My mother works at an auction house in rural Pennsylvania. Every once in a while she sends me an email with a link containing photos of some of the items that are going to be up for auction in the near future.
“Is there anything you’d be interested in putting a bid on?”
Of course, this is like shoving a bottle of wine under the nose of a raging alcoholic and shouting, “Is this something you’d be interested in getting your greedy little hands on?!”
(There is a 35 minute video on YouTube about the auction house’s history called Two Brothers and a Good Box to Stand On. Check it out. One of the owners drops a bit of Pennsylvania Dutch a couple of times as he’s being interviewed. Fun stuff.)
My biggest weakness is battered old musical instruments. Thanks to my mother putting absentee bids on things for me over the years I am now the proud owner of a 1920s Slingerland May Bell banjo ukulele, a 1930s Concertone tenor banjo, a cheap Peerless (“Made in Korea”) 5-string banjo, a ChromAharp autoharp, a cheap balalaika which somebody bought as a souvenir at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow (it actually stays in tune!), and my latest acquisition: an Appalachian mountain dulcimer/banjo hybrid.
Banjo-Dulcimer by Doug Thomson
The banjo dulcimer belonged to a little old lady who played it on Sunday mornings at church. She kept it in pristine condition. I’m not sure why she decided to sell it, but I sure am glad that she did. I couldn’t afford to buy a new one. Well, I could, but my wife would really take a lot of convincing. On most of these instruments I had put an absentee bid of around $100 and the only reason I ended up winning is because there was nobody else at the auction on those days who was interested in battered old musical instruments. (Besides the auction house instruments, I have a bunch of other stringed instruments lying around the house as well as a drum kit in a room above my brother-in-law’s garage. I invested in some wall mounts for guitars a couple of years ago so there is now room for Lola and I to actually sit on our chairs, our sofa and our bed. Things were getting a bit chaotic, to say the least.)
I haven’t become very proficient on most of these instruments. I usually just learn the basics: the major chords, the minor chords, the seventh chords, a handful of songs and that’s about it. This was a lot of fun when I started playing music with a local woman, Sol, a couple of years ago. She has a little indie-folk project and she’d come over a couple of times a week. As she played her songs I would pick up various instruments and add little accents and fills here and there. Nothing fancy. But playing all these instruments does have a down side.
One day we were playing and Sol blurted out, “By the way, I booked us a gig!”
“Yeah, I was thinking you could play banjo on Naked for Love and Tempted, ukulele on Transparent Lion, autoharp on Nothing Like This, acoustic guitar on Barely True, electric guitar on New Lover and the psychedelic freak out at the end of Falling, and you can play cajón for the rest of the gig.”
So now I had to drag half a dozen instruments all around town. “Don’t worry. It’ll be fine!” And actually it was fine. We completely filled the hip local bookstore /coffeehouse. After the gig the owner told me he counted over 80 people. He sold tons of drinks and I got free beer all night so all was well with the universe.
Jean Ritchie kickin’ out the jams
The dulcimer has really gotten under my skin. I can’t put the thing down. Mine was made by Doug Thomson who has been building dulcimers for nearly 25 years out in California. The serial number “#96-2001” on the back of the headstock means it’s the 96th banjo-dulcimer built in Doug’s workshop and it’s from the year 2001. Doug claims to have invented the instrument. Unfortunately, he calls the instrument a “banjo-mer” which is kind of a strange name. There is another luthier out there by the name of Homer Ledford who also claims to have invented the instrument. He calls it the “dulcijo” which is even worse. And there are other makers of banjo-dulcimers out there who call them “ban-jammers” and (maybe the worst name of all) “banj-mos”. I can’t bring myself to call the instrument any of these names. I’ll stick to “banjo dulcimer”.
Anyway, Doug is an extremely nice guy. I contacted him through his website to let him know that one of his instruments made it all the way to Spain. He’s been sending me tabs and sheet music and helpful tips by email ever since. The instrument is made of maple (tail block and banjo head mounting blocks), African Mahogany (sides and fretboard) and Philippine Mahogany (top and back). After messing around with the instrument for about six months in DAD tuning, which seems to be the most standard tuning these days, I wanted to explore other keys and for that a capo comes in handy (or a wooden pencil and a sturdy rubber band) so I bought a beautiful handmade oak capo from Doug.
Most dulcimers have 3 or 4 strings. Doug’s “banjo-mers” have 3 strings. When you are tuned in DAD (aka: Mixolydian) on a 4 string dulcimer the first two strings (the melody strings, which are extremely close together) are tuned exactly the same (to D). The third string (basically the middle string) is tuned to A, and the fourth (or bass) string is also tuned to D an octave lower than the melody strings. This gives the instrument its distinctive drone or bagpipe sound. Are your eyes glazing over with boredom yet? Shall I go into the differences between chromatically fretted and diatonically fretted instruments? I think not. However, I will leave you with this little tidbit on the instrument’s history by David Schnaufer who was an accomplished dulcimer player himself:
The Appalachian dulcimer was forged in the melting pot of the wagon roads and river routes of the frontier. The Scots and Irish settlers could hear the drone of the pipes in this sturdy and easily constructed zither and the English found it to be an appropriate accompaniment to their ballads and laments. They reduced the number of strings to just three or four, as wire was a precious commodity in the wilderness, and added a raised fingerboard to allow the playing of quick jigs and reels with a plectrum.
When I was in the US recently I visited the Mercer Museum, something I hadn’t done in at least a decade. The museum, along with Fonthill – Henry Chapman Mercer’s former home – and Moravian Pottery and Tile Works are all located in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, not far from where I grew up. All three buildings are cast-in-place concrete structures – early examples of rebar-reinforced concrete being used as a structural material – designed and built by Mercer. He chose to build in concrete after his aunt’s collection of medieval armor was destroyed in the Great Boston Fire of 1872. The collection had been stored in wooden cases. Oops. Mercer was laughed at by locals for his unusual choice of building materials. He had the last laugh, however, when, having completed his museum, he lit a bonfire on the roof and the place didn’t burn down.
Mercer was an archeologist, an anthropologist, a tile-maker, and a member of the American Arts and Crafts movement. He studied liberal arts at Harvard and law at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a founding member of the Bucks County Historical Society and devoted much of his time to searching for American artifacts. His belief that industrialism was destroying American society drove him to collect objects which he saw rapidly disappearing from everyday life.
I visited the museum on a weekday morning and, other than an elderly couple I briefly crossed paths with, I had the entire place to myself. The museum has six floors overflowing with some 40,000 objects (which include, I shit you not, a Vampire Killing Kit) related to American life pre-Industrial Revolution. Henry Ford once said the Mercer Museum was the only museum worth visiting in the US. (Then again, I’m not sure if that counts for much seeing as Henry Ford was an ignorant slob who published a book called The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem.)
Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930)
The central hall/atrium has a high open ceiling with a whale boat, an antique fire engine, a stage coach, a Conestoga wagon and dozens of other very large objects hanging from it (as you gaze up and wonder how well-secured everything is). I was up around the sixth floor or so, it gets a bit confusing in that place, and as I came out of a claustrophobic little concrete winding staircase I had to duck under a wooden platform. As I passed under it, all hunched over, I saw an open trapdoor over my head which I quickly glanced up through. Only after I had cleared the entire platform and was able to stand up straight again did I realize that I had just walked under a complete gallows. It was extremely quiet in there. I hadn’t seen or heard a peep out of the elderly couple in ages. So I had a quick (very quick) look at the thing and then got the hell out of there before some tortured soul that had been sentenced to hang from that gallows by the 19th century Bucks County authorities passed into my body and, well, you’ve seen enough horror movies to know what happens next: pea soup all over the bedroom walls.
Anyway, I was working my way back down to the first floor again when I hit the motherload: a room full of early American musical instruments which included a bunch of zithers, Pennsylvania German scheitholts, and a couple of Appalachian mountain dulcimers! (That’s right, folks, we’re still talking about dulcimers here. That entire bit about Henry Mercer was just a long, roundabout way of continuing the conversation about mountain dulcimers, or “dulcimores” as they are described in the Mercer exhibit. Deal with it.) Mercer actually wrote a paper in 1923 called The Zithers of the Pennsylvania Germans which I just downloaded from www.zither.us. All Hail the Internet!
On a semi-related note, a musical memory just popped into my head: I was explaining the balalaika to a Scottish friend in Madrid one day. “It has 3 strings which are tuned EEA – the two lower strings being tuned to the same pitch…” “Aye,” he interrupted. “So really it’s only a two stringed fookin’ instrument!” Fair enough. Can’t argue with that.
When I started using YouTube to learn traditional folk songs on the dulcimer I kept running across the term “Child Ballad”. This was always followed by a number. At first I thought these were old children’s songs or lullabies, but then I realized this couldn’t be the case as some of the lyrics – dealing with murder, insanity, obsession, revenge, cruelty, and terrifying half-human creatures – were not exactly child-friendly, bedtime story material. (However, we are talking about the 18th and 19th centuries here so I wouldn’t be that surprised.) It turns out that Child was the surname of one Francis James Child who collected over 300 traditional English and Scottish ballads and their American variations during the late 19th century. Child published the lyrics and his scholarly commentary pertaining to them in a ten volume 2,500 page work entitled The English and Scottish Popular Ballads between 1882-1898.
zithers & dulcimer (right), Mercer Museum
One of the first songs they want to teach you in all the dulcimer books for beginners is Go Tell Aunt Rhodie which is a depressing song about a dead goose. (Lola is pretty damn sick of me singing about that dead goose. But she’s fighting a losing battle. I overheard her humming the melody in the shower a couple of mornings.) There are dozens of variations and verses, but the version Jean Ritchie published in The Dulcimer Book, the version she learned as a child growing up in Viper, Kentucky, goes as follows:
Go tell Aunt Rhodie (3x)
The old grey goose is dead
The one that she’s been a-saving (3x)
To make her a featherbed
She died last Friday (3x)
Behind the old barn shed
She left nine little goslins (3x)
To scratch for their own bread
Jean Ritchie teaches the song in “the major key” (Ionian) and the recording I have of her playing it, and singing it in her high-pitched voice, has this lonesome, haunting quality. The version taught in Mel Bay’s Dulcimer: First Lessons book is in DAD tuning (Mixolydian) and has a more straightforward folk song feel to it. Go Tell Aunt Rhodie is known as a traditional American folk song, but it apparently started out as a gavotte (French folk dance) composed by none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau for his opera Le devin du village (“The Village Soothsayer”) in 1752. (Mozart, at the age of 12, wrote a parody of Le devin du village in the form of a one-act comic opera. Damn child prodigies!) The song’s melody gained popularity in London in the 1760s when an English version of the opera was produced. Then, in 1812 London pianist Johann Baptist Cramer brought the melody back to life in a set of variations entitled Rousseau’s Dream. Jump ahead roughly 160 years and the tune starts to show up in U.S. hymnbooks under the guise of Greenville or Rousseau. For what it’s worth, the best version I’ve heard is by Woody Guthrie from Buffalo Skinners: The Asch Recordings Vol. 4.
Appalachian dulcimer in a 1917 issue of Vogue
Now that I have half a dozen rather simple tunes under my belt (with great titles like Hangman’s Reel, Spotted Pony, Rosin the Beau, Bonnie Doon, Black Mountain Rag and Cluck Old Hen) I decided to try something a bit more complex. I saw a video on YouTube one day by a dulcimer player named Bing Futch. He was playing a song called Squire Wood’s Lamentation on the Refusal of his Half-Pence written by a blind Irish harpist named Turlough O’Carolan. This was the moment when I realized that it’s possible to do just about anything with this instrument. You can play really simple folk songs or you can push the instrument to the limits and play extremely complex classical compositions.
Turlough O’Carolan was born in County Meath in a town with the unfortunate name of Nobber in 1670. He was blinded by smallpox at 18 years of age and apprenticed to a harpist. At age 21 he set out on horseback with his instrument and a guide to travel the country making his way as a composer and performer. Today there are over 200 songs attributed to Carolan despite the fact that most of his songs were not published or even written down during his lifetime. Thanks to the Irish fiddlers, harpists, pipers and their collective memory these tunes were kept alive until they were published in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Carolan either invented or popularized, nobody knows for certain, the word “planxties” which are songs written in tribute to a host or patron. “Planxty” is thought by some to be derived from the Irish toast “sláinte” which means “good health.” (Say the two words together really fast while doing your best “Irish accent” and you can see the similarity. Of course, it helps if you know how to pronounce “sláinte”… I’ll never forget the day an Irish woman told me how to pronounce “Taoiseach” which is Irish for prime minister… I nearly fell over. It sounds a bit like “tee-shuck”.) Another theory concerning the origin of the word “planxty” has to do with the penal laws which banned songs sung in Irish during Carolan’s life. So composers would use “Planxty” in place of their first name as a disguise while still receiving credit for their compositions.
The song Squire Wood’s Lamentation was written as a celebration of the failure of the English ironmonger William Wood’s coinage in Ireland. Here’s the story: In 1724 Jonathan “Gulliver’s Travels” Swift, in a series of pamphlets known as Drapier’s Letters, helped build up public opposition to Wood’s coins which were privately minted in Britain. Eventually the public opposition became a nationwide boycott. Swift wrote in his pamphlets that a) the copper was of inferior quality, that b) Ireland should be not only constitutionally independent of Britain, but financially independent as well, and that c) William Wood had obtained the patent to produce the coins by bribery. Seven pamphlets in all were printed, under a pseudonym obviously, and the Irish public became so hostile to Wood’s half-pence that in 1725 the patent for their production was withdrawn.
I watched Bing Futch’s Squire Wood’s Lamentation video, oh, about 200 times pausing it every 5 to 10 seconds in order to figure out what he was doing with his fingers. I did this about 15 minutes every evening for two weeks until I got the tune under control. Now it’s my party trick. When people come over and see the dulcimer in the corner they give me the what the hell is that? look. I pick it up and give them my check this out look. Then I play Squire Wood’s Lamentation. It’s a helluva lot more impressive than that sad ass Go Tell Aunt Rhodie tune. Hell, she was going to kill that damn goose anyway…
The old time music has really been getting under my skin, too. I’ve had Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music on repeat for months. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released the Anthology in 1952 and it was influential in bringing about the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. The music, which dates from 1927 to 1932, all came from experimental filmmaker Harry Smith’s massive personal collection of old blues, country and gospel 78s.
celestial monochord by Robert Fludd
The image above of the “celestial monochord” – which looks a lot like a dulcimer with only one string – by the physician, mathematician and astrologer Robert Fludd was published in 1617. It was also chosen by Harry Smith to be used on the cover of The Anthology of American Folk Music. (Harry Smith and Robert Fludd were both such eccentric characters that they each deserve their own zine.)
Another memory on a not-so-related note just popped into my head: We were in a B&B in Sonoma, California and I was the first person downstairs one morning (drawn by the smell of eggs and bacon and coffee). There was a lap size Celtic harp coated in a thick layer of dust resting in a corner of the living room. I plucked a few strings but it was desperately out of tune, so I poured myself a mug of coffee and stepped out onto the front porch. I pulled the door shut behind me and heard a click. Uh-oh. I tried the door and sure enough, I had locked myself out. I strolled around the garden, ate a few figs right off the tree and then walked down a gravel path that dead-ended at a thick, forbidding pine forest. As I was walking along the gravel path, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something rustling in the grass. I froze. The rustling quickly fell silent. I stood perfectly still and I waited. And I waited. After about a minute the rustling started up again and a little brown mole appeared. I watched for a while as it awkwardly stumbled around the high grass in search of earthworms and nuts. That mole was lucky it was being stalked by me – I’m harmless – and not one of the many hawks that was circling overhead.
Carolan memorial, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin
When I got back to the house the front door was open and everybody was taking a seat around the big table in the dining room. There was a very lively couple on their honeymoon. They were extremely talkative and bubbly and wanted to know everything about everybody. They were from Kansas or Kentucky or Kalamazoo or some place that started with a “K”. This is the worst thing about these places – having to eat breakfast and make awkward conversation with a bunch of complete strangers. It was such a distasteful experience it made me wish I was out there in the garden with that mole down on my hands and knees digging around for grubs. Anyway, that all came flooding back to me because of the harp collecting dust in the corner.