Monday, September 18, 2006

Dulcimer: Edd Presnell

The Appalachian Dulcimer, also known as the mountain, lap or fretted dulcimer, is one of those instruments, like the Autoharp, that never seemed to make it beyond a sort of cult following. After a year of unsuccessful accordion lessons that my grandmother insisted I take when I was 10 or 11 years old and 3 months of guitar lessons that did not have me playing like Jimi Hendrix, I had just about come to the realization that my musical talent was as a listener. On a kayaking trip in West Virginia when I was 15 I spied a dulcimer on the wall of a little country store. Now, the dulcimer is one of those instruments that some folks call the "idiot's instruments", as they are easy to make music without a lot of study. I figured that I was just the idiot to give it a try.

It's believed that the earliest forms of the mountain dulcimer were first made by German settlers in Pennsylvania during the 1780s. They were possibly patterned after the long, thin, rectangular zithers such as the German scheitholt. During the 1800s the dulcimer appeared in various shapes and sizes throughout Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The dulcimer never did gain the popularity and widespread use that the fiddle and banjo enjoyed.

Actually, not much is known about the dulcimer's use in early rural music. A lot of what is known comes from the great Kentucky singer, and folklorist, Jean Ritchie. In fact it was Jean that introduced a generation to this obscure instrument through her concerts and recordings. Today David Schnaufer is the undisputed master of the mountain dulcimer, yet he and his instrument remain the specialty of a small group of aficionados.

Edd Presnell (1917–1994) of Avery County, North Carolina was one of the most respected of dulcimer luthiers. Edd was a wood turner when he married Nettie Hicks, daughter of dulcimer builder, Ben Hicks. Edd made his first dulcimer in 1936, patterned after one of Ben Hicks’ dulcimers. Over the years Edd Presnell refined his instruments and even today an original Presnell dulcimer is a sought-after treasure.

During the summer of 1956, early revival artists Paul Clayton, Diane Hamilton and Liam Clancy made a collecting trip through parts of Virginia and North Carolina. On that historic recording journey, the young revivalists found such great rural artists as Piedmont guitarist Etta Baker, the Kossoy Sisters, and Edd and Nettie Presnell. The long out-of-print LP has been reissued this year on CD. "Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians" is a collection of great music that inspired the Library of Congress to follow up with recordings of many of the artists featured.

Here are two cuts from "Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians" with Nettie playing one of Edd's dulcimers. Unfortunately Nettie does not get recognition on the album's liner notes. She is simply listed as Mrs. Edd Presnell.

Mrs. Edd Presnell - Shady Grove.mp3

Mrs. Edd Presnell - Sally Goodin.mp3

Buy "Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians" at


Anonymous Norm said...

I just now had the time to really read and listen! Nice!

September 20, 2006 4:14 PM  
Anonymous Norm said...

Nice, keep up the good work!

September 20, 2006 4:15 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Thanks Norm. As you know, I'm somewhat of a champion of under-appreciated instruments.

I know you've been workin' like a dog lately, I'm glad you found some free time and especially glad that you enjoyed the tunes.

September 20, 2006 6:47 PM  
Blogger pineyflatwoodsgirl said...

Hi again...
Perhaps you were unaware that David Schnaufer recently passed away. He was a fine musician!

September 21, 2006 7:08 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Welcome back Pineyflatwoodsgirl,
Yes, I am aware of David's recent passing. I will be posting a tribute of sorts for Friday. David was an excellent musician and one of the friendliest folks I've ever met.

September 22, 2006 7:45 AM  

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