Fiddling Through Life
John Harrod—collector, player, teacher, folklorist, and historian of old-time music—says we are in a strong traditional music revival, pointing toward a more community-oriented, less materialistic way of life
Tape recorder in hand, his fiddle close by, John Harrod of Owenton has journeyed into the nooks and crannies of Kentucky for 37 years recording the state’s traditional music, especially the fiddle. He has discovered a rich heritage of song and a wealth of talent that had gone largely unnoticed.
Today that music is preserved for new generations thanks to Harrod, a member of Owen Electric Cooperative. The depth and breadth of the music he has recorded will probably impress you. It did the Governor’s Awards for the Arts, which presented Harrod with the Folk Heritage Award in 2004.
What he has learned along the way might also surprise you, for he says it is nothing short of a “new way of conducting our lives,” a way that is perhaps more relevant now than in decades.
Harrod’s enchantment with music started back in the 1940s in rural Bagdad in Shelby County. As a young child, Harrod was fascinated with an old guitar player in town and constantly pestered the musician to play.
A musical prodigy Harrod was not. He was kicked out of his junior high school band and didn’t play music again until high school. By the time he graduated, Harrod and a couple of buddies had formed a band playing at functions around town.
“We were mostly a public nuisance,” Harrod jokingly recalls. “We were good at getting kicked out of places. We were trying to play bluegrass and folk music before it was cool.”
Still, the seeds of his lifelong love of old-time music were sown.
At Centre College, Harrod majored in English and political science. His music was limited to leisurely playing a guitar and mandolin. After graduating from Centre, Harrod was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and headed to Oxford for two years.
“There was quite a folk scene at Oxford,” he says. “They were already listening to old-source musicians there. We were hearing the really traditional stuff that went directly back to earlier generations of performers, groups like the Copper family, old farmers who sang these unaccompanied country songs, and musicians who were singing old ballads that went way back. They had vast repertoires. This was my first experience with the old roots of folk music.”
Harrod returned from England to the States in a quandary. He had become accustomed to the leisurely pace of academic life abroad and so enjoyed his studies that he was not strongly focused on a career. Simultaneously he felt immense pressure to do great things as a Rhodes scholar.
“I had to deal with the pressure in my own way,” Harrod observes.
The 20-something decided not to jump into graduate school, choosing instead to pursue his own music. He lived cheap, fixing old houses in exchange for rent, and played his music every weekend with the Progress Red Hot String Band, a group he formed with some other young musicians.
Then Harrod met Bill Livers, an old fiddler from Owen County.
“He was the real deal,” Harrod says of Livers. “He came from a family of black musicians around New Liberty and he was my first direct contact with a real traditional musician in Kentucky.”
As his group started playing festivals, Harrod met other musicians such as Lily May Ledford, who had played with the Coon Creek Girls, Kentucky’s first all-girl string band.
Fate soon stepped in with a job offer that was the “difference between studying about something or doing it” in Harrod’s view. He became a folk artist in residence at the schools in Wolfe County, and later in Estill County.
Wolfe County’s superintendent of schools, Richard Jett, loved the old music and was a square dance caller. Jett and Harrod hit it off immediately. Jett took the young Harrod around to the local musicians.
That’s how Harrod met the person who was to be his primary influence—a man named Darley Fulks.
“Darley was the fiddler’s fiddler,” says Harrod. “He was the most complete fiddler I’ve ever met. A lot of times this music skips a generation. That was the case with Darley. Darley’s music was a direct link to the antebellum fiddle tradition in eastern Kentucky. He played old breakdowns, blues, hornpipes, marches, schottisches, and even airs. He had a vast repertoire and was full of stories. In effect, he was living in the 19th century.”
Harrod had found the way he would change the world.
“My purpose became to meet as many people as I could of Darley’s generation and try to document their music, their lives, their stories,” says Harrod. “Through the ’80s and up to the mid-90s I worked closely with researchers Bruce Greene, Gus Meade, and Mark Wilson, to more thoroughly and systematically document and record traditional musicians.
“Musically, these people represented the last generation that had learned their music before the advent of phonograph records and radio. They are the last of the music oral tradition. Their music and their styles were passed down directly in their families and communities as far back as you could trace. The advent of new music technologies in the 1920s changed all that as people had access to new and innovative styles that were being practiced far afield from where they grew up.”
One musician would refer them to another, and so it went. Harrod’s positions in the schools led to other teaching jobs. This left his summers free to record music.
The result is a card catalog full of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes, which Harrod says runs into the hundreds. Much of it is preserved in Berea College’s Hutchins Library Special Collections and at the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University.
“It’s important to remember that Bruce, Gus, Mark, and I were not unique at this time,” Harrod says modestly, his white beard and wire-rimmed glasses so reminiscent of the fiddlers he has recorded. “There were other people pursuing the same interest all over the country. I think our field recordings contributed to that.”
Harrod adds, “In recent years, my wife, Tona Barkley, and my daughter, Anna Harrod, have joined me in playing and preserving these old fiddle tunes.
“What we have today is a very strong traditional music revival in this country. I think the traditional music revival today also seems to be pointing toward a more community-oriented, less materialistic way of life that more people are starting to embrace.
“Change is ongoing, but from time to time in history there are periods of revolutionary change—the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, for example. At such times, literally everything changes. We are on the threshold of one of those periods…The age of cheap oil is over. The age of limitless growth is over. The age of the wasteful use of nonrenewable resources is over. We must assess the past and what we can learn from other periods of revolutionary change.
“As we feel the world changing too fast, people naturally want to connect with things that remind them of where they are from.”
If that sounds ominous, Harrod insists it isn’t.
Harrod says, “It’s actually a way to embrace inevitable change and simultaneously rediscover who we really are and what makes us truly happy.” Harrod, who practices sustainable living, says, “We will actually thrive if we are less materialistic and more spiritual. The values that sustain us will be more social and spiritual rather than material. This doesn’t have to be impoverished. We can live better lives at a lower level of material consumption. It can actually be a higher level when we live more simply and find our values in family and community and activities such as music and dancing.”
Harrod sums up it simply, “Music is a way of connecting us.”
John Harrod’s most recent recording is Spirit of the Lonesome Hills, available online at www.kentuckywildhorse.com. His first collection of the home recordings will be available in late summer or fall. See “What’s Next for John Harrod?” below for more information on the new home recordings.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: WHAT'S NEXT FOR JOHN HARROD?
Harrod is gathering collections of home recordings—recordings the musicians made of themselves, each other, or family members—from 1948 to 1964 with three forthcoming CDs. Learn more at Kentucky Living online at John Harrod.