Longtime KY fiddler connects with tradition as he mentors students
In his home at the southern end of Owen County musician John Harrod is sitting on an upholstered, rolling, desk chair, with his legs crossed at the knees and a fiddle tucked under his chin. He’s demonstrating fiddle playing from various regions in Kentucky.
Harrod has been playing the fiddle for 60 years. He says he spent the 1970s, 80s, and 90s documenting old-style traditional music in Kentucky.
“Particularly fiddle music. I focused on the fiddle probably more than anything else because the fiddle just has a way of grabbing hold of you,” reported Harrod.
Harrod said he was involved in recording hundreds of old-time Kentucky musicians and was inspired by many of them.
“All of it is housed at both the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University and Berea College. And many people have used those collections for their own research,” explained Harrod.
The 77-year-old pulls out a white binder filled with pages of the names of Kentucky fiddlers and the counties they are from. He has stories about all of them.
“Down in Madison and Jessamine County, those fiddlers were the ones that had grown up with these Black fiddlers, in particular, Jim Booker. So that was a whole little microcosm of unique music in that one little place. There were some great women fiddlers along the way, Emma Lee Dickerson, Lella Todd, Effie Pearson. I recorded them, Lily May Ledford," said Harrod.
Harrod recalled being in Lewis County to record a bunch of fiddlers in the barn of folk artists and musicians Noah and Charley Kinney.
“I was amazed at all these fiddlers that showed up in the barn just from maybe about a five-mile radius. And I was talking to Brooks Menier who was one of the fiddlers and you know, he looked around, he said, ‘yeah, this here’s fiddle country’ that stuck in my mind because he was right,” reported Harrod.
Harrod listed some of his favorite fiddlers.
“I’d have to say four maybe. For central Kentucky, it would be Doc Roberts. For the Ohio River, it would be Buddy Thomas and for southeast Kentucky, it would be Luther Strong," said Harrod.
“And then in a category all by himself would be Darley Fulks who was just back there in the 19th century playing in what seemed to me to be like the original bedrock style of all of Kentucky fiddling which was also very Black. He was White of course. But he recognized that the mountain fiddling as he played it came from Black people and that was very unusual for this old man living in Wolfe County to know that, because of course, that’s true. So much of what we think of as mountain music actually has a Black origin,” added Harrod.
The Kentucky native plays with the band Kentucky Wildhorse. He teaches fiddle in several places across the country from Port Townsend, Washington, to Tennessee. And he’s been a regular at Cowan Creek Mountain Music School in Letcher County, Kentucky for 21 years. He’s currently teaching an intermediate fiddle class with Cowan Creek’s online winter session. He said every fiddle tune has a different feeling to it.
“When you play you connect with that feeling. It makes you feel better. You’re connecting with something that’s living in that tune. Every tune has its own personality,” said Harrod.
The online classes started because of COVID. And Harrod said while he’s adjusted to teaching remotely, he likes the last week in June the best when there’s a full week of in-person classes.
”There’s nothing like the music school just for the food and the sense of community and getting to hang out with people and all the informal music that goes on throughout the day and the evening. It’s just like music immersion for the entire week,” explained Harrod.
Although Harrod is humble about his knowledge and talent, he is considered an expert. He’s a master artist in The Kentucky Arts Council’s Folk Arts Apprenticeship program. Harrod’s passion for music connects him with tradition while mentoring students.
“Sharing good energy with people and doing something that’s fun and allows for self-expression. I think for people who are really deep into it and have done it for a long time it’s also a spiritual thing. And I think it has always been that at the deepest level for people who participate in it,” said Harrod.
As for Cowan Creek Mountain Music School, Harrod called it the ideal place to learn about Kentucky’s music and its culture.
“And share it and take some of it back with you and everybody ends up feeling better when they go home.”
**In a sea of partisan news, WEKU is your source for public service, fact-based journalism. Monthly sustaining donors are the top source of funding for this growing nonprofit news organization. Please join others in your community who support WEKU by making your donation.