also known John for several years but never new the connection. I knew they did shows together but never that they had been friends as kids, and nothing about Pop and how he fit into the picture.
In the 1980s I became a video producer and was looking around for stories I could tell about the Ozarks. The Dillards, I thought. In doing my research it didn’t take long to hear about Pop and how John fit into the picture. So off I went to do a story, not about the group itself but about Pop and how he influenced the music I had heard for so long. I heard about the music, the early days when he, the boys, and John would play all night, and was invited to do attend a Dillard Thanksgiving Day family reunion.
At some point John heard about the project and agreed to come up to Salem, tell some stories, and do some pickin’. That was my chance to get some real history, and I found an old building where I could get John and Pop fiddle dancing together. It was great. Doug Dillard was there with his banjo, and the two fiddlers began dancing together. That piece and a whole lot more ended up in a documentary called “Precious Memories”” — Pop’s favorite song. The documentary, which aired on PBS, can be found on this site.