My Dad made dulcimers. He ended up making a lot of dulcimers. The best estimate my siblings and I can come up with is somewhere between 800 and 1000. They kept getting nicer and nicer, too, though he only raised his price for one maybe once in 30-odd years.
The family lore is that I was responsible for his pursuit of what started as a hobby, but became a lifestyle for him. I had bought a dulcimer kit on a trip out west, and when I put the kit together, I wouldn’t let him help or participate, in spite of his experience in woodworking. There were a couple reasons for this; first, it was an incredibly easy build. Second was my uneasy relationship with his Shop, which was not always the same shop, but he always had one, and it was his sanctuary, one he deserved, for respite from 4 kids and a demanding job. My older brother Bo was more welcome there than I was, and when I would try to join the two of them, they would do an elaborate dance, subconsciously, I’m sure, that made me feel like wherever I stood was in the way. So I’d leave.
I’ve often said that my dad taught me everything I know about how to be a man. I’ve had to figure the rest of this shit out for myself.
There may have been paybacks in my mind when I saw him chomping at the bit to get involved in my project. My Mom says he would sneak out to the shop after I was done working on it to assess my progress. He was surprised and pleased when I finally finished it, but what rocked his world to the core was when I strung it up and started playing it, the dulcimer being second in difficulty of playing to the kazoo, but he didn’t realize it at the time. It became his mission, I think, to get these instruments into the hands of all who thought they couldn’t play an instrument.
Growing up, our house had always had 10 or 12 instruments laying around, auction finds that he couldn’t resist. Aside from the pump organs, which were playable, but for young kids were like trying to play a keyboard while working on the StairMaster, they were all variations on the zither. Like the Guitar-Harp Zither, that resembled neither, and upon which I am willing to bet no one ever played a tune and had someone observe “Wow, that was rockin’!” All these old zithers, and autoharps with missing pads on the chord bars, needed to be tuned with a piano wrench, which even if we kids had one, we had no reference for an actual note anywhere.
These monsters are a relic of the time just before the invention of the radio and the phonograph, when people were desperate to bring some music into the house, but not smart enough to buy something they might actually be able to play.
When my brothers and I started playing guitar, and getting better, I think my Dad started to overcompensate for the years of bringing crappy, unplayable instruments into the house to torment us with their potential, only to plunk and twang unmelodiously in return for our efforts.
So about the time he started making dulcimers in earnest, he started buying and trading in all kinds of playable instruments, to the point where when you entered his house, it was difficult to find a place to sit or to lean an umbrella, because they were everywhere.
He kept making dulcimers up to his last days, but the collecting and trading tapered off out of necessity and waning interest, I guess. He had one instrument of note when he died, and Bo sent it to George Gruehn in Nashville to sell on my Mom”s behalf. He loved the craftsmanship of this one, and I’ve only realized as I’m writing this, I had forgotten about it until now, I swear to you. But I think the Old Man continues to inspire me.
It was a circa 1920 A model Gibson mandolin.