The Morris Brothers
The names of folk musicians John and David Morris loom large in the story of West Virginia’s musical heritage. During the 1960’s and ‘70’s, they organized one of the state’s premier musical events at their Clay County home place. They also helped to found the now-legendary Vandalia Gathering as well as several other festivals in the region, and set a high standard of performance and musical integrity with their appearances as the Morris Brothers.
Now in their mid-sixties, John and David still display a passion for West Virginia, a strong grasp of mountain culture, and the musical chops to set most audiences on their feet. They met with me recently at the Wood County Public Library in Parkersburg and shared some stories, a few opinions, and a brief moment of heavenly music.—ed.
“Morrises came to Clay County in 1917 from the south end of Calhoun County,” John Morris says. Born in 1946 and the younger of the two brothers, John still lives at the family farm in Ivydale. The boys’ father, Dallis Morris, was four years old when his family made the trip from Calhoun County in a horse-drawn wagon.
“He was sitting in the back end in a sugar box or some little wooden box like that,” John explains. “They got caught in some flood water up around where the Big Otter exit of I-79 is now. Daddy was about to float out of the buggy and float away, and his mother grabbed the floating box and pulled him back into the buggy.”
Their mother, Anna, and her family were Hills, prosperous farmers whose roots date back to the early 1800’s in the Barren Creek area of Kanawha County, near the Clay County line. John and David’s grandmother Hill was a granddaughter of Hiram Young from around Muddlety in Nicholas County.
“He was married three times and had about 21 kids with the three wives,” John says. “My Lord, with that many children, relatives were every place. What happened on the other side of the family, great-grandpa Isaac Morris had a sister, Millie, who married a man named Czar Metheny. This was over in southern Calhoun County. Czar and Millie Metheny had six girls and one boy. Between them and the Youngs, we’re kin to everybody in three or four counties.”
Both of John and David’s parents taught school in Clay County. The family also farmed and kept cattle. It was the music from the Morris home and surrounding community that John and David carried with them into adulthood, however. Several family members on both sides played, sang, or both. One particularly important figure to the Morris family was John and David’s grandmother Lula Hill.
“They called her Granny Hill,” David says. “She was one of these people that in our culture would be called a saint ‒ a saint on earth. She was a deeply religious woman, and she lived that every day. Her testimony was, ‘I want to live every day right at the foot of the cross.’ She said, ‘I love everybody. I love the sinners, but I don’t love sin.’
“She was 16 years old when she married Willis Hill. There’s a photograph of her in her wedding dress. It was not a white dress, but oh my goodness, she was a beautiful girl. She was living out there on Mountain Home. She told me that she had been praying for a sign for her faith. She was out there in the garden. She said, ‘I was hoeing in the peas, and I got to the end of a row and stopped for a minute to lean on the hoe and straighten up my back.’ She said, ‘David, I heard the angels sing. The music was all around me, behind the clouds, and all around. And they sang all the parts. And it was beautiful.’ That was her sign. She lived that. She taught us ‘Jesus Is a Rock in a Weary Land.’ It was one of her favorite songs.”
“We never really heard that song anyplace else,” John adds, as the brothers then sing a memorable, if altogether too brief, version of this fine traditional hymn.
Both Morris grandparents played the banjo, as did Dallis. Anna and Dallis both played guitar.
“Mom sang everywhere she went throughout her day,” David says.
“She sang anything from old country songs like ‘Little Whitewashed Chimney in the Lane’ to gospel songs, ballads like ‘Barbara Allen,’ or just whatever popped into her head,” John adds.
“Daddy did most of his music making in the evening when the work was over with,” David says.
You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.