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John Harrod Oral History Interview

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

Porter Steger

"Cornstalk Fiddle and a Shoestring Bow"
Owen County, Kentucky 06-16-82.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-062-01)

Porter Steger

"Owen County music reminiscences"
Owen County, Kentucky 06-16-82.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-062-01)

Alfred Bailey

"Tilden To The White House"
Fleming County, Kentucky 04-08-86.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-003-01-A)

Clarence Skirvin

"Going Up And Down Old Buffalo Creek"
Gallatin County, Kentucky c. 1970s.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-069-01-B)

Abe Keibler

"Briarpicker Brown"
Lewis County, Kentucky, 07-01-92.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-102-01-A)

Jimmy Wheeler

"Blind Steer In The Mudhole"
Portsmouth, Ohio, c. 1970s.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-099-01)

Everett Kays

"Shaker Ben"
Anderson County, Kentucky, 06-14-78.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-038-02)

John Masters

"Camp Nelson Blues"
Fayette County, Kentucky, c.1980s.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-049-03)

Basil Martin

"Minnie-Ha-Ha Schottische"
Carroll County, Kentucky, 03-04-80.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-047-01-A)

Charlie Kinney

"Grand Hornpipe"
Lewis County, Kentucky 9-30-78.

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

Bob Prater

"Grand Hornpipe"
Lewis County, Kentucky 7-6-84.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-042-06-A)

Clarence Rigdon

"Grand Hornpipe"
Lewis County, Kentucky 9-30-78.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-042-02-B)

The Idea of Place - Influence of the Literary Community in Kentucky

JH:  When I came back to Kentucky and I moved out to Monterey, it was basically a literary community, the folks who moved out here when I did.  We were all more or less disciples of Wendell Berry who lived not far from here.  Wendell's theme has always been place, and at the time there were some people who came here from the West Coast, some writers; there was a connection with some Oregon writers.  People who had been connected with Gary Snyder came here.  Wendell had been at Stanford so some of these Kentucky writers – Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman and Jim Hall - had all gone out to Stanford and come back to Kentucky. 

In this Kentucky literary world at the time there was this magazine, it wasn't exactly a magazine, it was a soft bound 8x10 periodical called Place Magazine.  A lot of these writers were contributing to it on the theme of Wendell Berry's idea of place.  This was about the time I was reading a lot of geography, and I was influenced by all these writers who were redefining localism.  At the same time, I was settling down here and so the whole idea of “place” was kind of a theme for me at the same time that I was starting to get out and explore the music.  So, quite naturally, I was seeing the musical languages in terms of place which included not only the economics and the demographics, but also the landscape and the way things looked, the feel of the landscape.  That was always feeding into it and part of the impressions that I was absorbing along with the music.  That was part of it from the very beginning and still is.

Musical Geography

JH:  One of the most difficult things to describe, really, is the geography of the music.  And yet, it was  there for me, at a very deep level, a sense of … as we were going around hearing these different styles and different repertoires ... they all had a different feel to them.  These different places and different kinds of music we were hearing had a different feel.  I know how subjective this can be, but the music did seem to reflect something about the culture and the geography and the way it was all of one thing. 

View Harrod Collection Musicians in a larger map

The music seemed to be coming out of a - I hate the word – lifestyle, but there's a different tone, a different tenor, a different way people interact.  There's a different attitude, you know, in subtle ways, not just when you go north to south but really you could feel these little differences going from county to county and also into different geological regions.  The Eden Shale seemed to have its own kind of ambience, and the people seemed to fit into the geological area, which determines how you could farm and what you could grow and what you could do there.  It probably also reflected the early settlement patterns: whether there was German influence or whatever. 

So every place was in a real sense unique, every little area which might be defined as where the fiddlers  knew about each other and lived in some geographical proximity.  You couldn't really generalize and say, “This is Kentucky” or “This is the South.”  The more you would get acquainted with a place the more you could just feel like things were different. 

And the most immediate obvious way would be in how … there were many factors in this, but the one that you would seem to notice first, it would sort of always seem to be the case, was how uptight people were or how open they were, and whether there was a lot of humor in their discourse.  There were places you would go where people were really grim and glum and had no sense of humor and were really uptight and seemed to be depressed or have a negative view of the world as if the hard life had just done something to them. Sometimes it seemed like the churches just put a lid on all self-expression.  But yet in other places in Eastern KY where the churches were real strong and had a real effect on the overall culture, you could go to places like that where the people would still have a great sense of humor and would be kind of raucous and rowdy – they'd be going to church too, so – how you explain those differences?  That was always one of the first things I picked up on. 

Now the Eden Shale region seemed to me one of the more uptight places in Kentucky.

SP:  That's where we are now? Owen County?

JH: Yeah.  It's kind of poor soil but not any more poor than Eastern Kentucky.  I don't know why that is but it had a different feel to it.  So anyway, a lot of people have been interested in the idea of place in a deep sense. 

SP:  This came up because I mentioned doing a map project of the people in your collection as well as their dates because I want to get a sense of where you've been.

JH: Well, mostly it's been the Central and Eastern half of the state.  I went out West and South and met a few of the people that Bruce Greene recorded, but I don't know as much about that area as I do about the bluegrass region and North and East and South of here.

The Music's Place in Society

SP:  What sort of class were the people that still played the music by the time you met them?  Were they mostly one class or another? 

Alfred BaileyJH:  Alfred Bailey had been a police court judge in Flemingsburg.  Carlton Rawlings was a bank teller in Owingsville and a farmer.  The interesting thing is that it really wasn't a class-based music.  At least as far as the world of the small towns and the county seats and the countryside that I was surveying. 

SP:  People could be middle-class, could be lower?

JH:  Yeah, it was any and all levels.  Johnny Masters was living in Lexington in a middle-class neighborhood.  Some of these people seemed more … I'd have to start going down the list; that would be an interesting thing to do, to describe their circumstances in terms of class.  I think the lesson would be that these people who were still living in the '70s and the '80s really represented all classes of rural Kentucky society.  I said something about that in the notes to the Carlton Rawlings CD, that the county seats, the small towns and the country were not as far apart and differentiated as they are now.  They were still one community.

SP:  Do you think the old music was respected or was it looked down upon?

JH:  It depends.  It seems like some places it was and other places it wasn't. 

SP:  Does that have something to do with the ambience you were talking about, being uptight in some places?

JH:  It's hard to say.  There were places where fiddlers almost seemed defensive about the fact that they played the fiddle.  And other places where they knew that they were “King” and they got a lot of public feedback and were like local heroes.

SP:  A lot of encouragement; can you think of an example of that? 

JH:  Clarence Skirvin, north of here in Gallatin County, always seemed to be uncomfortable and apologetic and felt like he should be playing the electric guitar instead of the fiddle.  He was a great fiddler player; it just seemed like in that community as a whole, it just wasn't regarded anymore. 

There was no fiddle contest at the Gallatin County Fair that invited Clarence Skirvin and Jarvie Hall to come and play. But the Bath County fair, at this time, still had a fiddle contest where Alfred Bailey, Bob Prater, George Hawkins, Eldon Calvert all came out and played.  They drew a big crowd and everybody applauded for them and after the contest they all stood around out in the parking lot and jammed.  A big crowd of people was out there egging them on, local people, and these people were calling out, “Play Weddington's Reel,” “Play New Money.” 

And these were the local people, so there was a different culture there in 1978 than there was in Gallatin County although there were great fiddlers in both places.  A sociologist could try to research and explore and understand that, but it was different everywhere you went

Documenting Communities of Fiddlers and Regional Styles

SP:  If you were collecting to learn first and then to document, what part did analyzing the music and repertoire of these various communities of fiddlers – is that something that came along later?

JH:  No, that was part of it from the beginning.  Once I started traveling around I immediately began to notice the differences between different parts of the state.  Some of this was my own interpretation in setting my own boundaries; at least for my own purposes it seemed like it was useful and it was supportable.  I think I was able to make some generalizations about general features of the styles and the repertoires of different areas.  Any definition of a region is ultimately arbitrary but at least for the purposes of loosely defining regional styles, I was able to do that to my own satisfaction and demonstrate it.  That was a process of refining initial impressions and backing it up with more evidence.  

When I started this I was traveling all over this area that was Central, Northern, Eastern and Southeastern Kentucky - everything except the far West.  I could see profound differences from very early on so it was just a matter of filling in some of the blanks and talking about it a lot with Gus and Mark, who had similar ideas.  That was always part of it for me. 

SP:  I was just asking about sub-regions or localities such as Lewis County, Portsmouth, or Fleming / Bath County where there were really strong fiddle scenes and people had similar repertoire and styles and whatnot.  You had a point to make about that.

JH:  Yeah, I remember Darley Fulks – I may or may not have been aware of this before  – I remember Darley Fulks one time talking about … there was a line and it ran East-West through eastern Kentucky.  He was talking about coal and oil.  He was saying south of that line in east Kentucky were the coal fields, while north of that line there was oil but no coal.  I began to think in terms of the coal fields as opposed to the non-coal bearing parts of Eastern Kentucky.  Eastern Kentucky is … I would define it as the Cumberland Plateau … the Cumberland Plateau is what most people refer to as the mountains.  And west of the Cumberland Plateau, there's either the outer bluegrass or the Eden Shale which can be quite hilly but it's not “the mountains,” although it can look like the mountains.  It's like that here, where we are now, the Eden Shale.

I started noticing the difference in the counties that had coal versus the counties that did not have coal.  There was definitely a different ambience and a different history.  The counties with coal, of course, had more out-migration, more disruption, and all the labor troubles; the unionizing of the mines created a whole different history of labor conflict.  Then the boom-bust cycles of the coal economy for most of this century, and going back into the 19th century, had an affect on the way everything worked as well as people's attitudes.  Whereas, I was interested in how at the time we were doing this, you found more traditional music going on in Central and Northeastern Kentucky where there was no coal.  I think people assumed Eastern Kentucky was where you'd find all this music, but, it did seem like you didn't find as much of it in the coal fields when we were doing this as you did in the mountain counties that didn't have coal. 

Northeastern Kentucky, being part of the Cumberland Plateau where: number one; the hills aren't as high; number two, no coal … people didn't have to travel as far from there to find work in factories.  They could just go across the river, they were close enough to Ohio.  They didn't have as far to travel.  And then the counties along the Western edge of the Cumberland Plateau which were very mountainous, very steep mountains: no coal.  You didn't have all that history of labor troubles.  Life was a little more stable and moved a little more slowly.  There was agriculture going on.  I imagined that was why we found more of these intact musical communities, Estill County being a prime example. 

SP:  What else, Clark?

JH:  Well, Clark is actually out in the bluegrass, it's north of Estill County.  Yeah, and then places like Anderson County: it was surprising to find as many fiddlers as we did in Anderson County, still playing a local repertoire. 

SP:  Historically there had been music in those coal regions?

JH:  Oh yeah. 

SP:  Even if there wasn't much left when you went there.  Do you think the character of the music was different than other places?   Is it too hard to pin down? 

JH:  Well, it does seem like, in general, some of the main themes and some of the sounds of the music of the coalfields are about tragedies and murders.  The music is kind of lonesome; I might just be reading things into that.  Generally you might say that's true; these are the subjective impressions of someone who certainly didn't hear everything that might have been there or not that far back into the past.  But you would get a sense of those differences.  The music out in the bluegrass region was not at all lonesome, it was more bluesy, raggy,  syncopated, and danceable.

SP:  Kind of playful?

JH:  Yeah, but you don't have that dark side. 

SP:  Probably not as many modal tunes?

JH:  Right, not as many modal tunes, little to no cross-tuning.

SP:  And then Northern Kentucky is a different deal?

JH:  And then Northern Kentucky: more notey, but there were a few – Buddy Thomas had some lonesome tunes, but he was maybe the only one. 

SP:  He was a pretty exceptional fiddler all around.

JH:  Yeah.  Most of the ones I heard up there were notey, Northern sounding, hornpipey, maybe more French and German influence.  That seemed to be the case right on down the Ohio River from Ashland to Louisville.  

SP:  This is the stuff you documented on the Kentucky Anthology, Volume 1 and Along the Ohio's Shores. 

JH:  If you listen to all that, there's not much … one of the few modal tunes on Along the Ohio's Shores – that guy actually came from Clay County, Hobert Bowling.  He played Black Jack and he played cross-tuned in A.

SP:  Sounds pretty mountainy.

JH:  Yeah, he wasn't from Boone County where he was living, he was from Clay County.  He was more of a typical eastern Kentucky fiddler.

SP:  Traditional music is something that is both collectively and individually created.  How did you see the tradition working between those two dynamics? 

JH:  These little regional styles that we talked about were, of course, big generalizations.  The people within those styles certainly didn't all play just alike, although they might share a lot of repertoire.  The regional styles were something that you could hear once you'd heard a lot of these people.  But each one of them within this broad relationship that we're calling a regional style, they were still very individual in their playing and in their techniques. 

In some cases, maybe those Anderson County fiddlers might sound a little more alike than, say, the Lewis County fiddlers who, if you go from Buddy Thomas to Bob Prater to Clarence Rigdon to Charlie Kinney to Joe Stamper – from Bob Prater to Charlie Kinney was a pretty big divergence in the way they approached the music.  On the other hand - Bob Prater, Clarence Rigdon, Joe Stamper, Buddy Thomas – those four were a lot closer together in their bowing and in their approach.  You have to look at it both ways; it's easy to overplay the notion of regional styles, but yet I think they existed.  You can focus on that level or, at the same time, you can focus in on the level of the individual, what they were doing that was theirs uniquely within this world of music that they shared. 

SP:  That diversity within one of these areas, that must have struck you as the mark of a really strong tradition.

JH:  Yeah.  I think it does because sometimes, for example with the Cape Breton stuff – that's a very strong tradition, and yet I have a hard time telling a lot of those guys apart.  Maybe it's too strong if there can be such a thing – it imposes something on them - “You have to do it this way” - and they all end up sounding alike.  That would never be the case among the fiddlers we know.  And the same thing is true in West Virginia.  I can identify the backwoods West Virginia style, but when you get beyond that, those old guys were all pretty unique in their own way.