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A Fox on the Run

By Katie Laur · March 7th, 2007 · Editorial
John Morris was a fiddler who had hair the color of a carrot. He had freckles and blue, blue eyes, and he was from Clay County, W.V. He liked to act like he was a rube, though in fact he was better traveled and educated than most folks.

"Why don't you ever come see me?" I'd say, sitting outside his house in a lawn chair in the sun. A couple dogs lolled in the heat.

He lived on land that was used to grow things, in the shadows of great mountains. He didn't have a lot of trees around his house.

"Aw," he'd say, "Kate, I'm just too hickey."

He talked in a high, clear voice, like someone who's never smoked a cigarette. He had kept the same vocal range all his life -- a little falsetto, a little mountain tenor.

We played together in Denver, Colo., at a contentious United Mine Workers meeting for a couple weeks. We'd do our shows each day, wrangle consecutive days off and the whole band would drive through the Rocky Mountains in a car called a "Rent-A-Lemon." Although there was snow on the ground, it never felt cold. The air was like champagne -- the best kind of cold, the kind that makes you feel exhilarated for no reason at all.

We scrambled over the rocks hiking around the mountains and in the evening stopped to see a Bluegrass band with Dorsey Harvey Jr. (originally from Dayton) playing mandolin. He was wonderful. His rhythm was right on the knife-edge of Swing.

Back in Denver, John and I ate lunch most days in a restaurant that served 50 varieties of homemade pies.

Sometimes we were joined by a folk singer named Utah Phillips. He was popular back then, a songwriter of some renown. He'd written "Rock, Salt and Nails" and given it to Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens. Hazel told me so herself.

"Old Utah," as John called him, told us about how Denver used to be a railroad depot, how the 'boes stayed there right by the tracks, how it was one of the most notorious stops for the bums back in the days of dust bowls and depression. I told him about seeing the homeless sleeping in the glass windows of the May Department Store downtown, and he nodded as if that explained things.

"They're still here," he said. He wore the outfit of a logger, which is to say overhauls hemmed short. While he was between stories, John pointed at his bowl of stew.

"If you're through with that," John said matter-of-factly, "could I have it?"

John was not into sentimentality. "Ol' Utah's a good guy. He's just full of crap."

It's the little things that stay with you. Hiking in Colorado or looking over a rock in Elizabethton, Tenn., and seeing such rare beauty that it takes your breath away: a view of pink and white dogwood, watercolor splashes next to redbud trees, almost Oriental, the tender green of trees in spring.

Over-the-Rhine is like that for me: an unlikely source of buried treasures. I turn a corner, cross the street, see a hidden recess of green foliage up some alley, and I'm hooked again.

This morning I walked past the Walnut Street Baptist Church, its sign still written in German with the date 1861 on the front. It's an old red-painted brick structure with neat white trim, a little ragged around the edges. It needs someone to give it a facelift, just for the sake of making it beautiful again.

I see the group of buildings at the north end of Main Street that Vern Rader wants to re-build into viable loft-space, stores, cafes and galleries. I see true visions everywhere.

In Denver in 1978, John Morris got up early every morning and carved a set of tools for me out of any old wood he could find. He was doing it because whittling kept his hands busy.

He started out with a pocketknife he colored with shoe-polish and adorned with my initials. The next day he did a pick axe with great long prongs on it like a long-horn cow, and he carved a "magic screwdriver" that I'd never lose and would just whirl up like a superhero's weapon into my hand whenever I needed it.

John would sit alone in his room, drinking coffee and carving the tiny wooden implements in that beautiful Denver light, more beautiful than light had any business being. At night, he'd fiddle "Fox on the Run" with my band and sing his high part in a small old-timey voice.

He'd sing the first "Like a fox..." Then he'd pause and chime in with the ending, "On the run."

CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here the first issue of each month.


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