Trying to Teach My Hands to Do What I Hear in My Head

The title of this post is actually the subtitle of John Hartford’s 1997 video entitled John Hartford’s Old Time Fiddling where he discusses and demonstrates many bowing styles and techniques, teaches several great tunes, and talks about what fiddling is for him.

John Hartford (1937-2001) was an American original. He was a Hall-of-Fame musician, award-winning songwriter, steamboat pilot, author, artist, disc jockey, calligrapher, dancer, folklorist, father, historian, and frustrated librarian. He won Grammy awards in three different decades, recorded a catalog of more than 30 albums, and wrote one of the most popular songs of all time, Gentle On My Mind. He was a regular guest and contributor on the Glen Campbell Good Time Hour and the Smothers Brothers Show. He added music and narration to Ken Burns’ landmark Civil War series, and was an integral part of the hugely popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and Down From The Mountain concert tour. He died on June 4, 2001, after a long battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Until last week, I never heard of him.

As a new member of Bluegrass Daddy, I was exploring the BGD Forum the other day when I came across a post about this video. After reading what a few folks had to say about John and this video, I decided to buy it. The only place it is still available, in DVD, is at Fiddler Magazine, where John did an interview with Peter Anick in the Spring 1997 edition.

While Fiddler Magazine does sell back issues, the Spring 1997 edition is now out of print, but I was able to find a pdf copy for download on their website. I have made it available here for download. It is in two parts:



Now, I’m not one to read or watch things in pieces. I like to sit and watch a whole movie or read a whole book. So, when I put this video in my DVD player, I thought I would watch the full almost 2 hour video in one sitting. After 20 minutes, I had to turn it off; I thought my head was going to explode. Talk about packing a lot into a punch! There is just so much to absorb, especially for a beginner.

I was especially intrigued when John started talking about how melody is right-brained and speech is left-brained, and playing the “melody of speech” on the fiddle…getting the instrument to say the words, or in other words “Trying to teach my hands what I hear in my head”.

One thing that struck me early on is this man breathed fiddle. Many fiddle players just play the fiddle, and you can tell the difference when you hear them. For John Hartman, playing the fiddle (or any music) was not something he did; it was a part of him like another appendage or a 6th sense.

This video is definitely one I have no choice but to watch a little at a time…thinking…contemplating…moving on…coming back. It is recommended for an intermediate player, but there are nuggets even a beginner like me can appreciate and learn from. I would recommend this video to anyone who is building a fiddling library.

  2 comments for “Trying to Teach My Hands to Do What I Hear in My Head

  1. Jeanette Bennett
    September 19, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    John Hartman used to play the banjo or fiddle while dancing on an amplified board for percussion! Here is a sample on YouTube.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_87xfuaHDE

    Okay, you can learn to do that with your fiddling a little further down the road. 🙂
    (Or maybe John was the only one ever good enough to accomplish that.)

    • September 20, 2019 at 4:14 am

      Hi Jeanette. I remember reading that about John Hartman. In fact, he is credited with inventing his own shuffle tap dance move. This video is a great example of that. As for me, I have enough trouble playing the right strings when I am sitting still! It will be a while before I try something like dancing while playing! 😮

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