Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame

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  John Morgan SalyerJohn Morgan Salyer
1882 -1952 - Magoffin County, Eastern Kentucky


John Morgan Salyer was one of the last of the great traditional fiddlers of eastern Kentucky. He was born into an extraordinary musical world that flourished in rural isolation before the days of recording technology and that had largely disappeared by the middle of the twentieth century. We know that world largely through legend, but because John Salyer's family had the foresight and dedication to record his playing some fifty years ago, a piece of the old music of eastern Kentucky has been kept alive.


Salyer enlisted in the United States Army in 1901 and served three years in the Phillipine Islands. He attended the public schools of Magoffin County and taught one school at the head of Licking River. After his 3 year tour of duty in the Spanish American War, he was engaged in farming in his native county. Later in life, he was elected Police Judge of Salyersville, KY. He always liked reminiscing with citizens of the county, recalling dates of marriage, births and deaths and great periods of history. He was remembered by lots of people as "Fiddlin" John SALYER (contributed by Mr. & Mrs. Grover SALYER) Old-time fiddler, John M. SALYER and his two sons, Grover and Glen, were invited by the Sandy Valley Grocery Company to be entertainers on an excursion to the 1933 World's Fair at Chicago, Illinois. The train started picking up passengers in Pikeville, KY and continued to Cincinnati, Ohio. The father and son trio boarded the train early in the morning at Paintsville. Immediately they began making music from car to car. John played the fiddle, Grover the guitar, and Glen the mandolin. The playing continued until they arrived in Cincinnati. There they were joined by the Gibson Girl singers. From there to Chicago, they alternated singing and playing. The trip was uninterrupted until they stopped in Kankakee, Illinois to switch engines. The next stop was Chicago about 10:30 at night. There they were greeted by a bag-pipe band. Most of the passengers had never heard bag-pipes before. In Chicago, they stayed at the Stevenson Hotel. The second night the SALYERS were invited to play for a dance in the million dollar ballroom of the Knickerbocker Hotel. The dance floor was make of glass blocks with many colored lights in it. There were 6500 people there; some wanted waltz music, some wanted square dance, and fox trot, others wanted Virginia reel or jig music. John said to them, "We'll play our kind of music and you dance any kind of dance you can!" They saw many new inventions from all over the world. One of special interest, and most mysterious, was to break a beam of light to turn on a drinking fountain, or open and close a door in the Hall of Science and Industry. After three days of seeing the wonders of the world, the excursion returned to eastern Kentucky. The SALYER trio was back in Magoffin County with blistered fingers and tired hands from playing so many hours. It was a great experience that they relived and retold the story on many occasions. Grover was privileged to attend another World's Fair, in Montreal, Canada and was able to see the sights of the Fair in Seattle, Washington. Both had many wonders but neither could surpass the memories of the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago.



John was born, January 20, 1882 on Birch Branch of Burning Fork of Licking River, the son of farming parents, Morgan M. Salyer and Katherine Patrick. When he was about eight years old, John fell out of a tree and broke his leg. His father (a fiddler) bought him a half-size fiddle to keep him occupied while recovering. With this opportunity, John began to show a great deal of talent, and according to his son Grover, "it was not long before he could hear a piece and then play the piece himself." In those days, learning to play the fiddle was largely a matter of watching, listening and practicing, since generally the old traditional fiddlers did not give lessons.

Inspiration for a young fiddler, however, was everywhere in the late 19th century since every rural community had is musicians and singers and its own style of music that was handed down through the generations. It would be twenty years before cars would begin to show up in Magoffin County, and people did not travel far or often, so music was centered in the home and neighborhood, an important and much-loved part of everyday life.

One of John Salyer's close neighbors, and eventually his closest musical partner, was Willie Fletcher, who was born in 1871. John learned many of his tunes from Willie and greatly admired his musical abilities, considering him to be "the sweetest and smoothest fiddler he ever heard." Both John and Willie could play the banjo and fiddle equally well, and they visited each other's homes frequently, playing for hours at a time.

Willie Fletcher and another neighbor, Patrick Risner (from a prominent fiddling family in the are), were probably the main musicians who inspired John Salyer, but there were possibly others, including Jeff Gipson, a part Cherokee Indian who was born in 1844. It seems unlikely, however, that Gipson was a major influence on John's playing since Gipson passed his music down to Glen Fannin, a contemporary of John's, and Glen's and John's versions of tunes where markedly different from each other.

John Salyer spent his youth working on the family farm. He finished what is called the normal school and afterwards taught a year of school at the head of Licking River. According to Grover Salyer, John read a lot, was interested in history, and was a bible scholar.

In 1901, he enlisted in the army and served three years in the Philippines. Following his discharge, he continued on around the world by ship, an unusual accomplishment at that time for someone from the Kentucky mountains. John returned home to marry Minnie Gullett on August 11, 1905. They eventually had nine children together: seven girls (two of whom died young) and two boys.

With the 1920s came radio and increased opportunities for mountain musicians to earn recognition through recording. But according to Glen Salyer, his father didn't consider professionalism an option, preferring instead to play at home for his own enjoyment:

"Sometimes he'd play two or three times a week. Then he might go for a month and not play. But he'd get his fiddle out maybe after breakfast [if he] felt good and maybe set there and play for an your and play thirty or forty different tunes. And never say a word, just play."

Gladys Connelly, a neighbor, remembers hearing John play at her home:

"In the summertime, the old time musicians would gather on our plank porch and John played the fiddle. The music they made stopped travelers on the road to listen."

Besides entertaining family and neighbors, John enjoyed playing for local square dances. Grover Salyer remembers these events well:

"He...played for a lot of dances-...and I've seen him...playing for a hoedown dance and he'd jump up and dance and play the fiddle at the same time."

One of John Salyer's good friends throughout his life was W.M. "Bill" Stepp (born 1875), whose fiddling was recorded by the Library of Congress field workers traveling through the region in 1937. The versions of several tunes Stepp and Salyer played in common are remarkably similar, and it is quite possible that Bill and John learned some from each other. Glen Salyer says of Bill Stepp:

"I liked to hear him play. He was considered a good fiddler, and he was. He loved to entertain people...more than Dad did - to play and be bragged on...Dad was working in Knoxville, Tennessee when Billie was recorded, or maybe he would have been too."

There were occasional fiddle contests around the Magoffin area, but John seldom participated in them. According to Glen, John Salyer was "a little bit on the backward side about getting up in front of crowds and playing."

By the late 1920s, John's sons Grover and Glen were beginning to show an interest in music. After Grover learned to play the French harp and guitar, and Glen learned the guitar and mandolin, they would go with their father to friends' houses for music and dances. Occasionally, on summer nights, they would walk the two or three miles to Salyersville and play in one of the local stores. Crowds would gather to watch, and often there would be a hoedown dancer or two.

In the fall of 1933, an event took place that proved to have a great effect on John Salyer's music life. John and his two sons, Grover and Glen, were invited by the Sandy Valley Grocery Company to be entertainers on an excursion to the 1933 World's Fair at Chicago, Illinois.

The train started picking up passengers in Pikeville, KY and continued to Cincinnati, Ohio. The father and son trio boarded the train early in the morning at Paintsville. Immediately they began making music from car to car. John played the fiddle, Grover the guitar, and Glen the mandolin. The playing continued until they arrived in Cincinnati. There they were joined by the Gibson Girl singers. From there to Chicago, they alternated singing and playing. The trip was uninterrupted until they stopped in Kankakee, Illinois to switch engines. The next stop was Chicago about 10:30 at night. There they were greeted by a bag-pipe band. Most of the passengers had never heard bag-pipes before.

In Chicago, they stayed at the Stevenson Hotel. The second night the Salyers were invited to play for a dance in the million dollar ballroom of the Knickerbocker Hotel. The dance floor was make of glass blocks with many colored lights in it. There were 6500 people there; some wanted waltz music, some wanted square dance, and fox trot, others wanted Virginia reel or jig music. John said to them, "We'll play our kind of music and you dance any kind of dance you can!"

Three days later, the trio returned home to Magoffin County, tired and with blistered fingers from so much playing, but with unforgettable memories.

It seems that shortly after this adventure, scouts from several record companies approached John Salyer. One of them happened to stop by the farm while John was out working the field with his plow horse. The proposed record deal seemed to John so unfair, however, that he turned the man down flat, saying "Get up, Kate, we can make more money plowing than we can playing the fiddle."

John never did pursue recording but continued to farm, supplemented his income from time to time with public works jobs. Because he could type, he worked at the courthouse in Salyersville in his spare time transferring deeds and other documents to the permanent record for both the county clerk's office and the circuit court clerk's office. He also served twice as a police judge for the county. From the late 1930s on, John occasionally worked away from home as a pipe fitter for the oil companies around Knoxville, Tennessee and Huntington, West Virginia. At one time, he was office manager for the Kentucky Utilities Company in Johnson County.

It was in the early 1940s when Grover asked his father if he might record his fiddle playing so that future generations in the family would be able to hear it. But John had not forgotten his encounter with the recording scouts, and it took much persuasion on Grover's part to get him to agree. In 1941, working in Charlestown, Indiana, Grover went to Cincinnati and bought a two-speed Wilcox-Gray disc recorder and some blank discs. He would go home on weekends and if circumstances allowed, they would play and record. Over the next year or so, approximately ninety sides were recorded, including many fiddle solos, fiddle with guitar, and fiddle with both sons playing guitar and mandolin or banjo. There were also three banjo tunes by John Salyer and several with Claude Helton, a highly respected banjo player from nearby Bloomington, Kentucky.

Later in life, he was elected Police Judge of Salyersville, KY. He always liked reminiscing with citizens of the county, recalling dates of marriage, births and deaths and great periods of history.

John continued to play until the last few years of his life, and despite all the changes in the world around him, he never compromised his devotion to the old music. By the time he was in his fifties, John began to show signs of having diabetes. It is thought that problems related to insulin caused his eventual death on November 28, 1952. He was 70.

-- Portions of this biography were contributed by Mr. & Mrs. Grover Salyer

John Salyer's Fiddle Style

The true brilliance of John Salyer's playing is in his mastery of rhythm and phrasing. He was primarily a hoedown fiddler - one who played the lively, rhythmical tunes essential for square and flatfoot dancing - and he was well-known in his day for his unwavering sense of time and his remarkable bow control. He was equally good at hornpipes and slower pieces, and he had the uncommon ability to play a tune fast and driving on time, and with leisurely graciousness another time, to suit his mood. In this sense, he can be considered to be one of the great solo fiddlers, for he not only maintained impeccable timing by himself, but he phrased his tunes in a way that made them complete in themselves, even without accompaniment.

Salyer was a master handler of the bow in a style based on the old-time shuffle, a bowstroke that was used to provide a good rolling rhythm or "swing,' as well as the kind of intensity and momentum that was necessary for dance music. He employed the shuffle stroke with great variety and subtlety, interspersed with pauses, rapid saw strokes, and great sweeps of the bow. In the solo realm, he played with several different tunings, or "wildcat keys," as they were called, which were particularly well-suited to unaccompanied fiddling because they allowed open strings to sound sympathetically or to be played as drones along with the melody. Finally, he filled out his tunes with subtle and judiciously placed trills and triplets, and trembling notes achieved by both the bow and the noting hand. This use of ornamentation was characteristic of many of the older eastern Kentucky fiddlers, such as Blind Bill Day, Manon Campbell and Alva Greene, and would seem to hearken back to the old world ancestry of the music.

As a body of music, the tune versions Salyer played were nearly all unusual. He played many so-called "crooked tunes", that is, tunes with extra phrases or beats thrown in, or else beats dropped from what is generally considered the standard thirty-two beat fiddle tune. Whether this was a personal idiosyncrasy or a particular stylistic tradition John Salyer followed is hard to ascertain, but it was fairly common for eastern Kentucky fiddlers to employ considerable structural freedom in their tunes.

John Salyer's repertoire was large and varied. He played an impressive range of hoedowns, hornpipes, song melodies, and solo fiddle pieces, some well-known and others quite rare. Taken together, the Salyer home recordings add immeasurably to our understanding of eastern Kentucky fiddle music, for they reflect a substantial portion of the repertoire of a highly-skilled fiddler playing in his prime - a fiddler whose playing was almost completely uninfluenced by music outside his own region. In this respect, the recordings of Salyer are extremely valuable, offering as they do, compelling testimony to the deep-rooted and powerful legacy of homemade music in the Kentucky mountains from an era now gone.

—Bruce Greene, 1992

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DISCOGRAPHY

Currently, all the Salyer recordings are available, albeit in cassette format only. Home Recordings 1941-42 (volume 1) is pictured here. Volume 2 is a two-cassette set that contains all but a few of the remaining library of Salyer's home recordings. The recordings can be purchased directly from the publisher, The Appalachian Center at Berea College, Berea Kentucky. Both volumes are highly recommended.

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