ASHLAND A frequent winner of the Ed Haley Fiddle Contest at Poage Landing Days has won the National Heritage Award for 2020.
John D. Morris, 73, of Clay County, W.Va., is a noted fiddler, banjo player, guitarist and songwriter. He was understandably elated to win the award.
“I was surprised and honored, because I knew something of the history of it,” Morris said. “I knew the great names in music who had won it. Melvin Wine had won it 30 years ago. He was a great old-time fiddler in West Virginia and a good friend of mine. I knew that Ralph Stanley had won, who was also a friend. I knew a couple of other people in West Virginia had won it. I knew fiddler Kenny Baker and Bill Monroe, both from Kentucky, had won it and I was honored to be among that crowd.”
Morris was honored for his preservation of the traditional style of music from his native Ivydale.
His interest in music began when he was 7 and learning to play clawhammer banjo from his grandfather, Amos Morris, and guitar from mother Anna Hill Morris.
He began learning fiddle from French Carpenter, a highly regarded fiddle player from the area. He continued studying fiddle players from Clay County and, in 1965, Morris and his brother, David, began the Morris Brothers.
Three years later, the brothers became interested in labor rights, so they offered their music to Joseph A. “Jock” Yablonski’s campaign for president of the United Mine Workers of America. The pair traveled with the UMWA for years, performing their music and advocating against the exploitation of Appalachian people. As a result, the appeared in the Academy Award-winning documentary “Harlan County: USA” by Barbara Kopple.
The Morris brothers also attended old-time music festivals across the state and region, including the Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival at their family home place. That festival model became the gold standard for a community-based traditional music festival in Appalachia.
Morris said he believes the country appreciates the historical value of traditional music.
“That style of music came to America with the people who settled America on the first boat. Fiddles, in particular, I think were included on the Mayflower,” he said. “There’s always been music in America as long as America has been here and some of the same tunes played then are the same ones played now. They’ve survived because they’re good. Anything good survives.”
Morris became interested in the Ed Haley Fiddle Contest after meeting one of Haley’s daughters, Mona.
“The two struck up a friendship with Mona encouraging John to come to Ashland,” Barbara Morris’ partner of 20 years, said, noting Morris already had an Ed Haley story of his own.
“A frequent visitor to Clay and Calhoun Counties, Ed Haley left his musical mark throughout central and southern West Virginia. Being a traveling musician, Mr. Haley, often stayed at the homes of local musicians or those who appreciated his music,” Harmon-Schamberger said. “One evening, Mr. Haley stayed at the home of John’s paternal grandparents. Being a traveling man and musician, Mr. Haley had a colorful vocabulary that abruptly changed tone upon Ma Morris ordering him to leave her table or hush! Ma’s cooking was good and Mr. Haley thereafter attended to his dinner without further comment.”
She added Morris performed with Mona at her retirement home in Ohio. “Mona played her mandolin and John the fiddle and for an hour or so they filled the hallways with the music of Ed Haley and the old-time music of the people. Mona is greatly missed,” she said.
Morris has taught fiddle and banjo at various venues and was honored by the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and other fiddler’s conventions. He also was named the 2015 recipient of the West Virginia Heritage Fiddler Award and was a master artist in 2018’s West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program.
He invites young musicians to his home to learn while continuing to play a crucial role in sustaining and promoting West Virginia traditional music.
Morris has performed at many festivals in the region.
“Any reason to get together and celebrate Appalachians will find an excuse to do it,” he said, adding Hillbilly Days in Pikeville and Poage Landing Days in Ashland to his list. “Almost every one of those get-togethers will have a fiddling contest. There will be bluegrass music either on the bill or just turned up. That’s one of the ways you gauge how valuable it is.
“Oftentimes musicians will go to their own expense and have a CD to sell, out of the back of a car, trunk sales. They don’t intend to make a living off it. They sell it to share and maybe to make enough for gas money so they can keep on doing it,” Morris continued. “People are really still interested in the music and still turn out for it. You’ll find stringed music at all of these celebrations.”
Senior citizens centers have become another popular venue for traditional music, but Morris said he’d like to see the genre played at even more places with regularity.
“Old-time fiddle tunes should be included at the opening of every government and public ceremony. Every state should have an old-time fiddler as a public official, like a poet laureate, have a fiddler laureate,” he said.
The National Heritage Award, presented by the National Endowment for the Arts, is considered the country’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Other winners include Old Regular Baptist singer from Virginia Frank Newsome; bluegrass musician Bill Monroe; bluegrass guitarist and singer Del McCoury; and bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs.
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