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A Dulcimer Builder Poem - Paul Conrad
 

The shop smelled sweetly

of cherry and sassafrass today.

I remembered a fine song

sung by a friend

and was grateful

for wood and music and sweet smells—

I worked on a dulcimer today.

 

A friend stopped by.

His grand-dad had died—

they were cleaning out the barn

And found these boards.

Could I use them—Yes.

And we talked—weather and local politics

Stories of the old man and just a bit

About the terrible brevity of life.

I worked on a dulcimer today.

 

A mockingbird sat on the top

Of the electric pole at dusk;

And sang into the red sinking sky

notes pure and true.

I wondered where music comes from

And how does it make the spirit

Come alive so?

I worked on a dulcimer today.

 

 

    I had a conversation with a fellow builder.

We spoke of woods and finishes—

Of instruments new and ancient.

Of Stradivarius and simple clamping techniques—

Ways to keep our fingers safe.

Of delightful failures

And instructive mistakes.

And the thrill when wood

and labor and vision combine

to make an instrument that sings

sweet and true.

I worked on a dulcimer today.

 

At the festival, I see dulcimers—

So many have names—

Gently presented as dear friends:

Slow bashful stories

of how this acquaintance came to be.

Quiet stories of precious times

of beautiful sound and self-made music.

It reminds me of first innocent love.

I worked on a dulcimer today.

 

I slept and dreamed of being

very, very small—

A long journey almost completed

In a seamless dancing world

of slow bursts of prism pure light

and ethereal harmonies that blossomed

and filled the universe

as we gathered and joined.

I worked on a dulcimer today. 
 

In the mid 1970’s, I attended a concert by Mike Seeger. He played several songs on the mountain dulcimer. I was intrigued and fascinated by the sound. This fascination led to my building several dulcimers at that time. Marriage, childrearing and twenty-odd years of milking cows eventually overwhelmed further explorations of dulcimers. However, the memory of the sound and the delight of building remained a pleasant and persistent memory through the years. These memories seemed to attach themselves to another persistent impulse—the personal desire to someday have a woodworking shop. Although it took almost thirty years, these impulses eventually blossomed into an actual shop designed to accommodate the building of dulcimers. 

I was raised on a small, 95 acre Ohio dairy farm by parents who had come of age during the Great Depression. Typical of many persons from that era, they both followed a “waste not, want not—make do with what you have” philosophy.  We raised and processed much of our own food, heated entirely with wood and did the bulk of our farming with horses. I haven’t really escaped these attitudes—I’ve remained a rabid do-it-yourselfer; we depend on a garden for much of our food, use wood as a large part of our heating and we live in a rural community that celebrates such self-sufficiency. 

After high school, I attended college and earned a bachelor’s degree. It was there that I met and married Ruth, a small town girl from Kansas. For nearly thirty years, she has taught at a school for profoundly challenged students. Shortly after graduation from college, we moved to Holmes County, Ohio (one county south of where I was raised and home of one of the largest Amish communities in the US) and have lived here since. I taught jr. high and high school English for a number of years while helping at the home place. Eventually, we started milking on our own, starting with six cows and eventually working our way to a herd of 60. In 1990, we purchased the 165 acre farm where we presently live.  

Our farm was one of the first bits of land settled by whites in the neighborhood. It was deeded with a sheepskin deed signed by James Madison to a veteran of the Revolutionary war as compensation for his service. Oral tradition connects this place to a number of interesting stories from early white settlement. The farm itself sits on the southern reach of the glaciers, which gives it some very interesting geological features. It is also rich in native artifacts—collecting these artifacts has been an interesting hobby. 

Although dairy farming was an intriguing and demanding effort, we eventually realized that its time demands would mean that we would be forced to miss many of our son’s and daughter’s activities. We closed out our milking operation, although I continue to be involved with the crop farming. I also became involved in general carpentry.

In 2005, dulcimers re-entered my life. Our daughter’s church youth group was raising money for a trip with an auction of donated items. I decided to make a dulcimer to donate. I re-discovered the huge delight the building process held for me. And there was a purely magical moment that occurred when I finally strung the dulcimer up and heard that wonderful dulcimer sound again. I’m not certain that a person can fall madly in love with a sound—but if it’s possible, it happened to me at that moment.

And so a wonderful journey began. I continued to build dulcimers. Family members, friends and neighbors requested enough instruments to keep me building fairly steadily. I gradually became aware of the wonderful dulcimer community. I’m forever grateful to the generosity and patience of fellow builders as they shared their experiences and perspectives and provided gentle and encouraging feedback.

After two years of building and ongoing “reviews” by knowledgeable players and persons long involved with dulcimers, I felt that my instruments had evolved to the point that they were ready for a more general and public exposure. We took them to several festivals, as well as making them available in two music stores. Although I still consider myself a novice builder (and I probably will continue to think of myself that way for quite a while) I have considerable confidence in the durability and quality of Timbre Hill Dulcimers.

One particularly noteworthy and delightful stopping point on this journey was the building of the shop. For many years I had yearned for such a shop. I enclosed a corner of our barn, using pine wood salvaged from a neighbor's pine groves damaged in an ice storm. These trees were planted by the neighbor’s great uncle in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Although utilitarian concerns drove the project, I soon realized that I was creating a unique and delightful personal space. I’ve grown to love my shop area and have stocked it with various artifacts of personal significance.

I’ve found building dulcimers to be a highly reflective and meditative—almost spiritual—process. I continue to be thrilled with the prospects of taking a rough piece of wood and turning it into an object of functional beauty that has the possibility of providing years of satisfaction and personal music for another human being. I’ve also found building dulcimers to be a time of self-discovery.  Many deeply held perspectives and preferences become real when transferred to the building process—some perspectives I had not been able to articulate even to myself until I started puzzling out the practicalities of building a dulcimer.

I hope the journey will continue in this vein. I’m grateful to be able to share it with you.

 

 

Copyright 2008, Paul Conrad ~ Web Design Tom Strothers