Sunday, January 14, 2024

A Zithering Web search for a musician's research legacy

I posted part of this essay in a Facebook discussion among "old time" musicians who play the 20th or 21st century compositions of the late Midwestern fiddler Garry Harrison (1954–2012) -- but sometimes without getting the tunes exactly the way he wrote them. 

Jam session players' simplified versions of his tune "Red Prairie Dawn" set off a substantial rant recently by one of his fans, passionately requesting other players to preserve the intricacies of the tune. The discussion set me off on a compulsive morning of Internet research. I don't think I had ever heard Harrison's name before.

I was happy to find that tune on YouTube, and I think I have heard it in concerts or jam sessions,  although I never knew the name or attempted to learn it... (I primarily play the mandolin in sessions focused more on old Virginia and North Carolina tunes, not contemporary tunes written in an old-time style.) 

Here is the original "Red Prairie Dawn": 

Trying to find out who Harrison was turned out to be a little harder than finding his tunes. My first Google search discovered several websites about a similarly named, but entirely unrelated, South Park cartoon character ("Gary," not "Garry") ... 

Simply adding the word "fiddler" to the search quickly sorted that out, and also revealed that along with being a much loved fiddler and composer, Garry Harrison was also a collector and organologist studying "fretless zithers." 

I have known players of some of those, so I went looking for his research, and fell into another question that fascinates me... the preservation of access to creative websites.

Harrison built an impressive website, originally at "fretlesszithers dotcom," but apparently his heirs did not maintain the registration for the web domain, although they reportedly tried to saved his writing and photographs elsewhere. There is a mention in the memorial page linked below that his instrument collection and a copy of the website were donated to an Arizona Musical Instrument Museum, but my quick search for his name there proved unsuccessful.

However, more than one copy of the original Fretless Zithers website, was saved at the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine before its original and secondary addresses expired. I was pleasantly surprised that the archived home page from 2012 even plays the site's original background music, since archive copies often are unable to maintain multimedia data, depending on file formats and other technical details. Here it is:

Also preserved, sub-pages, including his research on 1920s zither player Washington Phillips.

Here's a YouTube sample of one of  Phillips' recordings -- which may inspire you to read Harrison's research revealing what ethereal "fretless zither" family instrument he was playing:

And here is the 2013 internet archive Wayback machine copy of the introduction to Harrison's FretlessZithers research.

For anyone else who had only heard his fiddle tunes without knowing Garry Harrison...  this memorial page by another expert on uncommon instruments was the most expensive biography I found.

My browsing the Internet Archive Wayback Machine for the pages above began simply because a link from that memorial to Harrison's "fretless zithers" no longer worked. 

The memorial page does provide biographical background and the names of Harrison's various musical ensembles and recordings, which can be found with a Web or YouTube search. A search of the record-collector resource,, also turned up a page about Harrison, with links to other music-related websites for more information. (Screenshot below.)

Personal Motivation

Some people get passionate about preserving fiddle tunes as originally played, before people forget the original composer, and for similar reasons. On the other hand, I get a bit obsessed about preserving access to creative work on the internet, such as Garry Harrison's fretless zither website. 

That's probably because 20 years ago or so I decided to focus more on writing web pages than writing for peer-reviewed academic journals or commercial publication. As a journalism professor who wrote a doctoral dissertation about early web production, I was also frustrated to see so much of the creative work of the first 10 years of the World Wide Web disappear because creative tools and design standards changed, and publishers simply abandoned the originals.

I wonder if, someday after I am gone, readers (you?) might be finding this essay in an internet archive copy of one of my my blogs, with links to or from my original home page!?

Jan.14, 2024, First draft, also an experiment in copying text from Facebook to an intermediary editor, and on to this "Blogger" software android app. I may have to come back with a browser-based page-editing system to correct errors, remove duplication, and make the YouTube video link turn into a video player. But so far, so good. I don't edit this blog very often, so it may be in the present condition for a good long while. But please drop me a line if you see major errors.