LITTLE SWITZERLAND, N.C. -- Today's Appalachian dulcimer players strum modified guitar chords in a I-V-IV progression, but the dulcimer wasn't originally designed to produce chords. And traditional mountain music was always more about melody than chords. In fact Don Pedi, who has collected old-time fiddle tunes and played them on the dulcimer for 30 years, says the first guitar wasn't played by a western North Carolina string band musician until 1911.
"He was Luke Smathers, and he ordered it from Montgomery Ward," Don said at his fall retreat here over the weekend.
Don's annual "Way of the Dulcimer" Fall Retreat was held Aug. 27-29 at Little Switzerland's Wildacres Retreat Center. Don had lots to say about traditional ways of playing mountain music, and the struggle to maintain them as more and more players use a "chord-melody" dulcimer style based on playing guitar chords in a "bum-ditty" pattern derived from folk musicians in the flatlands.
Following are some of my notes and random thoughts. I've done this before, beginning after Don's 2013 retreat. As before, I made no attempt to cover the main points of the retreat. Instead, I jotted down notes when subjects came up that especially interested me. As in 2013, my thoughts are more random than thoughtful.
A highlight of the retreat was a Saturday night concert featuring Don and traditional ballad singer and storyteller Bobby McMillon. A recipient of the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, McMillon went to school with descendants of Tom Dula -- the "Tom Dooley" who killed poor Laurie Foster in the ballad made famous by the Kingston Trio -- and is himself descended from Laura Foster. "Eventually, I began to realize," he says in a blurb copied to copied to Don Pedi's website, "that if I didn't perform the songs I was learning, most of the repertories of the people I learned from would be lost because they didn't have family members of their own to hand them down to."
I didn't record the concert, but I did locate a YouTube clip of Bobby McMillion and his singing partner Marina Trivette singing the old songs, including the "Ballad of Frankie Silver," and recollecting the experiences that led them to become ballad singers.
A couple of North Carolina expressions need translation for flatlanders -- a "booger" is a local word for the boogieman, also an evil spirit in Cherokee folklore; and "painter" is the local pronunciation of "panther." The YouTube clip is from a film by Tom Davenport, independent documentary filmmaker and folklorist of North Carolina, at http://www.folkstreams.net/film,96.
One of the most important makers in the Midwest is McSpadden Dulcimers in the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas. Don filled in an important piece of the instrument's history when he mentioned McKinley Craft, a Kentuckian who learned how to make dulcimers from Jethro Amburgey at Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky. Don said Craft swapped a dulcimer for a bottle of whiskey in Batesville, Ark. It turned out to be the model for Lynn McSpadden's first dulcimers.
In a 2003 oral history interview for the Arkansas Folk Festival and Ozark Folk Center, McSpadden recalled:
I got interested at one period [in the 1960s] in trying to document the use of the dulcimer in the Ozarks, and it never was great as it was in the Appalachian region or somewhere like that, but what I found was people - folklorists - who came through here researching folklore were basically interested in the lyrics and the music. They were not interested in the instruments that were being used. Through several contacts, I found out that there was an old fellow over at Leslie who had a dulcimer, so I took off to see him. He was a bootlegger, had made his living for years . . . It was way back in the sticks out of Leslie, and he had moved there from Kentucky in about 1920 - along in there somewhere - and his cousin, McKinley Craft back in Kentucky, had sent him a dulcimer or brought him a dulcimer, and he said that . . . Joe Craft told me that when he was young back in Kentucky that, if there was a band was going to play for a dance, there would be three instruments. There would be a fiddle, of course. There would be a banjo, and there would be a dulcimer. What’s missing is what everybody thinks of as the folk instrument now: the guitar.xxx
"Were any of your ancestors involved in handicrafts or any kind of ..."
McSpadden: No, I taught my dad how to make dulcimers.
[Interviewer]: Oh, is that right?
McSpadden: It would be nice if it were handed down through the generations, but I can’t come up with that story at all. ...
Instead, McSpadden xxx "gotten interested in folk music via the Peter, Paul, and Mary route" as a divinity student at Duke -- another North Carolina connection! "I had gotten -- when he heard a record of Billy Edd Wheeler playing an English (or Welsh) folk song on one and thought, "Boy, that’s a nice sound."
Wheeler, of Swannanoa, is yet another North Carolina connection. Long associated with Warren Wilson College, he's best known perhaps for the novelty song "Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back."
But I was struck by something else that McSpadden told the interviewer from the Ozark Folk Center.