John Kilby Snow was born May 28, 1906, in hilly Grayson County in southwestern Virginia.
By about the age of 4 he had started playing autoharp (his first tune, like Pop Stoneman’s,
was “Molly Hare”), and at the age of 5 he beat his brother-in-law (from whom he had first
learned) in a Winston- Salem, North Carolina, contest. Although he played other instruments, the
autoharp was his first love.
For a few years in the 1920s he traveled around playing wherever he could. He told me
of spending a couple of days with the Carter Family and playing some music with them around
Bristol, Virginia, probably in the late 1920s. I’ve often wondered whether, if Kilby was sometimes
holding his instrument nearly upright (as he did for these recordings) and playing “drag notes”
back then, that possibly influenced Maybelle Carter.
About ten years later she started playing the autoharp upright rather than in her lap and sometimes even approximated the “drag-note” effect. She held the instrument in her arms and unlike Kilby could play the instrument while standing.
Nevertheless, she certainly could have managed these innovations on her own.
Kilby worked mostly as a builder and carpenter and later for the highway department until
His use of drag notes certainly has been at the center of his adapting blues and modern country songs to his autoharp repertoire. He first drew his repertoire from family and community and later from commercial recordings by early country artists such as Blind Alfred Reed and the Carter Family. In the late 1950s and 1960s he picked up songs from Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and country singers such as Carl Smith and Merle Haggard. He also composed several country-style songs of his own.
After the release of his first record, Kilby began performing at concerts, folk festivals, and in
coffeehouses, helped a good deal by the efforts of Mike and Ellen Hudak. He was great fun to
play music with, and accompaniment seemed to spur him on. I especially remember a time in the
early 1960s at Sunset Park near Oxford, Pennsylvania, where Bill Monroe was putting on a show.
Kilby played autoharp while I backed him on guitar in one of the parking meadows, and a crowd
gathered around to hear old favorites like “Budded Roses” as well as some of the more recent Bill
Monroe songs such as “Close By” or the Monroe classic, “Muleskinner Blues.” It was exciting to
feel the spark that came from his music at those times.
Later in the decade I helped him record a solo Folkways recording, and I arranged a concert tour for us on the West Coast where we recorded a few of his songs on videotape, now released commercially. Up to the late 1970s he played a
few contests and festivals, most notably the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention, where he
was a regular.