My great-granddad Bill Walker had in his service a Mr. Harrison, whom he swore was the best fiddler he had ever heard. He probably knew what he was talking about, because it was an age of fiddlers.
Mr. Harrison’s great-grandson appeared with his fiddle at my door one day, saying that he’d heard that I played banjo, and he wondered what tunes I knew. Well I knew a few, since I grew up in a neighborhood where we had big sings and where we socialized with big Sunday dinners and playing music at each others’ houses. But my tunes were nothing, absolutely nothing compared to what he knew.
This Garry Harrison learnt fiddle from his dad and spent all his free time scouring the countryside, hunting for old timers who had grown up before radio. “I’ve got to get to ’em before they all die off,” he said. “Their tunes will be lost and gone for good if I don’t.”
Soon, I was spending all evening, several times a week, In Garry’s living room learning tunes he had picked up from old fiddlers, such as Harvey (Pappy) Taylor of Effingham, Illinois (the second best fiddler who ever lived, shown here in his Stetson), and almost every weekend we would go down to an old school house in Iola, Illinois to sit around, playing music with a whole nest of old fiddlers.
Throughout the time we played at taverns, parties and square dances, Garry was collecting tunes, which he tirelessly kept up until the very last ninety year old fiddler had passed away. By that time, he had collected far more tunes in Southern Illinois than the great Alan Lomax had in the Appalachians. When Carol and I were living on the Navajo Nation years later, he published the fiddle tune compendium, Dear Old Illinois, ISBN-13: 978-0-9793338-0-4.
This past September, before we ever got around to looking him up to play some more tunes, we heard that he had passed away in his sleep.