John Sharp often woke up his family before daylight with a cheerful imitation of the cardinal’s song, a fiddle tune named “Redbird.” Bedtime just as likely would be preceded by fiddle music, or put off for hours when music-loving friends and relatives came to visit. Fiddling John Sharp loved music with great emotional intensity. A daughter recalls watching with the other children through a little “cubby-hole” window in the loft of their house for their father’s return one miserable, sleeting winter night in 1937. When the stocky, tough man came into sight, he was crying. Crippled since boyhood by a leg injury, he had fallen and cracked the recording of “Carroll County Blues” that he had walked five miles to buy at a Stearns Company store. Placing it on the Victrola turntable, he found that the record would play, and, overjoyed, stayed up past midnight to learn the tune.
Sharp always began a fiddle tune with the fiddle under his chin, standing or sitting straight. When the music started, his body began twisting, bending, and crouching, his eyes shut tight, his mouth worked along with the tune, and his arms slinging the fiddle about, playing it around his feet or above his head. Sometimes he would wind up on his knees, playing and whooping, or shaking the fiddle to make the rattlesnake rattles inside the instrument sound out.
John Sharp was born September 2, 1894 in the “Washington Young Place,” a log house just on the Kentucky side of the state line, now said to be the dwelling with the longest continual occupation in the state of Kentucky (since 1792). John’s mother found him at age six hiding behind a door playing “Rye Straw.” His father, also a skilled fiddler, taught him tunes like “Wild Goose Squall,” and “Fourteen Wildcat Scalps,” even humming one on the day he died for John to learn. John joined a small exodus to the farmland of Iowa in 1916, with his new bride, Bonnie. He stayed long enough to learn a few Midwestern tunes, then moved on the Oklahoma oil fields, but was back in Kentucky by 1919. The next year he moved to Tennessee to work on the Slick Ford-Stockton pole road, a railroad-like system of tracks made with small poles for mule teams pulling carts loaded with logs. Except for a few years back on the Washington Young Place, he spent the rest of his life in Tennessee, near Sharp Place, working in the log woods, farming, and playing music. He was a neighbor for a while to his second cousin, Will Phipps, whose large repertoire of unusual solo fiddle tunes was much admired. Bonnie Sharp remembers Burnett and Rutherford riding up on two fine-looking red mares in July 1929, to spend a week-long visit with John, a new acquaintance they had made, probably at the courthouse gatherings in Monticello.
In 1931, John was approached by Virgil Anderson, who had once been a close neighbor, to form the Kentucky Wildcats string band. Later, eight of his children took up instruments, and each one at some point travelled with him to play for Democratic political rallies, dedication ceremonies, family reunions, and weekly dances at Pickett State Park.
In 1949, Sgt. Alvin York invited Sharp down for an evening to try out a new record-cutting machine. York recorded about 25 sides for his lifelong fiddling friend, who sent most of them away as presents to his kinfolks. The world famous Medal of Honor recipient would soon become brother-in-law to John when Alvin York, Junior, married Bethel Sharp. On that evening, though, he engineered Sharp’s most extensive recording session, blowing the shaving away as they turned off the cutter.
These disks, with John Sharp, Jr., and Clyde Evans accompanying on rhythm guitars, are also the best existing examples of Sharp’s abilities. Two reel tapes have survived of his performances, the earliest recorded by his sister-in-law’s husband around 1962, with his daughter Evelene backing on guitar. Just a year before he died, he recorded several more tunes for his family in 1964, also with Evelene’s accompaniment.
To the end of his life, Sharp’s fiddling was fierce and soaring. These firestorm qualities were appreciated across the old-time music community soon after the discs were retrieved for transfer by Bobby Fulcher. Within the family, Paul Sharp, John’s youngest son, carried the tunes forward with the same intensity, joy, and authority. Outside the family, Michael DeFosche, became the most dedicated heir to the Sharp music, as both a family friend and extraordinary fiddler. The three John Sharp tunes from The Music of the Cumberland Plateau anthology were picked up coast-to-coast in the old-time music community, and have been performed and recorded by Bruce Molsky, Chad Crumm, Rafe Stefanini, Dan Levenson, Joseph Decosimo, and many others.
Notes by Bobby Fulcher
All Photographs Courtesy of the Sharp Famil
Design by Rachel Boillot
For more photographs of John Sharp, please visit this Flickr Gallery.