I once heard a fiddler call John Morgan Salyer “the foremost genius, the Mozart of Old Time”. I can’t really argue with that. Salyer is known for crooked tunes, percussive bowing and a unique phrasing that, like so many things in the old-time world, you just have to hear for yourself.
When I learn a Salyer tune, I end up listening to it weeks on end and still find new nuances each time – now if I could only reproduce those nuances a little better…
When it comes to Salyer, we are very fortunate to have access to ALL of his 84 recordings – entirely for free. You can download them all from Berea or the Digital library of Appalachia. But let me make it easier for you: this thread on Fiddle Hangout provides a link to download almost all of Salyer’s tunes (NB: four tracks are missing).
At oldtime-central.com, we were very fortunate to get permission from David Lynch to repost the “Fiddlers Hall of Fame” texts from from the now-defunct website oldtimemusic.com. We’re very grateful for the work he put into that website and hope to keep it alive.
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What follows is a digital “re-printing” of the extensive biography from that website. A short biography at the beginning was deleted, because the rest of the article repeats the same information. The article below has been updated to include new pictures, as well as links to recordings of several musicians mentioned in the article. The text is unchanged apart from a few minor edits. If you prefer, you can still view the original here using the wayback machine.
Here are a few tunes (and one interview) to listen to as you read (courtesy of Sharon Isaac):
Biography of John Morgan Salyer – reprinted from the Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame
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.
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 its musicians and singers and its own style of music that was handed down through the generations. It would be twenty years before cars would show up in Magoffin County, and people did not travel far or often, so music was centered in the home and neighborhood, as 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 area), 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 were markedly different from each other. (Editor’s note: several recordings of Glen Fannin are available on the Digital Library of Appalachia.)
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 hour 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. (OTC Editor’s note: you can hear Stepp’s playing on Slippery Hill) 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 made 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 and 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. (Editor’s note: DLA and Berea both have 84 tracks available. Could we be missing some?) 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, Kentucky. 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 – by Bruce Greene
Editor’s note: This text was taken from oldtimemusic.com with permission, but it originally appeared in the notes to the cassette tape “John Morgan Salyer – Home Recordings 1941-1942”.
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 one 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
More biographies to come on oldtime-central
Thank you for reading. We hope to eventually repost all the fiddler biographies from oldtimemusic.com with some additional resources and information. Please stay tuned!
Please contribute your knowledge, too!
We would like this to be a growing resource of information. Please post any personal stories or resources that you know of in the comments below.
Further reading about John Salyer:
A blog article by Sharon Isaac where I got several rare pictures of John Salyer (with permission): http://kyoldtimemusic.blogspot.com/2018/11/a-little-more-about-john-salyer.html
A blog article by Sharon Isaac with many pictures and a sound sample of a homemade fiddle supposedly from John Salyer’s childhood: http://kyoldtimemusic.blogspot.com/2018/11/the-homemade-john-salyer-fiddle.html
Another article by Sharon Isaac about repairing the fiddle that Salyer supposedly took to the Chicago World’s Fair: http://kyoldtimemusic.blogspot.com/2018/11/the-fiddle-that-john-salyer-took-to.html
Pictures of those fiddles prior to restoration: http://kyoldtimemusic.blogspot.com/2018/10/recently-i-was-lucky-enough-to-be-made.html
Here is a Banjo Tune of the Week article (written by me) on the history of the tune Vance no More including solo banjo, fiddle and banjo-fiddle duet recordings: https://www.banjohangout.org/topic/347666
Some modern interpretations of Salyer tunes
Now that we’ve had a look at the past, let’s look at what some contemporary players are doing with Salyer tunes. I snuck in one of my own. Is that cheating?
Please share your favorite interpretations of Salyer tunes, links to further information, and stories about John Salyer in the comments below.
EDITOR’S NOTE: On 10 Dec. 2019, we received an email from John Salyer’s grandson and namesake, John Morgan Salyer, who contests the authenticity of Sharon Isaac’s fiddles. He says “the only dang fiddle that Ole John ever owned . . . or played . . . . is now in the possession of Bud Salyer, retired lawyer, living in Morehead, KY.”
Sharon has spoken with family and experts such as Bruce Greene and the truth is that there is nobody alive today who can truly confirm whether or not a certain fiddle did or did not belong to the fiddling legend John Morgan Salyer. This looks like a mystery that will never be solved.