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Exploring Old Time Recordings and Artists 


John Morgan Salyer

"Mozart of Old Time"
from Eastern Kentucky


John Morgan Salyer (1882-1952) was born and raised in Magoffin County, Kentucky. He has come to be recognized as a major influence on Old Time music. His crooked tunes and unique bowing and phrasing continue to challenge fiddle players even today. Well known Salyer tunes include Billy In The Lowground, Indian Ate The Woodchuck, Lost Girl, Mike In The Wilderness, Jeff Sturgeon, Last Of Harris, and Duck River.

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. In 1901, he enlisted in the army and served three years in the Philippines. Salyer 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. Rosemary Carlson, Salyer's great niece, wrote a short article called “Appalachia: John Morgan Salyer, father of bluegrass music and Kentucky fiddle music” that reveals some more family history.

There are many excellent sources to learn more about John Salyer. One of the best is this compilation from Old Time Central, which includes information from the Salyer family along with research from player and historian Bruce Greene

Salyer made no commercial recordings. In 1933, while working with his horse in the fields, he was approached by a scout to make records. After hearing the proposal, which he  thought was very unfair, he reportedly said "Get up Kate; we can make more money plowing than playing the fiddle!" 

It was only at the insistence of Salyer’s sons that he agreed to record some of his tunes, which took place between 1941-42. These original discs of 84 sides are now housed at Berea College, and are available for listening on the Digital Library Of Appalachia website. 

In an interesting note, Salyer was working as a pipefitter for the oil companies in Knoxville around 1937, when field recorders from the Library of Congress came through Magoffin County, Kentucky. While there, they recorded another fiddler from the area, W.H. (Bill) Stepp. Stepp's tunes are now well known in Old Time circles, especially his playing of Bonaparte’s Retreat. Who knows how history could have been different if Salyer had been at home at the time?

Read more about John Salyer’s tune “Duck River” in the Tune History section.

Rayna Gellert Plays 'Lonesome John"

Paul Kirk Plays "Mike In The Wilderness"

Steve Blake Plays "Gilda Roy"

Jenny Get AroundJohn Morgan Salyer
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