I've been playing hammered dulcimer for almost fifty years and many people identify me as 'the one who plays the ...' and
they wave their hands in front of them, imitating the hammers. Others remember my ballads and classify me as a singer. Others
have heard my jew's harp or Thai mouth organ playing and remember me that way. And most recall that I always play a banjo
with no frets. But I'm still surprised that my biggest response is as 'the guy who wrote Waiting for Nancy,' or maybe Nixon's
Farewell. Of course, sometimes it's in the context of '...isn't he dead?' Not yet, Bucko.
Making up tunes comes naturally for me. I did it as a kid and invented my own notation system to remember them. In college,
as a music major, I dabbled in composition until I realized that Classical Music isn't about 'good tunes,' but about developing
them. And that wasn't as much fun. I've played fretless banjo (or 'banjer' as I prefer to call it) for over forty years and
often, just sitting, playing, almost meditating, different notes or figures come out, creating tunes unbidden. The difficulty
is not in coming up with another tune but in judging whether it's worth 'keeping' or whether to throw it back. I really do
feel like a Songcatcher. And that is definitely different from the feeling I had working, shaping, manipulating themes in
I've always been involved in Everything and people have a hard time categorizing me. I come from very traditional, country
roots but have spent most of my time in towns and cities. I tend toward the analytical and intellectual but am very passionate
about people and knowledge and life in general. I am intensely interested in folkways, language, cooking, woodworking, simple
technology, art and music but I have a PhD. (Of course, I didn't get it until I was 55: on my birthday.) Maybe it's because
I'm a Gemini. Or Dutch. Or right handed.
My sister, Lee, and I have been singing together in church since she was two and I was three: she sang melody and I harmony.
I never considered singing anything unusual, we all did it. When folk music became popular in the early sixties I began singing
songs, many of which I had known for years. For a short while I even played a guitar! But since everyone else did that (and
I wasn't too fond of the sound anyway) I began playing banjer, Appalachian dulcimer, and autoharp. I also began working on
my hammered dulcimer chops, though I had played it off and on since I was about 16. Mostly, I considered the instruments accompaniment
for songs and I also preferred the old unaccompanied ballads. After I performed for my American Folklore class the first time,
my professor suggested I 'play more on the instruments' (and do less singing). I tried not to take it personally but I do
notice that most people 'understand' instrumental music more easily than vocal.
One of the things I have been interested in lately is going back to some of the old tunes and songs that have fallen out
of favor and resurrecting them. Sometimes it's the words that are to blame and the traditional thing to do is just redo the
words. Sometimes they are so familiar we take them for granted and we just haven't heard them performed as Old Timey tunes
for a while. If Grandpa Jones were still around we wouldn't be surprised to hear 'She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain' on
banjo and fiddle instead of as a camp song. And anyone who loved Uncle Dave Macon should be dusting off and resetting some
of the political songs that he had rescued from the previous century. Just because we don't have mule wagons anymore doesn't
mean we're not intimidated by modern technology. I can imagine a new version of his 'Chawin Chewin Gum' about cell phone users!
Since many people play my banjer tunes and have asked about using them, I will post my usual response here. I am a great
believer in encouraging the creative process which our society has done so much to squelch. I am also against the elitist,
excusivist attitude tied to copyrights and infringement litigation. On the other hand, fair is fair, and as I would not steal
from another, I would not want to be stolen from. Freedom and responsibility are not opposites. Most of my tunes have been
"composed" in the Folk Tradition and in that tradition the beginning of the tune is only part of the process. The
evolution and modification of the initial tune is an integral, organic part of the tradition and one in which I truly believe.
I think of "my" tunes as my children. I may have created them but I send them out into the world to make their
own way. If you find them enjoyable and wish to entertain them for a while, feel free to do so but treat them kindly. If they
become their own persons or turn their backs on their origins, that is a risk I must take. If, on the other hand, they point
with some pride to the one who set them on the way, that will make me happy. And, if they want to send something back home
to help with the retirement of their aging father, it will be gratefully received. I would appreciate hearing how they are
doing and what they have accomplished from time to time and if they make a recording I would love to hear it.
Sam Hinton used to do the most amazing version of "The Arkansas Traveller" I ever heard. I always enjoyed the endless
banter between the snooty city traveller and the despised homespun fiddler. It was very much in the vein of rural humor the
world around: the urban sophisticate (whether tax collector or tourist) getting his come-uppance from the seemingly dense
peasant. And, at the end, in a distinctly American, egalitarian twist, they joined hands in musical brotherhood.
This is not the place for an extended scholarly study on the dichotomy between urban and rural America but there are a
few things anyone interested in traditional folklore should remember. Little over a century ago 10% of our population lived
in cities; today it's roughly 90%. Few of us can remember life without any electricity. Since history is an account of events
written by city folks we need to be aware that the view of country life we read about in books bears little resemblance to
what most of our ancestors actually lived. There is a long tradition of writing about country people which alternately romanticizes
and brutalizes them. "Deliverance" won't be the last. Those of us who come from the country have a responsibility
to ensure that our people are no more subject to negative stereotypes than any other group if we really believe all men are
The Currier and Ives print has a copyright date of 1870 and gives a great example of the city-country divide. (Click on
it to get the full size effect.) The traveller, dressed in the latest fashion, complete with gauntlets, sits astride his charger
looking like a figure of George Washington, or Robert E Lee (astride his "Traveller"). (It's clear the artist never
saw a real saddle: what kind of pommel is that?)
The backwoods scene pulls out all the stereotype stops for the Full Hick effect. The log cabin with its rough slat roof
and Whisky sign over the door sits in a deserted landscape which includes gourd bird houses in a dead tree. A tanning skin
is tacked on the wall and dipper gourd and powder horn hang over an antique weapon by the doorway, which, naturally, has no
door. Six kids hang around, several play on the dirt floor, the pre-pubescent daughter combs her hair, preparing to greet
the stranger. The woman, smoking a pipe, peers out with an iron skillet in her hand. The fiddler himself sits on an empty
barrel surrounded by his familial dogs. He has a full beard and wears a coonskin cap, Indian moccasins, and tattered pants.
But he holds a fiddle (in the traditional position) and he plays it. And therein lies the tale.
By the time his great-grandchildren grow up, they will live in a city, clamor for brand-name clothes, grow obese on fast
food or obsess and starve themselves, and learn never to talk to strangers. They won't play an instrument or know a song other
than those they learn from CD's of musicians who earn a thousand times more than they do but who they admire inordinately.
But they will consider their lives to be infinitely superior to that of any of their ancestors or the other six billion souls
on the planet.