Dulcimer Maker: A Review

Western Folklore 45 (July 1986), pp. 223-224.

Dulcimer Maker: The Craft of Homer Ledford. By R. Gerald Alvey. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1984. Pp. 186. Introduction, notes, index, illustrations.)

Before World War II, the Appalachian plucked dulcimer (mountain dulcimer or “dulcimore”) was a little-known folk instrument met occasionally in the southern Appalachians. Today, versions of the instrument are found in mass-market catalogues and music stores across the country, often in factory-made or kit form. That they are available at all is largely due to the efforts of Homer C. Ledford of Winchester, Kentucky. This indefatigable maker has produced, at last count, nearly five thousand dulcimers, along with banjos, guitars, and other instruments, without losing the sense of beauty, quality and tradition that characterizes the folk craftsman. The present study offers a history, description and assessment of Ledford’s work and attempts to place it in the context of folk art as described in recent work by Henry Glassie, Michael Owen Jones, John Burrison, William Ferris and others. With Ledford’s close cooperation, Alvey succeeds admirably in this task.

The book opens with a biography of Ledford: his mountain origins, his childhood musical environment (which did not include dulcimers), his interest in woodworking and musical instruments, his education at the John C. Campbell Folk School and Berea College, and his career as a public school shop teacher, cut short by his retirement in 1963 to devote full time to his craft. Alvey calls attention to two events at the Campbell School which helped steer Ledford towards his calling: his encounter with dulcimer player Edna Ritchie, with her rich family repertory, and his repair of a dulcimer by J. E. Thomas (1850-1933), the most prolific and best-known purveyor of dulcimers in the early 20th century. Encouraged by Olive Dame Campbell, Ledford made his first few dulcimers in his nineteenth year. Since then, according to Alvey, he has redefined the art of dulcimer making, gradually improving and refining the Thomas model. Although Ledford is also a performer on the dulcimer and other instruments, Alvey includes only enough background on his performing to establish his views toward tradition. The statement that Ledford plays only in a “very traditional style” (p. 29) is ambiguous in the absence of any discussion of traditional performance practice on the instrument. Indeed, Ledford avoids use of the noting stick favored by many “traditional” performers and documented (for the dulcimer’s European antecedents) as early as the seventeenth century. Perhaps Alvey or another author will publish another study of Ledford the musician.

Part Two contains the heart of Alvey’s research into the process of dulcimer making: the workshop, the materials and tools, and the ordering and execution of the work. Here Alvey seems to have internalized so much of Ledford’s point of view that it is sometimes difficult to discern who is speaking. This is not a serious fault, however, since the author’s affection for Ledford and his work shows on nearly every page. In addition, Alvey allows Ledford to speak for himself in lengthy quotations in which he discusses his invention of special tools, his love of fine aged wood, and his preferences and opinions in details of construction.

There are problems, however. Alvey shows confusion over the reasons for departure from the mathematical formula for apportioning the frets on the fingerboard. Such departures are necessary because of the stretching involved in pressing the string against the fret. The chronology of some of Ledford’s practices may not be as simple as Alvey implies. For example, some dulcimers made well after 1960 may lack the undercut fingerboard and paper label introduced in some instruments about that time. Though the photographs are mostly clear and well-chosen, a photograph of a dulcimer by J. E. Thomas would have been useful in showing Ledford’s departures from this model. A few minor errors have escaped the notice of the editors: correct readings include (p. 1) Scheitholt for sheitholt, épinette for epinette, (p. 32) Blue Grass Boys for Bluegrass Boys, and (p. 105) dulcimer for duclimer.

In the final section of the book, Alvey makes his case that change and adaptation are part of the folk process, and cites Ledford’s composite instruments (dulcitar and dulcibro) as examples of the extent of his “creativity within traditional frameworks.” Still, the reader may occasionally feel as though Alvey is trying too hard to establish the folkloric purity or “authenticity” of Ledford’s work. The problem is that so few dulcimer makers share both Ledford’s sense of tradition and his personal artistic integrity. While it is useful to see his work as part of the “folk process,” one can also see him as a fine craftsman whose work (be it journalism, furniture design or computer programming) is endowed with the elegance, efficiency and durability that would make it prized in any culture, folk or otherwise. The book is a welcome and significant contribution to the growing field of studies in material folk culture. This reviewer wholeheartedly agrees with Alvey’s statement (p. 138) that

the satisfaction that comes from owning and using a handcrafted object is enhanced when something of the personal history of the maker is known; indeed, the object becomes even more significant for its owners or users when its folk history is appreciated.

As the owner of Ledford dulcimer no. 862, I can say that Alvey’s well-written and enjoyable book has served me especially well.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

Copyright © 1986 by The California Folklore Society.

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