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Roy Lee Harmon
Born:  October 7, 1900
Died:  April 7, 1981
WOAY Oak Hill, WV
WWNR Beckley, WV

About The Artist

Roy Lee Harmon Promo Ad - Hillbilly Ballads - 1938 He was interviewed and featured in the Beckley Sunday Register in April 1937. The article provided some insight into his journey to becoming a poet laureate. He told of when he first wrote a poem. He indicated it was probably in the year he first learned to read and write, six years old. His dad was a timber man who owned sawmills. Roy Lee noted that he hated to see big trees cut down, it caused him some pain to see the hillsides stripped of their trees. It caused him to write a poem.

That poem got some hearty laughs from the lumber jacks he said. Was the verse bad? Possibly. But he felt the idea was right.

His first published poem was when he was just fifteen years old and as he described it, "...in the throes of puppy love. I was at that violent stage of walking past the home of the dream girl with a forlorn hope that I might just catch a glimpse of her. I wrote poems all over the place, sent some of them to country editors and they were published."

Mr. Harmon lamented the lack of income he could generate writing poetry. He spoke of selling a poem in 1918 to a farm magazine in the midwest which paid him a dollar. He got a dollar apiece for two poems from the Southern Methodist paper, The Advocate. He felt he had to write something more than poetry. He set about to writing a "...musical article which I sold to one of the second-rate musical magazines." He was told his article was accepted but had to visit the post office many times before he got his check of $3.04 for his efforts.

He stated, "About that time I decided that even poets must eat — so I got a job with a newspaper (he became Sports editor of the Beckley POst-Herald around that time). Further he noted, "I continued writing verse but at last realized that nobody can ever make any money that way." He mentioned some newspaper editors suggested he write a weekly column for them. He said Lee Taylor, then editor of the Hamlin Democrat was insistent. That was the genesis of his column he called "Hillbilly Ballads" and continued that effort until he moved to Beckley in 1937.

He was asked how many poems he had written and he responded - probably 2,000 but had "saved" over a thousand. Then he used about 75 of them to form the basis of his book, "Hillbilly Ballads".

He spoke as to whether it was easy or hard to come up with his verses. He noted, "But even the best of verse almost writes itself. I may be out fishing, driving my car or walking and I'll get an idea for a verse. Days later I'll recall the idea and think of a fitting addition, or the climax. After mulling the thing over the mere writing may not take 15 minutes."

He was the Sports Editor for the Beckley Post Herald for a time. But he became known as the poet laureate of West Virginia more than once. Governor Home A. Holt of West Virginia gave him the title first. He wrote a column of poetry and comment to various weekly newspapers in West Virginia. His hobbies included hunting and fishing. How did we learn that? From none other than a publication published out of Huntington, West Virginia - National Hillbilly News in Jenny Via's column in the October 1945 issue. We learned he was proud to be a hillbilly.

Roy Lee Harmon - WWNR Ad - 1946 in that same issue mentioned above, they wrote a bit of about his career up to that point in time - 1945. His first book of poetic verse was entitled "Hillbilly Ballads" in tribute to his roots. They wrote his book caught "...the true spirit of the hill country, the beauty of far off ridges, and he spoke with the home-spun philosophy of a country boy."

Back then he lived in a little home just outside of Beckley, West Virginia, in "plateau country" or "Peckerwoods Flats" as he termed it. His home he humorously called it "Peckerwoods Flats Manor".

He told his interviewer that even a poet has to eat, so he worked as a sports editor for Charles Hodel who ran two newspapers in Beckley. He wrote a column and also covered local sports events. He started that stint as a sportswriter in 1937. He had written two books and had just finished his third to be called "Coal Town". His second book was "Around the Mountains".

His hobbies included hunting, fishing and music. He was said to write a hillbilly tune or two when he felt something clicked. But up to that point in time, the music was just something he had fun with. But when he covered a football game in Beckley, he would hear the 108-piece marching band from Woodrow Wilson High School play his own tune, "The Flying Eagle March". He said he wrote the words which became the official school song after he had finished his column and some headlines for his sports pages one night. They wanted him to crank out the tune quickly so he did.

He tells of an evening, possibly around 1938 or so judging by what we read in the article, where he was trying to tune ina good program on the radio. But all he heard was what he called "sad and sobby ballads" from the radio speaker. Supposedly he kicked the radio in disgust and said he could write four of those 'sentimental tunes' in an hour. His wife suggested maybe he could make some money that way. He then set out to win a bet that said he had to write a sentimental tune in 15 minutes. In a flash of inspiration, he wrote "Deep In The Hills". He played it on the piano, but seemingly forgot it. He found the manuscript for it years later in his desk and gave it to Judy and Julia Jones, who were appearing on the National Barn Dance on WLS in Chicago. He forgot about it again until they told him that a Chicago publisher liked it and wanted to publish it.

He called himself the "world's worst business man".

They noted that his latest attempt at a hillbilly tune, not published, was "You Can Make Me Or Break Me". He told his interviewer, "If somebody likes that one enough, he'll get down in these hills and we'll do some swappin'".

But you might ask, how does a poet and sports mix? Our research leads us to state - very well and perhaps a lost art in a unique style of reporting about the subject matter. We took advantage of today's technology to find some examples of his writing back in 1937 when he started the sports column with the Beckley Post Herald.

Roy Lee Harmon Sports Column Header - 1937

The Loser - February 23, 1937

Oh it takes no art for a winner's part
When the breaks all come your way;
When he's sure to win anyone can grin
In a manner that's really gay.

But I chant no song for a winner strong
Let me woo the doggone muse
'Till I pen a verse (maybe bad, or worse)
Of the fellow who has to lose.

When you're feeling tough and the game is rough.
When you've taken each blow and bruise,
Then if you can smile you're a lad worth while
Who can play the game — and lose.

Do baseball fans after a long winter look forward to Opening Day for baseball? You might think the date is off, but remember they were playing Class D baseball back in those days in West Virginia.

Opening Day - May 13, 1937

This is the day when the boys go down
For a baseball fight in the "We Will" town
   As they open the year's campaign.

This is the time when they want to play
Here's hoping the weather Man won't say,
   Some clouds and a batch of rain.

All of us who attend baseball games, whether little league or major league or watch on today's television screens - have we not questioned the calls by the umpire? It's a timeless exercise.

The Umpire - June 16, 1937

An Umpire is the queerest bird that I have ever seen.
A million hisses he has heard and comments very mean.
Yep, he's the villain of the pay, the man nobody likes
And still he has the final say and calls some wide ones strikes.

Now there are jobs like hauling ice, and digging sewers too
Where every disposition's nice and few are sad and blue.
And I can't see why any guy won't choose a job more tame
Instead of thinking he should try to boss a baseball game.

No man on earth could suit the crowd, you cannot please'em all,
When local fans with praise are loud, the visitors will brawl.
Yes, they will make the echoes roar and protest by the hour,
And when the visitors aren't sure the home-town fans turn sour.

They call the Umpire Jesse James and Dillinger and such
Full many times in all the games — his job would grieve me much,
A man must have a darn tough hide to boss a diamond fray,
And get cussed out although he tried to fairly rule each day.

Oh, I would rather peddle eggs, or plow a balky mule
Than drink disdain's most bitter dregs, be called a blind old fool
Because I ruled the way I saw — Yes, please give me a job
Where jibes don't fall so thick and raw from every baseball mob.

He could combine subjects and use the poems to provide a lead-in to the subject matter he wanted to address in that day's column. One was about mixing religion and sports.

After You Have Been To Church - March 30, 1937
Dedicated to Rev. H. L. Clay, pastor M. E. Church south

When your life is just a sour note and your hope is very low,
And it seems you've grabbed yourself a mighty heavy load of woe, You can brighten up your spirits, leave dull care right in the lurch
And your heart will sing a gay song — if you'll only go to church.

Scientists may blame your glands or say your liver's out of fix.
Psycho analysts may tell you how to stage gloom chasin' tricks
But I'll tell you how to knock each grief and worry from its perch,
Want to see the road grow smoother — then just go to church.

Oh there's not a thing can whip you when you arm yourself with power,
That's available within an honest sermon any hour.
Want a recipe for gladness? Well, here's where you end your search,
You will find that life is sweeter — after you have been to church.

And you won't be hatin' people, worried marks upon your brow
Seem to melt away, I tell you, in a magic way, somehow,
NOthing much can spoil the outlook, ruin the picture or besmirch,
'Cause you're really glad you're livin' — after you have been to church.

"Maybe it doesn't belong in a sports column. But there it is big as life. And it's living proof that I DID go to church on Easter Sunday, even though the pastor was starting to take a wind up and begin the benediction before I got there.

After all, Christianity and sports shouldn't be far apart. A good sportsman, a square shooter must be innately a believer in the teachings of the Man of Galilee.

Then there's Parson Ross Culpepper who proves that sports and religion can be combined all right. Ross can preach a good sermon — and he can referee a basketball game in the best style.

His daily column was not the only place you would see his byline. In 1937, the talk of the town was whether Beckley would have a minor league team as they tried to form the "Mountain State League". Here's a few paragraphs from that story that ran on March 24, 1937.

Ghost of Organized Baseball Walks Again After Other Cities Say They Want Local team in Loop — Money Being Subscribed
By Roy Lee Harmon

"So organized baseball in Beckley, duly draped in grave clothes a few days ago arose and walked yesterday.

And if it was a ghost it was just about the spryest one you have seen since that night many, many years ago when something white and you set a speed record.

All jokin' aside, it looks like Beckley is headed for a place in the newly organized baseball league this time for certain.

Ray Ryan, elected temporary chairman of the new loop at the meeting in Welch last Sunday, was around and about yesterday. He brought a message to local baseball enthusiasts and business men which stimulated them to action. They went places, talked baseball, and a subscription list was started. The results was that last night $800 had been subscribed for the Beckley club. Ryan told local sportsmen that the other five teams in the league want Beckley. One more team is needed to round out a six-club circuit. Other cities want it. But Bluefield, Logan, Huntington, Welch and Williamson want Beckley, according to Mr. Ryan. And they are pretty wise at that. Beckley would be a natural rival for practically all the entries mentioned. The cities are situated close enough together for fans to follow their favorites occasionally when they play away from home."

...

The Mountain State League will be a class D organization.

May 12 will be the date of the opening games. The schedule has not been completed.

Night games are planned for Huntington and Beckley. The other cities will have afternoon baseball, it was said.

In one column, he did not mince words about a major league baseball player who was "holding out" for a better contract - something that is still true today when players think they are worth more than offered.

Speaking of Sports
By Roy Lee Harmon
March 24, 1937

"One baseball holdout stuck his neck out once too often.

Babe Herman, lanky outfielder for Cincinnati is on the outside looking in and the Reds don't give a hoot if he never gets back with the team. They are set to go — without the chesty Babe.

Babe is a good ball player—but he always seems to be more of an egoist than Dizzy Dean. I have seen him play a number of times. He is a great hitter and a fair outfielder. But seemingly he never forgets that he is Babe Herman, the Great. I can understand an outstanding hurler getting a prima donna complex, but just a fair to middlin' outfielder who hits well should not decide that the baseball world can't get along without him.

Babe didn't have the proper spirit. There's that New York incident to prove it. With two out and the score tied ina game between Cincinnati and the Giants last summer, a hit was rifled into Herman's territory. He pocketed the ball and beat it for the clubhouse despite the fact there was a runner on second who trotted across the platter to score the winning run for New York. He could have thrown him out at home plate.

Babe was almost a scientific loafer.

On barnstorming tours he didn't do anything to make friends for the Reds. Last summer the Cincinnati club appeared in an exhibition game with the Huntington team in Huntington.

In practice when all eyes were on the Great Babe, he proceeded to knock five balls in succession far over the right field fence and into the Ohio river.

He didn't want to play in the game and went in after protesting. But he went in to strike out, swinging wildly at the offerings of a raw rookie who was serving 'em up for Huntington.
You can't blame a manager for passing up a ball player of that type even though the player is still in his prime."

Roy and his wife made news in 1937 when a flood in their then hometown of Kenova convinced them that it was time to move. The flood convinced the Harmon couple to move permanently to Beckley. They initially stayed with his wife's parents, Mr. and Mrs. A. J. Ball on Harper Road. His wife was said to be better known to the locals as Miss Dot Ball. Mr. Harmon was quoted as stating, "We have departed for good, ... When the flood gets to be a regular yearly event, and worse as the years go on, it's too much for me. The mountains for me, after this."

A couple of weeks later, his by-line appeared in the Beckley Post Herald describing the aftermath of the recent floods in a first hand account as one who experienced it. He started by noting:

"A song writer was once inspired to write a pretty waltz tune about the "Beautiful Ohio" river.

If that same composer would take a trip through the Ohio valley today (sic: 1937), there would be inspiration for a dirge-like tune in slow tempo."
He told readers life had gone on, the flood waters receded. But what was left behind was the story of desolation - wrecked homes, disease and misery. He told readers - it is real - he saw it first hand. He wrote:
"I shall never forget the appalling sights that I saw there.

Just because the relief organizations have been busty just because the Ohio river has reluctantly crawled back to its proper channel, don't imagine for a moment that the crisis is past, everything is hunk-dory and the goose hangs high.

A pall of gloom hangs over the Ohio valley like a Stygian shroud."
He noted electricity was not yet fully restored, few stores were open and natural gas was not readily available either. He observed that two stores that had previously used gas stoves had coal burning stoves. Drinking water was not available. Mud was everywhere. It was that flood that caused him to relocate his family to Beckley.

In addition to his sports column for the Beckley Post Herald, we found examples of his "Field and Stream" columns in the 1940s, which was a natural for him considering his love of fishing.

His writings were not just observations on the professional sports, but on the local high school teams as well. Here's an example from the January 25, 1946 column:

"If the windows rattle tonight and you get the idea that someone out near Egeria may be testing a pee-wee sized atomic bomb, don't be surprised.

There's going to be a rather conspicious hullabaloo over at Woodrow Wilson high gymnasium as our Flying Eagles tangle with Greebrier Military School's Fighting Cadests in a basketball game.

I'm certain tonight's tussle is going to be a tough one for the local basketeers."

1946 was a seemingly busy year for Roy. He was part of a daily morning radio show that aired over WWNR in Beckley called "Mixing It Up" that featured Erik Paige and Roy Lee Harmon in "In The Spotlight".

In June of 1946, the Raleigh Register reported that Roy had a heart attack while at work but was treated at the local hospital and recovered. In fact, his recovery did not stand in the way of his running for the West Virginia House of Delegates as a Democrat. The two other Democratic candidates included W. H. (Bill) File and Robert C. Byrd (who would later go on to be the longest serving United States Senator - 51 years).

The Bluefield Daily Telegraph related a somewhat humorous episode of Roy Lee being replaced as poet laureate by then Governor Neely. At the time, Mr. Harmon was working on a federal writing job and it was said to be a good job for a work-a-day newsman. But the story was not attributed to any particular writer, but let us pick up the story from there:

"When the announcments came over the wire that Neely had appointed someone else to the post, Roy Lee was in Bluefield looking after some chores coincident with his writer's project job. . . . he was shown the news item on the wire and got to hot and bothered about Neely firing him from a job which did not pay a thin dime that he started spouting like a Boone county well, called Neely and all of the Charleston gang a bunch of Reds and in general gave'em all Old Billy Hell. . . . The ultimate result of that Harmon-ic outburst, of course, was that Roy Lee was anned from the federal writer's job, or maybe given to understand that it was advisable that he quit. . . . so he did so with gusto, and declared that he didn't want to work with a bunch of red-necks like that anyway. . . . Tossed up the best job he hever had in his life because of a mad over losing the appointment of a job which with a nickel, will get you a ride on the street car. . . . Harmon is the guy who should have the job. His poetry of mountain folk is beautiful and far superior to the work of any other we have ever seen. . . ."

In December 1946, Randolph Norton in his "Bug Dust" column offered some opinions on the elections. He spoke of Mr. Byrd's independence. He vowed "I came through the campaign without obligating myself to a single soul." The article indicated the Demcrats owed him some debts during that campaign. When things got a bit boring, Mr. Byrd got his fiddle out and entertained audiences with a few tunes.

We would be remiss if we did not post the vote totals from the House of Delegates in the November 1946 election. The three Democratic candidates defeated their Republican opponents. Vote totals were:

  • 10,757 votes - Robert Byrd (D)
  • 10,673 votes - William File (D)
  • 10,370 votes - Roy Lee Harmon (D)
  • 9,238 votes - George Ballard (R)
  • 9,127 votes - Cecil Miller (R)
  • 8,670 votes - James Henderson (R)

In November 1946, seemed to be leaving his newspaper tasks for a time. It was announced he would be the city news editor for WWNR in Beckely. He was also to be part of their special events staff and was in charge of putting together some new programs that would be aired in the future. The article also stated that he would begin publishing a state magazine "The Mountaineer" beginning in Janaury 1947.

Roy Lee Harmon - WWNR Ad - 1948 When Roy's books were published, the local news folks would write of receiving a copy. In 1948, he had released "Up The Creek" and the writer stated "...it lives up wo what Harmon admirers had expected of the poet laureate. ... Many of the poems are familiar to local readers and others have a familiar ring to Raleigh county ears, for Harmon writes about the things he knows — and he knows more about Raleigh county than most folks."

In 1948, Mr. Harmon was hosting a radio show, "Keatley's Rod and Gun Review" on Fridays at 6:15pm over WWNR. The sponsor was Keatley Brothers, Inc. - "Everything in Sports" on Prince Street in Beckley. Later October, the show was airing on Thursday nights with the same sponsor. An October ad for the show was touting the opening of the hunting season.

In 1950, he won one of the three Democratic nominations for a seat to the House of Delegates, garnering 5,578 votes along with H. P. Meadows with 4,100 votes and Everett R. Shafer with 3,677 votes, all of the Democratic party. In October, the Raleigh Register provided some background information on the six candidates (three from each party). Roy's background included graduation from Scott High School, attended Morris Harvey College, publicist, poet laureate, free lance writer. He was also a member of the Beckley Moose Lodge, First Baptist Church, Raleigh County Rod and Gun CLub, Izaak Walton League and Outdoor Writers of America. By 1950, he had been a newspaperman for nearly 30 years and had published three books of poetry.

Roy and his three Democratic running mates won the three seats to the House of Delegates. Their vote totals were published as follows:

  • 14,084 votes - Everett R. Shafer (D)
  • 13,543 votes - Roy Lee Harmon (D)
  • 12,412 votes - H. P. Meadows (D)
  • 7,788 votes - Paul James Fourney (R)
  • 7,500 votes - G. Edward Foster (R)
  • 7,459 votes - Clyde O. Wriston (R)

Roy Lee Harmon - WWNR Ad - 1946 Mr. Harmon passed away in 1981 and we learned more about his subsequent career in the tribute article we found. He was first appointed poet laureate by Governor Holt in 1937. James Lowell McPherson took on that role in 1943. But he was re-appointed by Governor Clarence Meadows in 1946, a post he held for another 14 years. His replacement was Vera Andrews Harvey who only served one year. In 1961, Governor Wally Barron once again appointed Mr. Harmon poet laureate. Governor Jay Rockefeller gave him the status of poet laureate emeritus in 1979. That's 38 years oas poet laureate under four different governors.

He also served four terms in the state legislature as well. He was also a television host in Oak Hill, West Virginia in the 1950's.

Roy Lee Harmon married Dorothy Ball, daughter of Audley J. and Virginia (Prudence) Ball. From what we have been able to determine, she was born in April 1898 and passed away in 1974. From Mr. Harmon's memorial site, it indicated he may have remarried - her name was Edgar (Eddie) Vivian Belcher Harmon. She was previously married to Frank Belcher in 1932. He died in 1948 in a mining accident.

A 1937 feature article about him as a way of introducing him to readers, he was asked about his ambition and his response we think is a fitting way to end this little biography.

"To write at least one little verse that will be remembered after an old newspaperman-fisherman has written his last story and made his last cast in a likely looking bass pool; a few words that will somehow cheer people up when hearts are grieved and the way ahead looks dark. If I can do that I will not have lived in vain. If I can't I shall pass out — a failure."

Credits & Sources

  • Beckley Post Herald; February 10, 1937; Beckley, WV
  • Beckley Post Herald; February 23, 1937; Beckley, WV
  • Beckley Sunday Register; March 13, 1938; Beckley, WV
  • The Raleigh Register; January 26, 1937; Beckley, WV
  • National Hillbilly News; Vol. 1 No. 5; October 1945; Orville and Jenny Via; Huntington, WV
  • The Raleigh Register; June 9, 1946; Beckley, WV
  • The Bluefield Daily Telegraph; October 16, 1946; Beckley, WV
  • The Raleigh Register; November 3, 1946; Beckley, WV
  • Beckley Post Herald; November 12, 1946; Beckley, WV
  • The Raleigh Register; November 15, 1946; Beckley, WV
  • The Raleigh Register; November 24, 1946; Beckley, WV
  • The Raleigh Register; December 10, 1946; Beckley, WV
  • Beckley Post Herald; January 25, 1948; Beckley, WV
  • Beckley Post Herald; February 13, 1948; Beckley, WV
  • Beckley Post Herald; August 6, 1948; Beckley, WV
  • Beckley Post Herald; October 1, 1948; Beckley, WV
  • Beckley Post Herald; August 3, 1950; Beckley, WV
  • Beckley Post Herald; October 29, 1950; Beckley, WV
  • Beckley Post Herald; November 8, 1950; Beckley, WV
  • West Virginia Public Broadcasting; April 7, 2016

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