What's a hogfiddle?

When I opened this blog Feb. 9, 2006, I wrote a sort of prospectus under the headline "What's a hogfiddle? Why this blog?" In a word, it was to be a research blog -- a way of organizing my notes on several ongoing projects and getting them up off my desk (and the floor of my office). From the beginning, I also found it a valuable teaching aid, as I introduced video clips for the interdisciplinary humanities classes I was teaching at the time. I am retired now, but I still post instructional material for old-time music jam sessions I coordinate for beginners and novice amateur musicians around Springfield, Illinois.

Several years have passed now. Some of my interests have changed since 2006. I retired from full-time college teaching in 2010, and I have more time for music and free-lance writing. In addition to Illinois history and "hogfiddles" -- also known as dulcimers -- I'm writing these days about Lutheran hymnody and northern European box zithers I'd never heard of when I opened the blog.

But Hogfiddle's main purpose remains the same, to organize my research notes and get them up off my desk. And my primary instrument is still the mountain dulcimer. All of which means the short attention span and swirl of books and papers I complained of in 2006 are still ... oh, look, a zither!

Below is the original post, lightly edited and updated ...

What's a hogfiddle? Why this blog?

[Thursday, Feb. 09, 2006]. The first question is easy to answer. The second took me longer, and I’m not sure I have a good answer to it yet. A “hog fiddle” is simply another name for the Appalachian dulcimer.

Picture at left shows a hogfiddle, or mountain dulcimer, far away from its traditional home. Taken in the Dublin Guitar Centre on Exchequer Street off Grafton a few blocks from Dublin's statue of Molly Malone.

The name "hogfiddle" apparently comes from West Virginia, where the instrument has been played traditionally since at least the 1880s. I don’t know the etymology of the word, but I can guess. Hint: Think of the style and grace of a hog trying to play the fiddle. A dulcimer, let’s face it, is limited musically. But it has its aficionados, and I’m one of them. Hence the name. And hence this blog.

Hogfiddle will focus on the Appalachian dulcimer from its origins in 19th-century Virginia to the folk music revival of the 1960s and 70s, Anglo-Celtic folk hymns, ballads, fiddle tunes and other traditional music. At school and at home, my desks are aswirl with scraps of paper, half-completed outlines, photocopied articles, printouts of old stories downloaded from newspaper websites and other ephemera somehow related to music. I’ve also published several articles in low-circulation outlets like the Prairie Picayune, the newsletter for interpreters at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, where I’m a volunteer interpreter. And I have several “Pick-and-Noter Pages” on my faculty website that deal with dulcimer history.

Blogging seems like a way of organizing and archiving some of this clutter on the World Wide Web in a forum that doesn’t necessarily require the extensive documentation and endless fine-tuning so often associated with scholarly publication. I was inspired to try it when I saw an on-line writer’s journal kept by Joy Harjo. A Creek/Muskogee poet and musician, Harjo fronts a “song-chant-jazz-tribal fusion” band called Poetic Justice and plays both tenor and soprano saxophone in addition to writing poetry. A good role model.

Appalachian dulcimer (made by the late Dorsey Williams) in its native habitat. Blount County, Tenn., ca. 1979

Since Hogfiddle will highlight songs that few people remember and an instrument practically nobody has ever heard of, I don’t expect it to be a high-intensity, heavy-traffic website. Besides, I’m a full-time classroom teacher (mass communications, English and an interdisciplinary humanities course in Native American cultures at Springfield College in Illinois/Benedictine University. If my Curriculum Committee OKs it, I hope to add another cultural studies course in blues and roots music next fall semester).* About the only writing I do now is to scribble comments on student papers, mostly “What’s your thesis?” and “Be specific.” So I don’t have the time to take on a major writing project.

But I admired the way Joy Harjo uses her blog to work through tentative ideas and share them in a not-yet-polished version. I don't have a fan base to maintain, and I've been assured I never will! But trying out this new medium of blogging on a musical research and writing journal appeals to my inner geek and inner mass-com. instructor.

Who knows? It may serve a useful purpose. And even if it doesn’t, it’ll get some of those scraps of paper up off my desk.
* The curriculum committee approved the course, Humanities 223 aka "Ethnic Cultural Expression in American Music," and I taught it till I retired at the end of the 2009-2010 school year. Links to a lot of very cool pieces of music were posted to the blog during the interim.