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Master fiddler passes down old-time Appalachian music

December 9, 2018

IVYDALE, W.Va. (AP) — When she began playing more than two years ago, Jen Iskow would have told you that, “Every fiddle tune sounded the same.”

Today, holding her instrument in one hand and a bow in the other, she feels differently.

“The more time you spend learning about it, and learning where things come from, you hear these really subtle differences,” Iskow said.

Though she may be able to distinguish the difference between a Randolph County and a Clay County fiddler — and despite taking classes with a few master fiddlers — Iskow still considers herself something of a beginner.

For her, playing the fiddle isn’t a skill which can be learned from a tutor, on paper or even through tutorials on YouTube.

“There are a lot of musicians all over now who are playing traditional music, whether it’s old-time music or Cajun music or klezmer music,” she said. “But it doesn’t really matter to me so much if you don’t know where it came from or who played it or why they played it.”

To dive deeper into the fiddle world, Iskow is currently apprenticing under John Morris, an acclaimed fiddler from Clay County who has been honored by the Augusta Heritage Center and the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, and has received the West Virginia Fiddler Award for his role in sustaining the tradition.

The partnership is supported by the West Virginia Folklife Program, a project by the West Virginia Humanities Council, which offers a stipend to traditional artists or tradition bearers working with apprentices on a year-long, in-depth training.

Morris was raised on the Ivydale property where he currently lives and where he and his siblings annually held the Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival. The gathering peaked at nearly 7,000 attendees in 1972.

Iskow chose to learn from Morris because of his style. She once visited him with a friend at his home in Ivydale, and he taught her a tune.

“I thought, ‘If I want to learn, this is the person I want to learn from,’ especially because this area is so rich in musical history and John is really the only person still playing around here,” she said.

Morris is not only a legendary fiddle player, he also has endless stories.

At an early age, Morris learned to play from locals like French Carpenter, James Franklin “Doc” White, Wilson Douglas, Lee Triplett and Ira Mullins before venturing to the Glenville Festival.

It was there he met fiddling legends like Glen Smith and William Franklin “Frank” George.

“Glen was a hard-driving fiddler and Frank George was more precise, almost delicate, with his noting, and had a unique approach,” Morris said. “But both were top-notch at what they did, and I was influenced some by both of them.”

Through George, Morris met John Hilt, a fiddler from Tannersville, Virginia. He died about a year later, but he left a lasting impact on Morris’ love for the instrument.

“I learned from him that a fiddle could have a lot of different voices,” he said. “I still play tunes that I learned from him that have voices that are entirely their own.”

Like the fiddle, Hilt was versatile. He could play a hard-driving fast fiddle that would make you want to stomp your foot, and then, transition almost instantly to a delicate song by Ira Mullins.

“One of the tunes that I’ve almost made a career out of is ‘Sugar and the Gourd,’” Morris said. “He’s one of the first people that I ever heard play that tune.”

The piece is complex, Iskow noted.

“I thought I wanted to learn that today,” she said. “I was like, ‘Will you play it for me?’” and he started playing it and I was like, ‘That looks so hard.’ I changed my mind.”

Iskow and Morris meet about once a month. She’s a graphic designer by day and travels from Thomas for their two-day sessions.

The two spend their time together talking about fiddle history and learning new tunes. Sometimes, they drive around, running errands.

Around every Clay County corner, Morris seems to have a new story.

“I think it has really just taught me to slow down and listen to older generations, and how important it is to pass on the wisdom of people and not take anything for granted,” Iskow said. “A lot of the old-time musicians are not alive anymore, and you can’t really go back and get back what they knew if you didn’t get it while they were still alive.”

Morris agreed. Being around old-time musicians meant learning valuable lessons about life at an early age.

“If you’re around old people, they invariably talk,” he said. “And if you pay attention to them, you’ll learn all there is to know about life.”

Morris learned what it meant to work hard to raise a family from Lester McCumbers and his wife, Linda. She told him stories of how Lester worked on sawmills for low wages and managed to raise nine children on a tight income.

“You listen to a story like that and what you come away from there with is a great lesson in life: It’s not what you got in life, it’s what you do with it.”

Fiddling brought Morris and the McCumbers together, and in the same way they passed these stories to him, he is retelling them through the apprenticeship.

Iskow values these lessons as much as she appreciates the music.

“It’s really opened my eyes, the more time I’ve spent with John and other people in the old-time music world, to just how resilient and special and talented people have been in this area and all over West Virginia for decades,” Iskow said. “It’s the ability to overcome all kinds of things, and raise their families, and also have a really vibrant music and art culture to share with each other.”

Old-time music tells the story of the people of Appalachia, Morris said. It’s created from life experiences.

“Somebody once said that old-time music is about the birds that sang, the water that flows,” he said. “It’s about how dogs bark at night. It’s about all the things — the owls that hoot, cows that ball. It’s about everything around you that you hear. It’s about the joy that you have in life, it’s about the sorrow. It’s about all your life experiences. It all comes out in your music, and your music will be individual.”

Morris’ influences come from many musicians and places.

After meeting Hilt, he traveled to bluegrass festivals and shows all over Appalachia, where he met many players, including Bill Monroe.

“He said he was ‘the greatest bluegrass fiddle player in the world,’ which, in fact, he was at that time,” Morris said. “I got to stand around and watch him play on stage, live. Somebody said, ‘Anybody that’d ever seen Bill Monroe or heard him play, was influenced by him.’”

Morris began to notice his own personal style after about 15 or so years. It “sounds” a lot like Clay County.

“I’d seen a lot of good fiddle players beyond the local people,” he said. “When it came right down to it, I always came back to Clay County music just being my favorite. My favorites were all right around here, all within 12 miles of me.”

For Iskow, this very style Morris has — cultivated by the voices of many different fiddlests — drew her to learn from him.

“It’s very true to the music around here,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s not precious and it’s not delicate. It’s on fire, exciting, hard-driving fiddling, but also stays true to old-time roots.”

While she can recognize the style in a tune, learning to play Morris’ music hasn’t been simple.

Learning to play the fiddle doesn’t come with a set of instructions. Some, including Morris and Iskow, are not “paper-trained” at all.

“I had no concept,” Morris said. “It looked like a bunch of little people climbing through a rail fence to me.”

He learned to teach fiddle music by watching others who taught.

“Passing on music and teaching somebody who’s learning out of the sheer love of the music and works at it and is just diligent. It makes me want to go the extra mile, too,” Morris said. “She works at it really hard, and it makes me work hard.”

To both, passing on stories of the fiddle and how to play the tunes, is as important as any part of West Virginia history.

“My community has been built upon playing together and playing these tunes together,” she said. “If you learn the music and if you care about it enough, you can pick it up and play with anybody else that knows it, too, and that’s really special.”

For her, learning to play the fiddle is more than just picking up a new skill.

“I feel like fiddles are magic, which sounds really silly, but I think that there is magic in the heaviness of the history and the tradition and everything that comes out when you’re playing with other people,” she said.

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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