Besides being a million-selling songwriter and one of the most delightfully idiosyncratic performers in traditional-style folk music, John Hartford is also a licensed steamboat captain with a love for the Mississippi River that rivals Mark Twain's. Headin' Down Into the Mystery Below from 1978 is Hartford's purest expression of his love for steamboats and river rides, with 11 original songs on the subject. Hartford's songs are so pure that it sounds like he made them up at the wheel of the boat, which may well be true; in the case of the hilarious "See the Julia Belle Swain," he actually sings the travel brochure for the boat on which he apprenticed for his license, occasionally answered by the five-person chorus who are the only other musicians on the album. Accompanying himself on banjo, guitar, and violin, as well as providing rhythm by dancing on a close-miked sheet of 3/4" plywood, Hartford sings in his friendly tenor tales of boats and trips in such homely, vivid images that it's easy for listeners to imagine themselves on the top decks of the Mississippi Queen even if the closest they've ever come to a steamboat is the old Reprise Records logo. The tunes range from playful ditties like "Mama Plays the Calliope" (which Hartford pronounces "CALLY-ope," to rhyme with "Brother throws the rope"), the bucolic tale of a family-run steamboat, to the title track, the haunting tale of a wreck that's followed by the poignant "Beatty's Navy," a simple field recording of the whistle of a steamboat that's salvaging another from the bottom of the Tennessee River. John Hartford has arguably made better records than Headin' Down Into the Mystery Below, but none have been so personal and loving.
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AllMusic Review by Stewart Mason