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John Harrod Oral History Interview

Interviews conducted and transcribed by Scott Prouty, 2012 Berea Appalachian Sound Archives Fellow.

Early Exposure to Music

SP:  You were talking earlier about your dad and your uncle and how you had their stuff. He was Rufus Harrod?

JH:  Yes.

 SP:  I've seen his name in a few of your books and he's in your collection too – stories, pretty much.

JH:  Yeah, is that at Berea?

SP:  Yeah.

JH: Ah!


SP:  Well, it's on a list anyway, I haven't pulled it.  Was there any music in your family or the immediate area that you knew of?

JH:  Not in the family.  The Bagdad Baptist church, where they had some great singers, made a big impression on me when I was a little kid, but other than the church … there was an old guy in Bagdad who had a guitar and he'd carry it around and sometimes he'd sit out in front of the store and play and I was just fascinated with him.  And I don't even remember his name but I was real little and I used to always ask my grandmother, “Where is he?  Take me downtown, I want to see him.” 

But other than that it was just the radio.  My parents divorced and then later remarried, and when they were divorced I lived back and forth between the two sets of grandparents who both lived in Bagdad and kind of shared me.  I was back and forth between my mother's parents and my father's parents.

SP:  This was in Shelby County?

JH:  In Bagdad in Shelby County, yeah. 

Of course, my granddad had a radio and we always listened to the radio and I remember he could get Renfro Valley.  My grandfather Harrod wouldn't go to church, but he would have church on the radio on Sunday mornings, so we would always hear some pretty good gospel music on the radio on Sunday.  And then we'd listen to the Kentucky basketball games on the radio.  I was born in 1946 so this would have been the early 1950s.  A lot of people from that era did the same thing.  The announcer was Claude Sullivan; he would always say “The 'Cats will be moving from left to right on your radio dial.”  We would sit there, my dad when he was there and my grandfather, and we would watch the radio.  The radio was on the table and we would watch the radio during those games.  You could see it, you know, Claude Sullivan calling the game you could see them running from left to right on your radio.

SP:  What station was that? 

JH:  It was probably WHAS radio but I'm not sure.

SP:  Is that Louisville?

JH:  That's Louisville; they probably would have been broadcasting the Kentucky games. 

SP:  And also had music?

JH:  Yeah, there wasn't a lot of music.  It wasn't like what you might think of as a traditional music community, but there was music there that made an impression on me.

The Harrods

SP:  What did your dad and grandfather do?

JH: My grandfather Harrod was a farmer who never owned a gasoline engine.  He farmed with horses, a typical old-style farmer, and lived a couple of miles outside of Bagdad so he could walk to town.  He raised everything: hogs, sheep, milk cows, a big garden. 

He was from out north of Frankfort, out in the area where a lot people ended up who came out of Eastern Kentucky (although I don't think the Harrods came out of Eastern Kentucky).  It was a hilly area where he was raised, but somehow he got a position on a farm over in Shelby County that this wealthy woman owned.  Sue Henning was an agricultural innovator for her time.  John Harrod worked his way up to being the farm manager on the Allen Dale Farm and accompanied her to England, to bring back some of the first Jersey cattle that were ever in this country.  She took an interest in my dad and thought he was intelligent and started giving him books and even set aside some money for him to go to college on, which he didn't use because the Depression came. 

Just before the Depression my grandfather had saved up enough money to buy this farm over at Bagdad so he went out on his own.  The amazing thing about the story is that they bought the farm right before the Depression and managed to hold onto it.  They invested in sheep and managed to hold on to that farm when everyone else was losing theirs.  They made it through the Depression, but ironically after the Depression he just kept getting further and further into debt, and when he died they had to sell the farm.  I have a lot of his old records and notes he kept and bills, and you can just see how hard working farmers who were doing everything right could just keep getting further and further into debt under that agricultural system.  

SP:  What was his name?

JH:  John.

SP:  John Harrod?

JH:  Yeah.

Bald Knob and The Crawl

JH:  When I was growing up, one of the rough areas over in Franklin County was Bald Knob, which is in northern Franklin County on the west side of the Kentucky River up to about the Henry County line.  Every little place has its own outlaw area or the place that the town people and respectable people talk about.

SP:  Like Sugar Hill.

JH:  Yeah, Sugar Hill, right.  Every place has got one of those so for Shelby County and Franklin County, Bald Knob was where all the heathens and wild people lived.  Kelly Gilbert, his people were from out there, and at some point in my growing up my father informed me that my grandfather was born out there in Bald Knob at the far end of the Harp Pike.

SP:  John Harrod?

JH:  Yeah, John Harrod.  My dad had all these pictures of that generation and his mother.  They were real poor people who lived back in the hills, and it was interesting that Kelly Gilbert, who also originated out there, referred to that area as “the mountains.”  I don't think that he had ever been anywhere else, but in his mind, he'd heard about “the mountains” and to him that meant Bald Knob.  And it is pretty hilly; it's probably hillier and steeper than some places in eastern Kentucky. 

Then I learned that a lot of people who lived out in Bald Knob – before they lived out there they lived in this part of Frankfort called “the Crawl” which was like “Natchez Under the Hill.”  It was a really notorious place with bars and whorehouses right down there on the river where the state office tower is now - that whole area along the river, before they demolished it.  This is when I was growing up, when I was a little kid.

AH:  They were demolishing it when you were growing up?

JH:  No, it was still there and Broadway was like an offshoot of it: it was nothing but bars and rough places. 


These wild people would wander up out of the Crawl and fight their way through the bars there on Broadway.  It was an outlaw area. The people who settled the Crawl in their day were mostly people out of eastern Kentucky.  In the log raft days, they'd float their logs out of the mountains down the Kentucky River and if they brought them that far - they could have taken their logs out and sold them at other places along the way – a lot of these log rafts ended up in Frankfort.  Of course, they'd sell their logs and they'd have all this money and they'd go raise hell and get thrown into prison.  Naturally, their families would move down to Frankfort and stay two, three, four, or five years until they got out of prison and then a lot of them just stayed there in the Crawl.  Then when they bulldozed it, the same people, or their descendants, moved out to Bald Knob.  Bald Knob was already populated by backwoods people.  That's where the Harrods were before my grandfather moved over to Shelby County. 

The fiddler out there that Kelly Gilbert referred to was Lewis Goins who played a lot of the tunes that Kelly played.  There were some other Goins who played; Nikos Pappas got hold of a really interesting old homemade fiddle that was made by Henry Goins who was maybe Lewis's brother. 

My father's cousin gave me a picture of a bunch of these Harrods out there and one of them was holding a fiddle.  One person told me his name was Dennis Harrod, but then somebody else told me, “No, that's Lee Harrod,” so I can't really say who it was, but he was one of that bunch of brothers.  They can't agree on which one he was, but there he was holding that fiddle.

The VanArsdales

JH:  My other grandfather was a postmaster in Bagdad.  The VanArsdales, my mother's family, had a real nice farm on the other side of Bagdad.  They were known more as socializers and people who liked to have a good time, not in a rowdy way, but they just liked to entertain, and I think they saw themselves maybe a little above the people doing farm work.  That was kind of the impression I got.  My mother told me about her grandfather Will VanArsdale who wore white gloves all the time and he'd sit on the balcony with binoculars and watch the people working in the fields.


JH:  But they liked to entertain.  The VanArsdales were part of the Low Dutch settlement that came from the low countries but were originally French Huguenots getting out of France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which took away tolerance for the Protestants.  So a lot of the Huguenots migrated to America but along the way they went through the Low Countries, sometimes for a generation and then they took Dutch sounding names there.  There were two Low Dutch settlements, one down around Harrodsburg and one in Henry County - sort of northern Shelby County and southern Henry County.  So my mother's family, they were VanArsdales.

SP:  And which settlement were they at?

JH:  The Low Dutch settlement in Henry County.  Some people have restored the old Low Dutch meetinghouse over there at Defoe and done a really nice job of it; it's an interesting place.

Rufus Harrod

SP:  I noticed you were earlier talking about your dad's books and a lot of them were to do with Kentucky history and things like that.  Did he get you into that? 

JH:  Yeah, he was just a really interesting person. He didn't go to college.  He could have gone to college.  He wanted to go to college but I think he was a little bit wild and he was an only child.  He had a brother who died in infancy, and I think he was a little hard for my grandparents to control.  He was an alcoholic who … he wouldn't mind me saying this … he went to AA; that was the reason for the divorce.  He went to AA and never took a drink for the rest of his life.  They got remarried about the time I hit fourth grade.  He became an AA saint for the rest of his life.  He was really an amazing person who was responsible for saving the lives of a lot of people. 

His talents were storytelling and spreading gossip and entertaining people and researching local history. He was in with a bunch of people in Shelby County who had those same talents and they all hung out together, and did all kinds of interesting things.  He is very well thought of over there among people who knew him.  He was a real character.  I'm still hearing stories about him, things that I never knew.


He started collecting books about Kentucky history and looking for old forts and old mills and collecting things.  He never was much for making money and, job-wise, he did whatever he could do to get by.  He would have made a great scholar or a great teacher.  What he was really into was history and people.  He drove an oil truck and distributed gasoline to gas stations for Standard Oil for a while and then Ashland Oil and then his next job was with the Shelbyville Candy and Tobacco Company which was a distributorship that delivered cigarettes and candy and all the junk-food type stuff to the gas stations and country stores in Shelby, Spencer, Trimble, and Henry Counties. 

That was the perfect job for him.  That meant he spent his days delivering to little country stores and gas stations where people were hanging out through four counties, and so naturally he was the one who spread the gossip and the stories and the jokes.  They knew him everywhere and interestingly, in my last artist-in-the-schools gig, which was in Trimble County over here, he and I were working in the same county so we'd cross paths and meet for lunch.  I was looking for fiddle music and he was looking for stories and tales and history.  So we were crossing paths almost on a daily basis for that one year. 

SP: Was it just him having that interest and knowing about it and talking about it and having those books that just created this background for you?  

JH:  I think it was Sue Henning who started - this little old barefoot boy on the farm – started giving him books from a very early age, because, his father was … he could read and write a little bit but John Harrod was a very quiet man who probably talked to his cows more than he talked to people.


JH:  He didn't have books.  He was a good farmer but I don't think he had curiosity about other things. 

SP:  What I'm wondering is: did your dad actively encourage you in these things or did you just take up in it because it was there?

[long pause]

SP:  How did you develop your interest in history?

JH:  Well, he was very supportive; I had books from the time I was a little kid.  I think I got the history just from being around my dad and seeing what he was doing all the time.  But I wasn't into it … most people don't get a sense of history until they get older and I probably got it a little before that.  When I was growing up I wasn't that much into it.  I was aware of what my dad was doing and I thought it was fascinating but I was more into sports and girls.  But we both loved the country and we both loved the country people and we both would rather be in a place like this than a city.  That was all definitely through him. 

Changes in Town and Country

SP:  Did you think of yourselves as country people or town people or … ?

JH:  Well, that was interesting.  My dad was part of that generation of people that moved to town after World War II.  He wasn't in the war, he got some kind of medical deferment, it might have been for his alcoholism.  My grandfather had to put him in the hospital a few times during those days.  I noticed that generation of people, a lot of people moved off the farm into Shelbyville after the war was over and had their families.  As I grew up I became aware of how many of those people were alcoholics and realized that my dad was not unique.  I've gotten together with my high school classmates and everybody I went to high school with had at least one parent who was an alcoholic.  Literally – every single one of them.  And sometimes both of their parents were alcoholics. 

And I was amazed at this because sometimes my dad, he wasn't supposed to, but he would tell me about somebody who was an alcoholic because he was afraid that I was going to be an alcoholic.  AA's aren't supposed to talk about other alcoholics, but once in a while he'd give me these warnings.  People that you never would have thought - when they’d go home from work they'd be drunk, until they had to go to work the next morning.

SP:  So you think there was something about this transition?

JH:  It was a very difficult transition for those people who were moving in from the farm.  I wouldn't say it was a stable farm life because they'd just gone through the Great Depression, but there was something about it that seemed to be more sustainable for them emotionally than the small town life where now you've got to keep up with the Joneses, you have to live in a nice house, and you have to go to work every day at a job you might not like.   You could see a lot of people had a hard time adjusting to that.

SP:  You grew up in town, right?

JH:  Well, after the 4th grade I did.  They lived in Shelbyville when I was born but when they divorced I moved out to Bagdad and lived with my grandparents for three years, and when they got back together we moved back into Shelbyville again, but we still had the connection with Bagdad.  We'd go out there every Sunday and spend Sundays with my grandparents.  And that was true of a lot of people then –  the back and forth between the country and the town.  It was only about 12 miles out to my grandfather's farm from Shelbyville - sort of one foot in a small town which at that time was only 4,000 people, and one in this little village out in the country.  That was formative and that's my mental landscape.


SP:  And did you finish high school there?

JH:  Yeah, Shelbyville High School. 

SP:  And then you went on to college?

JH:  I went to Centre College in Danville.  And that was significant too because my mother's family,  some of them were educated.  There were doctors and bankers. And although Charlie VanArsdale didn't go to college, his wife, my grandmother Miss Nell, had gone to Logan College which was a school for girls in Russellville.  My aunt also went to Logan College but my mother didn't.  So my grandmother VanArsdale was an elementary school teacher in Bagdad and her husband was the postmaster.  My mother had aunts and uncles who lived in Louisville who were a little better off.  My father's family were just poor farmers back as far as you could go. 

SP:  Did you get a scholarship or anything for college? 

JH:  Yeah, and I went to Centre which was where my Dad was going to go.  He said, “Apply to Centre, it's the best school in Kentucky.”  I actually only applied to one college and they gave me a full scholarship, a free ride, which was not as unusual in those days as it is now.  And there was a little more economic diversity at Centre in those days.  It's a great college, but it's become a little more …  [mostly] doctors, lawyers, and college professors are sending their kids there [now].   There's not as much economic diversity as there was when I was there; there were quite a few kids on full scholarship then.

SP:  And then what did you do after college?  You studied English there, right?

JH:  I studied English and Political Science.  Well, that was the next amazing thing. First of all, it was a  big triumph that I would even go to college because my dad didn't and my mother didn't and the Harrods didn't.  My mother's mother and my aunt went to Logan College and that was it. 

I loved Centre, I valued it more because my dad didn't go to college. Of course, that made him very proud and also created some problems because sometimes it seemed like my dad was living his life through me, and I was doing the things he would have, could have, should have done.

But then, at Centre - and this is a whole other story - I got a Rhodes Scholarship in my senior year and went to Oxford for the next two years. 

SP:  Right after college?

JH:  After college, yeah.  And that's another story and you can imagine my dad.  He was real proud that I went to Centre, but getting that Rhodes Scholarship certainly surprised us both. 

SP:  How do those work?  Do you apply?

JH:  The way it worked in my case was that one of my professors asked, “What do you want to do after college?” and I said, ”I don’t know.”  I had a great time at Centre but I didn't know what I wanted to do after that and really thought I wanted to take some time off.  She said, “Well, why don't you apply for a Woodrow Wilson?  That would give you a graduate fellowship for whatever you want to do and you could go to graduate school in English.  I didn't really want to, but to please her I said, “Okay, I'll go to the Woodrow Wilson interviews.”

And then she said one day, “The Rhodes interviews are coming up in Lexington – that will be good practice for your Woodrow Wilson interview.”

SP:  I see.

JH:  So I went to the Rhodes interview and the Rhodes interviews were two levels – there was a state one, and if you were selected at the state level then you would go on to the regional interview which represented a five state region.  I went to the state interview and, lo and behold, I was one of the two that came out of the state interview. 

[Harrod made it to the regional interview where The Renaissance Man was the topic, which was fortunate given his background in the Renaissance.]

JH: One reason why I was so interested in the Renaissance was that it excused me from not being able to focus on anything. I could always say, “I'm interested in everything and I want to learn about everything, but I don't want to be pinned down and forced into a narrow rut.”  Which was the way I was and the way my dad was.  My dad didn't really fit into a niche or any kind of regular job.  What he did best was be a storyteller and historian and talk to people.

SP:  Right.

JH:  And I was leery of being forced into something. I was just that way naturally. Then my senior year in high school at Shelbyville, our senior English teacher was a man named Alan Barnett and he had been a Rhodes Scholar, the first Rhodes Scholar I ever knew.  And he wasn't even supposed to be teaching there.  Although he was from Shelby County, he had taught at Woodberry Forest,  a private school in Virginia, for many years and come back to Shelbyville to retire. 

So he was living there in retirement and the good parents of Shelbyville - now these were the days of small town public school education when it was excellent in this town -  the parents said, ”We're not going to have this man who was a Rhodes Scholar living in our town and not teaching our kids.”  And so they approached him and said, “Come up here to the high school and teach, just part time is all you have to do.  Why don't you teach senior English?”  But the state of Kentucky wouldn't let him teach because he didn't have the teaching certificate and the education hours because his career had been spent in a private school.  And so they hired him instead as the “senior counselor.” 

But what he did as “senior counselor” was teach Chaucer and Shakespeare, and he got us all fired up about the Renaissance and the ideal of the Renaissance man, and so I was deeply inspired by that ideal although I certainly wasn't thinking about wanting to be a Rhodes scholar, but there he was.

SP:  What do you do when you get a Rhodes scholarship?

JH:  Most people do the last two years of Oxford’s three-year undergraduate degree because their undergraduate degree is more like an American masters degree because it's specialized in one field.  So I did years two and three of the Oxford B.A., which five years later turns into an M.A.  That's the British system. I did the English Language and Literature curriculum and it was a wonderful experience. 

SP:  Focused on the Renaissance?

JH:  No, it was everything from Beowulf to 1900 – it cuts off at 1900 because the 20th century hadn’t had time to prove itself to the Oxford scholars. 

SP:  Got it.

JH:  The second year I moved out to a little village outside of town. Anyway, it was over there that I got to know James Lovelock and actually spent a lot of time with him.  I was dating his daughter and so I got acquainted with Lovelock.  He was the scientist who, after that, became very famous as the developer of the Gaia hypothesis, and he is still living, in fact.  Getting to know him was probably as significant an educational milestone for me as studying English, because although I didn't become a scientist, he educated and oriented me towards the new idea of ecology which I was fascinated with and studied a lot on my own. 

SP:  Right, that was just getting …

JH:  That was just getting started, yeah.