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John Harrod Oral History Interview

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

Asa Martin

"Down On The Farm"
Clark County, Kentucky 05-13-77

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-046-03-B)

Darley Fulks

"Fontaine's Ferry"
Wolfe County, Kentucky 03-23-77

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

Carlton Rawlings

"Blackberry Blossom"
Bath County, Kentucky c. 1970s

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-055-01-A)

Warner Walton

"Alexander Waltz"
Fleming County, Kentucky c. 1970s

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-020-01-B)

Sam McCord

"Hickory Leaf"
Trimble County, Kentucky 01-29-80

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-050-01-A)

Motivations / Discovering the Depths of Kentucky Music

SP:  I want to ask you about some of the nuts and bolts of how you went about collecting.  First, in a broad way: how did you define your mission when you made the recordings and did it change over time?  And if so, how?  Basically, what were you up to?

JH:  At first I was just wanting to learn to play the fiddle like these Kentucky fiddlers were playing it.  I was already playing bluegrass and really into bluegrass.

SP:  Playing guitar?

JH:  Mandolin and guitar.  I was listening to some of the old-time music that was coming out, you know, the County Records recordings of Tommy Jarrell.  I'd heard all that stuff, and I'd heard what was going on in other places before I'd heard what was going on here. But the first steps for me were, of course, Bill Livers, then Darley Fulks and then Doc Roberts.  And each step of the way I'd realize more and more that this was really different from all the other fiddling that I'd heard. 

Asa Martin. Photo by Mark Wilson.

I guess we talked about Darley yesterday.  Well, after the year I'd spent in Wolfe County, I got a similar residency in Estill County for a year, and I moved over there and went in on some land with some friends of mine and had a place to live.  It was real close to Asa Martin, so I got to be good friends with Asa and he was really generous.  He would loan me 78's to take home and record.  He had a lot of stuff, a lot of memorabilia, and just about that time the Davis Unlimited reissue of Doc Roberts came out, and he gave me a copy of that and it just blew me away.  I'd never heard anything like that.  I thought, this was the best stuff I'd ever heard. 

SP:  What was different about Doc Roberts?

JH:  His timing, his rhythm, his syncopation, his clarity, his tone – just everything.  You can't say somebody is the best fiddler you ever heard, but he's one of the best ones, equal to the best.  I realized that fiddling everywhere was really different, and so I started going out of my way to look for fiddlers.  Then I started realizing how much old-time fiddle music there still was in Kentucky, and yet everybody was going to North Carolina.  Then about that same time I got those Rounder records that Gus and Mark did which expanded my awareness even more.

SP:  That's the Buddy Thomas, J.P. Fraley - all that stuff?

JH:  Yeah, and Asa Martin and the Cumberland Rangers.  They wanted to record Doc Roberts again, but Doc wouldn't do it so Asa, as an alternative, said, “I've got this little band, maybe you'd want to record them” and lo and behold it was Asa Martin and the Cumberland Rangers who were playing old-time music live on the radio station there in Irvine which Jim Gaskin managed at the time.  That's how that LP came about.

Criteria in Searching for Musicians

SP:  I was wondering what sort of criteria you had when you went looking for musicians: were you looking for old folks, were you looking for people by their reputation, or did just you think, “I'm looking for traditional music and I know it when I see it?”  How did that work?

JH:  Really, I didn't have any criteria.  I recorded a few local bluegrass bands; I loved the local bluegrass scene with these little local bands that would finance their own LPs and play at the festivals.  There were a lot of bluegrass festivals in Kentucky, little ones as well as the big one at the horse park.  I didn't record them as much because they all had LPs and so I felt my criteria was music that had not been recorded, which was a lot.  Beyond that, I wasn't as interested in recording just a straight-ahead mainstream bluegrass fiddler because that kind of fiddling was recorded and was well known.  I recorded whatever I regarded as indigenous Kentucky music – music from this place that was pre-commercial or not yet on LP - whether it was singers, banjo players, guitar players, bands or fiddlers, even storytellers on occasion. 

I recorded an interesting day, for example, over at Drennon Springs across the river in Henry County where a whole bunch of people, Wendell Berry and other local storytellers, got up and told stories as part of this little community celebration.  Anything like that.  The same kinds of things my father recorded. Basically, if it was something interesting and I found out about it, I probably wanted to record it.

Recording Equipment

SP:  You were recording on your own all along or with Gus the whole time.

JH:  Yeah, I was recording a lot on my own and mostly what would happen was, when Gus would get some time off he'd borrow a good Nagra or a StellaVox and come out here, and we'd go back and record the people that I'd been recording, only with better equipment.

SP:  Oh, I see.  Where did those recordings end up?  Did he get them or did you get them? 

JH:  Both, we would each make copies.  At one point I borrowed a Nagra.  The deal where you could borrow a Nagra and a couple of great microphones from the Library of Congress.  They'd ship it to you in a suitcase and you'd keep it for a couple weeks and then send it on to the next person, then send the L. of C. your originals, and they'd make copies and send you the originals back.  I did that one time and that's how a lot of the recordings on those two CD's were made.  I was going back and recording people with better equipment.  But the majority of my recordings from that time were just on cassette.  It was a decent little Sony; I used a microphone.

SP:  You're talking about the late '70s, early '80s?

JH:  Yeah.  Tons of stuff with a cassette recorder.  Bruce Greene did the same thing.  I think sometimes Bruce did not use an external microphone and so the sound on my cassette recordings is a little better because I did use the external microphone as opposed to the internal microphone.  That made a big difference.  I've got a lot of stuff on cassette I could put out using new remastering technology including Darley Fulks; a lot of him and a lot of other stuff that didn't get on those anthologies because I didn't get it with the Nagra, I just got it on cassette.

Approaches to Field Recording

SP:  How did you fit collecting into your life?  You had a family and a career, was it something you'd do on the weekends?  Did you have summers off?  How'd it work?

John Harrod (right) interviewing Owen 'Snake' Chapman.  Pike County, KY, 1995. Photo by Gary Cornett.JH:  Yeah, weekends and summers.  Of course in the summers I was gardening and working on my house.  It wasn't like my summers were completely free, but it was nice to have those summers.  One of the reasons why I became a teacher was because of the time off I would get.  I would have time to devote to music which at that time meant running around a lot.   The way I chose to live was partly designed around leaving enough time – though it never was enough time – but leaving plenty of time to be able to continue doing this.

I'm always comparing myself to Gerry Milnes and thinking, “Man, if I'd have really had my act together back then, I would have been as thorough and complete and as mature as he was about all that.”  But as it was, it's a little bit sketchy and my interviews were not always planned.  I'd just follow along with wherever it might go.  I might go in with some questions because I would have some leads; there would always be a connection there, and I might know a little bit about the area or know something and I could ask some questions.

SP:  Did you have a standard set of questions?

JH:  No, I had a general idea of the things you can ask from going to some oral history workshops, but it was never as methodical as it should've been.  Partly it was just lack of time because I was married and I was building a house in my spare time.  From '74 to '79 I was not married, but I was kind of living here and there.  I still had to have a job and I was doing construction work and all kinds of different things before I got the artist-in-the-schools job.  A lot of times it was a matter of timing.  Some people I got to know quite well and spent a lot of time with but there were people in the collection I just met one time and I never got back to them because I just didn't have the time.

Training / Conflict with the Folklore Community

SP:  How much were you aware of other earlier collectors like the Lomaxes?

JH:  Oh, I became aware of it after I realized the scope of what I was doing.  I tried to educate myself about what had been done other places and learn as much about it as I could. 

SP:  But you never had training as a documentary folklorist?

JH:  No.  Well, actually, I went to some workshops. 

At the time I felt myself at odds with the folklorists which stemmed from a particular incident.  I'd gotten this artist-in-the-schools residency and the folklore department down at Western Kentucky University complained to the arts council about me and my qualifications and my doing a folk artist residency.  They were wanting to find jobs for their graduates, and there weren't many jobs for folklore graduates.  They complained to the arts council and my supervisor got so frustrated she said, “Will you just go down there with me and meet with these people and answer them?”  I said, “Sure.”  They were questioning my qualifications and I said, ”Well, it's true, I don't have the folklore degree.”  I was neither, by their definition, an authentic traditional musician nor a folklorist. 

Naturally, my response was, “Well, yes it's true, I'm college educated and I think that's not something we want to discourage.  Yes, I'm college educated but I was born and raised in Kentucky in the area that I know about.  I've lived here all my life except for two years, and what I know about music I've learned from people that I've met in this area.  Who are you?  You're this guy from the Northeast in an ivory tower.”  And I said, “In all the places I've been - I've been in probably a hundred homes recording traditional music and learning about it - I've never seen a folklorist in any of these places.  So who's doing the important work?”

I was angry at the whole idea that they would be questioning my qualifications.  I think it surprised them; they didn't know who I was.  Basically, I don't like to get into this territorial thing, but if you want to raise the question, I was here first and I was in all those places and they never were. 

SP:  Did they send anybody out from their program? 

JH:  Down at Western in their region they sent out a lot of people.  Wilgus went out and recorded stuff.  They do a lot in that area around there and I give them credit for that, but don't diss the people who are doing it somewhere else when Western doesn’t have enough resources to cover the whole state.  I give them credit for all that they've done and that's a great program, but I understand their position, too.  Here was one folk artist residency and they've got these graduates and they've got to find jobs for them. 

SP:  But they never did send anyone to those residencies? 

JH:  Well, they put people up to apply for those residencies when there were more of them available.  Some folklorists did, a few years later, get some of those residencies.  They would go into schools as folklorists or what you might call community scholars and that's fine.

SP:  How did you see yourself, just to really define it if possible? 

JH:  Well, I don't know, I never liked to try to define it in terms of a little niche that you have to put a label on.  I was just doing something that I felt, if not uniquely qualified for, then I was at least uniquely placed.  But as far as the qualifications go, most of it was common sense.  I think I knew enough that I should have done a lot better.

Collecting from the Inside - More Approaches and Techniques

SP: I wanted to follow up on something mentioned earlier.  You said that a lot people were visiting old-timers places like North Carolina and maybe West Virginia.  It's my impression that there weren't as many people doing that in Kentucky - if that's true, why do you think that was?

JH:  That's an interesting question. 

SP:  Is it just geography? 

JH:  Maybe it was the fact that the people who were going to North Carolina were people from urban centers with educations and more savvy about presenting and spreading information, and their connections enabled knowledge of that particular area to spread.  

On the other hand, I was always comfortable anywhere I went in Kentucky.   Although there are differences from East to West, I was always aware of these little local ambiances, the vibe, and the local culture.  For whatever reason, I was always pretty good at sensing that, and I always felt comfortable, like I could relate and could fit in and be accepted.  I think because I was from Kentucky and I know about the place and I knew about the history, so that even if I wasn't from that exact part of the state, there were still enough other things in common like living in the country, farm life, UK basketball.  There was enough that I always felt comfortable with where I was and being able to relate to people and feeling like there weren't a lot of barriers.  I didn't have a Northern accent, I wasn't in a hurry.  There were advantages to not being a folklorist from the outside.  Although I wish I had been more methodical and thorough than I was. 

SP:  How did you find musicians?  You talked about those that you got to know early on.  Was there just a network where you'd hear about one musician and then you'd hear about another? 

JH:  Yeah, more or less.  Sometimes you just asked, “Any fiddle players around here, anybody that plays the banjo?  Who are the musicians?”  And then one thing would lead another; it was pretty easy.  Gus was using census records to try to trace names from the past that he knew of down to the same names living today.  Sometimes he'd give me leads. 

SP:  Right, right.  You mentioned before that probably being a Kentuckian might've helped you gain trust and having time as well.  How did being a musician played a part?  Were some of these folks still playing music or were they looking for people to play with? 

JH:  In some cases they were still active with family or friends.  In some cases they didn't have anybody to play with.  In some cases they might have been really out of practice.  Some people I met just right at the end of their lives, but there was always something there.  I never met a fiddler who didn't show me something interesting, either in the way they played or some tune they played.  I've heard a lot of people say, “I learned something from everybody I met.”  With every one of them, it was worth it, it was interesting to have met them even if they were just about finished.  And some of them were excellent players. 

SP:  Did you usually record them after you'd gotten to know them, having an existing relationship, or did you do it first time?

JH:  I usually tried to do it the first time because these people were sort of far-flung and I always had this uneasy sense, “Gosh, I wonder how long it'll be before I get back this way?”  They might die.  So I wouldn't walk in with a tape recorder at first, I'd leave the tape recorder in the car and talk to them for a while and start talking about music and have a conversation and then say, “Would you mind if I could record some of these or some of this conversation?”  So then I'd go get my tape recorder. 

I was always uncomfortable with the tape recorder.  It was much more natural and comfortable to just be having a conversation or playing music without worrying about the buttons and the tape recorder.  I always had this sense it got in the way, but it really didn't.  It was necessary, it was something I had to accept, but I always felt it was getting in the way somehow when it probably wasn't for them.

SP:  What did they think you were up to?  Did they think you wanted to learn their music and that was why you were doing it?  Or did they know you might want to ever put it out, release it, or put it in an archive?

JH:  Later on, after I started working with the Berea archive, I would tell people, “I'm going to make a copy of this for the Berea archive,” and I would tell them all about that and I'd make a copy for them and I'd keep a copy for myself.  Even before that I don't recall that it was ever an issue.  I never got the John Salyer response: “You're trying to make money off me."

Unusual and Common Tunes

L-R: Henry York and Carlton Rawlings at Bath County 150th Anniversary, 1961.

SP:  Did you consciously seek local repertoire, unusual tunes, or just ask them to play whatever they like?

JH:  Both.  If I knew of a tune that was played in the area, I might ask for it.  A better approach was to ask, “What were your daddy's tunes or your grandfather's tunes or the first tunes you remember playing?”  That's better than saying, “What do you know that's unusual?” because that would seem to devalue something that they played and loved just because it was not unusual.

SP:  Right, your definition of unusual might be different from theirs.

JH:  Yeah.

SP:  What about common tunes?  We were talking earlier and saying how a good fiddler could put a real mark on a well known piece.

JH:  People like us who are really deep into the old music – we ignore the common tunes.  But that might not be such a good idea because I can think of examples where hearing one of these old fiddlers play a common tune really brought that tune back to life for me.  You hear it in a new individualized version that could be really strong, as opposed to the generic kind of approach that accompanies a lot of the well known tunes that make you never want to play that tune again.  Pappy Taylor made me want to play Bile 'em Cabbage Down again and we mentioned another one: Bill Day's Devil's Dream – you hear that and you think, “That's a good tune after all.”

SP:  Or Carlton Rawling's Leather Britches.

JH:  Right, or Carlton Rawling's anything.  Buddy Thomas played Chicken Reel: Lord, have mercy!  He makes something really beautiful and elegant out of Chicken Reel! 


Unwelcomed Visits - A Tale of Two Exceptions to the Rule

SP:  Were you always welcomed, more or less? 

JH:  There were only two incidents when I wasn't.  One of them was Warner Walton who, I was told, was a little peculiar.  When Gus and I found him living on this side street in Maysville, he admitted to being Warner Walton but swore that not only did he not play the fiddle now, but that he'd never played the fiddle in his life.  He was this great fiddler that everybody knew was a great fiddler, but he just bald-faced lied to us.  He wouldn't let us into his house.  We just said, “Oh well.”

But Warner Walton remembered me and a couple of years later - he was friends with Alfred Bailey -  he gave Alfred Bailey those three reels to give to me.

SP:  The home recordings.

JH:  Just out of the blue, yeah.  So, good old fellow, he must have just had a problem relating to people directly but something in him must have recognized that I was really interested and he felt an obligation to share his recordings.  I never had any more contact with him.  Alfred called me up one day and said, “Warner's given me these tapes and he wanted me to give them to you,” and I thought, “Bless you.”


SP:  And it turned out to be a goldmine.[1] 

JH:  Yeah, yeah. 

Sam McCord in Milton, KY. Mid 1980s. Photo by John Harrod.And the other one was Sam McCord over at Milton who was an old bachelor who shared one side of a house; his unmarried sister lived in the other half of this old, unpainted dilapidated house in Milton over on the Ohio River.  I'd heard about him from Marvin Tingle who lived just down the street from him, and they were both really good fiddlers who knew a lot of tunes, a lot of tunes I'd never heard before. 

I was spending a lot of time with Marvin, but Sam was real peculiar.  They said he never took his hat off.  He wouldn't come to Marvin’s house anymore.  Mary Belle Tingle said she thought it was because one day when he was down at their house playing, she said to him, “Mr. Tingle, won't you take your cap off?”  Without a word he just put his fiddle in the case, closed it up, walked out the door, and never came back again for four or five years.  That was mighty peculiar and she wondered what she'd done wrong, and she didn't know whether it was because he was bald and he wouldn't take his cap off, or  whether it was because he was spoken to directly by a woman.  Whatever the reason was, that was it.

They told me about him and so one day I met him on the streets of Milton and introduced myself.  He was kind of shy but he was pleasant enough.  But I just couldn't get anywhere with him, and so I started trailing him around.  He had a little itinerary everyday through Milton: drugstore, grocery store … I trailed him for a year, the whole year I was doing the artist-in-the-schools residency in Milton.  I never could connect with him.  I'd been to his house and knocked on the door but he wouldn't answer the door, though you'd hear him stirring around in there.

I'd given up on him when one day Marvin called me and said Sam wanted to come down there and play for me.  I went over there and gosh, we played all afternoon.  And man, after that, Sam was wanting to play all the time, he was bugging them, “When's he going to come back over here?”  And so once the ice was broken, he really wanted to play. 

But those are the only two incidences that were not open, you know, “Come on in, I'm so glad you're interested in this.”

[1] Carlton Rawlings: Bath County Fiddler,Kentucky Home Recordings, Vol. 1 is the first release of home recordings by the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University.