Volume I, No. 2, Winter 1973




Modernizing a Mountain Art

by Sarah Seay Interviews by Jim Baldwin, Terry Brandt, Jenny Kelso, Sarah Seay

Photography by Jim Baldwin, David Massey

There's a sound that comes from these hills. It is a sweet, haunting sound, a sound that few people know about and fewer still have heard. This sound is the song of the mountain dulcimer, also known more interestingly as the Indian Walking Cane or Jacob's Coffin. Although the art of making and playing the dulcimer is becoming more widespread, it nevertheless occupies a place of obscurity.

The dulcimer is a long, narrow stringed instrument, sometimes rather resembling an elongated guitar without the neck. The actual body shape of a dulcimer is not standardized, but is subject to the creativity of its maker. Most dulcimers have three strings, but the four-stringed instruments are gaining in popularity. The dulcimer is not classified in the same family of instruments as the guitar, violin, banjo and mandolin. Because there is no neck and the frets are over the body of the instrument, it is classified as a fretted zither rather than a lute.

There has never been an abundance of dulcimers. This is probably the reason why so little common knowledge is available about

No one knows exactly where or when the first dulcimer was made, but it is truly an American folk instrument, having no European counterpart. Most information points to the middle of the 1800's as its genesis. Most people feel that the first dulcimers were made in Appalachia and brought to the Ozarks; others think that the dulcimer was made in the Ozarks and spread to the Appalachians. But all agree that it is truly the instrument of the hill people. There are many versions of its beginning, yet none of them can be definitely proved. The mystery that makes folklore what it is defeats the statistic gatherer. It makes the common man the expert and the expert becomes a simple inquirer.

Bill Graves, a local dulcimer player who is featured on our sound sheet, has one version for the origin of the dulcimer. He claims that it was his grandfather, John Mowhee, a full-blooded Cherokee, who first thought of and made an Indian walking cane--Indian because he was a Cherokee and walking cane because of its long, narrow shape. John Mowhee was a scout for the northern army in the Civil War and traveled all through the south. It was during this time in the army that he first thought up the pattern. Already an accomplished fiddle maker and player, he spent his long evenings in camp making walking canes and entertaining his buddies, singeing the old songs of home and family. This is what Bill told us about his grandfather.

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Dulcimers in various stages of completion hang along the wall of the workroom in The Dulcimer Shoppe.
Dulcimer made in 1912
"He studied up the pattern during the Civil War. He drew his own pattern, the best I can tell. I've seen his pattern; it's a little stick notched down. Each notch told him something. (This would be similar to the pattern stick used by old-timers to tell them the dimensions to use in building a new barn.) Some company wanted the pattern. He was offered several thousand dollars, but he wanted to keep it. He didn't need the money. He was on two pensions and that was a lot of money back then. He didn't make them to sell. He just made them for a hobby. He traveled around and stayed with people and if he liked them, he'd make them a dulcimer.

"He put his name in every one he made. He's got his name inside here on the bridge on one side. If you hold it in the light just right you can see his name in there."

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Illustrated on the previous page [ above ] is a dulcimer that John Mowhee built about 1912 in Conway, Missouri. Most of his dulcimers were built of cherry or apple wood, these being more plentiful. The dulcimer makers of this time would use whatever native wood was available.

The dulcimer makers of yesteryear made very few instruments in a lifetime. They usually made them for themselves to have something to play on. Some, like John Mowhee, made them for a hobby and gave them to their friends. Today this is changing; as in all other things, modernism is making its way into the music of the mountains.

Lynn McSpadden, our present day dulcimer maker, is a leading example of this. In the small town of Mountain View, Arkansas, there is a friendly, rustic store called The Dulcimer Shoppe. In the back of the shop is the workroom where Lynn McSpadden, his brother Larry, and friend Elliott Hancock make all the dulcimers that support their small business.

Although The Dulcimer Shoppe takes advantage of modern power tools, each dulcimer represents many hours in hand labor. It is no wonder that early dulcimer makers only made a few in a lifetime.

Unlike the independent craftsman who used whatever wood was available, our modern dulcimer artisans deal almost exclusively in walnut. Some of the instruments have spruce tops, but the rest of the body is walnut. When the wood arrives at the shop, it is in the form of rough-sawn, kiln-dried, two-inch boards. It is then run through the planer to surface it and the joiner to true up the edges.

The next step is cutting the boards to the size needed. The only parts not actually made in the shop are the frets, pegs, strings, and nails.

The first step in the construction of the dulcimer is the making of the fretboard and the positioning of the metal frets. In the interests of precision, which is an absolute necessity since a fret that is one-thirty-seconds of an inch off will ruin the sound of the instrument, the McSpaddens have developed an ingenious machine that assures that there will be no mistakes. This machine has saws protruding just above the table, where each fret should be positioned. As the top of the fretboard is run across the table, a groove is cut for each fret.
Lynn McSpadden demonstrates how the fret-board cutter works.
Clamps are used to hold the fretboard to the top of the dulcimer. Notice how other pieces of wood are used between the clamps and the top-this distributes the pressure evenly so that no dents will be made on the dulcimer.

Lynn McSpadden shows how the top is placed on the body of the instrument.

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After the metal frets have been hammered in their positions, the next step is glueing the fretboard to the top of the dulcimer. It is held tightly in place by clamps until it has dried. The time it takes for the glue to dry varies with the humidity from thirty minutes to ten hours.

Now the top is ready to be attached to the soundbox. So let's go back to see how the soundbox is constructed. The side boards are put into molds to give them their curved shape. The soundbox of the dulcimer is shallow enough that it is not necessary to put ribs around the sides to keep them from bowing. Some old-time makers used ribs so that they could use wood thin enough to bend without wetting it to make it pliable.

After all the parts are glued together, the dulcimer is put in clamps to dry.

Larry McSpadden removes the last clamp from a dulcimer before starting to sand it.

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The most complicated part is the making of the scrolls which takes about thirty-five different steps.

The sides, the scroll, and the end piece are glued together ready to have the top put on. Once again the clamps are put on to hold the top securely in place.

When the last clamp has been removed, it is time to begin the monumental task of sanding. Much of the sanding is done with an electric sander, but there are many places that can only be effectively sanded by hand. It takes many hours to sand all the little rough spots that have no place on a finished dulcimer. At The Dulcimer Shoppe a vinyl lacquer is used to finish and protect the wood. Earlier dulcimer makers often used wax or butcher's fat, anything that would protect the wood. We heard of one man who painted his dulcimers black and trimmed them with gold so that they would look more like "store-boughten, factory-made jobs."

Barry Geise, the pottery maker next door, helps out in the shop with some of the sanding.

Even though the McSpaddens have utilized power tools wherever possible in the process of making the dulcimer, their method is by no means an example of mass production, since they make each instrument after receiving the order for it. The growing demand for dulcimers has forced them to hire more people to help in the shop from time to time. In the last eleven years they have made and sold over two thousand dulcimers. This year they will make approximately six hundred finished dulcimers, but since there are no production quotas to meet it is difficult to say for sure.

Often the early craftsmen, like John Mowhee, carved their name in the instruments they made so that people would always know who made it. For the same reason, The Dulcimer Shoppe puts a tag in each telling when and where the instrument was made, who made it, and what number it is. A record is then kept of the original owners.

For the adventuresome that would like to try their hand at making a dulcimer, but aren't willing to risk ruining good wood, there's an answer. The Dulcimer Shoppe also makes a dulcimer kit. This kit includes everything you need to make your own walnut instrument. All the parts are pre-cut and ready to be assembled; the sides are already molded into the correct shape. Easy-to-understand instructions are included in each kit along with FOUR AND TWENTY, SONGS FOR THE MOUNTAIN DULCIMER, a book by Lynn McSpadden and Dorothy French that contains instructions for playing, chord charts, and twenty-four songs to play.

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All the dulcimers made at The Dulcimer Shoppe can be ordered by mail. If you would like more information or know some interesting facts about this or another mountain art, please write to us here at BITTERSWEET.

Lynn McSpadden concentrates on sanding the scroll of an instrument.

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Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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