Fiddler J. D. (Dedrick) Harris was born around 1868 in Flag Pond, Tennessee. Though a Tennessean, he lived in Asheville and Andrews for part of his life, and is strongly associated with the fiddle traditions of the Western North Carolina/East Tennessee region. Not a great deal is known about Harris’ life, but because of the profound influence he had on some of Western North Carolina’s greatest fiddlers, he is recognized as an important part of this state’s musical history.
Harris was among the region’s earliest recording artists. In late 1924, he and Ashevillian Ernest Helton went to New York City, where they recorded six sides. Though these records were pressed on the Broadway label, and possibly as a vanity pressing rather than a commercial release, some collectors and scholars believe that the masters may have been recorded by Paramount, as was the case with many of Broadway’s releases.
In the summer of 1925, Okeh A&R man Ralph Peer traveled to Asheville, where he set up a recording studio in the George Vanderbilt Hotel. Several of the region’s early recording stars were present for these sessions, including Ernest Stoneman, Kelly Harrell, and Henry Whitter. J. D. Harris pressed at least one recording, for which he is best known, “The Cackling Hen.”
Though his playing was immortalized on records, Harris’ greatest legacy is that of a fiddler who influenced many of the region’s other great fiddlers, some of whom were recorded extensively by later field collectors. Marcus Martin learned tunes from Harris, and was a frequent opponent in fiddle contests. The Helton Brothers were strongly associated with Harris, as an approximate contemporary of older brother Osey, and recording partner of Ernest. Manco Sneed, who spent most of his life in Cherokee, could almost be considered Harris’ protégé. Scholar and musician Blanton Owen estimated that one-quarter of Sneed’s tunes were learned from Harris. The two played as a duo, with Sneed usually on banjo, during a time when both lived in Graham County. Owen wrote in 1979 that “Harris’ reputation as one of western North Carolina’s best fiddlers is still alive today.”