When I learned of Ralph Lee Smith’s death at the age of 93 just before New Year’s, it seemed like one last cruel twist in a year that brought so much loss and grief to so many. Ralph was regarded, I believe quite correctly, as the leading historian of the Appalachian dulcimer, but I knew him as a teacher, a mentor and — although I never heard him use the word about himself — as a storyteller.
Ralph was the author of The Story of the Dulcimer (2nd ed., University of Tennessee Press, 2016); Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions (2nd ed., Scarecrow Press, 2010), and several tunebooks featuring southern Appalachian ballads and fiddle tunes collected in the early 1900s. One of the tunebooks, Songs and Tunes of the Wilderness Road (Mel Bay, 1999), includes a capsule summary of the history Ralph outlined in the two historical books, as well as 16 ballads and fiddle tunes. (Madeline MacNeil, former editor of Dulcimer Players News who also died in 2020, did the tab and notation.) Another tunebook, Greenwich Village: The Happy Folk Singing Days (Mel Bay, 2016), has Ralph’s reminiscences of the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s — yes, he was in the Village at the time — and dulcimer arrangements of old-time country music that was rediscovered by urban folksingers of the day.
Others are in a better position than I to speak of Ralph’s overall contribution to the dulcimer community, although I’ve studied enough about modal tunings to think he has the clearest explanation of the old pentatonic and hexatonic modes I’ve seen anywhere. I took his classes in summer “dulcimer week” workshops at Appalachian State, Western Carolina University and Common Ground on the Hill in Westminster, Md., and I knew him as a teacher and a mentor.
I loved the stories he told in class. About the dulcimer’s history, and about the people he met when he was tracking it down.
Instead of an academic historian, Ralph was a free-lance writer, an amateur musician and a collector. He “made many Appalachian field trips,” in the words of a bio on his website, “meeting old-time dulcimer makers and players in Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky.” Like so much southern Appalachian folklore, the dulcimer was handed down in families, the Glenns, Hickses and Presnells of western North Carolina and the Meltons of the area around Galax, Va. And Ralph, who had a gift for friendship, got to know the families — and, with them, the culture of the region.
In the process, he rolled back our knowledge of the dulcimer’s origins from the early 1900s, when the instrument was discovered by teachers in Appalachian settlement schools like Hindman in Kentucky and John Campbell near Murphy, N.C., to at least the 1830s. Ralph hypothesized it was developed then from a German zither called a scheitholt in the Virginia highlands — he even located one, dated 1832, in Floyd County, Va.
Ralph loved what he did, and he conveyed that love to us in his classes at Appalachian State and Western Carolina. One story he told — and he told it over and over, and it never got old — was of a “stranger from the west” who sold dulcimers sometime during the 1800s in the mountains around Boone, N.C.
One of his dulcimers wound up in the possession of the Glenn family of Watauga County, who used it as a pattern for their own dulcimers. Ralph was able to determine the stranger was a Charles Prichard of West Virginia, and he developed a lasting friendship with the Glenns. One year at Western, he brought Clifford Glenn to his traditions class. (I bought an instrument from him.) The Glenn family’s instruments are very traditional. Wooden tuning pegs. hourglass shape. Fully diatonic, too. No extra “six and a half” chromatic fret plopped down in the middle of the do-re-mi scale.
Anyway, Ralph had Clifford Glenn lift his dulcimer up back-to-back with Ralph’s antique from West Virginia (the one he’s playing in the video above). They matched, perfectly. After more than a hundred years, the pattern was precisely the same. The lesson was indelible.
Another story: This one’s about Ralph.
The first year we were at Western Carolina, Ralph brought along his daughter Koyuki, who was high school or college age at the time, and she sang the ballads as he played them in class. One was the “Cherry Tree Carol,” and all went smoothly till she got to the part where the infant Jesus commands the cherry tree to bow down …
Then Mary gathered cherries
While Joseph stood around….
And every last woman in the classroom broke out in laughter, while all the men looked around wondering what was so funny about a husband who stood around while Mary was getting the food ready. As I remember it, Ralph and Koyuki exchanged a glance, Ralph smiled … then everyone else got it, too, and we all laughed.
But mostly I’ll remember the stories Ralph told. And his love for the dulcimer, the Southern mountain culture and the people who carried on the tradition.
In a remembrance on Facebook, Lois Hornbostel, director of the “dulcimer week” programs at Appalachian and Western Carolina, recalled Ralph as “a kind and beautifully ethical person.” Lois added:
When I heard he had passed I had a picture in my mind of Ralph being greeted on the other side with one of Madeline MacNeil’s beautiful hugs, and by Stanley Hicks, the Glenns, the Presnells, Jacob Ray Melton, and all the dulcimer pioneers to whom he was a good friend. My condolences to his sweet family, and R.I.P. dear Ralph.
An afterthought: Shortly after I learned of Ralph’s passing, we had a Christmas CD on while we were getting supper ready — we like to play Christmas music right up to Epiphany or Old Christmas in January — and the “Cherry Tree Carol” came on unexpectedly. And I teared up for a minute. The moment passed, but that night I got my Clifford Glenn out of the display cabinet where I keep my own collection.
Sitting by the fireplace, I tuned it up to CGG and played it for the first time in months, using an old-fashioned floppy pick I’d cut out of the lid of a cottage cheese tub. First song I played was the “Cherry Tree Carol,” for old times’ sake.
Then I played the “Devil’s Nine Questions,” a Child ballad that Ralph taught us. And “Sourwood Mountain” and “Cumberland Gap,” and as many of the good old tunes and ballads we learned at Appalachian and Western as I could remember. The wooden tuning pegs held tight, after I fiddled with them a little, and as my fingers slid noter-like up and down the fretboard, the intervals sounded just right without that intruding halftone.
[Revised and published Jan. 18, 2021]