2018 Master Artist & Apprentice Feature: John Morris & Jen Iskow, Old-Time Fiddling and Stories of Clay County

MorrisIskow-13The first in a series featuring our five 2018 Folklife Apprentice pairs.

The West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program offers up to a $3,000 stipend to West Virginia master traditional artists or tradition bearers working with qualified apprentices on a year-long in-depth apprenticeship in their cultural expression or traditional art form. These apprenticeships aim to facilitate the transmission of techniques and artistry of the forms, as well as their histories and traditions.

John D. Morris of Ivydale is leading an apprenticeship on old-time fiddling, focusing on the traditions of Clay County, with Jen Iskow of Thomas.

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John D. Morris

Born in Ivydale, Clay County, into a family steeped in traditional music, David and John Morris learned from family and neighbors, including banjo player Jenes Cottrell and fiddler French Carpenter. After David returned from Vietnam in 1968, the brothers began organizing musical get-togethers and, in 1969, held the first Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival that same year. The festival became a major traditional music event in Clay County and filmmaker Bob Gates documented the 1972 festival in his film The Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival.

Members of The Morris Brothers band included Pocahontas County old-time banjo player Dwight Diller and the late North Carolina harmonica player John Martin. Playing a mix of old-time, bluegrass, and country styles, including some of David’s original music, the group played together through the mid-’70s, releasing an LP in the late ’60s, Music As We Learned It, and two live shows on eight-track tapes. John, a traditional fiddler, and David, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, were involved in union and environmental activities from the late 1960s through the 1970s. They were also instrumental in establishing the first Vandalia Gathering at the Cultural Center in 1977.

The Morris Brothers music was featured in Barbara Kopple’s 1976 film Harlan County, USA. David, who passed away in 2016, contributed music to Kopple’s 2015 film about Vietnam vets, Shelter. John lives in Ivydale and plays fiddle at music events across West Virginia. He is a rich source of information about the history of old-time music in central West Virginia, and one of the few native fiddlers of his generation to continue the older style of playing.

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 Jen Iskow

Jen Iskow is an artist, designer, musician, and community organizer based in Thomas, West Virginia. Born and raised in Rockville, Maryland, Jen grew up learning to play blues and punk music. It wasn’t until she moved to Morgantown in 2009 for college that she was introduced to old-time music at the weekly Brew Pub jam hosted by Stewed Mulligan. After graduating from West Virginia University, she finally settled in Elkins, West Virginia and accepted a position as the Marketing Coordinator for the Augusta Heritage Center. Suddenly being surrounded by so many talented traditional artists, Jen was immersed into the music and inspired to learn to play fiddle. After studying under talented fiddlers such as Scott Prouty, Erynn Marshall, Jesse Wells, Ben Townsend, John Harrod, and more, Jen met John Morris at his house in Ivydale, and the rest is history…

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The Apprenticeship

Jen and John met when Jen came to visit John in search of local fiddle tunes. “He taught me ‘Walking in the Parlor,’ and I started learning some of the stories around Clay County. I was particularly interested in John Johnson and French Carpenter and some of the folklore surrounding this area. John is the keeper of the stories, and it was fascinating for me. So when this opportunity came up to be his apprentice, I basically just wrote him a letter and was like—‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I remember you and I really, really want to come hang out with you.’ And here we are.”

Over the course of the past year, the pair have traveled around Clay County, visiting the former home places of local musicians like French Carpenter, Doc White, Lee Triplett, and Jenes Cotrell, as well as locations like Booger Hole, that are popular in local lore. They’ve also interviewed local community elders and collected many of John’s stories. John says, We’ve had a great time going through these stories in particular. The tunes— that’s the easy part.”

One of Jen’s goals for the apprenticeship is to learn at least one fiddle tune every time she visits. She’s been working on tunes such as, “Elzic’s Farewell,” “Sixteen Days in Georgia,” “Birdy,” and “Camp Chase.” They’ve also experimented making rosin by collecting sap from a pine tree and cooking it down, the way French Carpenter did. “We also watch YouTube videos and eat popcorn a lot!” she laughs.

Through the apprenticeship, John and Jen both hope to raise awareness of the unique Clay County fiddling tradition and its music community. “One of my goals is just to keep spreading the word to all of the young people who are really interested in this music about the importance of the people that came from Clay County that really were super important to the tradition,” says Jen.

John teaches younger fiddlers to learn and share not just the tune, but its story too. “Tunes like Elzic’s Farewell have a story that goes with ’em. All of Carpenter’s tunes have a story behind ’em. They need to tell that. People will remember a good fiddle player– chances are that they won’t be able to whistle the tune you play, but they’ll remember the story.” Jen agrees, “To me, the tune is the garden on top of the ground and it looks and smells and sounds really nice but underneath there are so many layers of connections and stories that have brought this tune so far along.”

The apprenticeship program grants are administered by the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council in Charleston and are supported in part by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. West Virginia Folklife is dedicated to the documentation, preservation, presentation, and support of West Virginia’s vibrant cultural heritage and living traditions.

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