Trying Something Different!

What is old-time music? My husband and I recently learned that it is a special genre of music, centering on a combination of fiddle and plucked string instruments and there

Jamming was an activity enjoyed by all.

Jamming was an activity enjoyed by all.

are summer camps devoted to teaching this music. “ Aw haw,” my husband thought. “Maybe there’s help for me in learning to play the fiddle.” It was his Christmas gift, and it was proving to be not as simple to learn as the dulcimer, ukulele, accordion, harmonica and other instruments he already plays. A little more research and we turned up an old-time music camp to be held in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina at Mars Hill University. We enrolled for a week’s training at the school. Yes, me, too!.

I think you are already aware that over twenty years ago, my husband built me a

A stop of one of look outs.

A stop of one of look outs.

dulcimer. It was time for me to learn to play it. Burl was set for fiddle classes and I enrolled in dulcimer classes. The first week in June, we packed up our bedding and clothes, put the instruments in the car, and headed for Mars Hill, North Carolina. We loved traveling through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and appreciated their beauty and the town of Mars Hill captured our hearts. If it weren’t for the college, the town probably wouldn’t be there. There was only a short Main Street and the college book store claimed much of the retail space.

Mars Hill University, a liberal-arts college, was founded in 1856. During the American Civil War it closed for two years. It started as the French Broad Baptist Institute, sharing

Beautiful campus at Mars Hill Univresity.

Beautiful campus at Mars Hill Univresity.

a name with the nearby French Broad River. In 1859, however, it changed its name to Mars Hill, in honor of the hill in ancient Athens on which the Apostle Paul debated Christianity with the city’s leading philosophers. Through the years, the college has struggled with financial and physical growth, but that is not so now. The campus boasts of a new dormitory, science building, upgraded athletic facilities and a school of nursing is under construction. It was these beautiful facilities at which Blue Ridge Old-Time Week would be held and we would be there, staying in a dormitory.

We were assigned our room which held two single beds, a desk and a closet.

Burl and I at dinner

Burl and I at dinner

We expected to share the bath facilities, just outside our room’s door, but this dormitory building was set up as suites. Each suite had bedrooms at each end, with kitchen, living facilities between. Only one bedroom at each end was assigned students, meaning the bath facilities were our own. The first thing we did, was make a trip to Wal-Mart to buy a foam top for each bed. We slept like “bugs in a rug.” The dorm was air conditioned, too, another surprise. And yet another, was the delicious food we were served in the cafeteria.

Each morning we’d say goodbye as my husband headed to his class and I to mine.

Here I'm getting a private lesson from teacher, Lloyd Wright.

Here I’m getting a private lesson from teacher, Lloyd Wright. He is a national winner as a dulcimer player.

Classes were held in the college classrooms and each student walked through well-cared-for grounds to reach his class. Lunch time and we’d meet again, then on to harmony singing class, in which we both participated. Night time featured jamming sessions which were our choice. Some of the world’s best musicians served as teachers here, and were featured at evening concerts.

So here we were in an environment rather new to us. We are seniors, but so were many of the others. Camaraderie was enjoyed by everyone and it was so much fun. Old-time music represents perhaps the oldest form of North American traditional music, other than Native American music. It centered around the fiddle and banjo and these instruments were prominent at the event.

Did we return home accomplished musicians? No, it takes years to play any instrument well. We did learn new tunes. Such songs ( such as “Soldier’s Joy”) is found in most old time repertoires and sure enough I found it among my dulcimer music. Both of us were beginners at our instruments but we do believe our skills have improved.

Playing by ear or rote were the methods of learning promoted here, the very way the old

Burl, left, is pictured with his fiddle class.His teach, Michael Ismerio sits next to him, Donna Turner and Scott.

Burl, left, is pictured with his fiddle class.His teacher, Michael Ismerio sits next to him, Donna Turner and Scott Whitney,  are to the right.

time musicians played. This requires much repetition, better known as practice. At fiddle class end, Burl’s arm was about ready to drop off, or so it felt. He still hears his teacher saying “saw, stroke, saw, stroke, up and down and saw stroke,” over and over again and an admonition that went like this, “Burl look at me, you’re not looking at me.” We may not have quite developed a passion for old time music. But, this may come before this summer ends. We have scheduled another trip, in August, to a music camp in Maine. This time, accommodations are more primitive, in bunk houses with no running water, heat or lights. (we’ll be in our camper). Maybe this time, “we’ve bite off more than we can chew.” I’ll let you know! In the meantime, I encourage you to try something new, this summer.

Donna Turner and I at one of the evenings entertainment.

Donna Turner and I at one of the evenings entertainment.

Another class in session.

Another class in session at the harmony singers.

Here I am, to the left in dulcimer class.

Here I am, to the left, at a jamming session.

A Unique Transformation!!

It all began when our oldest son, Merwin, sent his dad a kit for his birthday. His dad is used to assembling kits, especially electronic ones. Years ago, he had constructed cigar Box Guitar 4several Heathkits’ electronic testing equipment. He is always ready for a new challenge and it didn’t matter that this recent kit required wood working skills, something he was also good at. In a matter of what seemed like a few hours, he had put together a Cigar Box Guitar. That’s right, the kit had included a real, honest to goodness, cigar box, a long stick, and strings, etc. In no time at all he was playing a tune on it. But he began to envision ways he could improve on the design, using a cigar box, of course. That’s when we began to visit cigar stores.

Here we were, two non-smokers entering stores that wreaked with cigar smoke. These are places where you not only buy cigars but it is where men, not old men, lounge in frontcigar Box guitar 8jpg of large screen TV’s, smoking cigars that cost $10.00 each. (I always thought only old men smoked cigars.) I have no idea how long it takes to smoke the average cigar, but no matter the time, with each puff I imagined a $10.00 bill going up in smoke. We left the store with our treasure, several empty cigar boxes, each with its own personality, just waiting to be transformed into a unique musical instrument.

Most boxes hold 20 cigars, that makes the contents worth $200, so the boxes are well constructed, usually of Spanish cedar. These are not like the cigar boxes I remember my

This is a copy of the etching showing Civil War soldiers with a Cigar Box fiddle.

This is a copy of the etching showing Civil War soldiers with a Cigar Box fiddle.

dad using for storage purposes, as they were made of hard cardboard. As early as 1800, cigars were packed in boxes, crates and barrels, containing a large number of cigars. It wasn’t until around 1840 that cigar manufacturers began using smaller boxes. And although you may not have ever heard about Cigar Box Guitars, there is evidence of these instruments existing since way back then. An etching exists from 1876 of two Civil War Soldiers at a campsite with one playing a cigar box fiddle, the brand “Figaro” shows on the box. In 1884 plans for a playable 5 string fretless banjo were published by Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America, made from a cigar box.

Cigar box guitars and fiddles became important during the rise of jug bands. Most of these performers were black Americans living in poverty, who couldn’t afford “real” instruments.

Band members using homemade instruments.

Band members using homemade instruments.

These bands used the wash tub bass, jugs, washboards and harmonicas. This was the beginning of the sound of music called “the blues.” During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, musical instruments were beyond the means of everybody, but an old cigar box, a piece of a broom handle and a couple of wires from the screen door and a guitar was born.

Although he had never seen one, Burl had been aware of Cigar Box Guitars. After constructing one from his own plans, he now had a good looking, good sounding, easy to play one. He found other musicians interested and they were rather amazed at how easy

This man, Shane Speal heads up today's Cigar Box Guitar revolution.

This man, Shane Speal heads- up today’s Cigar Box Guitar revolution.

it is to play. There has been a revival of these instruments, some are calling it the Cigar Box Guitar Revolution. You may recognize the names of some of the musicians playing them: Doctor Oakroot, Johnny Lowebow, Tomi-O, Shane Speal and Paul McCartney.

It was near Christmas time that all this was taking place at our house and when Burl asked me what I wanted for Christmas I said I wanted him to build me a Cigar Box Guitar. He nearly fell over, but started work on it immediately. Now, we each have one and there’s lots of empty cigar boxes left in our garage. How many Cigar Box Guitars does a

this is what I need to do--practice.

This is what I need to do–practice.

person need? Actually the boxes are pretty and make great trinket boxes and a topic of interest when left on your coffee table. Twenty years ago, in 1995, my husband made me a dulcimer, I’ve just recently learned to play it. I don’t have 20 years left to learn the Cigar Box Guitar so I’d better get started.

Check out the internet and you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about Cigar Box Guitars. Remember what I said about a revolution beimg underway. By the way, I know, and you know, where there’s some surplus cigar boxes and this place is exempt of cigar smoke.

Look for our photos below.

Here I am showing off my  Cigar Box Guitar.

Here I am showing off my Cigar Box Guitar.

My husband, Burl, with the first Cigar Box Guitar he built. Mine was the second.

My husband, Burl, with the first Cigar Box Guitar he built. Mine was the second.

Here's a closer view of the guitars. The sound hole covers, bridges, knobs, etc were designed and made on my husband's 3D Printer.

Here’s a closer view of the guitars. The sound hole covers, bridges, knobs, etc were designed and made on my husband’s 3D Printer.