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John Harrod Oral History Interview

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

John Harrod w/ Scott Prouty and Michael Ismerio

"Johnny Get Your Hair Cut"
Owen County, Kentucky, 03-09-12.

Berea Sound Archives Collection, (SC-CD-129-005)

Bill Livers

"Rye Straw (Buck Creek Gals)"
Owen County, Kentucky 09-16-77.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-043-03)

Lily May Ledford

"Cacklin' Hen"
Powell County, Kentucky n.d.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-041-01-A)

Darley Fulks

"Andrew Jackson"
Wolfe County, Kentucky 03-23-77

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-101-02-A)

Bob Kash

"Billy In The Lowground"
Wolfe County, Kentucky 05-24-77

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-037-01-A)

Travis Wells

"I Wish I Had My Time Again"
Clark County, Kentucky 01-08-77

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-097-03-B)

Vernon Judd

"Where Did You Get Your Whiskey"
Clark County, Kentucky

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-019-01-A)

Return to Kentucky - Initial Engagements with Music

John Harrod

SP:  So you came back after two years, came back to Kentucky …

JH:  Yeah.

SP:  James Lovelock had an influence on you that played a part in leading to your interest in traditional culture?

JH:  When I started studying geography … I studied a lot of things on my own.  I studied a lot of things that I never had a chance to study in college.  If I'd get interested in it I'd spend a couple of years studying on my own.  And so, I got into geology about that time and over there I was getting into the folk scene because there were folk clubs everywhere and lots of traditional music going on.

SP:  Were you into any of that before you went there?

JH:  Well, yeah, I started playing a little bit of bluegrass in high school.  This girl got hold of a guitar and started playing it, and so I wanted to play the guitar and she kind of got me started on the guitar.  And then, I started hearing some bluegrass on the radio and I don't know why bluegrass.  Rock 'n' roll  was going on at the same time and maybe it was … I didn't want to do that.  I listened to it and liked it and listened to a lot of R&B that you could get out of Gallatin, Tennessee on the radio.  I listened to that a lot. 

SP:  So how did the folk scene in the U.K. affect you?

JH:  I think I just really became aware of what it was for the first time. 

SP:  Were you aware of the older traditional music in Kentucky before that? 

JH:  In college, everybody was listening to Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary and I liked that.  And Bob Dylan, especially Bob Dylan.  I also started hearing about Doc Watson at the same time and I didn't really distinguish among all that stuff, but all that came onto my radar about the same time – Doc Watson and those guys from North Carolina.  I wasn't really aware of what was going on in Kentucky until I came back.  Being in England kind of extended all that and by then I was more interested in that kind of stuff than anything else. 

Meeting Bill Livers and Lily May Ledford

JH:  And then I came back.  I met Bill Livers pretty soon after I got back here because Dara, who is now my neighbor down the road, was going out with a guy from Owen County and Bill Livers was the tenant on their farm.  Dara told me about Bill Livers, said, “You need to meet this guy.”  So I was ready to meet Bill Livers.

The Bill Livers String Ensemble; L-R: Jane Harrod, John Harrod, Natalie Andrews, Bill Livers, Eric Larsen, Ben Griffith.That was about the time some people that I'd known in college were wanting to buy farms in places in the country, so we eventually straggled out in this direction and bought places or, if were weren't able to buy places, we just started working in tobacco and working for farmers and fixing up old houses for rent.  There was a little scene sprung up around Monterey that involved music and dancing and a bunch of us musicians formed a band around Bill Livers and started playing around and meeting people throughout the state. 

SP:  Were you playing to some established audience that he had or … ?

JH:  Well, we played locally but we got a job in Lexington playing every Friday and Saturday night at this bar.  We found out about Lily May Ledford who was living in retirement in Lexington and so we got her to start playing with us and this went on for a couple years.  We'd do a set by ourselves, we'd do a set with Bill, and then we'd do a set with Lily May.  And so we were her band and Bill's band.

SP:  Not the two of them together? 

JH:  Sometimes the two of them together but mostly they each had their own set and their own repertoire.  And so we started going around and playing little festivals in Kentucky and even went up to Battleground [1]one time.  Traveling around with Bill and Lily May made me realize, “Okay, there's more of this stuff.”  By then, the North Carolina thing was in full swing and I'd gotten those Tommy Jarrell records.  I went to Galax once and to Glenville[2] and Ivydale[3] and so I was becoming aware of what was going on out there in the '70s. 

[1]     Indiana Fiddlers Gathering at Battleground, IN.

[2]     West Virginia State Folk Festival at Glenville, WV.

[3]     Morris Family Old Time Music Festival at Ivydale, WV.

Folk-Artist-in-the-Schools Residencies / Meeting Darley Fulks / Beginning to Make Field Recordings

JH:  I went to the Fraley festival for the first time and then I started realizing the Kentucky music was really different.  I got an artist-in-the-schools job; I was living out here in Monterey and I was playing music with Bill Livers and these guys.  I went into the arts council to apply for a poet-in-the-schools residency because at the time I was working for Grey Zeitz who had this printing press[1]down here at Monterey and was publishing Kentucky writers and poets.  There were a lot of writers living around here; it was probably more of a literary scene than a music scene really.

SP:  You were already living out in this area, in different places?

JH:  Yeah, I was writing as well as playing music, so I went in to apply for a poet-in-the-schools residency and they said there weren't any openings for that but they had a new opening for a folk artist-in-the-schools and I said, “Oh yeah?”


JH: I said, “Really??”  That was even better and so I said, “Oh, that's perfect.”

I'd been playing with this old black fiddler, Bill Livers.  It turned out that the first residency that they ever offered was in Wolfe County.  And so I moved up there and in those days, these were year-long residencies.  I moved up to Wolfe County and found a place to live out along the Red River Gorge and started working for Richard Jett.

SP: The dance caller.

Darley Fulks, foreground. Background L-R: Jane Harrod, possibly Mabel Fulks?

JH:  That's where I met Darley Fulks.  Richard used to have these Wednesday night music gatherings where he'd invite people to play in front of the court house there in Campton.  So one of the first things I did was invite Bill Livers and the boys to play on Wednesday night in Campton.   There were no black people in Wolfe County, and so Bill got a chilly reception from those people.  After we got done playing this old man in a beat-up hat came up, just full of enthusiasm and shook Bill's hand and introduced himself and told him he loved his music, and he said “I've always believed that our music came from black people.”  He was genuinely interested in Bill and appreciated him, out of all these people who didn't like black people.  And that was Darley Fulks. 

SP:  Pretty exceptional thing to have happen.

JH: Oh yeah.  So that was my first meeting with Darley and of course I just spent as much time as I could with him up until he died.

SP:  I was wondering about Campton – I noticed a lot of the recordings had been made in Campton, many different people.

JH:  There were some other people around there in Wolfe County.  Darley lived just outside of Campton, Bob Kash lived out on Gilmore Creek, Joe Logan Robinson lived out in Adele.  There were a bunch of Fallens who played the banjo and I'd get these people to come into the schools, the ones that would.  I also recorded a lot of kids in the schools.  One thing that was really neat was, at that time, 1976 in Wolfe County, I sent kids out to record their parents and their grandparents and bring back songs.  And they were bringing back great stuff.  There were little kids that were still singing traditional songs from their families.

SP:  No kidding?

JH:  And you could do that in 1976 in Wolfe County, the connection was still intact. 

SP:  That's great.

JH:  In Estill County next year, the same thing.  I recorded some wonderful things from kids in the elementary schools.

[1]     Larkspur Press

Traditional Culture and Values vs. Peer Generation

SP:  At some point you came to value this older generation in Kentucky locally.  What was the appeal?  What had been lost that they had, that you didn't see from more recent generations or your peers? 

JH:  Well, it took removing yourself from your peers to do that.  Most of us spend most of our time with people our own age and up to that point, naturally, that had been my life experience.  But with this artist-in-the-schools job, when I moved up to Wolfe County, that year and the next year, I was in the elementary schools and then the afternoons and the evenings I was going out and looking up old people.

SP:  Right.

JH:  The Bill Livers band would get together and play from time to time, but I was mostly cut off from my own generation and almost all my time was spent either with people over 75 or people under 12.  And I would recommend that experience for anyone.  We have so many assumed notions and standards  that come with being of the generation that we're born into, that it probably obscures a lot of things.  It sort of cleared my mind to step into the past. 

That's what it was like, it was like stepping into the past with Darley Fulks and all those old guys.  So I just started living there as much as I could, and after that I think it lasted for many years where I no longer felt at home with my own generation. When I came back to Monterey, I was kind of dissatisfied with it, you know, with my own generation because I realized that we hadn’t really experienced life and we didn’t really know as much as we thought we did.

SP:  How long was the artist-in-schools thing again?

JH:  Well, actually three years I did it. In Wolfe County and then the next year I got one over in Estill County, which was right next door and which was where Travis Wells and Earl Thomas, Jr. and all those people lived.  I already got to know those people the year I was in Wolfe County because somebody I know moved out to Estill County and bought some land, and so I got to spend a year in Estill County which was great, maybe even more of an active music scene there because there were three jam sessions a week in different homes.  Asa Martin hosted one, Travis Wells had one, and sometimes I had one at my house.  Asa’s band, the Cumberland Rangers, were playing a lot. Vernon and Zora Judd, Earl Thomas, Sr., Columbus Williams, Stanley Winkler, and Razor Wolfinbarger were all still active and playing.

SP:  These were private events?  

L-R: Jim Webb, Wanda Lefler, John Harrod, Kelly Gilbert, George Lee Hawkins at Joyce Hancock's house in Frankfort, KY.  Late 1980s. Photo by Joyce HancockJH: Yeah, these were just people getting together to play.

SP:  Not public performances?

JH:  No, no.  On Saturdays sometimes they'd still play around the courthouse.  This was in 1977.  Jim Hayden who owned the clothing store on Main Street in Irvine was a fiddler.  A few years later, A.W. Bonney opened a music store; he was a fiddler.  So there could be music happening on a weekday in a couple of different stores right there on Main Street in Irvine.  And Asa Martin's band was still playing live on the radio. 

SP:  When you were doing the artist-in-the-schools, were you recording by then? 

JH:  Yeah, oh yeah.

SP:  That's around the time you started recording? 

JH:   But all I had was a little Sony cassette recorder.  I did start doing some video at that time, black and white.

SP:  Getting back to this idea of spending time with the old folks and that traditional culture.  How did your own generation - you were talking about people going back to the land  – how did they influence your collecting and learning? 

JH:  I was disappointed in them.  My friends that started the Bill Livers band, they were really into Bill Livers, but they weren't into pursuing it any further.  I'd come back to Owen County and tell those guys, “Hey I met this great fiddler over in Gallatin Co., Clarence Skirvin; I'm going to go record him, do you want to go?”  “No.”   And so I thought this is kind of strange, and so as far as the local scene around here, I was kind of on my own. It was evolving more towards a literary scene.  The guys I played with, some of them were wanting to do more jazz music.  That was okay, but they weren’t following what I was interested in.