The Old-Time Herald Volume 10, Number 10

Feature
The Career of Mountain Dulcimer Virtuoso Ralph Lee Smith
By Liz Milner

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, New York’s Greenwich Village was a melting pot, or better yet, a pressure cooker, for musical styles that would transform American popular music. In the Village, the Depression-era music of Woody Guthrie and the socially conscious songs of the Weavers met the Celtic music craze (courtesy of the Clancy Brothers), the country blues revival, and a host of other musical idioms that had long been ignored by the American pop music industry. The result was the “Great Folk Scare” of the 1960s, when—for one brief, glorious moment—bland, predictable pop music was driven to its knees.

Ralph with traditional dulcimer player Nettie Presnell and her husband Edd, a traditional North Carolina dulcimer maker, Banner Elk, North Carolina, 1978. The baby is Ralph’s daughter Lisa Koyuki. Photo by Lisa Koyuki Smith
Ralph Lee Smith's "Pretty Little Turtle Dove"
Courtesy of Falling Mountain Music
Download this MP3 (4mb zip)

A facet of the Greenwich Village scene was the revival of the mountain music of Appalachia. Many of today’s foremost practitioners of old-time music learned their chops not in a log cabin somewhere in the Smoky Mountains, but in Washington Square Park and other Village haunts such as Allan Block’s Sandal Shop and Izzy Young’s Folklore Center.

Mountain dulcimer virtuoso Ralph Lee Smith is one of those who learned to love traditional music in Greenwich Village. This 78-year-old Reston, Virginia resident has written a book about his generation's discovery of mountain music in an unlikely setting: New York City.

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Smith first heard the dulcimer played by legendary folk musician Jean Ritchie in the early 1960s. Shortly after hearing Ritchie play, he saw a dulcimer for sale at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, the shop that was the focal point for the folk revival. Smith did not hesitate in handing over the $30 the shop wanted for the dulcimer, for he was fascinated by the “physically beautiful and exotic instrument.” The delicate, mysterious, and otherworldly music associated with the dulcimer haunted him. “[It] spoke of a world that interested me greatly and that I knew very little about.”

At that time, there were no instructional books and no teachers, so he had to figure out how to play. Luckily, the instrument was tuned when he bought it, and he’d seen Ritchie perform so he had a rough idea of how to hold and strum it.

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By the end of the 60s, Smith had become an excellent dulcimer player and had become curious about the maker of his instrument. He knew that Roger Abrahams, a trail-blazing folklorist and teacher, had brought the dulcimer back from a field trip to North Carolina, so he asked him about it. Abrahams said he couldn’t remember who made it, only that he was a farmer in Beech Mountain, North Carolina. Smith wrote to Edd Presnell, a dulcimer maker who lived near Beech Mountain in Banner Elk, North Carolina. From Presnell, Smith learned that Frank Glenn had made the dulcimer. Glenn had died, but his wife had remarried to a man named Shepherd and lived in Sugar Grove, North Carolina.  Smith wrote the Shepherds, who invited him to visit them. This inspired Smith’s first field collecting trip. From the moment he arrived, he was treated to typical mountain hospitality, for Edna Glenn Shepherd brought out several of Glenn’s dulcimers and offered to give him one. Smith declined and advised her to hang onto them, as they’d be very valuable some day—an accurate prediction as today a Frank Glenn dulcimer could sell for thousands of dollars. Smith’s journey to Beech Mountain was the first of about a dozen field-collecting trips that included forays into the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky learning tunes and buying dulcimers . . .

 

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