West Virginia Fiddle & Banjo Player John Morris Among the 2020 NEA National Heritage Fellows, the Nation’s Highest Honor in the Folk and Traditional Arts

West Virginia Folklife Program Apprenticeship Showcase
John Morris performs at the West Virginia Humanities Council in 2019. Photo by Mike Keller.

We are thrilled to announce that old-time musician John Morris of Ivydale, WV, is one of nine 2020 National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellows, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. These lifetime honor awards of $25,000 are given in recognition of both artistic excellence and efforts to sustain cultural traditions for future generations.

An acclaimed fiddler, banjo player, guitarist, songwriter, and life-long resident of Clay County, West Virginia, John Morris is the living carrier of the old-time fiddle and banjo tradition particular to his rural home county and the surrounding area. West Virginia state folklorist Emily Hilliard, who nominated Morris for the award said, “John has dedicated his life to sustaining, promoting, and supporting the musical tradition of his Clay County community through the founding and hosting of community-based festivals, his labor activism, regular performances, and his ongoing commitment to teaching younger practitioners. His playing is infused with all the sounds of Clay County—its environment, its history, and its people.”

John Morris is West Virginia’s first National Heritage Fellow in 20 years, the last being Appalachian weaver B. Dorothy Thompson in 2000, following Trinidadian Steel Pan builder and performer Elliott “Ellie” Mannette’s 1999 award, and fiddler Melvin Wine’s in 1991.

Melvin Wine & John Morris, 1975 West Virginia State Folk Festival Over 50 & Under 50 fiddle contest winners. Melvin Wine received a National Heritage Fellowship in 1991. Photo by Kim Johnson.

The other 2020 National Heritage Fellows are: soul singer-songwriter William Bell from Atlanta, GA; Armenian Folk and Liturgical Singer Onnik Dinkjian from Fort Lee, NJ; West African Diasporic Dancers Zakarya and Naomi Diouf from Oakland, CA; Oneida Nation of Wisconsin Iroquois Raised Beadworker Karen Ann Hoffman from Stevens Point, WI; Traditional Religious Dancers Los Matachines de la Santa Cruz de la Ladrillera from Laredo, TX; Nueva Canción Singer and Songwriter Suni Paz from Henderson, NV; Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Birchbark Canoe Builder Wayne Valliere from Waaswaaganing (Lac du Flambeau, WI); and Radio Producer and Radio Network Hugo N. Morales from Fresno, CA.

The chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Mary Anne Carter says, “Each year the Heritage Fellowships highlight the distinct living traditions of communities around our nation, as well as how our fellows instill a sense of pride, beauty, and cultural continuity through their art. The National Endowment for the Arts is pleased to recognize these outstanding artists with a National Heritage Fellowship.”

The annual celebration of the new class of National Heritage Fellows will take place virtually this year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. More information about this event, including the date, will be available at a later time.

About John D. Morris

An acclaimed fiddler, banjo player, guitarist, songwriter, and life-long resident of Clay County, West Virginia, John D. Morris is the living carrier of the old-time fiddle and banjo tradition particular to his rural home county and the surrounding area.

Morris grew up just outside Ivydale, West Virginia—in an area once known as “Kidtown”—into a musical family of farmers and teachers. He first started playing music around age seven, learning clawhammer banjo from his grandfather Amos Morris, and guitar from his mother Anna Hill Morris. When he was ten, esteemed Clay County fiddler French Carpenter gave him his start on the fiddle. Morris also studied with Clay County fiddlers Wilson Douglas, Ira Mullins, Lee Triplett, and Doc White, along with Frank George of Bluefield, West Virginia, and John Hilt of Farmersville, Virginia. He also cites family friends and local musicians Jenes Cottrell and Jenes’ sister Sylvia O’Brien, Phoeba Parsons, and Lester and Linda McCumbers as major influences. In 1965, John and his brother David (singer, songwriter, and guitarist) formed their band, the Morris Brothers.

John is the product of and direct link to this older Clay County tradition of old-time music. That community valued musical excellence, imbued with personality and intertwined with local stories both humorous and serious. John’s fiddling is highly danceable, with powerful rhythmic bowing and a unique, spirited style, and he is the definitive source on both the repertoire and corresponding stories of his home county and the surrounding area. For him, the vernacular history of his community is embedded in its music: “It’s just as important to have a musical history as it is to have a written history. A lot of small community histories are never written down. Every time the fiddlers got together in a group, they played the tune and the event was remembered. It would be a group history lesson.”

In 1968, after a chance encounter with United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) then-union local president Arnold Miller (Miller picked David up hitchhiking), John and David became interested in labor rights, leading to them offering their music to Joseph A. “Jock” Yablonski’s campaign for president of the UMWA and later the Miners for Democracy movement. As they traveled across the region and country with the UMWA into the next decade, they shared their original and traditional songs performed in the Clay County style.

In March 1970, the brothers traveled to Los Angeles with writer and organizer Don West, black gospel singer Earl Gilmore, and folk musician Guy Carawan to hold a “hootenanny and teach-in on the politics and culture of Southern Appalachia,” where they shared the stage with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. An article about the event in the Los Angeles Free Press at the time read, “Both [John and David] are committed to preserving the cultural heritage of the southern Appalachian region and to helping the people of the mountains rediscover their roots and their unique identity. Both are also working to organize the mountain people to overcome the oppression and poverty which they face.” John has always leveraged intergenerational transmission and knowledge of traditional mountain culture as a source of empowerment for Appalachian people in their struggle against exploitation by the mining industry.

Flyer for the 1971 Morris Family Old-time Music Festival. Courtesy Kim Johnson.

In 1968, David and John began hosting informal music gatherings at their family home place. After a meeting with other activists at the Highlander Center to discuss ideas for local initiatives to promote Appalachian culture, John and David held the first Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival in September 1969. The idea was to host a grassroots event, located in the rural area where the tradition and its practitioners lived, that would be open to locals and outsiders alike, facilitating intergenerational exchange. It was important to John and David that the bearers of the local musical tradition be valued by a younger audience excited to learn from them. John says, “It’s not easy to describe it, but it needs to be said. These people shared so much of themselves with us—and graciously—they literally shared their souls with us.” The brothers saw it as an extension of the social gatherings they grew up attending, where music was always present. Folklorist Gerry Milnes says:

The festivals were informal events where people weren’t presented on a pedestal. The music was everywhere, and the music was very accessible. At Ivydale the music wasn’t presented by academics. It wasn’t presented by folklorists. It was presented in a way that seemed in context… It wasn’t the kind of deal that there was a show going on, and the performers were separated from the audience. The performers were the audience and the audience were the performers.

In addition to the brothers’ commitment to a participatory atmosphere, John and David also had standards about what type of music was allowed, wanting to be sure that traditional Appalachian old-time, unaccompanied ballad singing, gospel, blues, and labor songs remained the focus. The 1972 festival flyer read, “Sorry, No Country and Western, Bluegrass or Electric Inst. On Programs.” Over its five-year span, the Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival became a major traditional music event in the Appalachian region, drawing thousands of locals, musicians from across the state, and young people around the country. At the 1970 festival, Dallis Morris counted license plates from 36 states, but the performers were all from and of Appalachia; most of them West Virginians. The 1972 festival flyer announced, “The Performers Are Primarily from W.Va. and the App. Mts. And Are The Finest Available.” In 1972, filmmaker Robert Gates documented the festival, which that year drew over 7,000 attendees, in his film The Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival. The festival is still cited as a major influence by many of those who attended, propelling them into a life of old-time music, and bestowing a respect for the elders and the nuance of their regional variants. Musician Bob Heyer writes, “Something got a hold of me that weekend that’s still got a grip on me… It was the first time that I felt the spirit of a music and a people that inhabits the central and southern mountains of my native state…This spirit was alive in the elder musicians at Ivydale that weekend.”

 The Morris Family Festival also had a crucial influence on other festivals across the region, establishing the gold standard for a community-based music festival. With the support of a Rockefeller Foundation Grant, the Morris Brothers helped establish other grassroots old-time music festivals in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina in 1972 and 1973. John says, “My vision would be to go to the head of the holler and find the people who’re playing. And instead of bringing them someplace 200 miles away, go to the head of the holler and have the festival.” In 1977, West Virginia Arts Commissioner Norman Fagan asked for their help in establishing a state-sponsored folk festival on the Capitol grounds, borrowing the Morris brothers’ model and network. After their instrumental role in establishing the Vandalia Gathering, now in its forty-third year, David and John provided similar assistance to the Heritage Arts Jubilee in Weston, WV, and the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, WV.

In 1969 David and John recorded an LP, Music As We Learned It, and later released two live shows on eight-track tapes. Their band would eventually include old-time banjo player Dwight Diller and the late North Carolina harmonica player John Martin. In the mid-1970s, the brothers hosted a television show about Appalachian music and culture that ran for fourteen weeks on WOAY, the ABC affiliate out of Oak Hill. In 1976, The Morris Brothers’ music was featured in Barbara Kopple’s 1976 Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County, USA.

Aside from the four years he spent away at college, John has lived his entire life on his family’s land in Ivydale, owning small businesses and working odd jobs so he could remain focused on music. Though his goal was to be a history teacher in Clay County, he was denied a teaching job in 1969, and was told by the hiring committee, “We were afraid that you would try to bring that music into the schools.” At the time, representations of Appalachia prevalent during the War on Poverty embarrassed many in the region and precipitated a push to modernize. Some responded with a backlash against traditional mountain culture, unable to see its value. “They were afraid that children would be exposed to their own culture,” John says. But he remained steadfast in his commitment to sharing the music he learned from the elders in his community.

John has never stopped performing, teaching, and sharing his music at festivals, fiddle contests, and informal gatherings. He has taught fiddle and banjo at the West Virginia traditional music camp Allegheny Echoes, the Augusta Heritage Center (as Guest Master Artist in 2015 and 2019), Dwight Diller’s Yew Pine Mountain Retreats, and the 4-H Mountain Heritage Weekends. He has been recognized by the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame (as The Morris Brothers, following David’s passing in 2016), at countless fiddler’s conventions, and was the 2015 recipient of the West Virginia Heritage Fiddler Award.

In 2018, Morris lead an apprenticeship in old-time fiddle and stories of Clay County with Jen Iskow. Photo by Emily Hilliard.

In 2018, he was a Master Artist in our West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, leading an apprenticeship in old-time fiddle and stories of Clay County with Jen Iskow. He regularly invites young people to his home to play, learn, and share stories. He is currently teaching young fiddler Henry Barnes to build a banjo modeled on one made by Clay County banjo maker and musician Jenes Cottrell (1901-1980). John continues to play a crucial role in sustaining and promoting West Virginia traditional music, particularly the music of his Clay County home, and he is one of the few West Virginia native fiddlers to continue the older regional style of play: “I’d seen a lot of good fiddle players beyond the local people. [But] 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.”

John has done crucial cultural preservation work in the area, learning not only the repertoire and specific stylistic nuances of individual fiddlers, but also the stories of the tunes and the musicians who played them. Says John, “Music is my pipeline back to the past. Most music has a story behind it. I’ve tried to learn as much of the history of the tunes as possible.” John makes sure to instill this value in those he teaches:

“I keep trying to encourage the young fiddlers that I’ve associated with, when they get up to play…if they know anything about the history of the tune, they need to tell it. Tunes like ‘Elzic’s Farewell’ have a story that goes with them. All of Carpenter’s tunes have a story behind them. 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.”

About the National Heritage Fellowships

The National Heritage Fellowships are the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Including the 2020 class, the Arts Endowment has awarded 449 National Heritage Fellowships, recognizing artists working in more than 200 distinct art forms, including bluesman B.B. King, Cajun fiddler and composer Michael Doucet, sweetgrass basketweaver Mary Jackson, cowboy poet Wally McRae, Kathak dancer and choreographer Chitresh Das, and gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples. More information about the National Heritage Fellows is available on the Arts Endowment’s website.

Fellowship recipients are nominated by the public, often by members of their own communities, and then judged by a panel of experts in the folk and traditional arts. The panel’s recommendations are reviewed by the National Council on the Arts, which sends its recommendations to the Arts Endowment chairman, who makes the final decision. The deadline to submit a nomination for the 2021 class of National Heritage Fellows is July 31, 2020. Visit the National Endowment for the Arts website for more information and to submit a nomination.

About the National Endowment for the Arts

Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the Arts Endowment supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. Visit arts.gov to learn more.