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John Harrod Oral History Interview

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

John Morgan Salyer

"Wild Horse"
Magoffin County, Kentucky' 1940-41.

Appalachian Center Collection, SAA 89 (AC-CT-377-002)

Doc Roberts

"Martha Campbell"
Madison County, Kentucky' 05-15-54.

Doc Roberts Papers, SAA 75

Buddy Thomas

"Short's Addition"
Lewis County, Kentucky

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

Lella Todd

"Arkansas Traveler"
Estill County, Kentucky

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

Mary Lozier

"Hard Times"
Greenup County, Kentucky, 11-07-77

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-044-02-B)

Carlton Rawlings

"Thompson's Reel"
Bath County, Kentucky c. 1970s

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

Manon Campbell

"Puncheon Floor"
Letcher County, Kentucky, c.1970s.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-012-01)

James 'Pop' Baker

"Martha Campbell"
Franklin County, Kentucky, c.1967.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-005-01 B)

Travis Wells

"Martha Campbell (plucked)"
Clark County, Kentucky

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

Bill Hatton

"Martha Campbell"
Bourbon County, Kentucky 12-05-79.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-031-01-A)

Bob Kash

"Martha Campbell"
Wolfe County, Kentucky 05-24-77

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

George Hawkins

"Rat's Gone To Rest"
Bath County, Kentucky 11-06-77.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-032-01-A)

Kelly Gilbert

"Crab Orchard Quickstep"
Franklin County, Kentucky, 06-12-78.

John Harrod Collection, SAA 89 (JH-CT-023-03)

John Harrod w/ Scott Prouty and Michael Ismerio

"Jimmy Arthurs"
Owen County, Kentucky, 03-10-12.

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

Learning the Tradition / Using the Collection

JH:  It's possible for someone with a sincere love of this music and an understanding that this is not just information, this is a cultural artifact that comes from a particular living place and it's not dead yet, to connect with this tradition and it can continue to live.  By going there and learning more about it and listening closely to everything that's in those archives and then, learning some of the history behind it, you can reconnect with that context.   You can get a lot of that context back from just pursuing it, just from doing your homework.

And then you can become just as good as carrier of that tradition as the person you got it from.  You can't go back to not having an education … you literally can't go back to those times and be that person.  But these traditions and these values can endure with these original recordings as the inspiration.  But you have to go further.  

SP:  I guess ideally you would not want to exactly imitate somebody else, either. 

JH:  No.  You have this area you work in that was defined by T.S. Eliot in that great essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”  Somebody who is wanting to be a traditional fiddler – you don't do that just by imitating note for note, lick for lick, any particular fiddler, but you define your own area from listening to and imitating a lot of different fiddlers who are probably related to each other in some way.  And then you find your way through this language or this group of people and then you develop your own style based on all this music you've heard that's somewhat connected.  That's as real as it gets.  The people who are doing that are the people that I'm most encouraged by.  And that's what I encourage. 

“Let's play some Kentucky tunes” – well, that can mean anything.  Now there's this mystique about Kentucky and Kentucky tunes, but it's a general mystique that's probably based on a dim awareness that this Kentucky stuff, when it all started coming along, seemed different to people, and they sensed that  and they thought, “Well, we'd better learn all these tunes.”  Yet, until you realize that it's a long way from John Salyer to Doc Roberts to Buddy Thomas  – what are you talking about when you're talking about Kentucky tunes? 

SP:  In documenting the traditions and putting your collection at Berea and Morehead, did you get the sense that there were going to be people coming along that were really serious about it?  Beyond those people that were already around?

JH:  I never gave up on that.  I thought just based on the people I know who are playing this stuff, it hasn't died off.  But I want anybody to take advantage of the work that we have done regardless of where they are or where they come from.  We have the freedom to go anywhere and do whatever we want to do, but, in my heart I want young people from this area who live here to be the ones … those are the ones that I most hope will connect with this.  I never knew if that was happening although I hoped it would. 

With the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School and with the generation of young people who went through Morehead with Jesse Wells and the way they've connected with it, now I'm seeing for the first time a pretty strong movement of people in Kentucky picking up Kentucky music, understanding it and realizing, “This is our music, why go play Irish music when you've got all this here?” 

I've always hoped that these recordings would have the greatest impact in the area they came from.  You can't always tell if that's happening, but I think it's happening more now than ever before, so that's an encouraging sign.

The Fragility of Tradition - A Myth or Reality?

SP:  Earlier on, when you were talking about Fleming and Bath Counties and this Morehead festival with George Hawkins and everyone, you mentioned a local audience who knew the music but weren't necessarily musicians.  That seems to be an ideal situation for the health of traditional music, but that was back in the '70s.  People just the next generation or so were probably learning country music or bluegrass or something else.

JH:  Yeah, yeah.

SP:  Was there any kind of stigma with that older music among people who might have played bluegrass?

JH:  Oh sure there was, there always is.  Most people tend to go with what's new and innovative and different from what their parents did.  Yes, of course, you would expect that since bluegrass supplanted the earlier traditional music, but what we call the old-time stringband music of the 1930s also supplanted older styles.

SP:  Right.

JH:  There was a pretty big difference between those oldest fiddlers who ever got recorded and the next generation who were still playing fiddle and banjo music.  They were progressive innovators and made those older people seem old-fashioned.  I think it does take conscious effort and the ability to step back and see this American obsession with what's new and innovative, to step back from seeing what's new as the basic value and asking, “Okay, what's really good and what's most connected to who we are?” and finding value in something for more intrinsic reasons.  To step back and say, “Okay, I'm going to embrace and hold on to this older thing for whatever reason.”  And for whatever reason, that is happening now.

SP:  Do you have any idea why?   

JH:  A lot of the students who became connected with traditional music going through Morehead State University are from the area.  I'm not so sure about Berea - for all their music activities, I'm not sure what effect they've had on the older traditional music of the region.  In some individual cases, there are kids who go to Berea who come from this background and they do learn more about it at Berea. They go on and they deepen their involvement in traditional music.

The Cowan Creek Mountain Music School: seeing those kids coming through that and growing up – the same thing happens at Augusta; I'm aware of a lot of people who grew up at Augusta and they are now some of our best traditional musicians anywhere.  So it is happening, but I think you have to make a choice.  Young people need peers, they need to do what other people are doing, and so the more young people see other young people doing this, embracing traditional music, the cooler it is and the more of them are going to follow it.  So I think there is a cumulative effect.

SP:  Related to all this, I was looking at Dorothy Scarborough's book, A Songcatcher in the Mountains, this morning.  I saw this really interesting quote; as long as traditional music has been documented, people have been saying that it is dying – whether it's ballads or whatever.  The quote is: 

“Folksongs are fast dying of civilization.  Music is killing them off; they are being poisoned by print.  The extension of schools and good roads goes on ruthlessly and the wild life is doomed.  Bok built a tower in Florida for the nightingale but where are the sanctuaries provided for native songs?  Libraries and museums receive their dead bodies and some day learned societies will discuss their extinction, but would it not be better to save them while they are still alive?”

I'm skipping; she ends by saying:

“They die, not by violence, not killed off by feud or lynching, but by vulgar neglect.  Once dead they are forever gone.”[1] 

That was written in 1934.

JH:  Yeah, and yet we're seeing it survive in living form.

SP:  And adapting.

JH:  And adapting, yeah, in a different time, in a new world.  Why is that?  We know it fulfills a need and we know there's something strong and living and vibrant that enhances our lives in the same ways it did for all those old fiddlers like Edden Hammons, for whom music was their cause for living.  It was what they were meant to do, it was what they lived for, it was the meaning and purpose of their lives.  That's true of people we know today and it’s the same music. 

SP:  That's a personal need but there's also a social function. 

JH:  The social context is growing up around it – Dare to be Square and the young people my daughter Anna's age who are creating their own communities around the music.  It's interesting how in some ways these communities that are created around the music do resemble the old traditional music communities that the music came out of.  The sustainable living movement is in some ways going back to the traditional lives that many of these musicians followed, which I believe is the way our civilization will devolve of necessity.  And as it does devolve somewhat away from urban living, I think the idea of traditional music and the communal, recreational, and aesthetic aspects of it are going to fulfill a need that's always been there.  It's going to become timely again, it's going to fit in better with the way of life that seems to be emerging.  That's an optimistic view of it. 

[1]     Scarborough, Dorothy.  A Song Catcher in Southern Mountains: American Folk Songs of British Ancestry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1937.  Forward, p. ix.

The Living Tradition / The Future

SP:  A lot of people who have been involved in the old-time music revival for a long time – since the 60's or '70s – often defined themselves in opposition to their parents' generation.  Music was part of a rebellion and it was almost a tool in addition to fulfilling all these other needs. 

JH:  The music and the whole interest in traditional culture is spreading and has gained a foothold among more progressive people.  I define that very broadly and I include people like the Cowan Creek community, who, although they may be pro-coal, I would regard them as progressive in that it's a very strong community-oriented place which, although they have conservative religious and social values, they're progressive in that they work together closely as a community and look after each other. 

It's a really interesting little community center in what seems to me to be a very healthy little community where everybody functions together and takes care of everybody and looks out for their kids and tries to solve their problems.  That's progressive and conservative at the same time.  It's also a music community and all these other progressive people come in from outside and they learn the music there.  It does seem to be a part of an evolving way of life that I think is evolving everywhere. 

I'm just very curious about why more people are getting interested in this stuff.  What's the reason for that as opposed to everything else they might be doing?  Even though we must admit that we and all of our friends are a very miniscule minority in the greater population of the United States, it is fair to say it's growing.  It's not stagnant and the thing that's growing is spinning off in all kinds of interesting directions as you see even in a small festival like Breaking Up Winter with that Memphis couple, The Sidesteppers. 

The whole evolving phenomena of American roots music is really exciting.  You don't hardly meet anybody who doesn't recognize it as something really special, like the people we met at the Owen lodge hall the other night.[1]  We probably wouldn't have agreed with them about anything politically, but we were connecting on the basis of their local history and culture.  Everybody likes to talk about that; everybody wants to enhance that; everybody wants to connect with it.  In spite of the modern world  - “Go, get more, then throw away everything you’ve already got” - I think people are tired of that.  People want this connection with a place and a community and a sense of who they are which the modern world is depriving us of.  For that reason, things like this always do come back.  People sooner or later get tired of this consumerism.

SP:  There are always opposing forces.

JH:  Yeah.

SP:  Sometimes one gains more ground, sometimes the other. 

Your recordings of these musicians have by now, because of the CDs you published and then these home recordings that are coming out now - a lot of this music has made its way out into the wider world in Kentucky and beyond to your generation and newer generations of musicians.  You've tried to convey this idea of the importance of place in creating those various traditions of music.  How do you see it playing a role in the new generations? 

JH:  Well, that's problematical.  There are things that bother me a little,  but inevitably the music is going to get spread around.  Of course, that was my intention in putting it at Berea and Morehead – I wanted it to get around, but the problem is, in our culture things spread around and they lose their context and they lose their connection with the people and the places and the history.  It just becomes information in a world of information overload.  “Hey, let's play some tunes!” To the people who don't have this community and this context – to them, it's just more and more tunes.  Tunes you’ve never  heard, thousands and thousands of tunes.  But the problem with that is that they have all these tunes, but the language is lost, the feeling is lost, the nuances are lost because it's ten miles wide and an inch deep.  I suppose that's inevitable, given the reality of modern communications and the internet and vast databases.  I guess it's unavoidable.

[1]        Members of the Owen County Historical Society.

Using the Collection to Learn Regional Music

SP:  Digging through your collection at the Berea Archive, it's only deepened the impression from the official CDs, that there's a great depth of repertoire documented there.  Some pieces are more rare than others, but you could hear the same tune from a lot of people.  You spell out, in these notes to Along the Ohio's Shores, that a person could listen to many people play a tune and, in an ideal world, come up with their own take on it.  So that's one way someone could use your collection at Berea.  How else can it be useful as a learning tool?  It's a bit of a broad question. 

JH:  In the most practical sense, someone who was interested in learning a regional Kentucky repertoire could start with that.  If you just played Kentucky stuff, you wouldn't have to play anything else; you'd have your hands full.  Theoretically a person could know as many tunes as you know just from Kentucky.  So it's just a question of how far you want to go, how much you want to confine yourself to the traditions of one place versus all of the other stuff out there that you hear and like.  People make choices; you do have to make choices, and that becomes more evident and more necessary as so much more becomes available. 

That's a topic worth discussing.  There's just more out there than anyone can absorb and if you're going to be a player, you have to make some choices.  You can't play all those tunes and do justice to the style that they were played in at the same time, but those styles are what it’s all about.

SP:  I think it'd be really hard for someone, in this day and age, to just play the tunes and the style of one these sub-regions: just play Lewis County tunes.

JH:  Oh yeah.

SP:  You'd just be too tempted by everything else.  Fiddlers are just compelled to play tunes that appeal to them whatever grounding their style is in.

JH:  Sure.

SP:  I think it would be really hard to only play Portsmouth style or Round Peak style.

JH:  I like the people who do play a style and stick with it, and not slavishly imitate someone, but they accept themselves in a particular style and they work from that.  They can develop it in their own unique way, but they've got a grounding.  That appeals to me more than something generic. Many of those players are very good.  I've compromised in that way because I love all this Kentucky music so much that I want to be able to do justice to all of it.

SP:  Right.

JH:  And so, in my own mind, I'm somewhere in between a Central Kentucky approach and a Northern Kentucky approach and a Southeastern Kentucky approach, all of which are really quite different. 

SP:  Yeah, like you said earlier, it's pretty far from Hiram Stamper to Doc Roberts.

JH:  Yeah, but I feel like geographically, that's where I'm located and experience-wise, that's where I'm located.  I'm right in the center of three poles and I've gotten to where I can adjust to the bowing and the feeling of three pretty different styles. 

They're not major adjustments but they're just differences in how you use the bow and the phrasing and coloring some of the notes.  These are things that I've broadened myself enough so that I can understand and communicate it.  As much teaching as I ended up doing – which is more than I wanted to - I started realizing that teaching is great practice for my playing and so I'm still doing it.  When you start breaking that stuff down because you have to show somebody, you want to show them right and give them something to latch onto, you're forced into that. I still like to think that I play one style, but I can move it three different directions.

SP:  So you're outlining the choices you've made as a player and saying that your collection or anyone else's collection of traditional music could be used to do the same thing.

JH:  I would like to think that some ambitious person would use it to identify what it is about a style, why these fiddlers don't sound like those fiddlers.  That would be the deepest level involved.  Repertoire would be another not quite as deep a level. And then maybe cultural history, including an  appreciation for the fact that this was such a part of so many people's lives, and it was valued in these communities as late as the 1970s and '80s.   What does that tell us about these communities that still made and valued their own entertainment and gave some status to the people who practiced it?

SP:  We're talking about a good fifty years or so on from the introduction of radio and records and that kind of mass media.  

JH:  Yeah, and these people were still living and playing in that world, and there were still local square dances going on and fiddlers contests at a few county fairs.  People talked about the fiddlers with some respect.

Defining an Aesthetic / Making Choices

SP:  These CD's came out in '97, something like that, and I think certainly lots of people have learned about George Hawkins, for example, because of them.  Lots of people play those tunes like Rats Gone to Rest – they're out there now, they've had an effect.  Are you happy with it?  Do you feel satisfied?

George Lee Hawkins

JH:  Yeah, well, yeah …

SP:  Do you feel, “mission accomplished?”

JH:  The mission can never be accomplished.  As far as it goes, yeah, people have recognized some unique local traditions.  To me the idea is to quit trying to do everything and cover the whole country and allow yourself to connect with and become part of one tradition and learn to speak that language and keep that evolving as opposed to a Pan-American or Pan-Southern or Trans-American big broad generic festival style which mish-mashes into one big thing.

SP:  You're talking about defining the parameters of an aesthetic, or different aesthetics. 

JH:  Yeah, you could define your parameters very locally specific or a little broader regionally but stick with something because at some point you have to make a commitment to learn at least one approach or develop your own approach that isn't going to cover every possible sound in the world because we're overloaded with options and alternatives.  Once you get exposed to so much music I think as a practicing musician you have to decide: which way am I going to go here and how many influences out of this world of information and music that we're exposed to … how much stuff can one person absorb and use?  The dilemma of all that we have at our disposal is … if you want to keep evolving, it forces you to make some hard choices at some point. 

I'm glad that this music got some attention and that people like it and that people talk about it, but now the interesting question is: what are you going to do with it? 

SP:  It sounds like you feel that there's more potential for expression within these various kinds of aesthetic confines? 

JH:  Yeah.

SP:  And people aren't taking advantage of that, maybe?

JH:  Yeah, in general.  I think a few people are, but they're not trying to do everything under the sun. 

SP:  Then again, you're talking about a really different process compared to people like the Edden Hammons, John Salyers who only had exposure to so much music anyway …

JH:  But they may have had exposure to more music than we do but just in a smaller geographical area. 

SP:  More live music?

JH:  Live music, yeah.  Think about how many fiddlers some of those people would have known and heard and how different those fiddlers might have been within some kind of general style.  They might have been exposed to as much as they could absorb or more than they could absorb, but I suspect their musical background was very rich in a lot of ways throughout the course of their lifetimes.

SP:  I didn't mean to suggest it was limited at all, just that we have a choice to learn opera, to do all these things, at least to listen to huge catalogs of it, if nothing else - whether we actually learn it. 

JH:  Ideally I would hope that, listening to this music, someone might get a feeling from it, a feeling that in some indefinable way, this is different.  This is its own kind of sound and that would lead them to exploring and learning more about why that is and where it comes from.  Eventually we all have to be somewhere and so - of course, this is pure idealism – I think people should go live where they follow that sound and settle down there and become part of a community and start living and raising a family.  Live with the plants and the creatures and the culture of a place, with the musical language being a part of that.  If you ask, “What is my hope for the music?”  The music will continue to be a part of life in a particular place and it will be connected to the history of that place, and we will have viable communities again which is the only way we're going to survive. 

SP:  So pretty much you're talking about coming full circle to something like what you experienced?

JH:  Yeah, that's a good way of putting it.  We know people who are doing that and that's the most hopeful thing I can see happening right now in our crazy, screwed up world.

Impact of Technological Innovations on Learning the Tradition

SP:  Let's talk a little bit about the role recording technology played.  It sounds like, aside from valuing the music itself, you may have valued the process by which the music was created prior to all that. 

JH:  Yeah, just the fact that it was passed directly from person to person as I was learning it.  I had the  advantage of being able to take these tapes home and listen to them, but honestly I didn't do much of sitting down and listening to a tape to try to get everything lick for lick.  I listened to those tapes and used them to get the tunes in my head, and then I would reproduce them knowing that I might be doing some things a little differently.  I'd be doing them my own way.  When I'd eventually go back to listen to the original recording again, sometimes I'd realize that I was further off than I wanted to be.  Sometimes I would be pretty close to the way I was remembering it and hearing it in my mind.  Lately, as I'm trying to refine what I'm doing a little more, I’m going back and listening to the original recordings again because I'm noticing there are things that I forgot and things that I want to get that I believe need to be a part of it.  I want to go back and revisit it from the perspective of a new present.

SP:  It's somewhat ironic that the new technologies of records and radio and eventually television played a big role in changing the tradition, changing the way it worked and, eventually, the abandonment of it by younger generations.

L-R: Earl Thomas, Jr., Kelly Gilbert, John Harrod. Shelbyville, KY during Painted Stone Festival.  Early 1980s. Photo by Rufus Harrod.

JH:  And yet...

SP:  But at the same time those technologies such as computers and the internet and iPods are sort of enabling people to get deep into the tradition, into the music anyway. 

JH:  They brought it back, yeah. 

SP:  I wanted to get your take on that.  It seems a bit ironic. 

JH:  Well, it is.  It's a good thing though.  I think we talked about this before.  It can give you access to it, but you have to go further to really grasp it and understand it and make it real in a relevant and significant way. 

SP:  So there's no escaping the power of person-to-person?

JH:  Person-to-person and then all of us persons being somewhere in a place where we're actually doing it in a context with other people who understand it and know the history of it.  Like when you, I, and our friends get together. Ultimately, that's the only place it can really survive and flourish.  The technology can make it available, but it's just information until we bring it alive again in a community of citizens.

Final Thoughts

SP:  Is there anything you wanted to say about your collection or Kentucky fiddling then versus now?  Or anything at all that you want to get off your chest that we haven't already talked about?

JH:  From my perspective today, I'd have to say that I was so lucky to be alive when I was and unmarried until I was age 34.  I had a window of time in my life when I was free to move around. I built a camper on the back of my truck and lived in and out of that for a period of years and then I got those artists-in-the-schools jobs.  I wasn't just doing music all the time, off in search of music – I was doing a lot of other things too such as learning practical skills.  It was the last opportunity to catch all those people who had learned their music before radio and phonograph records.  Again, that was luck.  You start to reflect on your life about this time, and I realize that all the best things that have happened to me have been the result of circumstances beyond my control. 


It was just timing – it had nothing to do with planning.  I guess I made the choice to take advantage of the opportunities, but had the opportunities not been there, I wouldn't have had that choice.  I'm thankful for that.  It lives and resonates, and people today like you and all our friends in West Virginia and the people we know in Kentucky – we share this common language and this common stock of music that we know and love and we're actively following it and other people are interested in it as well.

SP:  It's a different kind of community geographically, but there's still the person-to-person interaction going on. 

JH:  Yeah, I wish we were not so dispersed.  We have to travel to create this scene now, but we do whatever it takes. 

SP:  It's not too hard.

JH:  It's not too hard.  I think with gas and the way things are going, I wish we lived closer together but I don't see that happening anytime soon.  I think we talked about this before. 

I see homegrown music as an important part of the direction and evolution of the sustainable communities that we're going to have to rely on in this brave new world that we’ve inherited and have to pass on.