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American Routes Shortcuts: John Morris

John Morris
Michael Keller
National Endowment for the Arts
John Morris

Fiddler and banjo player John Morris grew up in Clay County, West Virginia’s old-time music traditions. He learned banjo from his grandfather and guitar from his mother. John picked up the fiddle, absorbing tunes and stories of local fiddlers. He and his brother David played together as the Morris Brothers and started the Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival at their family home in Ivydale. John shared the story of how they got the festival started.

John Morris: My brother got drafted in the Army in ’68 during the Vietnam War, and we had him a big going away party. All kinds of old-time music people showed up, the old people showed up. When he came back, we had him a welcome home party. We decided we’d try to have a regular thing, and the thing was we wanted to have old people come play music and the young people come join in with them. We didn’t have no contest; we didn’t pit nobody against each other. It was people coming and playing music, and they enjoyed the music. They enjoyed each other.

JM: To me that music is history. It’s just as important as a history book. If you could go back far enough to the day that those tunes were written, they were written for a purpose, for an event, for a celebration of a happening. Somebody went through a life struggle or somebody had a happiness in their life, and the result was a fiddle tune.

JM: You can’t play a fiddle tune without remembering the person you learned it from. It’s like you go to play a tune and you remember the person you learned it from. You mention him to somebody, maybe tell a story about him. It’s like you’re visiting them all over again. You keep him alive within you, and it lives within you. You’re never alone. It’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that I associated with these people, and I try to pass on that sort of life that they lived and the goodness that they had in them. I try to pass that on, and I try to be somebody that people will remember.

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