Two years ago, I fell in love with Ron Cook’s Lady with the Checkered Past. Her photos on Ron’s website glittered like a siren. Actually, his entire website sparkled like a candy factory of dulcimer and pre- dulcimer instruments. But, the Lady with the Checkered Past beckoned with particular intensity. She was a reproduction of a Pennsylvania and Ohio style of dulcimer that was crafted in the late 19th and early 20th century that sprang from the early German board zithers. But the Lady was no common scheitholt descendent. Ron Cook, a prestigious California wood artisan and historical instrument builder, shaped the Lady like an art museum masterpiece. Here is Ron’s description:
The “Lady With the Checkered Past” is full size at 35” long with a 27 1/8” scale length, 4” wide at the shoulders tapering to 6” wide at the tailpiece. The body is 2” deep. The finger- board is salvaged redwood with a laminated black walnut fret board. It is hollow and open to the body cavity. It has a birdseye maple top, and the sides and back are scrap and salvaged black walnut and maple pieces, all glued end to end to form the checkerboard pattern. She was not a Tennessee music box. Her straight sides were typical of dulcimers in Pennsylvania and Ohio. She was strung with a double melody four-string dulcimer layout (doubled melody strings), and a 6 1⁄2 fret.
Of course, I immediately attempted to tune her in DAD and play string band style fiddle tunes. But the Lady’s carved wooden tuning pegs refused DAD. The bass string held low D and the middle string held A, but my every attempt at coaxing the last two tuners to high D caused the pegs to pop and spin and the strings to slide into the key of no return. Then the tension imbalance on the neck threw out the other two strings and we began again. And again, and again, and again, until the Lady and I just sat and stared at each other. Her peg head face filled with secrets and mine with frustration. Let me digress here a minute about friction tuners. Many folks love them and use them successfully. They may add beauty and historical accuracy to reproduction instruments. I’ve tried to adopt this point of view, buy an instrument with friction pegs, smile, be happy, but it never works out. Friction pegs are my enemies. Slippery anathemas that either stick stubbornly, or slide right past the note I had in mind. It doesn’t matter if they tune a banjo, dulcimer, or fiddle—they all end up at the same place—at my friend’s (the luthier) where the friction pegs are yanked and replaced with geared tuners. But the Lady’s predicament was com- plicated. The maple pegs were works of art. Replacing them with modern geared pegs would be like stripping the corset from a Victorian damsel and latching a wonder bra to her flowering bodice. Whats more, Ron had carefully used a violin peg sharpener and tapered reamer to fit the pegs and he had no problems with them holding their tuning. He was also extremely patient and tactful with suggestions on possible causes and solutions as to why I was not able to coax them into DAD. He suggested violin rosin, blackboard chalk, and tuning the Lady in Ionian rather than Mixolydian mode. For some reason, I focused on rosin and chalk. Tuning the Lady in a more comfortable tuning for her like DAA slipped past me.
Owning multiple dulcimers turned out to be an obstacle to devoting enough time to become acquainted better with the Lady. Usually, I sit and play a new dulcimer hours and days on end, exploring and finding which tunings or style best suit its personality. But since I could not actually get it in tune, I just gave up, stored her in my closet, and turned my attention to other new dulcimers at my home. Last fall, I carried her to Unicoi to the North Georgia Foothills Dulcimer Association Fall Festival and had a few builders look her over. Alan Darvaux gently adjusted the pegs a bit (he’s an awesome dulcimer builder and wood whisperer) and got the Lady to hold in tune in DAD long enough for me to play her a bit. What I found was that she didn’t really sing out in DAD, and I laid her back in her case. All the dulcimer venders and builders called to me with more exciting ventures and I became distracted and bought a dulcimette made from a vintage wine barrel from Ron Ewing, traded a banjo to Michael Shull for a lovely cherry and spruce McSpadden, and gave Bill Taylor a down payment on a courting dulcimer. You can spot the difficulty here. I don’t really excel at self control, and Bob (my husband) was not in attendance at Unicoi to enforce “dulcimer restriction.” Whats more, I love mountain dulcimers with their array of woods, styles, and different voices and am easily distracted with newer instruments. I carried the Lady back to Tallahassee and she returned to her home in the closet. Another year passed, the mornings turned chilly, the leaves colored the mountains again. The Cashiers Library scheduled my talk/demo on “Dulcimers in History.” I packed six dulcimers to show and tell, then thought, “What the heck?” and packed the Lady, too.
So what if I couldn’t tune her—I’d just show her and pass her around the room. I pulled a few Ralph Lee Smith books off the shelf and packed them, too. It’s always a sound idea to review Ralph Lee’s histories before a talk like this one. Please let me digress once more. This time about Ralph Lee Smith. I truly love him. He is so cheerful and fun to be around and he knows a lot about dulcimers, too. Ralph writes my favorite column in Dulcimer Player News. Here is what happens when my new copy of DPN arrives. First off, I look at the cover and enjoy the art work. Then I empty out the compilation CD, put it on, and do the laundry and dishes while it is playing. Next, I get a glass of fresh orange juice and settle on the backyard swing and read Ralph’s article as my treat for doing my chores. I don’t own a single vintage dulcimer (only reproductions), but I love to read about them and look at their photos in full glossy color, and I am eternally grateful to Ralph who lets me enjoy them through his column, so I can spend my dulcimer allowance on nice new dulcimers instead of old ones.
By now you are probably asking yourself where in the world am I going with this? How on earth is the Lady With the Checkered Past linked in any way to Ralph Lee, or Mary Z’s bizarre method of combining dulcimer research with housework? Flash forward to me thumbing through Ralph & Maddie’s Songs and Tunes of the Wilderness Road, while preparing for my “Dulcimers in History” talk. My eyes light on the top of page 32 where there is a comment on Sourwood Mountain and Shady Grove. “These two fine old mountain tunes are known everywhere in the vicinity of the Wilderness Road. Both are so beautifully adapted to old-time noter- style dulcimer playing that I have not provided chording for either of them.” Old-time noter playing with DAA tuning? What could it hurt to try? I picked up the Lady, tuned her in DAA and lo and behold, the friction pegs all held in tune. I ran for the noter that’s kept in my Galax dulcimer case, and tried a little Sourwood Mountain. The Lady sang in tune with a vintage tone— the way she was always sup- posed to from the beginning. Then I experimented with a few more DAA tunes and the noter. The noter slid like silk up and down her neck. She sang like a queen bee. Why on earth it took me two years to figure this out is beyond me, but Ralph Lee’s suggestion saved the day and brought the Lady out of the closet and into the world of song once more.
Yes, I can blame all my distractions and my past troubles with friction pegs, but another reason that I never thought of using DAA and a noter was that I have always played my Galax style dulcimer in DDDD with the noter and never considered trying it in DAA. Something else I noticed while playing the Lady in DAA was that the action on her was much lower than the action on my Galax reproduction dulcimer, and that the lower action made it much easier to play with a noter. It also sounded much better, and I will probably experiment with lowering the action on my Galax. By now, you have probably guessed that I’m of the school that believes musical instruments have real personalities and destinies of their own, and that sometimes special ones will take you with them on a journey you do not anticipate. From the very first time I saw the photo of Ron’s Lady, I felt she was one special dulcimer and she most certainly is.
Ron did a wonderful job of crafting her and although I have many other beautiful dulcimers, I find myself taking her out and playing her more and more. For those of you who may be interested in his one of a kind dulcimers and historical reproduction instruments, you can see his gallery of instruments on his website, www.roncookstudios.com I’ve also tabbed out a version of one of my favorite old-time tunes for dulcimer, Chickens Crowin’ at Midnight in DAA to use with a noter in case you’d like to try your dulcimer in DAA with a noter, too.
Mary Z. Cox