Final Notes, Garry Harrison

Fiddler, music collector, and luthier Garry Harrison died on September 4 in Bloomington, Indiana, at the age of 58. He was a native of Charleston, Coles County, Illinois. 

Sons of musicians, Harrison and his twin brother Terry began playing the fiddle and banjo together at home when they were teenagers, and their father, Cliff Harrison, taught Garry his first fiddle tunes. With their friend John Bishop playing guitar, Garry and Terry formed the Indian Creek Delta Boys, a band that, with different combinations of musicians over the years (including another musical brother, Steve Harrison), would make influential records and play at major festivals. The Indian Creek Delta Boys were responsible for introducing many old-time music lovers around the country to the wealth of music from the Southern Illinois area. In 1982 the band was designated the Official State of Illinois – Traditional Illinois Old-Time String Band by the state’s 82nd General Assembly. 

Harrison was widely known as a leading authority on the music of his native region. Individually and with friends and bandmates, he made many field recordings in the 1970s and ‘80s of traditional musicians, especially fiddlers in the Downstate region of Illinois. Musicians recorded included Harvey “Pappy” Taylor, who was particularly influential on Harrison’s own playing, Jesse Abbott, Pete Priest, Odie Griffith, Harry Elie, Cliff Pulliam, and many others. In 2008, Garry and Jo Burgess published Dear Old Illinois: Traditional Music of Downstate Illinois. The book and CD set, which took more than a decade to compile, drew from Harrison’s work recording musicians in Illinois, and from the collection of David S. MacIntosh, a professor of music at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale who, beginning in the 1930s, also collected a significant body of regional music. 

Time spent in Odie Griffith’s Cooks Mills workshop inspired Harrison to begin to explore luthiery. He learned to rebuild fiddles, and eventually to build them from scratch. His unusual two-point fiddles were modeled after those built by fiddler Williamson Hamblen of Brown County, Indiana, born in 1846. Garry also restored autoharps and fretless zithers, and donated his collection of those instruments to Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.

Garry Harrison was renowned as a composer, as well as interpreter, of fiddle tunes. Some of his originals appeared on his CD Red Prairie Dawn. In recent years, he was a member of the New Mules, a string band that also included his daughter, fiddler Genevieve Harrison Koester, Smith Koester, Abby Ladin, and Andy Gribble. The New Mules were the winners of the Traditional Band Competition at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival at Clifftop, West Virginia, in 2008. Garry and Genevieve have both been finalists in Clifftop’s fiddle competition as well. 

In a 2008 interview for the Old-Time Herald, Harrison spoke of his own legacy in old-time music.

Well, as a player, I was part of making the old music available . . . and I was part of digging up the old fiddle music from an area that had never been documented to speak of . . . So I’d tell you that I feel like I’ve added to the field.

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