String theories

Museums are Meccas for the forgotten. Sure, their historical relevance can be monumental, but connections for the masses are tenuous at best. Sadly, artifacts lack footholds in this short-attention-span-addled society.

The same could be argued about Western Carolina University’s current exhibit, The Crafting of Mountain Music. The gallery owns displays of mountain instruments (donated mainly by collectors) that paved the way for bluegrass music, country music, and a regional personality that’s unique to the Appalachians.

Remnants like a mission-shaped banjo brought over by 18th-century West African slaves or a Lilliputian-sized guitar made in a Civil war prison give gravity to the idea that mountain music may be a culture of the past.

Somehow, though, the exhibit just doesn’t feel dated.

Walking through the show, you suspect that its story isn’t over. Even the old photos augmenting the displays don’t seem to represent interlopers from the past, but ever-edited blueprints for the evolution of mountain music.

Learning curve

There’s a mystery here that could compel a greenhorn to bushwhack into the backwoods and pilfer the secrets of these stringed wonders.

“Folk music continues to be an integral part of the American identity,” writes visiting history lecturer Rob Ferguson, whose essay adorns the entrance to the gallery. “In many ways, it is not our newspapers, our books, or even our politicians that give Americans a common voice. It is our music.”

It’s hard not to feel a link when viewing a banjo (its head embellished with paintings of butterflies, bees, and flowers) played by “Aunt” Samantha Bumgarner, a Jackson County native who was the first woman to have her five-string banjo recorded on wax.

“The folks at WCU Mountain Heritage Center are dedicated to making history ‘live,'” said dulcimer queen Lois Hornbostel in a recent interview.

“For instance, I went to an exhibit they had of old aprons. Rather than thinking of those aprons as ‘fossils,’ I was charmed by the styles and the design of this bit of the past — and ended up making a few copies of them for gifts to friends.”

Hornbostel understands the necessity of preserving mountain music. A literal and philosophical champion of the dulcimer, she has turned this relatively cultish instrument (save for recent times) into an Appalachian household name. A festival award-winner at both Galax and Fiddler’s Grove, Hornbostel has written six books on the mountain dulcimer for Mel Bay publications, and has released six dulcimer-centric records, from traditional arrangements to Cajun interpretations.

Primarily an educator, Lois has taught more than 15,000 elementary schoolchildren to play and build the instrument.

Meanwhile, revivalists like Ralph Lee Smith (who donated a slew of instruments to the gallery) have painstakingly researched the origins of the dulcimer, and revealed a little instrument that could.

The mountain dulcimer evolved from the scheitholt, an instrument of German origin brought over to Pennsylvania in the early 18th century. The scheitholt’s rectangular body seems ill-fitted for long sits on the thigh. Regimentally rectangular, it looks more suited to be a sturdy table leg.

And then there’s the “swinette,” a replica of the first German scheitholt, and a creation of Junior Davis, the last traditional scheitholt maker in America when he died in 1998.

“This old sow would rub her hind end on this splinter and would make a noise,” Davis writes by way of explanation, in an essay that hangs alongside his contraption. “Hearing that noise, father said to me, ‘Don’t you hear my swinette?'”

The dulcimer, finally, is the scheitholt’s more free-spirited cousin. Its various boat-like and hourglass shapes defy the conservative posture of the scheitholt. However, prior to the folk revival, the mountain dulcimer lacked mass-market appeal.

“The instrument arrived into the light of the 20th Century virtually without a written record,” writes Ralph Lee Smith in The Appalachia Dulcimer’s History: On the Trail of the Mountains’ Secrets. “Unlike other stringed instruments that were and are popular in the mountains, you couldn’t buy a dulcimer from the Sears Roebuck catalog, or in stores. There was no printed music and there were no instruction manuals.”

The instrument could have perished in a wayward cabin, but its unlikely ascension provides a healthy circulation for the body of mountain culture.

Purity isn’t everything

Still, some folks argue that preservation efforts don’t matter much — because the purity of the music itself is forsaken. Traditional theories lament the loss of the isolated mountain player whose music was never tainted by the outside world.

Looking at some of the old photos and handbills in the gallery, it’s not hard to concede that gloss has vanquished quality. But Hornbostel and assistant curator Suzanne McDowell disagree.

“It was never as isolated as most people think,” says McDowell. “A book on the Carter family talked about how musicians have always traded tunes in ways of doing things. Versions that we may consider pure may not be at all.”

“Ralph Lee Smith’s books are the opposite of non-researched romantic stereotypes like thinking everyone in the old days used to play/build the same,” adds Hornbostel. “That you had to live in a ‘holler’ to do it right, and the only valid music to play on the instrument is from a certain few decades back in the 1800s.

“By continuing a tradition, you don’t forget about the good things that went before,” she concludes. “You preserve them.

“And you continue to let the tradition evolve — to keep it alive.”

Viewers of the WCU exhibit are certainly doing their part in that capacity. Due to demand, curators recently extended the show’s length from its initial end date of Jan. 5.

It will now run through June.

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