Appalachia: John Morgan Salyer, Father of Bluegrass Music and Kentucky fiddle music

Kentucky fiddle music, the precursor to Bluegrass music, began to be common in households across the eastern Kentucky area of Appalachia in the late 19th century. It developed in more or less complete isolation in the rural, geographically isolated parts of Appalachia and eastern Kentucky. John Morgan Salyer, this writer’s great uncle, is remembered as the last great fiddle (violin) player. He was instrumental in the development of Kentucky Fiddle music.

John did not like playing publicly, although he did from time to time. We have an extraordinary collection of John’s music only because his sons, Grover and Glenn Salyer, recorded them on a home disc machine during the 1940s. John’s music is housed at Berea College in Berea, KY.

John Morgan Salyer, a pioneer of Kentucky fiddle music and the beginnings of Bluegrass music, was my great-uncle. In the picture below, my grandmother, Mollie Evelyn Salyer, is on the right of John Salyer, and her sister, Julia Salyer, is on the left. John Salyer was the son of Morgan Salyer and Katherine Patrick. He was my grandmother’s half brother. Morgan Salyer married my great-grandmother after his marriage to Katherine Patrick ended.

John Salyer was born in 1882. He was raised in a log cabin on Birch Branch, off Burning Fork Road, in Magoffin County, KY. He lived in that specific area of Appalachia all of his life. He began playing the violin, called the fiddle in that part of the world, when he was a boy. When John was 8 years old, he broke his leg. His father, my great-grandfather, Morgan Mason Salyer bought him a violin. He began to realize his musical talent. John subsequently spent 3 years in the Phillipines during the early part of the 1900’s. When he returned home to Magoffin County, KY, he married and had nine children, two of whom died at birth.

John’s branch of the Salyer family and my grandmother’s branch of the family were tied together by a common father, Morgan Mason Salyer. The family was musical and they frequently got together and played music. John played the fiddle. My grandmother played the banjo. John’s musical influences were local musicians including Willie Fletcher and Jeff Gipson.

Back in those days, from the late 1800s to the 1950s, few people received any formal musical training. They learned from older generations. There was very little travel to other parts of the country. Automobiles did not come to Magoffin County, Kentucky until the 1920s. The families would get together in the evenings and play. Kentucky fiddle music developed through largely informal groups of people getting together to play on someone’s porch or in their living room in John’s case. There are stories in the family of evenings spent playing and practicing with John Morgan Salyer. 

John did not ever sign a recording contract. Instead, he played at square dances and hoedowns in his local area of Magoffin County. Once, he and other musicians went on a rail trip to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. The musicians went from car to car playing their music all the way from Kentucky to Chicago. When they arrived in Chicago, they were invited to play at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Chicago, a famous venue.

John Morgan Salyer was a farmer by trade. He passed away in November, 1952 from complications of diabetes.


Left: Julia Salyer, half-sister to John Morgan Salyer; Middle: John Morgan Salyer; Right: Mollie Evelyn Salyer, half-sister to John Morgan Salyer



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