About The Artist
John Dill Jarvis, known by his initials, was a native of rugged Clay County, Kentucky who spent his adult life as an Appalachian migrant in the Greater Cincinnati area. Although primarily working as a paint contractor, he played a great deal of music as a sideline and recorded numerous albums of bluegrass gospel music. As a composer of many sacred songs, two have entered the realm of classics in the field.
Left fatherless at the age of thirteen, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps at sixteen and served in projects in Indiana and Wyoming. When he returned, J. D. worked in Cincinnati with his stepfather until he joined the U. S. Army in the spring of 1942.
He participated in the Normandy invasion until he sustained a severe wound on July 5, 1944. After several months in recovery, he filled his enlistment in Special Services.
Back in civilian life from the spring of 1946, he married and worked at various jobs including coal mining in Kentucky and other work in Ohio. As he put it, if he got laid off in Kentucky then he went to Ohio and vice versa.
Eventually he settled permanently in Hamilton, Ohio, from 1959. Like many other Appalachians, Jarvis became a regular on the hillbilly bar scene, both as a musician and as a customer. By his own admission, he was pretty wild and rowdy until 1953 when he quit drinking and then had a conversion experience.
Southwest Ohio is home to tens of thousands of migrants from the mountains, initially centered in Cincinnati, Dayton, Hamilton, and, Middletown as well as Covington, Newport, and Florence, Kentucky. It has perhaps nearly as many churches as bars that cater to both secular and sacred needs.
Jarvis turned out to be as active in churches and gospel sings as he had been before in taverns.
J. D. also made friends with the noted mountain preacher of "There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down" fame. He often attended Brother Claude Ely's services and helped him on his recordings. J. D. also began to shift his talent for rhymes into composing sacred song lyrics.
About 1959 or 1960, Jarvis made his first recordings under his own name, beginning with a four-song EP on the Ark label. The first included his composition "Life of Ransom" which borrowed the tune of the country standard "Sunny Side of the Mountain."
Although he still did singles, most of his later recordings took the form of long-play albums. According to J. D.'s obituary, there were forty-six (which seems high).
Six of them were on Uncle Jim O'Neil's Rural Rhythm label while others were on Rusty York's Jewel label. Many others were recorded in York's Jewel studio or later in Dennis Hensley's studio in nearby Kentucky.
In addition to local churches and gospel sings, J. D. Jarvis did occasional trips outside his home territory of Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana. He mentioned Wisconsin and Mississippi and did one album on the Benson Corporation's Heart Warming label.
They also wanted Jarvis to go into music full time, but as a child of the Great Depression, he preferred to keep his business running and remained a part-time musician. In addition to his own songs, J. D.'s recordings included a lot of bluegrass gospel standards, especially leaning to songs associated with the Stanley Brothers and later Ralph Stanley.
On one Rural Rhythm album (224), Ralph's band supported him and Stanley in turn recorded several Jarvis songs.
Of his many original compositions, the two which rank as most significant are "Take Your Shoes Off Moses" and "Six Hours on the Cross," both of which he recorded two or more times.
He had a habit of recording the song again instead of re-ordering another pressing of an earlier one which has proved challenging to discographers. Other artists also recorded these songs including Ralph Stanley and the Isaacs.
Other songs of Jarvis's widely recorded are "Get on Board Little Children" and "I Am the Man, Thomas" which was re-arranged by Ralph Stanley and Larry Sparks who actually hold the copyright.
While most of J. D.'s songs were sacred, he did compose some topical songs although most of them had a religious message. These included "Tragedy of Sandy River," about the 1958 school bus crash; "In Memory of LeRoy Alan Lykins," about a child fatally hit by a bulldozer; "Thank God for Old Glory", a patriotic song; and "The Hyden Miner's Tragedy," about a coal mine disaster. This one touched J. D. most deeply as he had close friends and cousins who died in the accident.
As J. D. Jarvis grew older, he began to slow down somewhat. Instead of nightly services, he did only a few a month. Son Lucky took over a greater share of the paint contracting business and J. D. began to relax a bit, but still worked on song composition.
In addition, two of his better recordings were gathered into a pair of compact discs. Furthermore, his old war wounds troubled him more as he aged. Still, he survived until the age of eighty-six, leaving a legacy of songs on record and paper.
Credits & Sources
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