Published: July 24, 2012
Folk art with a musical twist is on view in “Appalachian Strings: The Instruments, Their Makers, The Music” at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio. Dulcimers, banjos, fiddles, guitars and mandolins from public and private collections attest to the basic human instinct to make music and to make art. Carefully wrought by hand and decorated according to the dictates of art, whimsy or popular taste, the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century instruments were made from all manner of materials and with varying degrees of sophistication. They are reflective of the various cultural influences of their makers and the players.
Says exhibition curator Thomas Queen, “‘Appalachian Strings’ is a celebration of ingenuity and the love of music.” He explains that the course of American music emanates from Appalachian music, and the instruments illustrate that history.
The instruments are associated with spontaneous and informal musical expression. They were used traditionally to convey celebration, recollection, lament, longing and loss. Their makers and the musicians who played them, often the same person, created simple objects to express and share these universal emotions. Such musicians are uninhibited story tellers, raconteurs, and their music refers to connections among people. The instruments themselves spawned several musical genres. The melodies are toe-tapping, foot-stomping, often riotously engaging tunes, involving the audience as well as the musicians. They are the stories of the people who lived in the Appalachians and their lives.
Dulcimers came to North America with immigrants from northern Europe and Scandinavia and first appeared in the Appalachians. Distinctly different from the hammered dulcimer, which is played with mallets, the Appalachian dulcimer was known in various quarters as the mountain dulcimer, the dulcerine, the dew climber and the hog fiddle, among other interesting descriptions.
In form, it is an elongated hollow sound box with a raised fretboard along the center of the top. Early on, the dulcimer was played using a bow; today, the strings are plucked with a feather quill.
Uniquely American and rooted in Africa, the banjo arrived in the American colonies with African slaves brought from the West Indies via the slave trade. Its origins, however, can be traced back far earlier to ancient cultures: drums or gourds with stretched strings were in use in the Far East, the Middle East and Africa. Arriving in North America as early as the mid-Seventeenth Century, the instruments and the music absorbed new musical traditions.
The fiddle descended from the Ninth Century lira of the Byzantine Empire and appeared later in Europe where it was popular in Italy and Germany. It made its way to the Appalachian region with European immigrants. As it is the most complex string instrument to make, and local craftspersons were few, it was most often obtained from traveling salesmen or by mail order. The examples on view demonstrate the ingenuity and creativity of Appalachian makers, who often used cigar boxes, gas cans and even a parlor stove as bases for the instrument.
While the guitar may have sprung from Asia and India, it is more generally related to Spain, probably arriving there with the Moors. It is a relative newcomer to the United States, only appearing after the Spanish-American War in 1898, when soldiers returning home brought it along.
The fretted, eight-string mandolin originated in central Europe in the Middle Ages and became available in Appalachia by mail order in the late Nineteenth Century. It is used in various musical genres: country, bluegrass, blues, jazz and classical.
Early immigrants brought with them the musical traditions of their homelands; others, gifted with an inherent musicality, came and created, incorporating the melodies of their new homeland. The music of America comes mainly from Appalachian traditions and these instruments explicate the history of American music. The curious blend of cultures served as the foundation of bluegrass, country, gospel, jazz and rock and roll.
Music of the Appalachian culture is much about the social connections it enables. In rural societies, neighbors engaged in community tasks, such as harvests or a barn raising and rewarded themselves on completion of the work with a dance or similar social event. The music itself came to be a blend of Scots-Irish fiddle traditions with those reaching back to Africa. The lively beat of the music made for lively evenings.
On plantations, music was made in slave quarters. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most musical American presidents, wrote of the music of the slaves at Monticello, although it may not have measured up to his rarified standards.
Among the oldest instruments on view are three dulcimers from about 1880, one made in East Tennessee or western Virginia; another, a box example, comes from Tennessee or Mississippi; and the third is attributed to Huntington, W.Va., maker C.N. Prichard. The example from East Tennessee or western Virginia is a single bout dulcimer and is painted decoratively with leaves and blossoms. It was owned at one time by major collector and curator of the form Anne Grimes, and is now in the Smithsonian collection.
A box dulcimer relates to examples found where Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi meet and are referred to locally as music boxes. The example on view is stark and unadorned. Old labels found on similar dulcimers indicate that they were marketed as “The Harmonica.” The example attributed to Prichard was made with heart-shaped sound holes and was painted in green, orange and mustard yellow. Its graceful proportions and colors make it a thing of beauty.
A later example is the dulcimer made by African American Tom Cobbs of Danville, Va., who arrived there from Milton around 1900. The simplicity of form renders this example equally appealing. Only two examples of his work survive.
A gourd fiddle that was found in Lee County, Va., dates from about 1920 and is thought to have been made by an African American artisan and relates to the early Nineteenth Century instruments made by slaves from gourds.
A fiddle on view retains a typewritten label identifying the maker as M.S. Bream of 405 Maple Street, Kannapolis, N.C., and was dated March 5, 1936. The fiddle is decorated with an incised running rabbit on the tail piece and an incised smiling face on the tip of the scroll. Kannapolis, a cotton factory town, was one of many such places that spawned old-time dance bands.
Fiddles allowed their makers great creativity. An Arkansas example with four strings was made around 1940 from a half gallon gasoline or kerosene can. The most unusual creation by far is the late Nineteenth Century bass fiddle made from elements from a parlor stove, probably for the O’Rorke family band. The interior behind the ash door is decorated with glowing embers.
Axton, Va., instrument maker Joe Henry Hunley created a circa 1930 fiddle on which the scroll is carved with a downward facing dog, complete with collar. Around the same time Hunley also created a double fiddle, which demonstrates his considerable talents.
A midcentury example was faced on both sides with 78 rpm records and commands as much attention as the examples made from cigar boxes.
A cello on view retains a label indicating that it was made by William Edwin Graham of Beaver Falls, Penn., in October 1914. It has a slightly Art Deco appearance, with a sleek trapezoidal and a sinuously carved neck.
One of the most extensively and artistically decorated pieces on view is the guitar made by Van Wert, Ohio, barber W.S. McCleary in 1894. It is carved with palmlike fronds and the bottom of the fretboard is carved with the notation, “Made with a knife by W.S. McCleary Van Wert, Ohio 1894.” The fretboard is inlaid with dogs and a gun and the head is carved with two fish.
Fiddle maker Joe Henry Hunley also made a lap guitar with six strings around 1920. It is decorated with compasslike scoring.
A mandolin from around 1960 by Evert Cheatwood of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, was made from plywood paneling and owes much to Cubism †it bears a strong resemblance to a Picasso female form. A California example from around 1930 was made with mother of pearl inlay of a moon on the body and on the fretboard and a star.
“Appalachian Strings: The Instruments, Their Makers, The Music” is on view through September 9. The Decorative Arts Center of Ohio is at 145 East Main Street. For information, www.decartsohio.org or 740-681-1423.
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