Video Interview with Ron Pen

Kentucky Historical Society


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0:05 - Early Life / Education

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Keywords: Aaron Copland; Anglican church; cajun music; Cartoone House; Chairman of Fine Arts Department; Chicago; Delta Queen Steamboat; Downtown Chicago; early 1970s; electric guitar; Europe; Galax; Gibson guitar; Homer Ledford; Ireland; Irish; Irish Traditional Music; John Jacob Niles; late 1960s; Mark Twain; Martin guitar; New Orleans; piano; rock and roll; Scotland; Tulane University; violin; Virginia; Washington Lee University; Waylon Jennings

15:52 - Homer Ledford's Dulcimer / Explaining the Dulcimer's Feature

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Keywords: Berea College; Columbia University; Dogwood; Ed Thomas; Hindman Settlement School; Homer Ledford; J.E. Thomas; Jean Ritchie; John C. Campbell Folk School; John Jacob Niles; Knott County; New York City; Niles Center for American Music; Tennessee

21:42 - Significance of Luthiers

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Keywords: 1930s; Ballast Richie; Beech Mountain, NC; Doris Ullman; Go 'Way From My Window; Hicks; John Jacob Niles; Richie Family; Viper

26:00 - John Jacobs Niles

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Keywords: Cincinnati, OH; Hangman; Jean Ritchie; John Frederick Adams; Michael Johnathon; Real World String Band; WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour

33:34 - Homer Ledford's Process / Violin Building

43:06 - String Programs

47:06 - Looking to the Future

54:14 - Homer Ledford Story


AF: I thought we would start with some basic biographical information. Why

don't you share with me a little bit about where you grew up and what it was

like growing up there?

RP: I grew up in the middle of Chicago, pretty much downtown by the lake. It's a

far cry from Kentucky. It's a far cry from Appalachia, except that it was very

present to me in a real way. The "hillybillies" were the people across the

street and they lived in a three or four story walk-up and they were the ones

who always had the windows open and were listening to country music really loud

whereas we listened to good music, i.e. that was Beethoven and opera, things

like that. They were the ones that played in the street and I always wanted to

play with them but of course I couldn't do that, I had to walk two or three

blocks with my mother to the playground, you know the official 1:00playground that

was lovely. They were the ones that went to public school and I went to small

private school, a Latin school. They were the ones that life was lived outside.

Even in the middle of the city they would be working on their cars on a Sunday,

or someone would forget their books and go off to school and I remember the

famous line, "Hey Clem, You forgot them there books!" and they'd shout out the

open window and they'd crash on the street and the kid would pick them up and

they'd be off to school.

So my understanding of what Kentucky and hillybillies were was formed by living

across the street from it and I had not a clue that my parents were from

Kentucky or that my mother's side of the family was from Kentucky. It really

wasn't until years and years later I went to school in Virginia, in the

mountains in Virginia, and I came back one day and I heard my 2:00mother listening

to Waylon Jennings, she'd never listened to country music the entire time I was

growing up, and I said, "Mother, what are you doing, this is like country music?

And she says, "Oh I know, but I love Waylon Jennings so, his music just moves my

heart, and you know all of your family were from Kentucky!"

And so, I guess I finally found my way back home in an interesting way. I went

to school in Chicago and graduated from there and went to school at Washington

and Lee, in Virginia, where I really first encountered Old Time music and

fiddles and banjos. At the time, I had started music myself at the age four. My

mother promised me I could avoid taking naps if I studied piano. Seemed like a

great way of getting around taking naps which I hated. So, I did that. I took

piano all the way through high 3:00school and at some point I hated it of course,

every kid does, but my mother made me stay home and practice, before I would do

anything else, for an hour a day.

Probably about seventh grade or so I started another instrument and one that I

really loved and that was the electric guitar. I wanted to play Rock-n-Roll more

than anything. I took, my grandmother was a pretty well-known Chautauqua

performer and I inherited her guitars and ukuleles and I took this beautiful

Martin guitar, 1880s vintage Martin guitar and put holes in and screwed in a bad

pick-up from Radio Shack so I could play Rock-n-Roll. It was a bad guitar for

Rock-n-Roll, you know, there was a lot of feedback and it just didn't have

enough sound, but it's how I got started before I got a nice Gibson. So, I

played in Rock bands in high school, and continued that when I got to 4:00 college.

This is late 60s and early 70s so I'm playing in a band called Cartoone House,

with an "e" on the end of "Cartoone." We played acid tests, some things like

that. We played at Washington Monument during the big strike.

It was an interesting time and I had switched over mostly to electrical organ at

that point as well. But in Virginia I also encountered that Old Time music. A

geography, geology, excuse me, professor was really involved in it and so I

started going to Galax and had an exposure to Old Time music and that's really

when I picked up the violin. I started with that at first and had 5:00my, it was so

much easier to carry around with me than the piano. I didn't have to worry about

tuning pianos wherever I was, I could take the violin around, and it was really

I think the bicentennial year. I'd moved back to Chicago, I was teaching in

Chicago at a private school and was head of a fine arts department. I was

spending more time trying to play Irish music on fiddle, and Appalachian music,

a mandolin that I'd also picked up at the time. The bicentennial year was really

a watershed one for me. I worked on the Delta Queen Steamboat playing Calliope

and I read every word of Mark Twain and I developed a sense of American music.

I'd never been taught that in graduate school or undergraduate, we didn't talk

about American music. There was always European music that was supposedly our 6:00music and I realized that commercials on television, Rock-n-Roll, Aaron

Copeland, it was all part of this patchwork of music that was tied to a sense of

place and I was in fact an American and working on the Delta Queen Steamboat had

an impact, the bicentennial of America had a serious impact, and then I bicycled

on an old three-speed bike from New Orleans to Virginia which was you know, kind

of an epic adventure, put me in touch with place. I slept in a hammock at night

and I experienced everything, the perfume of honeysuckle and as you go down in a

dip the bicycle was just magical to me.

So when I came to Chicago I started teaching American music and at that point I

really got a sense of how important that was. Eventually I got 7:00married, went to

Europe for a year and played organ in a church and delivered cattle, and you

know, experienced Irish life in a town where members of U2 live currently, so it

was an interesting place and an interesting time. It was almost impossible to

find Irish traditional musicians at that time, it almost had disappeared from

the landscape and so I was desperately trying in Scotland and Ireland to find

traditional musicians to play with and they just wanted to hear some of that

na-nana-na-nana American stuff. So it was a good experience, I played more Irish

stuff and some traditional music, and played in a church regularly, an Anglican church.

I came back and right away when the plane landed in New York there was a job

waiting for me in New Orleans so I took that. Developed a fondness for 8:00 New

Orleans over a period of years on a steamboat and whatnot and that was another

chairman of a fine arts department. So I got involved with Cajun music because

that was the music closest at hand. I really developed a sense of the music that

has the most power to affect us being that which is closest to the soil right

there at hand. Music is portable, but it's not powerful when it's at a remove,

and Pop music works anywhere in the world but the music that has the most

strength is right there from that sense of place. So, Cajun music, I was playing

Cajun music and researching that a little bit and doing another degree at Tulane

University and then I made the move to Kentucky to do a doctorate. At that point

Cajun music was 9:00not as important because here's this music in Kentucky, its Old

Time music and there's such a tradition of balladry and fiddle tunes and shape

note hymnody and things that I had been dabbling with for so long. I guess it's

where I really got serious about playing it and then I didn't want to study it,

I didn't want to make it an academic thing I wanted to keep it as something that

kept me sane amidst the academy and its demands, but it kept happening to me, I

mean people would keep asking me to do presentations and that and that and the

next thing I know I'm working with it.

In some ways the dissertation and the book that I did 25 years later on John

Jacob Niles were closely tied to that understanding of myself, personally, but

it was also an understanding of myself as seeing through this character John

Jacob Niles who was 10:00involved in traditional music, but also involved in with art

music in much the same way I was. I wanted to do composition; my earlier degrees

were all in composition rather than musicology, so looking at Niles gave me a

way of looking at myself.

One of the things that Niles did, and I guess it will tie in to our interview in

part, is he created his own instruments and I had to understand what those

instruments meant and why he chose to do that in his life. While I was here I

started having experiences with musical instrument makers, with pianos it was

never an issue. Our piano tuner, the first one at home in Chicago, was Mr.

Antune. What a great name! But there was very little sense of craft and how

important that piano was to me, it was just the device that I played on. The

electric guitar was something that I bought in a store that someone made

somewhere else. When I 11:00came to Kentucky finally, actually it was New Orleans

where I had my first dulcimer that was made for me personally and that changed

things. Suddenly I had something invested in that instrument, in the voice of

it, in the construction of it and the look of it. I said, "My daughter's name is

Robin. Can we make the sound holes look like Robins instead of circles or the

scroll F," and he said, "Why sure." So that instrument is very special to me

because it is my daughter's voice woven into the pattern of the instrument itself.

And then when I was here it became tied to the Niles instruments, and it also

became tied to Homer Ledford whom I met very early here. He was a neighbor of

mine here in Clark County. I had a fiddle that I'd been using for a number of

years, the action on it was not very good, it was 12:00born in the very same year

that I was, 1951, so I was tied to it, but it didn't feel very comfortable under

my hand and people were going, oh that's going to cost a lot of money, you'll

have to get the neck completely reset, and I didn't have a lot of money then, I

was just a graduate student. You know what that's like, Amanda. So I took it to

Homer with some trepidation, and went to this wonderful shop down below in the

garage, back shed of his house. Homer looked at it and said "well, let's see

what we can do about it and I'll give you a call", and he put the little tag on

it and I marveled at this workshop, you know this bright green painted workshop

where it was just jammed back with tools! You would he would pull a drill down

from the ceiling or a sander or things out of the wall, it was just like an

alchemist workshop in a way, just bubbling over with interesting 13:00projects and

sawdust all over on the floor and that smell of varnish and wood that's so

pungent. And I realized that boy this is a special place I've just been. This is

the interface between music and instruments and we don't have a voice without

these instruments in our hands. In a way it's what allows us this extension of

who we are as musicians. We can sing, we can clap, we can make noises with our

body, but this allows us to project ourselves in such interesting ways.

So, it was a magical moment for me. Homer probably had the fiddle a week, two

weeks and gave me a call and said come back in and see how you like it. So I did

and I tried it and it was as though it was a completely different instrument. It

sang beautifully and it was easy to finger the notes, and I went, "Oh my god

Homer, it's wonderful, what did you do?" He said "Oh, a little of this, a little

of that, I put a new bridge in, moved the sound posted". He said, "Do you like

it?" and I 14:00said, "Yeah. Ok, now give me the bad news, how much is this going to

cost?" He said, "Well, I think it's probably about $2.47" "Come on Homer, you've

got to be serious," and he charged me exactly what he did in parts basically. I

don't remember if the $2.47 is accurate, but it was something ridiculously low

like that, very little labor and hardly any parts, I mean he made a new

instrument out of it. So I kept going to Homer and I discerned over the years

that he was a master luthier as well as a fine musician. He created ways of

repairing an instrument without taking the back off of it, which in some ways is

very destructive to an instrument to take it apart unless you really know what

you are doing. It alters it forever. He could take a thin 15:00little wire and put it

through to where you would never even notice it with a patch that he would bring

up from below and fix a crack in an instrument, it was just beautifully designed

and thoughtful. He had a master touch with that. I did spend a number of years

visiting Homer in various ways and then worked on the new edition of the

University Press of Kentucky book on him where we added an interview and kind of

gave him the last word in the book which I thought was an important addition to

Gerald Alvey's original work.

AF: Now you have--

RP: You asked me one question and it went on for the last--

AF: I know--

RP: For three hours-- Sorry.

AF: No, no, we'll just keep going. In terms of Homer, do we have an example?

RP: We've got one of Homer Ledford's instruments here.

AF: So let's look at that. Can you tell me a little bit about this 16:00 instrument?

Maybe when Homer would have made it?

RP: This is really a very, let's call it a very basic plain example of Homer's

craft. The earliest known dulcimer maker we have in our region, the Cumberland

highlands region, was a man named J. E. Thomas, James E. Thomas, usually known

as Ed Thomas, and the shape that he developed, this hour glass shape, the hearts

as the sound holes, is really what most people think of the traditional lap

dulcimer, Kentucky dulcimer. That pattern really came from him. He painted his

black, he used bad, inexpensive wood in making them, and maybe he painted them

black to cover it up. Jean Ritchie said he just had a lot of black paint left

over from painting a barn. For whatever reason, they mostly wore black paint on

them, but this model, the same 17:00model, they were three strings rather than the

four that you find mostly in dulcimers, but that fourth string is really one of

the additions that came to the dulcimer world through our friend Homer Ledford.

So the next step beyond Ed Thomas, who worked in Knott County, it passes to the

Hindman School, the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, where Jethro

Amburgey, and later other Amburgery's in the family who started created a

dulcimer that was built on that same Ed Thomas model and they started shipping

those all over the world. They found their way into New York City and other

places by shipping them. We have one in our collection that was bought by a

woman at Columbia, a professor at Columbia who taught balladry, I showed you

that earlier, the C.O.D., the price on that was about $26.80 I 18:00believe, so it

gives you an idea of how much those instruments cost at the time.

Because of Jean Ritchie's visibility at the time, and other dulcimer players

like John Jacob Niles who we will also talk about later, the dulcimer spread

pretty widely and were sold and became a, almost an industry, and Homer Ledford

was later able to tap into that and market an industry. He grew up in Ivyton,

Tennessee, went to the John C. Campbell Folk School where he really had his

first experience with the dulcimer.

Back to, before I was so rudely interrupted by my own cell phone-- Homer Ledford

at Ivyton, and then at the John C. Campbell Folk School, they had a few

instruments that they wanted repaired and so he tried his 19:00hand at that and did

pretty well and then decided that well, I can build one of these I bet and he

did, and he later moves back to Kentucky, moves back to Kentucky later, he is

teaching industrial arts at Berea and he eventually starts his own business

where he is creating dulcimers as well as many other instruments. The pattern

though they used in this is really basically Ed Thomas' through Amburgey, but he

made some innovations and the tuning of these, and the playability of them is

vastly better by subtly transforming the tradition. There's nothing major,

larger about this, or different about this, but its, the dimensions, the fret

placement, the way the end pens work and the strings are put through is vastly

superior. The tuning pegs work beautifully, the friction pegs, he would put 20:00 them

in for people with mechanical action, eventually, later, but his tuning pegs,

his friction pegs work wonderfully, and for a dulcimer player that's very

important because you change tunings many times. The fret placement, you can see

here is a large one, a large one, a small one, a large one, a large one, another

small one, is the placement of notes in a diatonic C Major scale. So if you want

to play in different keys, you can't really do it. It's not a chromatic

instrument like the guitar, so we have to tune in different ways. Tuning is very

important to a dulcimer player. So the friction pegs, or the mechanical pegs,

are a critical item for them in more than other instruments.

It's very subtle, but this is a Homer signature piece. The fret markings here,

these are just carved in a little bit, but they are dogwood 21:00blossoms and it's a

sense of place that Homer has. The dogwood is one of our trees that are widely

found, he uses inlay in more expensive instruments and paint as well and creates

this beautiful black and white dogwood among other symbols. So, that's an

important aspect of it, and this is a very traditional Homer Ledford dulcimer.

He uses good wood, much of it a lot of Yellow Poplar, the ones that he made from

barn floors that he'd scavenged. A good solid instrument and I'm delighted to

have it at the Niles Center for American Music.

AF: So we have a couple of different instruments here. Maybe to talk about those

instruments, we could talk about the significance of luthiers in general in

Appalachia and Appalachian history. And then talk a bit about John Jacob Niles

and his work.

RP: 22:00Ok. Well, John Jacob Niles-- I'm going to perhaps take this dulcimer-- I

think John Jacob Niles is an interesting figure because he is someone that

begins his life very much as a traditional musician, but also was trained in art

music by his mother, trained to collect folk song at a very early age, was

transcribing it and writing at age 16 his first song that becomes famous, Go

Away From My Window.

Here it is, he takes a fragment of folk song, go away from my window, heard from

a black laborer, ditch digger, and he takes that and he builds on it and creates

a whole new song that was taken to be folk song. In the same way he takes an

instrument, the dulcimer, that he encountered at a very early age, but really in

the 1930s when he is traveling with Doris 23:00Ulmann, he encounters it at the

Ritchie family, in Viper, and there are pictures that document that meeting that

were taken by Doris Ulmann. There he is with Balice Ritchie, who is playing the

dulcimer. John Jacob Niles had been playing the piano mostly at that point and

accompanying Marion Kirby as a duo across the world, playing piano and singing

with it, but he thought it wasn't working for him, it felt a little bit like

being a Vaudeville performer and he wasn't that. All of a sudden the notion of,

I could use a dulcimer to accompany this music, of course, it's something he

encountered as a Kentuckian and it was portable, he didn't have to worry about

the pianos being tuned, at halls he was always playing on terrible pianos at

various places, you have no choice, but with the dulcimer you tune them and

bring them with you and they're absolutely portable.

He made some of 24:00his own instruments, but he also had ones made that he picked up

along the way and one that he commissioned is the one that I have in my hand.

There were several generations of Hicks family in Beech Mountain, North

Carolina, a rather remote part of North Carolina in the mountains near Banner

Elk. The Hicks family was terrific ballad singers and story tellers, but they

made dulcimers and Niles recognized that. I think this is 1933 or 1934. He asked

for this one to be built and sent to him. And what he asked for was a bigger

instrument, a bigger sound body so he could get more sound, and he asked for

additional strings. Niles had a vision of dulcimers as being timpani from the

orchestra, the back of the orchestra that really influenced his sound.

So this one [demonstrates on dulcimer] has 25:00six instead of three. It gives it

more strings, more drone, prettier sound, a bigger sound body. It looks in some

ways like a traditional dulcimer where you have your heart-shaped sound holes

and whatnot. In some ways this dulcimer represents the compromise that luthiers

make between tradition and transformation of tradition to new forms to suit

performers demands. The Hicks instruments were fine for home use on Beech

Mountain, but when you've got a performer like John Jacob Niles who is traveling

the world who wants more sound to accompany his really unique falsetto-sounding

voice, this was the instrument. So there was a transformation there.

I guess Niles took it a step further with his own 26:00instruments [RP moves off

camera to pick-up another instrument]. Niles came from a family of woodworkers,

woodcrafters. His grandfather Adams, John Frederick Adams was a piano and organ

builder, he made pianos, and he was renowned for the cases that he built were

especially beautiful. We have no examples that we can find of those pianos. I

keep hearing rumors about them, but they were mostly along Cincinnati and down

along the river and floods at various times have carried most of those pianos

away. But there was that tradition and other members of Niles' family, his

brothers became woodworkers. So it wasn't unusual for him to do that kind of work.

He became pretty skilled at it, and he created, at first, dulcimers that looked

like dulcimers, and then he created these hybrid instruments. Well, this one's

got eight 27:00strings, and it looks for all the world like a small cello that he

built out of parts of it. He created the finger board here, sound holes. This is

an interesting and beautiful instrument. I had the opportunity a year ago to

perform with it. It was the first time I've done that; I've really tried to

steer clear of doing any of Niles' own work myself. As a biographer I just

wanted to keep some distance from that, but Michael Jonathan of WoodSongs said,

I'm going to do this show, it's all going to be about Niles and about your book,

and I'm going to have the Real World String Band play, I'm going to have these

others people play, but I want you to play one of his instruments and sing. I

went, Michael, I can't do that. He said, No, No, I'm serious; I want you to do

this. You don't say no to Michael. I thought well I'll 28:00try one of them.

I took it out of the case where it had been for a number of years, and I had

this moment of confrontation with an instrument that was part of the master's

hand. I mean, this instrument was as close to John Jacob Niles as I could

possibly be. John Jacob Niles died I think a year or two before I came to

Lexington and taking the strings off of the instrument for the first time was

revealing. I thought, this instrument was strung by John Jacob Niles forty-five

years ago or whatever and that's the last set of strings on here. It's like

taking Beethoven's piano and unstringing it and putting new strings on it. But I

did, I took them off and I realized, oh my gosh, here's the pragmas, he had tied

off every single string individually and knotted them. Musicians don't do that,

they just put it through 29:00the hole, the string through the hole, and the friction

ties it as you are turning it. He tied them all off, it's next stage [unsure of

transcription here], and it makes sure the string doesn't slip. I realized

something about Niles just by the way he dealt with his instruments. I didn't

know what kind of strings to use. This is a hybrid instrument, there aren't

dulcimer strings that fit this thing, and so I found an old set of strings that

Niles had in our collection that were orchestral guitar strings. What's an

orchestral guitar? Who knows? You can't find strings for that. Whatever kind of

instrument that was that was around in the 1920s and 1930s-- So I tried guitar

strings and I tried several grades of Martin guitar strings and I thought that

would work and they did but then I thought, I have to figure out how to tune it!

You know, it's been forty-five years since it was tuned, how do you tune it? 30:00Hmm, here's a picture of him playing "Hangman," and he's holding this

instrument, and it's not just an instrument for him, it's a prop. It's a lover

he's caressing and of course, the shape of the instrument plays into it.

"Hangman," it's about this woman being hanged, so there he is, holding it up as

a noose swinging in the gallows, and I realized, you know, it was not just an

instrument it was a prop, it was part of his stage act and his persona. So I got

the strings, I saw that he playing it in the song, "Hangman," and I have a

recording of "Hangman," and I played it and I found out what key it was in. It

was in B! Nobody tunes instruments to B, it's just a ridiculous key to tune them

to, but that's what he did and that's how he sang it. So I thought well, these

frets don't go all the way across, I'll be it's got to be some sort of open 31:00 B

tuning, and I just tuned a B minor cord, B, D, and F# in various ways with the strings.

I tuned it up and the instrument didn't fall apart. I mean, you've got to be

nervous about that! How was it made, and not knowing the history of the

instrument or the instrument maker, the bracing of hybrid instruments aren't

regularly created-- It's important. This is a big instrument. How strong is it

to hold a huge finger board this size? Is it going to snap? But it didn't. It

made me very nervous having this at home at my kitchen table. But once it was

tuned, I ran across the strings, there was this huge rumbling B. It was

glorious. It was really beautiful. And I went, that's it! The next day I 32:00 played

and sang, "Hangman," on WoodSongs and I didn't even have to tune it again. It

maintained its tuning. The frets were that good, the tuning pegs were that good,

and I realized something very important about John Jacob Niles. He was a

musician known for writing for opera singers, known for creating songs that were

famous in the folk revival, he was a writer and balladeer and all of these

things. He carved these doors; the backdrop of this interview now [refers to

doors in background of video]. I think probably the spring house door that he

created with again Kentucky images on them. There are tobacco leaves, dogwood

blossoms and things, and very frequently he does that with his instruments as

well. He uses images from our sense of place. So it was an experience for me to 33:00realize that this extension of Niles' voice and personality, the instrument

itself, was an expression of who he was and, a pretty good expression; a good

instrument. Jean Ritchie always called them, "Nilesimers" [combination of Niles

and dulcimer] instead of dulcimers though because they were very quirkily John

Jacob Niles rather than traditional dulcimers.

AF: Thinking back through what John Jacob Niles was doing, what Homer Ledford

was doing and some of the instruments that they were making or having

commissioned and having small changes made to traditional designs to meet their

demands and needs that they had as musicians. I think it's interesting to put

that in a contemporary context and think about current instrument makers who

have to make the decision to move 34:00towards computerized machines, to move towards

CNC machines where they can input the specifics, how they want the instrument to

be made, but there are portions that they are no longer doing by hand. I

wondered if you would talk a bit about that, and do you think that will change

the industry and if so, in what ways. And what are some of the decisions that

luthiers have to think through before they decide to move to machines.

RP: I think those decisions and those issues have always been there for people,

and the technology continues to change and luthiers and audience and performers

continue to evolve with it, but the same issues have always been there. People

accused Homer of, "Oh Homer, you aren't hand-making these instruments anymore,

you are using a power saw." Homer would typically be working on maybe three to

five dulcimers simultaneously and he could cut three or four backs at the same

time. But he would always hold up his pocket knife and 35:00say, "Now this here is my

workshop." And always, parts of it would have to carve by hand and I've never

seen a pocket knife so sharp and there so many times where it was down to just a

nub. So, you know, I had to believe Homer when he used that pocket knife on

every single dulcimer, but he was also using power tools. That was the

technology that at the time and it allowed Homer to create 6,000 and some

dulcimers in a lifetime, which is a lot. Nathan Hicks, I'd be surprised if he

had done more than 200-300 dulcimers over a lifetime of good craftsmanship,

well-built and everything.

The next step is, well, look at what we can do with the computer. Here are the

beautiful fret markers that Homer Ledford's making with inlay. They were

gorgeous, painted along with the 36:00inlay, the mother of pearl, and each one is

separately done and designed, and it raises the cost of the instrument because

there are more man hours, more person hours involved in making it. Now, what

about Gibson guitar manufactures? To do the same kind of thing, if you want to

recreate a historic instrument with beautiful fret markers of mother of pearl

what do you do? Why we can feed it into the computer. It pre-cuts these, and

they are available online and you can even have your own name put up on the fret

board like custom designed instruments were forty years ago, and it's incredibly

inexpensive. It's suddenly allowed craftsman access to a technology that saves

huge amounts of hours of labor.

Well, can you tell the difference? Probably not actually, in 37:00terms of-- There

may be some hand-painted aspects to Homer Ledford's prints that you couldn't get

in a computer stenciled inlay, but they do very well and it allows you to mass

produce things.

Look at the number of instruments, number of hours it takes for someone like

Warren May whose created vastly far more instruments in a lifetime that's not

finished yet the way Homer Ledford's is, he's created far more instruments. He's

able to do that because of a system and the technology that allows him to do

that. Basically, it's economics. You have to put a roof over your head and make

a living at it. People are willing to spend a certain amount of money on an

instrument and an entry level dulcimer people don't expect to pay that much so

you can get cardboard dulcimers that actually sound pretty 38:00good. They're made

with a wooden fret board and a heavy cardboard base, and those are, I don't

know, typically about a hundred dollars maybe even less.

You can get build-your-own dulcimer kits that are fairly inexpensive and do

alright, or you can spend four or five hundred dollars and get the standardized

dulcimer now, or you can have personalized ones with all the fancy markings and

special gears and things. And it depends upon the level of performance that you

want out of the instrument. There are very, very few professional dulcimer

players. There are a lot of people who want one to hang on the wall and play

occasionally as they're learning. So how many expensive custom instruments can

you build, as opposed to how many standards instruments that you are going to

sell someday at a craft 39:00fair in Kentucky? I think that you are really going to

be building towards the general market or audience for that instrument.

It's a different case when you are talking about violins, or you're talking

about organs, or you're talking about guitars. Each instrument has a particular

target audience in mind. If you are hand-building a violin, it takes a number of

months to build by a master builder. There are not a lot of short stops you can

take with that. You can use some power tools, but it really has to be shaved by

hand. The back is a matter of, my violin that was created for me, I have a

template of what the back looks like and he has measured at probably 150 spots

the thickness of it and made a record of 40:00it. He does that with every violin and

he tunes them. Each one is tuned different as a result of that. That can't be

fabricated, but he sells a limited amount of these. He has an apprentice or two

that are making their own under his supervision and he won the Kremona

Competition, which is like winning the Super Bowl and it enables you to charge a

certain price for an instrument. If you charge ten to fifteen thousand dollars

you don't have to make that many instruments a year. If you are making a student

model violin and you can only charge five hundred or a thousand dollars, then

you've got to mass produce those, and it's gotten to the point where computers

and mass technology and materials like carbon fiber are enabling us to make good

instruments, very 41:00useable instruments, for a fraction of the price of a

hand-crafted special custom instrument.

AF: Do you think that most luthiers, when you think in terms of Kentucky, are

actually making a living off of making instruments, or are they engaging in more

wage labor and repair work and doing a number of economic activities?

RP: I don't think there's anyone that's making a living just out of being a

luthier. Although, being a luthier also implies that you are repairing

instruments and I don't know of one that wouldn't be repairing instruments as

well. Some of them are also teaching music lessons, or working as a performer.

Some of them are-- I think pretty much repair is the other thing that you are

going to be involved in. Particularly, there are string programs in 42:00the state,

and this, I'm not going to say it's a cash cow, but it's a reliable income. If I

were to have to have instruments in display cases awaiting the public to come

in, if it's Art Mize in my private home, they aren't going to drop by a private

home at the other end of town. Warren May, he may have some people dropping by

just because he is in the town square in Berea in a shop that's very visible.

Homer Ledford, you're never going to find your way to his store, his shop,

unless you know where he lives. So you can't count on the drop by, but the

school orchestra programs require instruments every year, and they have to have

instruments repaired every year, and a bass is an expensive instrument to have

repaired and so there's a built in market for a dependable 43:00pay check that's

available to musicians who do that.

AF: But then, is there a geography to where these individuals are located?

Because if they need to be closer to string programs--.

RP: Of course, it's all about space and where you are and where the string

programs are and how much competition there is. I would say typically violinist

find the leading concert master and that sort, the violinist in town would not

go anywhere in Lexington, even though there are some very fine repair violin

sales places in town, they would typically go to Cincinnati or Chicago for their

instruments. So, again it's a matter of what level of service you are talking

about, the very finest, ones who are going to be in the large cities, members of

the guild, as opposed 44:00to local makers who might be very, very skilled, but

probably not at the level of Chicago.

AF: Well that's interesting to think about-- If you are interested in doing this

work that you are going to be very selective about, ok, well this is the sort of

work that I can do, and how do I get close to individuals who will require my

work, and then that automatically puts you somewhere in Lexington or puts you

where an orchestra is actually located. So, how do luthiers then work in other

portions of the state? If I want to work on instruments in Eastern Kentucky,

what instruments would I be likely to focus on? Or what skillset would I?

RP: You are going to be working with string band instruments, and you'd have to

learn something about working on banjos as well as fiddles. In Lexington you

might have the same kind of mix, but a little less so, and you don't have to

extend-- in East Kentucky you probably don't have to even have to be involved in 45:00band instruments. There aren't that many music stores in East Kentucky so if you

are in a town the size of Prestonsburg or Pikeville you're going to have to be

servicing wind band and marching band instruments, percussion instruments, in

addition to string instruments. The string instruments you see will probably not

be string orchestra because that's not where the state's orchestra programs are,

but you will see traditional Bluegrass band musicians and Old Time musicians, so

you'll have fiddle and banjo and guitar there. In this town it's large enough

that you have stores that service basically the marching band and the wind band

industry, and then other stores that are smaller that pretty much are more

string oriented. So there is some differentiation there.

AF: Do you think that division exists between rural and city spaces in general.

Orchestras tend to be more located in city 46:00spaces, or should I--

RP: I would have to say that it's dependent upon the particular state. For

instance, there are states where orchestra programs are pretty widely found in

rural spaces as well as urban spaces. Less true in Kentucky where we are much

more marching band influenced. There are kind of two tracks, well three tracks,

there is chorus, and then there's string orchestra programs, and then there's

wind band programs and most of ours are chorus and wind band. The string

programs tend to be clustered in Northern Kentucky and the fertile triangle of

Frankfort, Lexington and Louisville. A little bit in Western Kentucky. We are

much more 47:00about opry than opera.

AF: That's a good way to say it. Well then, thinking of the industry down the

road, what are some of the challenges that producers, those engaging in repair

and restoration work, what challenges do they face now and what might they face

in the future? Can you think in terms of economic challenges, or social changes, or--?

RP: I would have to think that they're part of the same issue that's facing

American jobs everywhere and that's outsourcing, and that's something that's

already happened. If you look at the violin market for instance, rather than

local makers for string instrument programs, Suzuki programs, they're all trying

to use made instruments. It's much easier and less expensive and pretty good,

well-made instruments coming from China and the cost of labor is so much less

than what it is here.

On the other hand, they have to be 48:00repaired here. They can't be sent back to

China. It's a specific level of instrument though, and this is true of not just

violins. I tend to think that way because I'm a fiddler, but pianos have the

same kinds of issues, that are coming from abroad, particularly Asia. You know,

your Yamahas and all of that, a number of brands like that, as opposed to

American-made brands which are very few left here. So that, I would say, is a

challenge, and that's a challenge facing American industry in general, is the

price of labor.

Demand for instruments, I would say in some ways a lot of music can be created 49:00electronically and can be done with synthesizers and simulating instruments.

People are doing all kinds of really interesting online collaborations with

music and creating it entirely with computers, and that takes the guitar out of

the scenario, or the violin out of the scenario and lets you create "synthetic"

kinds of music. So perhaps that's a challenge.

The other side of that is, because people spend so much time at computers and in

isolation in a way there is nostalgia and a longing for human contact and

retro-culture that's very cool. The same culture that's creating 33 1/3 LPs by

alternative bands is creating opportunities for drum circles or playing

traditional music. Lots 50:00of people are playing Bluegrass music because it's an

opportunity to share music with other people. All of those require music

instruments and playing music by hand with other people. So I think that's an

important counterweight to the isolation of working at a computer and it gives

people a social way of sharing music with one another.

And then there are the things that are in a state of perpetual motion. There are

marching bands and concert bands in high school because it's built into the

whole educational system, and orchestras. The educational system does not change

quickly. And it's been in that mode for generations and generations. It remains

to be seen if we are going to get rid of the wind band, marching band, pep

band-- It 51:00co-exists uneasily if you are at a basketball game or a football game,

you're hearing the pep band or the marching band and they play a very important

role in negotiating the chaos that's on the field. I mean, it provides a

narrative theme. Thematically, it brings the alumni back into the presence of it

puts the football band with the audience and with the alumni and so, the

marching band, even though it's archaic, serves a very important function. But

then they also have electronic music and sound reproduction. It could be a heavy

metal tune that's playing at the same time, so they're being negotiated with one another.

AF: It seems like the safe thing to say is that the industry is always in flux

in a way, but there will most likely always continue to be demand and there will

be an audience and a need for instruments of some sort, which is a positive 52:00note, I think, just to recognize that that market will be there and even, I

think, if computerization becomes more integrated in the production there will

still be a market for hand-made.

RP: Yea, and the same technology that always looks as though it's going to kill

something ends up being the technology that allows it to spread and transform

itself. I'm just thinking, personally, here we are dealing with shape note

singing. They were talking about that dying in the 19th century as a moribund

tradition. There are more people doing it than ever before. Why is that? Well,

it almost died because of the automobile using newly emerging technology,

singing in individual places was being disrupted by migration patterns, people

traveling, but that same technology -- the car -- allowed people to travel from

one singing to the next, so it saved it and allowed 53:00it to flourish.

I would say that the electronic technology available on computers with

GarageBand, or however you are creating sound, also allows you to record

instruments and allows you to spread them and distribute them in a way that you

could have never done before where you needed commercial recording studios and

distribution networks of the bigger labels, now you can do it all independently,

and you can record yourself playing dulcimer and put it on YouTube and thousands

of people can see it. Your music, even a dulcimer which is a pretty archaic

traditional instrument, has a place in the modern world and it gets used in all

kinds of Pop manifestations. People are playing it like a guitar now. People

electrify it. People create scalloped finger boards so you can bend notes with

it. 54:00There are all kinds of adaptations that allow you to play it in Pop music

and Rock music in various ways, and people are doing that and you can distribute

yourself with the technology. So, I think we are looking at folklore in some

ways. Folklore is looking at traditional ways of creating and preserving, when

in reality we have to look at it as a butterfly, always in transition. You can't

pin that butterfly. However pretty that Homer Ledford dulcimer is, and you put a

pin in it and put it in wax and admire it, someone is going to do something with

the shape of that instrument and the number of strings.

There is the story of the three strings to four strings. Homer Ledford is making

three string dulcimers which are pretty traditional. Ah, Jean Ritchie's sister

and brother-in-law, living nearby in Clark County, 55:00want an extra string to make

it a little bit louder, a little bit more presence, so Homer goes and puts a

middle string on there, an extra middle string, there's your fourth string.

Suddenly people see it and go, wow look at that, the dulcimer can be something

new, but they put it on the melody string and double the sound of the melody

more than the drone and the next thing you know it becomes standardized and part

of the precious butterfly that's pinned. So, it's a continual process of

revision and transformation by whatever technology and according to whatever

financial support that's inciting the change.

AF: Well I actually think that's a really good note for us to end on unless

there's anything else that you think we discuss today that you feel is important

and that we should bring up, or-- otherwise, we'll stop there, Ron, and thank

you for sitting down with me today, I appreciate 56:00 it.

RP: It was a pleasure to talk about something dear.