Garry Harrison was the Best Fiddler Who Ever Lived

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. 

Tom Phipps

2 thoughts on “Garry Harrison was the Best Fiddler Who Ever Lived”

  1. I liked this blog, Tom. Your friend, Harrison did the world a great favor collecting the songs of the old timers and publishing them. Although, I love to play and listen to the piano. Violin/fiddle music is actually my favorite to listen to and enjoy. Of all the great and wonderful music I have heard in my life, my top, all-time, absolutely number one piece of music, is the most beautiful Irish fiddle music, played by a woman, known as Mairead, of The Celtic Women, performing group. Her album was called, “Raining Up” the song is an Irish lullaby (I’m guessing, all I know is the title) the title is “There is no Night.” It brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard it. It still does. I believe America owes most of its fiddler music culture to the Irish immigrants that brought it to America. I am also very pleased with the way we Americans “took it up” “kept it alive” and added our own good “flavors and fixin’s” to the fiddle music. Thank you for sharing this story, Tom.

  2. Dear Susan,

    I’m glad you liked the blog. You would have liked Gary Harrison. He was the salt of the earth and he could play the fiddle to raise the hair on your arms. But most of all, he was a walking encyclopedia of old tunes. Both of his brothers were musicians as were lots of people in this neck of the woods before progress wiped us out.

    You made my morning,
    Tom

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