Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Don Pedi's "Way of the Dulcimer" fall retreat -- w/ random thoughts on folk tradition bearers, A-modal fiddle tunes and murder ballads in western North Carolina

The bottom line, the main thing I would remember to play the traditional old music, ... it’s kind of like Zen. It’s not what you can add – it’s how much you can let go of and let drop away till you can get to the core of what the old people had. -- Don Pedi

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," Don said at his fall retreat here over the weekend, "and he ordered it from Montgomery Ward."

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.

Retreat group in Wildacres dining hall. Bobby McMillon is third from right, behind the table.

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 McMillon and his singing partner Marina Trivette singing the old songs 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.

"Brushy Fork of John's Creek"

One of the tunes Don taught us was "Brushy Fork of John's Creek." His version is after Kentucky fiddler Fernando "Dandy" Lusk's, and he said it commemorates the last battle fought in Kentucky during the Civil War. has a lead sheet with guitar (and mandolin) chords in A Mixolydian (two sharps in the key signature, at F# and C#), and has lead sheet and chords in G Mixolydian (no sharps or flats). It's traditionally played in A Mixolydian, which gives it a dark sound appropriate to the waning days of the Civil War in a state where brother truly fought against brother.

Listen to it at in the Berea College library's digital collections.

It was recorded Jan. 6, 1977, by tune collector Bruce Greene, who often performs with Don and has cut CDs with him. Hiram Stamper played it, on a fiddle in the "cross key" AEAE tuning. And Don usually tunes his dulcimer EAA, which blends nicely with the fiddle in A modal tunings like AEAE.

But Don's tab gives fret numbers only, and he played it for us both in his preferred tuning and in DAD, which was a Mixolydian tuning before the dulcimer clubs took it over. Hey, everybody plays in DAD, and if dulcimer tab ever comes available for "Brushy Fork of John's Creek," I'll bet any amount of money they'll tab it in DAD or capo the dulcimer on the fourth fret and play it in A on the high end of the fretboard. That's what dulcimer clubs do, bless their hearts.

But if they do, they'll lose that dark sound of the old A modal fiddle tunes.

All of which got me to thinking: Traditional southern Appalachian fiddlers had all kinds of cross-key tunings for songs like "Brushy Fork ..." and "Bonaparte's Retreat," and there's a reason for that. Traditional dulcimer players retuned a lot, too, and I'll bet it was for the same reason -- in the open modal tunings, you get that darker, lower sound that comes from playing a drone on the open strings.

How the dulcimer got to Mountain View, Ark.

One of the most important instrument makers in the Midwest is McSpadden Dulcimers at Mountain View, 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.

But what got me thinking was when the interviewer asked McSpadden, "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 said discovered the dulcimer as a divinity student at Duke -- another North Carolina connection! -- after he'd "gotten interested in folk music via the Peter, Paul, and Mary route." He said:

McSpadden: Oh, well. When I was a student at Duke University, Elliott Hancock was my roommate, and we both worked in the cafeteria, and he’d come in at night after finishing his work and eating, and sit down and play his guitar, and I thought, “Well. I’m going to defend myself. I’ve always liked the sound of a banjo.” So I went and bought a twenty dollar banjo at the pawn shop at Five Points in Durham, and I couldn’t tune the thing, and I certainly couldn’t play it. My fingers wouldn’t move in that direction. And I heard a friend from West Virginia, I guess - maybe Kentucky - was playing a record one night, and it had a dulcimer being played, and Billy Ed Wheeler, who was a semi-popular singer at the time, was singing and playing “Ash Grove,” and I thought, “Boy, that’s a nice sound,” you know. ...

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" and a collection of Appalachian humor he co-edited with Loyal Jones of Berea College.

But I was struck by the way McSpadden stumbled onto traditional Appalachian music by listening to Peter, Paul and Mary as a divinity student at Duke. For a guy who stumbled onto the music as a grad student at the University of Tennessee, it's nice to know that one of the key players in the revival of traditional music in the Ozarks also got interested in it "via the Peter, Paul and Mary route" about the same time.


From Ken Watson video on Don's website: [2:10] The bottom line, the main thing I would remember to play the traditional old music, and being born in the time and the places we’re born, it’s kind of like Zen. It’s not what you can add – it’s how much you can let go of and let drop away till you can get to the core of what the old people had. Because they came from an agrarian culture where everything was felt; now we’re in technology world. Everything is thinking. And so it’s interesting. That’s it.

[2:46] And then I learned a lot directly from the old guys I’d meet around this part of the world and got those older sensibilities. I don’t learn from records or nothing. Mostly it’s from people. But, you know, it’s funny. ‘cause nowadays all these dulcimer people are saying ‘oh boy, you’ve got a good gimmick. But I’ve had a good gimmick for 30 years and when this ain’t popular any more, I’ll have the same gimmick. It’s just what I love, and it’s just what I do.

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