JOHN HARTFORD – Headin’ Down Into the Mystery Below – (Flying Fish) – 1978

John Hartford - Headin' Down Into the Mystery Below

I have fought the urge to rush out a Rod McKuen, who died a couple of days ago, comment today. I have commented on McKuen before, and I love his music, but I don't think it would be wise to write one today. Objectivity (what little I have), the various Rod McKuen albums I have to comment on, and the act of rushing are all considerations I took into account.

I decided instead to finish off this John Hartford album.

And, perhaps oddly, Hartford in many ways has similarities to McKuen. Not in music (at all) but in temperament – both look backwards, McKuen more inwards than Hartford, both can be wistful and melancholy, both can have bursts of biting satire, both used the past to show a different future, both wear their hearts on their sleeves and both can be quite quirky musically.

There is no better expression of that than on this John Hartford album.

John Hartford had a love of the Mississippi river and the steamboats / paddle steamers. So much so that he became a licensed steamboat captain.

The steamboats gently, and largely unobtrusively, paddling down the Mississippi river really seems to fit in with Hartford's personality. A romantic melancholy. A celebration of the past and the simple things in life, I couldn't imagine Hartford on a powerboat or water skiing or on that greatest of evil toys, the jet ski.

This album is an ode to the steamboat. A concept album of sorts.

Every song (all bar one, sort of, written by Hartford) is about steamboats or the wistful recollections and observations of a man who spends a lot of time on steamboats. And, that love of steamboats isn't a nostalgia for days past. This is a album of contemporary (1978) life on the Mississippi steamboats. Many of the steamboats he sings about were of recent (1978) vintage.

It's as if he says we have all these new inventions but I put my faith in these things of the past which are still relevant, useful and functional today.

The steamboats and the river, give him space to think. Just as the solitude of the open sea has created many songs (and books and films) the river here becomes a (perhaps existential) space where one can reflect on life without interruptions from those onshore.

It doesn't hurt that the "average surface speed of the (Mississippi) water is near 1.2 miles per hour – roughly one-third as fast as people walk" (thankyou US National Park Services), and that it is one of the longest and widest rivers in the world. It is (usually) calm and serene.

You may as well be on the open sea, in good weather.

The perfect place to think, perhaps.

Edward Faulkner, Mark Twain (and even open sea man Herman Melville) have written about the Mississippi and songs have been sung to it by Johnny Cash, Charlie Pride and others but Hartford has, over the course of a number of albums, sung about The Mississippi and its steamboats, on a regular basis.

Melancholy and observational he may be but in Hartford style, he is humorous and playful, even with his beloved steamboats. Being a "contemporary album" he generally stays away from the inherent dangers of old school steamboats (boilers were known to blow up) and the Mississippi when it floods but does acknowledge, in his lyrics, that there is work in running  a steamboat on the Mississippi.

That aside, this is his happy steamboat album.

No jokes about happy steamers please.

Apart from the backing vocals on a couple of tracks (as if patrons on the steamboat sidled up to join in on a sing-along) all the banjo, guitar, violin and lead vocals are by Hartford. There is no percussion though he keeps the beat and rhythm in our ears by dancing  on a piece of close miked plywood (3/4" 4×8 sheet of new Grade A unfinished plywood to be exact if any of you want to recreate the sound)

For background on John Hartford check out my other comments.

Tracks (best in italics)

  • The Mississippi Queen – "the biggest steamboat that was ever afloat on the Mississippi river back home" . Hartford doesn't reach back here. The Mississippi Queen was built in 1976. This song can be an ad and celebration of that, and her. (Sadly she was scrapped in 2009).
  • Mama Plays the Calliope – A calliope is a musical instrument that produces sound by sending steam through large whistles and were common on steamboats.
  • See the Julia Belle Swain – Hilarious. Hartford sings the travel brochure for the boat on which he apprenticed, the Julia Belle Swain, for his license.
  • On Christmas Eve – there is "no better place to be than out on the river on Christmas eve". Some beautiful banjo playing.
  • Natchez Whistle – an ode to the Natchez steamboat.
  • Kentucky Pool – a humorous song about trying to steer along the Mississippi ….it's like a song about a driving test.
  • Miss Ferris – a boy dreams of the Mississippi river whilst listening to his teacher Miss Ferris, who also loves the Mississippi.
  • Paducah – kids from Paducah, Kentucky dream of steamboats and the Mississippi…at least I think that's what it is about.
  • Headin' Down into the Mystery Below – Hartford tries to explain his love of the Mississippi river, whilst referencing the tale of a old steamboat wreck.  You can't get more personal that this.
  • Beatty's Navy – just steamboat sounds. From the liner notes: "Beatty's Navy" (The towboat "Claire E. Beatty") was recorded from the pilothouse of the "Julia Belle Swain" at Massengale Rock, Mile 446.0, Tennessee River, 18 miles below Chattanooga, while the former was raising the sunken towboat, "Sarah E. Thomas" in 1974. This past January, Capt. John Beatty lost his wife's namesake in the ice at Markland Dam on the Ohio River in a valiant effort to remove some barges that had drifted down on the piers. As this is being written salvage efforts are underway and by the time this album comes out we'll once again be able to hear his beautiful collection of whistles". More here:
  • In Plain View of the Town – the workings of a steamboat barge.

And …

Not the best John Hartford but a very personal album and ultimately very satisfying. It certainly is the best album ever written about steamboats….. I'm keeping it.

Chart Action


Nothing no where


The Mississippi Queen

See the Julia Belle Swain

mp3 attached

Miss Ferris






  • Backing Vocals– Billy Ray Reynolds, Diane Tidwell, Jack Greene, Jeannie Seely, Lisa Silver.  Banjo, Guitar, Violin, Vocals, Other [Dancing On Plywood Sheet], Written-by– John Hartford, Producer– Mike Melford.
  • This album was recorded at The Sound Shop in Nashville. "Beatty's Navy" (The Towboat "Claire E. Beatty") was recorded from the Pilot House of the "Julia Belle Swain" at Massengale Rock, Mile 446.0, Tennessee River, 18 miles below Chattanooga.




RIP Rod McKuen 1933 – 2015


About Franko

Hi, I'm just a person with a love of music, a lot of records and some spare time. My opinions are comments not reviews and are mine so don't be offended if I have slighted your favourite artist. I have listened to a lot of music and I don't pretend to be impartial. You can contact me on though I would rather you left a comment. I also sell music at Cheers
This entry was posted in Alt Country, Americana, Country, Folk and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply