Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Saturday, November 19, 2011

“Musical Instruments Of The Southern Appalachian Mountains” by John Rice Irwin (Schiffer)

This book by folklore historian John Rice Irwin, founder of the Tennessee-based Museum of Appalachia, has been around since 1979, but is new to me. Thankfully, it is still available, as it is a seminal source for understanding the art and craft of non-professional music-making in the Appalachian areas of the United States.

“Musical Instruments Of The Southern Appalachian Mountains” is largely a book of photographs of music-making devices from the Museum’s collection, with explanatory text describing them without organological jargon, and contributing small, but helpful amounts of information regarding their provenance. If you’re thinking, “OK, a book of pictures of fiddles, banjos, and guitars, big deal” - clearly, you haven’t seen this book.

For one thing, there isn’t much here about guitars, because the instrument is a relatively recent (by comparison) arrival to this part of the world, to the point where it is included in a section devoted to “miscellaneous instruments”, along with the mandolin, the jews’ harp, harmonica, flutes, etc. The focus instead is on the long-standing staples of Appalachian music, the fiddle, banjo, and plucked dulcimer (plus two photos of hammered dulcimer, a zither which in the US is more normally found in the further north of the region covered by the book), plus a short chapter on the now-rarely-encountered mouth bow.

But what really entices me to write about this book is the fact that the vast majority of these pictures are of homemade instruments. Keep in mind that the mountain people generally could not afford store-bought, manufactured instruments, most likely couldn’t find them very easily if they wanted to (especially in the pre-Montgomery Ward era), and furthermore, had no intention of playing these instruments professionally. The people who owned these instruments were truly “the folk”, who played music solely for their own entertainment, as well as for friends, family, neighbors. Thus, if the instrument is shaped funny - and many of them are - or made out of non-standard materials - and many of them are - they served the purposes of the people who played them.

Thus, we have pictures of a fiddle made from a wooden cigar box to which a carved neck was attached;, an octagonal banjo, a square one, a cardboard one, pus one made from a ham can; and dulcimers of various shapes, including purely rectangular. Clearly, the assemblers of these oddities made instruments from the objects they had at hand, with no fancy tools to shape or fabricate “proper” instruments. But even those which look like “normal” instruments at first glance often have anomalies of construction which set them apart from more formal patterns. In a few cases, it’s a puzzle how any sound could come out of these rough-hewn products of unskilled hands, belonging to ordinary mountain residents who were simply hoping to make something pleasant with which to pass the time.

This is, then, an absolutely enchanting book, one which appeal greatly to folklorists, acoustic string musicians, folk-art enthusiasts (because in the long run, many of these are closer to folk-art constructions than to “legitimate”, finely-crafted instruments), regional history buffs, students in American Studies courses, and anyone interested in the byways of American music.

The book is 104 glossy pages, longer than they are tall. The photos are in black and white, which somehow seems more appropriate to the subjects at hand than slick, shiny color photography. The publisher’s catalog may be downloaded from The catalogs will also guide you to other books on Appalachian culture (not just music) by the same author.

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Blogger C K said...

Just found your review. You have certainly captured the spirit of this book. My husband and I happened upon this book at an Acuff family estate sale recently. We were delighted to find it was signed by the author to a member of the Acuff family.

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