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John Harrod Oral History Interview

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

Gus Meade

"Deer Walk"
Lewis County, Kentucky 06-19-78.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-042-01-A)

Gus Meade

"Eighth of January"
Lewis County, Kentucky 04-27-81.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-042-04-B)

Charlie Kinney

"Horse and Buggy"
Lewis County, Kentucky 9-30-78.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-042-03-A)

Roger Cooper

"Soapsuds Over The Fence"
Lewis County, Kentucky 04-27-81.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-042-04-A)

Owen "Snake" Chapman & Paul David Smith

"Devil Ate The Groundhog"
Berea, Kentucky 09-87.

Appalachian Center Collection, (AC-CT-216-001-B)

Lella Todd

"Eighth of January"
Estill County, Kentucky

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

Buddy Thomas

"Old Coon Dog"

John Harrod Collection, (JH-CT-099-02-B)

Meeting Gus Meade

JH: Coming back to Owen County after going up to Wolfe County and Estill County, I was finding all these fiddlers in these surrounding counties.  I was running out all the time and nobody else was interested in that except Bruce Greene who would come through sometimes, and we'd run around together.   I had met Gus [Meade] at one of the Mountain Heritage Festivals that Nancy McClellan and Barbara Edwards used to put on.  I had gotten those first Rounder Records Gus and Mark [Wilson] did before I ever met Gus and so I thought, “that is the way to do it.”

L-R: Gus Meade, fiddle; John Harrod, guitar.

SP:  So it was kind of a model.

JH:  Gus and I started working together and he would take his vacations, and he'd borrow good Nagra recorders from the Library of Congress and come out here, and we'd go back and record these people that I'd found.  And so that went on until Gus retired and moved back here.  I didn't meet Mark until after Gus died.

SP:  So you didn't know him [Mark] back then?

JH:  No, because Gus and Mark weren’t in touch at that time after those Rounder Records came out, and Mark had gotten divorced and moved first to California and then to Chicago, then to Ohio before he went to Pittsburgh.

SP:  Just looking at the dates in your collection I know that you kept recording through the '80s.

JH:  Yeah.

SP:  Was Gus along on a lot of those recording trips?

JH:  When he could come back, he'd take off for a week at a time and come out here.  My ex-wife Jane, sometimes she'd go with me, but …

SP:  You were doing a lot of it on your own. 

JH:  Yeah, there weren't that many people interested in it. 

SP:  Among your peer group.

JH:  Among my peer group.  This scene around here evolved in a different direction and evolved away from music. I wasn't sure it was the right thing to do when I moved back here.  I did move back in 1979 and stayed and Bill Livers was still alive then.  It was more for Bill Livers – to be near him.  And then I got this teaching job up at Owenton and I liked that.  Then I got the job at Frankfort High and I liked that so the teaching jobs, both of which were really good jobs, are what kept me here after the music  dissipated.  I traveled back to Estill County to play with Billy Don [Stamper] and Earl [Thomas, Jr.] pretty regularly after I was living back here.

SP:  It sounds like quite a scene up there.

JH:  That was where it was happening. And then we started going over to the bluegrass club at Clay City a lot and going to bluegrass festivals.

Getting Serious About Documenting

SP:  Did you ever meet [Doc Roberts]?

JH:  I never met him, no.  Gus did an interview with him before I met Gus.  When I started realizing that there was really something that was quite abundant and quite unique and quite particular to this place, then it became a little more than just, “I wanted to learn to play the fiddle like this.” It became more, “okay, I need to record as much of this as I can.”  It wasn't just fiddle music because Estill County was really more banjo territory than it was fiddles.  There were fiddlers there, but it just seemed like the banjo had more of the special place.  There were really good banjo players and everybody kind of talked about the banjo players more. 

Once I was doing it, I was as interested in singers, old-style bluegrass bands - there were lots of local bluegrass bands that were interesting and didn't sound like the modern stuff.  I started getting the idea that there were regional bluegrass styles right up until most recent times.  Then I got more into the documentation, but I still wasn't thinking about producing this stuff for Rounder.  I was just wanting to collect as much of it as I could, just assuming, “Well, this is going to be valuable and interesting to people,” but not really knowing how.

When I met Gus, we started talking about the anthology because I'd collected all this stuff and he had collected a lot of stuff, and he and Mark had originally envisioned that the next step would be that they'd try to get as many people as they could onto two or three CDs.  After Gus and Mark lost contact with each other and Gus retired and moved back here …

L-R: Noah Kinney, Alfred Bailey, Roger Cooper, Charlie Kinney, Gus Meade.  April 8, 1987.

SP:  When was that?

JH:  '91 or thereabouts.  We started to lay the groundwork for putting it all together on the anthology and then he died.  He died a couple weeks after he moved into his new house just over the hill from here.

SP:  Very close to here.

JH:  A couple miles as the crow flies.

SP:  Let me just back up.  You were doing this collecting on your own just to learn, and then when you realized how much there was, you met up with Gus and you kind of folded what you were doing into this idea that Mark and Gus had, this mission to create an anthology which eventually became the Rounder CDs.

JH:  Yeah, the two CDs.  Well, really, three CDs of fiddle music if you count Along the Ohio's Shores.  That took Mark getting in touch with me after Gus died and saying, “You know, we really ought to follow through on this,” because I had no connections with Rounder or anybody like that and he did, so we each had about half of the stuff and realized we needed to complete this. 

The one thing about Gus - everybody had this experience who was around at that time - was the sabbatical in Gus's basement which I did for a week.  I went up there and listened to his stuff for a week, and Mary fed me and Gus would come home in the evenings and we'd play and listen and he'd show me stuff that I should listen to.  I copied a ton of music out of there and a lot of people had that same experience: The Gus Sabbatical.  He loved it and we loved it.  That's the use of archives; that was an archive in a private home, an individual's basement rather an institution.

Working with Gus Meade and Mark Wilson / The Kentucky Rounder Anthologies

SP:  Losing Gus in the early '90s left a big hole, I'm sure, for you personally, but also in the momentum of everything that was going on with these projects.  There was a lag before those CD's came out. 

JH:  Gus, although it wasn’t his profession, was so knowledgeable.  He knew as much if not more than anybody in the world about discography and the history of old-time hillbilly music, as well as the traditional on-the-ground stuff.  Those are almost like three different disciplines, three different specialties, and yet he was one of the most knowledgeable people in all three of those areas.  So it was an education.  I depended on him for a lot of my background knowledge. On the other hand, I think what I contributed that he didn't have was specific knowledge of Kentucky, the places and the people, because I was here and he wasn't.  We complimented each other in that way. 

Mark was the same way. When Mark and I started working together, it was the same kind of thing.  I had the specific knowledge of the places and the people, and he had broad knowledge of the world of traditional music.  I was getting educated all the time that I spent with Gus and Mark.   

Gus and I both probably had one foot in the revival because we were out there playing, and we were associating with a lot of people of our generation who were getting interested in this music.  I think we had a foot in both worlds, but it was the fact that we both did have a foot in Kentucky … and of course, Gus was from here.  His family was from Henry County right across the river from here, and he grew up in Louisville.  Although he'd been away for a long time, Gus's roots were here and he did have a lot of historical and genealogical information. 

Roger Cooper, Lewis Co., KY.  Mid-late 1980s. Photo by John Harrod.

SP:  He interacted more with the East Coast festival scene.

JH:  Yes, but he was introducing those people to this Kentucky music which otherwise they would have  known nothing about.

SP:  A feature of a lot of what you and Mark put out on Rounder, as well as what Gus and Mark produced, was letting the artists speak for themselves.  You'd have extracts from an interview but your voices wouldn't be in there.  How did that process work?

JH:  Well, Gus and Mark showed the way there; I just thought that was so appropriate and smart.  They were doing the opposite of what a lot of folklorists do, always inserting themselves in there and assuming that every folk artist needs an interpreter, that they're incapable of interpreting themselves.  Gus and Mark, in their respectful humility, confined their commentary to the tune notes and the introduction.  Otherwise they let the performer tell their own story.  That was great. 

SP:  Did you have a role in the Paul David Smith, Snake Chapman, and Roger Cooper CDs?

JH:  Mark and I collaborated on the first Roger Cooper CD and the first Snake Chapman CD.  I was peripherally involved in Paul's but Mark was in a hurry and whipped those out with me just reading the notes, seeing what I thought.  I was more responsible for the first Snake and the first Roger. 

SP:  He also did those releases with Musical Traditions, Meeting's a Pleasure.  Mostly those were his recordings, is that right? 

JH: No, some of those are things we did together.  That was everything else he had in the can that he had envisioned as a series on Rounder, but Rounder was evolving in another direction and less interested in the kinds of things Mark was interested in.  So he took the opportunity to lump it all together and get Musical Traditions to put it out. 

Owen "Snake" Chapman

SP:  Were you involved in it beyond some of your recordings being on there?

JH:  Yeah, I read the notes and made suggestions but I didn’t assume any responsibility for those releases.  I'd say we were pretty much 50/50 on the Roger and Snake records and the banjo CD. 

Mark was great to work with.  He has strong opinions on most things. I would usually defer to him, but the one time where I really felt strongly about something where I thought his idea wasn't quite as good and I had a better one, he deferred to me.  And that was about  how we were going to divide up the material on those two CDs.  He wanted one of them to be his and Gus's recordings and the other one to be Gus's and my recordings.  I thought we should do it regionally and try to separate and define it somehow by regional styles.  I convinced him that that was a better idea.  The stuff that Gus and I recorded together versus the stuff Gus and Mark recorded together seemed arbitrary to me, whereas both groups of recordings covered the same area.  I thought it would be more instructive to follow watersheds. I'm not sure that really defined stylistic areas, but it did make sense when you listened to it.  There are some connections. 

SP:  Did you ever have any disagreements over using certain fiddlers or performances? 

JH:  Yeah, sometimes our ideas of what were acceptable levels of performance were different.   I was a little more uptight and not wanting to put something out that would get a bad review and maybe give a fiddler a bad name.  Mark was more open and willing to accept some roughness, but we would always come to agreement in the end.  We were able to compromise.

SP:  The only slightly negative thing I saw about any of those was I think from Dave Freeman[1] ….

JH:  Oh, well, he never even listened to it.  I read that and he didn't even mention the Jim Booker-derived tunes in the middle.  There were some great performances on that CD and I could tell that he did not listen to the whole thing.  Darley Fulks starts it off.  He might've gotten to Lella Todd's performance on there which was a little rough, but we wanted to include her.  I don't think he really is as interested in field recordings of old fiddlers.  I thought, “Well, that's a pretty sorry review.”  He just could not have listened to it or read the notes or given it a fair shot. 

[1]     Proprietor of County Sales who reviewed the CDs in his County Sales Newsletter.

Rationale for Presenting the Rounder CDs / Role of Education

SP:  About the dissemination of the recordings and the role of education – you and Mark finally realized Gus and Mark's original idea, by putting out those Rounder CDs, the first two volumes and then the Ohio Shores volume.  What were you trying to do?  Putting Kentucky on the map, getting more Kentucky music out there, saying, “This is here”? 

JH:  I confess that was a big part of it for me.  I relished that because in the expanding world of traditional music at the time, there was a lot of stuff that seemed to be highly valued which – and I admit, naturally I would be prejudiced being from here and feeling close to it – trying to be as objective as I could, I did feel that there was a lot of music in Kentucky that was more highly evolved, it was more interesting, it was better quality. 

L-R: Buddy Thomas, Bruce Greene.I would say at one time there was probably as much good quality fiddling anywhere you could go. You could probably find local traditions that evolved in the hands of some people to that same level of quality, as good as it gets.  But as far as what people were listening to and following and valuing, I felt that people like Buddy Thomas or George Hawkins or Bob Prater were unsurpassed, and even the average fiddlers in Kentucky were at least as good, if not better, than the ones that were highly regarded in other places.  The good ones were head and shoulders above them.  It wasn't so much that I thought this happened in Kentucky and nowhere else.  Rather, I would say that maybe the same level of performance in other places was forgotten or ignored because it was more demanding.  I don't know that Gus and I ever talked about this.  We just knew that we loved Kentucky music, and we thought it was great and special.  Beyond that, we never really tried to explore that particular idea. 

It did seem kind of special.  I think [Richard] Nevins confirmed it for me; here was an outside person saying what I've always believed myself when he said “No state rivals Kentucky for the diversity of its styles and the level of these performances.”

SP:  This was the Morning Star releases[1] of the old Gennett recordings? 

JH:  Yeah, and I had to say, “Yes, there's someone else who's looking at all this and hearing what I'm hearing.  But I want to revise that and be fair.  I just think it might be because there is a lot of geographic and economic and cultural diversity in Kentucky, but there's that everywhere, isn't there?  Or maybe it's just because we've got a broader record of this diversity in Kentucky than we do in other places.  I want to believe that in every state there is this same ethnic, geographic, and economic diversity.  Probably if we knew enough about it we would find that same diversity and quality of performances and number of great practitioners anywhere we looked. 

At least at the time our recordings came out, it did seem like a big deal because it was so different from the North Carolina / Round Peak stuff that was taking over.  I've struggled with that ever since I've been aware of it.  I've gone from really liking it, to despising it, and back to trying to appreciate it again and trying to be more objective.  How is it different and why is it different?  I do like the Round Peak music and it's very compelling. The only thing I don't like is the way it just took over and eclipsed not only Kentucky traditions, but West Virginia traditions, Tennessee traditions, Ohio traditions, and everything else.  All of them were unique and valuable in their own right.  Wonderful music from all those states that we're aware of, and yet the Tommy Jarrell approach just took over the whole movement.  That's what I object to.  It should take its rightful place, but why did it get all the attention? 

I think more people ought to pay attention to Ohio.  Christian Wig, Whitt Mead, Mark Ward and all those good Ohio fiddlers do, but those same people are playing everything else too, they're playing a wide range of repertoire.  I really don't know anyone that really just sticks with Ohio as being enough and legitimate in itself.  Nikos Pappas could do it if he wanted to.  Nikos plays that Ohio music and makes it sound as good as anybody, but of course, he plays everything else at the same time too.  Other places have not received the attention they deserve.  Now Kentucky is getting a lot of attention, but what about Tennessee, what about Ohio? West Virginia is getting the attention it deserves by people who consider themselves responsible for West Virginia music, but a lot of other places aren't.


[1]     Richard Nevins, proprietor of Yazoo Records, also worked with Gus Meade to release a three record set reissue of 78 rpm fiddle band music from Kentucky,  Old Time Fiddle Band Music from Kentucky Vols. 1-3, Morning Star Records 45003, 45004, 45005 (1980).  Most if not all of this material was subsequently issued by Nevins on CD as The Music of Kentucky Vols 1 & 2 (Yazoo 2013 -2014) and Kentucky Mountain Music (Yazoo 2200) a 7-CD set.