Gentle On My Mind: John Hartford (songwriter) | Glen Campbell (singer)
This is a perfect example of how a great song will find a way.
John Hartford was a nascent writer and DJ who lived in a trailer in Nashville in 1966 when he wrote Gentle On My Mind in 20 to 30 minutes. Two years later, some 50 artists had covered it, including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Tammy Wynette, and The Mills Brothers with Count Basie. Eventually, the song was covered by more than 300 artists in 12 different languages with everyone from Alison Krauss to REM wanting a piece of that action. According to BMI, it is the second most played radio song ~ in history!
Why do we love it so much? There’s a lyric in Gentle On My Mind that endears this song to me and might do the same for you.
"Through cupped hands round the tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re waving from the backroads by the rivers of my memories
Ever smiling, ever gentle on my mind"
Reminiscing about the matters of the heart is universal. However, there’s something so personal and vulnerable about these lyrics that makes it difficult to miss the raw honesty here. It’s as if he peeked inside our deepest longings and with a scratch of his pencil exposed them for the world to see. Hartford ends the song by using a backdrop of extreme poverty of material things juxtaposed with the wealth of a tender memory that provides him comfort. “Ever smiling, ever gentle” gives us the sense that he can pull up this feeling anytime he cares to pretend he’s holding his loved one close.
The craft is important here as well. This is a song about movement, traveling, rambling. Hartford used some songwriting tools that helps to create this sense of movement. He used internal rhymes - the lyric "through cupped hands round a tin can" is an example of an internal rhyme. He used alliteration - "cracklin' cauldron". He also didn't use a chorus, so we never go back. We're always moving forward in this song.
Enter Glen Campbell. Working with the Wrecking Crew in LA, Campbell heard Hartford’s version of the song. He recorded a simple demo version of the song that was good enough for Capital Records to release it as it was recorded. It launched Campbell’s performance career, moving him from studio musician to the spotlight.
The combination of the well crafted song and the minimal honest performance is so compelling because it is believable. Campbell delivers it in a straight forward manner using a simple arrangement. Nothing fancy, just a clean delivery of a great song.
And this, my friends, elevates this version of Gentle On My Mind to the status of a Perfect Union In Song.
Check it out: Gentle On My Mind - Glen Campbell and John Hartford