Tennessee Mountain Stories

The Music of the Old Country


Despite Tennessee Mountain Stories’ focus on the Cumberland Plateau, I often run across people and families that while their geography doesn’t fit the model, their culture certainly seems to.  And as I recently talked with a friend about her grandfather, and the similarities to my own ancestors, I thought I’d share this story, his resourcefulness and love of music with you today.

Carl Harney was born in 1907 in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.  He moved first with his parents then on his own and with his wife to Arkansas, Mississippi and eventually to Southeastern Ohio.  Music was a part of his life from the earliest age, but he never received any formal instruction.  In the 1930’s he traded five dollars worth of groceries for an old fiddle and seems to have rarely been without an instrument from that day on.  In his late 40’s an injury forced him out of his job at a stave mill – work he had been doing all of his adult life.  By that time his love of the fiddle had grown to the point that he began building them himself. 


He left a wealth of memories in the hearts of his children and grandchildren, as well as slew of foster children he and his wife Minnie helped to raise.  A number of the instruments he built are still treasured by members of the family as well as wooden toys, knives and kitchen tools.  Minnie Harney said he sang from the time his feet hit the floor until he went to sleep at night.  However, in his last years a lung disease prevented him from singing the old songs he’d learned throughout his life.  Still he could play and would spend hours sitting beside a tape recorder playing his fiddle.  Those recordings as well as a stack of records, produced right in his living room while he played along with family members and neighbors, still survive as well.

I’ve mentioned here before how the music of the mountains came from the old country and was kept alive by the people for all these generations.  Well the Harneys settled a little further west but the same kind of culture came with them.  They too kept alive a part of their ancestry and passed it along the same way it had been passed for centuries – by planting the songs in the minds of children who would sing them throughout their own lives to be heard by yet another generation.  Isn’t that a beautiful picture to imagine?