I am at the Smokey Mountains HIghland Craft Show and Sale at the Convention Center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I am with Daddy. It is a glorious, sunny fall day in the mountains and it is a good day.
I am eleven years old, drifting through the exhibit hall, perusing the wood carvings, hand made brooms, rockers, sun bonnets, soap, candles, braided rugs, corn shuck dolls and dried flowers with some small interest. I have $5.00 spending money in my pocket. I'm wearing my old Alice in Wonderland watch with the pink leather band. Daddy has turned me loose until 2:00 p.m., when I'm to meet up with him again in the lobby.
Suddenly, I hear, through the din of the crowd, the most wonderfully captivating string music wafting from an unseen booth on the far side of the hall. It is unlike any music I've ever heard: though oddly familiar it is strangely exotic. It seems like I'm listening to something magical, the music of fairies, gnomes or wood sprites perhaps. The music is strongly rhythmic, quick and lively; the tone is earthy, primitive, and evocative of deep dark, enchanted woods.
With the instinct of a homing pigeon, I stride purposefully through the crowd, intent on discovering the source. I pause some small distance from a booth occupied by an elderly couple. She is small, bespectacled and plump. He has a long gray beard and wears overalls and a hat.
I watch and listen as the old woman strums a small wooden instrument in the shape of a figure eight. It has three strings and four heart shaped sound holes. She slides a wooden stick up and down over the strings with her left hand and uses a triangular pick to strum with her right. I recognize the melody she's playing. It's a hymn, one of my mother's favorites: I Am Bound for the Promised Land.
Tentatively, I approach the table. Shyly I ask the old man to tell me the name of the instrument his wife is playing.
"A dulcimer," he says. "A mountain dulcimer."
The old fellow is surrounded by dulcimers. They're laying all over the tables and several are hanging behind him. They're all beautiful; some are shaped like tear drops and others like figure eights; they are made of many different shades and grains of wood, some with three and some with four strings; some have diamond shaped sound holes, others have round ones. But I like the heart shaped ones best.
The old fellow tells me that he makes all the dulcimers and his wife plays them. She plays beautifully!
Entranced, I linger as long as I can, listening to the old woman play the dulcimers and talking to the old man. They're both very kind and patient. He lets me hold the dulcimers and she shows me how to use a stick as a noter. Pretty soon, I've managed to pick out a melody, Red River Valley.
I can't wait to tell Daddy about the dulcimers. I'm sure I can learn to play one and I WANT one. I want one more than anything I'e ever wanted in my life!
When it's time to meet Daddy, I drag him back through the hall to hear and see the dulcimers. I show him how I've already learned to play The Red River Valley. Daddy listens and watches attentively.
The old man has a few copies of a paper back book about the history of the mountain dulcimer authored by a Dr. Jeffries, who is a professor of Music at Randolf Macon College in Virginia. Daddy buys one. When we get home, Daddy orders a record from Dr. Jeffries. It's a recording of Paul Clayton singing and playing one of Dr. Jeffries' dulcimers, for Dr. Jeffries makes dulcimers too.
Even Mother, who is not much of a music lover, likes the Paul Clayton record. We all listen to it, usually both sides, every night.
Well, I'm sure you can guess what Daddy gave me for Christmas that year: a beautiful little butternut and maple dulcimer made by Dr. Jeffries.
That little dulcimer is the best Christmas present I ever got. I still play it, though I've acquired several more dulcimers since then, both strummed and hammered.
And truly, that little Christmas dulcimer changed the trajectory of my life. It introduced me to the world of folk music and singing, for as soon as I got the dulcimer, I began collecting and singing mountain ballads. My interest broadened to English, Irish and Scottish ballads and instrumental music. I also discovered that I had a voice and could sing. I've been singing ever since.
Daddy never doubted that I could do anything I put my mind to and he nearly always went out of his way to help me achieve my dreams.
Thank you, Daddy.