Wednesday, September 02, 2015

don pedi retreat wnc


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.

Bobby McMillon

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,96.



McKinley Kraft

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.

"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.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Why Danish sounds like that!

Hat tip to cousin Lise in Copenhagen --

If I say anything more, I'll ruin it. The Scandinavian sense of humor is very dry.

[Follow this link to get to the video.]

Friday, August 21, 2015

"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" -- some background and "D-for-dulcimer" tab on an early African American spiritual

Notes on a song we played at Thursday night's Prairieland Strings jam session. "D-for-dulcimer" tablature and lead sheets are available online.

Commercial arrangments of the song are usually published in G or A, but there's a nice version with chords and the melody in standard notation at:

Barbara Feick Gregory has dulcimer tab in DAD with lyrics and guitar chords at:

And the website at -- scroll down the directory to "Michael ..." by Peter Widenmeyer. ("Einfaches Arrangement" is how they say "simple arrangement" in German). Or you can open the PDF file at

* * *

Most of us of a certain age know "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" as a summer camp song, one we sang in between "Kumbaya" and roasting marshmallows on a stick, but it is much older than that. First set to standard musical notation in 1863 in Port Royal, S.C., it was originally a work song, sung by African American slaves as they rowed across the waters surrounding the Sea Islands of the Carolina and Georgia low country. It was also a spiritual, in a day and a culture that didn't make distinctions between sacred and secular music. In fact it is one of the oldest black spirituals.

All of which gives it an energy and a surging call-and-response rhythm I don't think we quite captured in the Episcopal church camps of my youth.

Of the many versions available on YouTube, the one that I think comes the closest to the original is this performance by the Glory Gospel Singers, of New York City, in concert in Barmstedt, Germany, earlier this year:

The Glory Gospel Singers' sound strikes me as contemporary African American gospel, but "Michael" is one of the first spirituals written down by abolitionists from New England during the Civil War. It originated well before that, as a work song that kept boat crews rowing together. William Russell, a war correspondent for the Times of London who toured behind the Confederate lines in 1861, was reminded of the voyage that ferried lost souls over the River Styx to Hades in Greek mythology:

The oarsmen, as they bent to their task, beguiled the way by singing in unison a real [N]egro melody. ... It was a barbaric sort of madrigal, in which one singer beginning was followed by the others in unison, repeating the refrain in chorus, and full of quaint expression and melancholy:-- ... To me it was a strange scene. The stream, dark as Lethe, flowing between the silent, houseless, rugged banks, lighted up near the landing by the fire in the woods, which reddened the sky--the wild strain, and the unearthly adjurations to the singers' souls, as though they were palpable, put me in mind of the fancied voyage across the Styx.

"Michael" was collected in an 1867 book titled Slave Songs of the United States (available online from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill at, compiled by abolitionist teachers who worked with the freed slaves who fled to the federal lines after the Union Army landed in South Carolina and set up a supply depot around Port Royal. One of the teachers named William Francis Allen, who had heard similar work songs in seaports up north, explained how the call-and-response of African American singing helped dock workers pace themselves:

Some of the best pure [N]egro songs I have ever heard were those that used to be sung by the black stevedores, or perhaps the crews themselves, of the West India vessels, loading and unloading at the wharves in Philadelphia and Baltimore. I have stood for more than an hour, often, listening to them, as they hoisted and lowered the hogsheads and boxes of their cargoes; one man taking the burden [verse] of the song (and the slack of the rope) and the others striking in with the chorus. They would sing in this way more than a dozen different songs in an hour; most of which might indeed be warranted to contain 'nothing religious'--a few of them, 'on the contrary, quite the reverse'--but generally rather innocent and proper in their language, and strangely attractive in their music; and with a volume of voice that reached a square or two away.

Allen noted that the work songs combined sacred and secular lyrics -- "I know only one pure boat-song, the fine lyric, "Michael row the boat ashore" (No. 31 [in the book]); and this I have no doubt is a real spiritual -- it being the archangel Michael that is addressed." He quoted Charles Pickard Ware, who actually collected the song, at some length:

"As I have written these tunes," says Mr. Ware, "two measures are to be sung to each stroke, the first measure being accented by the beginning of the stroke, the second by the rattle of the oars in the row-locks. On the passenger boat at the [Beaufort] ferry, they rowed from sixteen to thirty strokes a minute; twenty-four was the average. Of the tunes I have heard, I should say that ... 'Lay this body down' (No. 26), 'Religion so sweet' (No.17), and 'Michael row' (No. 31), were used when the load was heavy or the tide was against us."

That's how Allen heard it, as he described it in a diary quoted by Dena Epstein in her Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Urbana: U of I Press, 2003), which is probably the best book available on the origins of African American music:

Sunday, March 20, 1864…. we had wind and tide against us, and a heavy load, so we were not home till near seven … there was a full moon and the men sang most of the way as they rowed. It was curious to see how their rowing flagged — for they were quite tired — the moment the singing stopped. It wasn’t a very good set of singers, still I was very glad to hear them, for I have heard very little boat music. They sang “Michael row,” “Hold your Light,” and several others …
(Quoted in Martha Bayless. “Michael Boat a Gospel Boat: ‘Wild and Strangely Fascinating’” The Past is a Foreign Country, June 8 2013

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Anna Hoppe

The Birth and Growth of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). WELS Documented

Although the Wisconsin Synod’s constitution stated that “everything should be in keeping with the true word of the Bible and the confessions of our Evangelical-Lutheran church”, and although all pastors pledged themselves to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession (UAC), practices did not always follow beliefs. The practices which were flawed were those concerning fellowship. Pastors often served congregations comprised of both Lutherans and Reformed Christians. This most likely stemmed from a “loyalty to the Langenberg tradition of peaceful coexistence among conflicting creeds which could not easily be shaken.” Ever since the Prussian Union, these Lutherans were used to worshiping side by side with those who did not have the same beliefs as they.

Fortunately, God did not allow this practice to continue in the Wisconsin Synod. By His guiding hand, our early church fathers began to turn from these unscriptural ways. God used a number of means to accomplish this turnaround. First of all, the synod’s constitution was still founded on the beliefs of a confessional Lutheran church. However, these beliefs obviously clashed with the current practices of fellowship. This caused disorderliness in the congregations, and because of this, pastors began to take a more consistent confessional stance on the applications of the doctrine of church fellowship.

Robert Smith, “O’er Jerusalem Thou Weepest,” Notes from The Lutheran Hymnal. Project Wittenberg

"O'er Jerusalem Thou Weepest" by Anna Hoppe, 1889-1941 Text From: THE HANDBOOK TO THE LUTHERAN HYMNAL

Hymnal (1925), No. 176; The Lutheran Hymnal (St. Louis: Concordia, 1941), No. 419;

Lista över psalmer i 1819 års psalmbok i Svenska kyrkan Wikipedia [Swedish]

Frälsta värld, i nådens under Wikipedia,_i_n%C3%A5dens_under

Monday, August 17, 2015

"Shenandoah" -- dulcimer tab (in D) and a couple of videos for our song-learning circle at Clayville

Some tab in D ...

By Steve Smith of the Western North Carolina Dulcimer Collective, on the website at (or go to Dulcimer Tablature menu and scroll down to Smith's version of "Shenandoah." There are a couple of others -- his is the one you want.) A couple of videos available on YouTube:

  • Shenandoah in live concert by Norwegian singer Sissel Kyrkjebø, with Paddy Moloney of the Chieftans and Swedish artist "Kalle" Moraeus on violin. It was recorded during her concerts held in 2001 Drammen Theater, Norway, released on the album In Symphony and picked up on her American album Sissel. (Kyrkjebø, by the way, is pronounced sort of like "SHIR-ke-buh" in Norwegian. I have no idea how it would be pronounced in English.)

  • Suzy Bogguss, Shenandoah. At the Loveless Cafe Barn for Music City Roots in Nashville, April 20, 2011. Pat Bergeson on harmonica, Fred Carpenter on fiddle, Will Barrow on accordion, Brian Owings on drums and Charlie Chadwick on bass. Suzy Boguss, by the way, was a homecoming queen at Aledo High School up in the Quad-Cities area.

  • A Shenandoah Lullaby by Jerry Garcia, vocal and guitar, and Jerry Grisman on mandolin.

Mudcat Cafe has several lengthy threads speculating on the song's origins and early history, which are obscure and varied. Two of the most informative are here and here. I like what Kim C said May 11, 2001, at 10:15 a.m. in the thread "Subject: RE: Shenandoah Origin":

Here's what I tell people when I perform this, and it's as near as I can figure ... originating as a boatman's song in the 1830s or thereabouts, went out to sea as a shanty, came back to land as a ballad and has been sung as one for many years. It was popular with soldiers during the Civil War, and went out west with them afterwards and has enjoyed an incarnation as a cowboy ballad.

But by far the best

"Oh Shenandoah" (also called simply "Shenandoah" or "Across the Wide Missouri") is a traditional American folk song of uncertain origin, dating at least to the early 19th century.

The song appears to have originated with Canadian and American voyageurs or fur traders traveling down the Missouri River in canoes, and has developed several different sets of lyrics. Some lyrics refer to the Native American chief "Shenandoah" (Oskanondonha) and a canoe-going trader who wants to marry his daughter. By the mid 1800s versions of the song had become a sea shanty heard or sung by sailors in various parts of the world.

Sea Songs and Shanties, Collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner (1910, Glasgow).

["Shenandoah"] probably came from the American or Canadian voyageurs, who were great singers .... In the early days of America, rivers and canals were the chief trade and passenger routes, and boatmen were an important class. Shenandoah was a celebrated Indian chief in American history, and several towns in the States are named after him. Besides being sung at sea, this song figured in old public school collections.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Lutheran Public Radio network podcast on Johann Walther -- with an interesting aside on Christian contemporary music of the 1520s -- and a link to a master's thesis on Walther

Radio show on the kantor who put together Martin Luther's first hymnals. Family tradition is that he was an ancestor of the Walthers in my paternal grandmother's (farmor's) family in Norway.

Hat tip to my cousin John, who writes, "I think I mentioned finding several weeks ago - a website with lots of good church music that plays continuously, 24 hours per day. A high school classmate told me that her son, a LC-MS [pastor?], spoke on the talk side of the website. While scrolling through to find him, I found a talk on page 5, titled Issues, Etc. Encore: 16th Century Lutheran Kantor Johann Walter – Dr. Paul Grime, 4/24/15."

Toward the end of the podcast, Grime, of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Ind., makes the point that by the standards of his day, Luther was writing "Christian contemporary" music.

Solomon, Emily Marie, "Tunes, Textures, and Trends: The Transformation of Johann Walther’s Geistliches Gesangbüchlein (1524, 1525, 1537, 1544, 1551)" (2014). Master's Theses. Paper 480. Western Michigan University.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Midnight on the Water" -- a standard fiddle tune in D for the Clayville and Prairieland Strings jam sessions

A couple of times lately we've played "Midnight on the Water," and it's a waltz tune I need to learn to play better (true confessions time here). It's got a nice Western Swing feel to it, and it's often played in "cross-key" fiddle tunings with a D string left open that should blend well with the drones on an Appalachian dulcimer. We made a pretty good start toward making it our own a couple of sessions ago, so let's take another run at it when we meet Thursday, Aug. 20, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Atonement Lutheran Church, 2800 West Jefferson. It's one of those tunes that keep growing on you as you get to know them better. Well worth mastering.

Here are a couple of YouTube videos:

  • Midnight on the Water - John Hartford. Lots of nice ornamentation by a master of old-time string band music.

  • Midnight on the Water/Bonaparte's Retreat - Jay Ungar and Molly Mason\. Two standards in the open D fiddle tuning often known as the "dead man's tuning." Our tune begins at 2:00, after some very interesting (to me) talk about fiddle tunings, etc., but "Bonaparte's Retreat" is worth a listen, too. We ought to add it to our list of tunes to learn.

Western Swing, like bluegrass, was heavily influenced by jazz. And we can hear that influence in "Midnight on the Water."

Chris Haigh, a British fiddle player who maintains the Fiddling Around website, has definitive information about the tune's pedigree at You can't find a better pedigree:

The most significant of the new generation of Texas fiddlers [in the 1930s and 40s] was Benny Thomasson, (1909-1984) for whom the jazz music on early radio was a huge influence. His father Luke was also a well respected fiddler, and wrote the famous waltz Midnight on the Water. Luke was a friend of Eck Robertson, and would often visit the house, proving a major inspiration for Benny as a child. Benny’s repertoire ranged from traditional reels, hornpipes, polkas and waltzes to jazz numbers such as Sweet Georgia Brown.

Haigh also has an interesting aside on jam session styles, which are a bit different in the world of Western Swing, more like bluegrass and jazz sessions:

I asked Bryan [Jimmerson, president of the Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association] about the nature of the car park and campfire jam sessions which are an important feature of fiddle contests and conventions. In Britain we are used to the Irish trad session where a circle of players will do tune after tune in as near perfect unison as possible. In a tradition where improvisation and variation are valued, this surely could not be the same? I have rarely been around a jam session where folks play tunes at the same time. I have heard several young players do this from time to time but it's because they all take from the same teacher and have the exact same version of the tune so they are all playing the exact same notes. Generally at our jams the more seasoned fiddlers will play a tune and pass it to the next person to let them show what they can do with it. It's fun to watch them show off and try to out-do each other especially on swing tunes. Another jam scenario would be that one fiddler sits with the guitar players and plays until he is ready to let someone else play and then he gives up the "hot seat" to someone else and on it goes.

Old-time sessions fall somewhere in between. Most of us play slightly different versions of a tune, and some of us couldn't play it the same way twice if we tried. But our jams are more about blending with the other players in a group than individual performance, and we quickly learn we'd better not get too free with the melody!

Here, for the record, is the basic information about the tune from The Fiddler’s Companion, © 1996-2009 by Andrew Kuntz at (scroll down to title):

MIDNIGHT ON THE WATER. Old‑Time, Waltz. USA, Texas. D Major. DDad tuning. AABB (Spandaro): AA'BB' (Brody, Matthiesen, Reiner & Anick). This popular composition is usually credited to Texas fiddler Luke Thomasson, although it has been published that Luke's son Benny (a famous Texas‑style fiddler who popularized the melody) long remembered the night he heard both his father and uncle composing the tune on the family porch (c. 1900?). Several sources have noted this tune’s resemblance to an Oklahoma-collected tune called “Old Paint,” and there is an ongoing debate about whether “Midnight” is derivative of “Paint” (or vice versa). The Library of Congress recording "Cowboy Songs, Ballads, and Cattle Calls from Texas" (LOC lp L28), collected by John A. Lomax and edited by Duncan Emrich, has a version of the “Paint” song by Jess Morris which has quite similar melodic material with “Midnight on the Water.” The liner notes to the album point out that Morris was born in 1878 and would perhaps have been contemporary with the Thomassons, who, like Morris, lived in the Texas panhandle. ...