John Harrod ’67 rosins up his bow
John Harrod ’67 has played many roles in his life—scholar, wanderer, teacher and historian, to name a few. It has been his love of music, however, particularly the fiddle, that started early and has been one of his guiding influences.
Scholar: John was the first in his family to attend college, and his parents’ hopes for a Centre education were fulfilled when he earned a full scholarship.
“I had a handful of great professors, among them Dr. Mary Sweeney and Dr. David Hughes,” Harrod remembers. “It wasn’t so much what they taught me, it was what they taught me about who they were and how to think and how to live the academic life in a responsible way, and do something to make the world a better place. I got all that from Centre.”
It was Sweeney who recommended that Harrod apply for the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship when he was a senior. She also suggested that since the Kentucky interviews for the Rhodes Scholarships were being held in Lexington, this would be a great way to practice for the Wilson interviews. Perhaps no one was more surprised than John when he moved onto the regional Rhodes interviews and eventually was selected as a Rhodes Scholar.
He says, “Officially, I studied English at Oxford, but I was studying music in the clubs and pubs.”
Wanderer: After Oxford, Harrod returned to Kentucky without a real sense of direction. He spent some time doing odd jobs and playing music every weekend with the Progress Red Hot String Band, a group he formed with some other young musicians.
“I traveled around Eastern Kentucky living in a camper I built on the back of my pickup. I had a basketball, a canoe, a fiddle, a guitar and some books,” he says. “I was following the music, and that sounds romantic, but it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing.”
Teacher: Harrod took a position with the Artist-in-the-Schools program, where he came to realize that teaching was not only a passion, but a career that allowed him to move around Kentucky, teaching at different schools—all the while playing, learning about and documenting traditional Kentucky fiddlers and a way of life that’s quickly disappearing. Following the music.
Historian: “I’ve followed and studied the regional traditions, primarily of Kentucky, ever since I started playing,” Harrod says. “I learned early on that every part of the Commonwealth has its own fiddle music—different sounds, different licks with the bow. It’s like different dialects of the same language.”
He’s traveled the state seeking out the music created and passed down from generation to generation before the advent of phonographs and radio. Harrod is working on compiling a three-CD set of home recordings dating from 1948 to around 1964, made up mostly aluminum and acetate discs and reel-to-reel tapes made by the artists’ family members or the artists themselves. The first in the set is Bath County native Carlton Rawlings, who Harrod calls “one of the best fiddlers ever.” Much of it is being preserved at the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University.
And through the music, he’s also documenting a resurgence in traditional values. In August 2011 he was quoted in Kentucky Living magazine as saying, “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.”
John Harrod ’67 conducts private fiddle lessons at Centre and elsewhere, giving beginning musicians and experts alike the benefit of his many years of teaching and studying traditional fiddle music. But the unassuming Harrod’s greatest gift may be keeping alive the distinct fiddle music of Kentucky. Following the music.