About The Artist
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.
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.
The Loser - February 23, 1937
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
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
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
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
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
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.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.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.
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:
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.
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:
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
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