The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 8

The Adventures of a Delta Boy: Garry Harrison and Illinois Fiddling
Interviewed by Norbert Sarsfield
Illinois Fiddlers- Rollover photos for sound clips
Listen to Garry Harrison and The New Mules at St. Louis.

For over 30 years Garry Harrison has been one of the leading champions of the traditional music of his native Illinois. Beginning in the mid-1970s with his influential band the Indian Creek Delta Boys, Garry has been playing old-time music from his home state, most of it learned first-hand from an older generation of traditional musicians whom Garry visited, befriended, and recorded. He is also a gifted composer of new fiddle tunes in an old-time vein; his CD of mostly original tunes, Red Prairie Dawn, was named Best Fiddle CD of 2000 by County Sales.

Last year Garry and Jo Burgess published the wonderful Dear Old Illinois, a massive song/tune book and 3-CD set of the traditional music of downstate Illinois. On top of that, Garry’s current band, the New Mules, with Garry and his daughter Genevieve on fiddles, Smith Koester on banjo, and Andy Gribble on guitar, won the traditional band contest at Clifftop this year. (Bass player Abby Ladin is also a member of the band, though she didn’t play with them at Clifftop.) On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late September I sat down with Garry Harrison in Morton Park, across the street from Eastern Illinois University in Garry’s hometown of Charleston, Illinois.

What was your first exposure to old-time music? When did you start playing?

I was about 16. My dad’s old fiddle and my older brother’s banjo were both at home, and my twin brother Terry and I started playing those. I played the fiddle and he played the banjo. We didn’t know what to play, so we’d just make up little pieces. My dad waited until he saw we wouldn’t just lose interest, where we had a few little pieces that we’d made up that we could play again. Then he came in and showed me some real fiddle tunes, “Flop-Eared Mule,” “Ragged Ann,” “Soldier’s Joy,” the old standards, and that was my first exposure to it.

See, my parents were older when I was born. My dad would be up over 100 if he was here now. He played back in the 1910s and ‘20s and ‘30s. It kind of faded back in the 1930s, there after the Depression. There wasn’t as much call for it, so he’d given it up for a lot of years. I think he kept playing on into the ‘40s, but it got to be where they didn’t have as many dances. My mom played the guitar and sang, too. She played on the radio up at Tuscola, WDZ, where Smiley Burnette got his start. They played up there, both my mom and dad. I think it may be where they met.


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