Making Lemonade in the Southern Highlands of Southeastern Kentucky

(alternate title “Hindman In Exile”)

By David & Karen Bennett                  May 2018 ©

What does one do when a highly anticipated dulcimer event is cancelled just two weeks before it is scheduled to take place? Well, I’ll tell you. But first let me start off explaining my use of the term, “southern highlands.” In the introduction to “Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands” (1937) by Allen Eaton, he states, ‘The name “Southern Highlands” was given to the region by John C. Campbell.’  Eaton goes on to quote Campbell on his reasoning for using the name Southern Highlands, ‘The traveler… may yet be at a loss, for a name to call this land; but when at dawn he wakes with mist rising from every cove and valley, and echoes still sounding of half-remembered traditions, folk-lore, and folksongs, recited or sung before the fire by “granny” or “grandpap”, he knows there is but one name that will do it justice – the Southern Highlands.’

Granted, the Southern Highlands incorporates a very large area, but I am just discussing the little part in Kentucky between Berea and Hindman. Now back to our regularly scheduled program…

The 4th annual Hindman Dulcimer Homecoming was to take place the second weekend in March 2018 in historic downtown Hindman, Kentucky on the campus of the Hindman Settlement School and those attending had the option of staying in the student dorms on campus. The event was to host nightly concerts and square dances, dulcimer workshops and seminars, interactive demonstrations and exhibits, plus networking opportunities. Along with contemporary playing there was to be an added emphasis on old-time noter/drone dulcimers and playing styles.

A great lineup was scheduled that included in part: Don Pedi; Lorinda Jones; Randy Wilson, director of the Folk Arts Education Program at Hindman Settlement School; Doug Naselroad, Master Artist In Residence at the Appalachian Artisan Center and the founder of the Kentucky School of Luthiery in Hindman; and John Pickow, one of Jean Ritchie’s and George Pickow’s sons who was to cover “Ritchie Family Songs and Traditions.”

Unfortunately, those who had pre-enrolled were informed the last weekend in February that the Hindman Dulcimer Homecoming was cancelled for various reasons that I won’t go into or speculate on here.

Regardless of the reason the Dulcimer Homecoming was cancelled, several of us who had made plans to attend were very disappointed with the announcement.  However, by the evening of the day we received the news of the cancellation several of us were already making plans to turn that lemon into lemonade.

John Knopf, Ken Hulme, Ken Longfield, Richard Strieb, Nina Wilhelm, my wife Karen, and I began making new reservations and developing an itinerary for what Ken Longfield affectionately named, “Hindman In Exile.” Dan Cox came up the last day to have lunch and chew the dulcimore fat with John Knopf and Ken Longfield.  We were a geographically diverse group having traveled to Berea from south Florida, Alabama, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Kentucky. There were a couple others, such as Bobby Ratliff and Kevin Messinger, who wanted to attend but were not able to at the last minute. One of the things we all had in common was a strong interest in the history of traditional dulcimers and noter/drone style playing.

On Thursday, Karen and I left our home in Alabama early in the morning. Winter’s last gasp made a vain attempt south of Nashville where we began driving into light snow flurries. We had the flurries off and on our entire trip up but thankfully it never accumulated.

We arrived at the Boone Tavern on the beautiful College Square of Berea College in early afternoon. The Tavern, built in 1909, was a nice historic place to stay, some of us lodged there and we all ate several fine meals there. The building is made of bricks manufactured by students in the College’s brickyard and was constructed by the College’s Woodwork Department. The “Tavern” portion of the name is derived from the historic definition that refers to a public inn for travelers rather than the modern definition related to the sale of alcohol. The Boone Tavern became our base of operations and central meeting place where we gathered to sit, play, and talk before our field-trips and in the evenings. We appreciated that the Boone Tavern let us meet and play in the common areas, just as they would have in the taverns in the old days. Each time we met the tavern’s common areas there were several guests, young and old, who’d stop and listen to us playing or discussing dulcimore lore and ask questions about the strange instruments before them that we were playing. All of them were surprised to learn the dulcimer is the Kentucky State Instrument.

Karen and I soon met up with the first of our group, Nina Wilhelm, Richard Strieb, and John Knopf, and we soon made our way to visit Warren May’s Woodworking Shop at the other end of the same block as the Boone Tavern, about five or six doors down. Warren May graciously showed us his collection of vintage dulcimers, as well as the ones he makes and sells there. He and Nina Wilhelm played a beautiful duet of the 1912 hymn “In The Garden” (And He Walks With Me) as he sang for us.

After that we went back to the Boone Tavern where we congregated in the lobby to continue our meet and greet. Before supper we were joined by Ken Hulme who just flew in from south Florida, and boy were his arms tired. Ken Longfield from Pennsylvania brought his original James Edward Thomas dulcimer that was built by Uncle Ed in 1931. Over the course of the weekend I was fortunate to not only hold it but to play this piece of history several times.  In fact, I’ve lost track but I think over the weekend we probably saw four or five original Uncle Ed Thomas dulcimers. And that’s not counting the four Uncle Ed reproductions we had that were made by John Knopf and Kevin Messinger.  Ken Longfield brought and played a reproduction he made of a Charles Napoleon Prichard dulcimer.

Friday morning, we drove to Hindman to visit the Appalachian Luthiery Studio , part of the Appalachian Artisan Center, the Museum of the Mountain Dulcimer , and Uncle Sol’s Cabin at the Hindman Settlement School. The settlement school is where Jethro Amburgey taught students to build dulcimers based on Uncle Ed Thomas’ pattern.

The next morning, Saturday, we drove up to the University of Kentucky in Lexington to visit the John Jacob Niles Center. Dr. James Revell  Carr, the Director of the Center had taken the vintage instruments out of the glass display case and had them laid out in the Niles Reading Room. As stated on their website, “The Reading Room” is decorated with paintings and portraits from the Niles Collection, as well as tables that once furnished Boot Hill Farm, the home of John Jacob Niles and his wife Rena.”

We were able to look at and handle instruments made by John Jacob Niles and other artifacts of his.  There were also vintage dulcimores made by Uncle Ed Thomas, Jethro Amburgey, Will Singleton, Homer Ledford, Nathan Hicks and other dulcimer makers. Getting to see these instruments close up was quite a privilege.

After our excursion to the Niles Center we drove through the country, past many horse farms, to visit St. Hubert’s Church on the way back to Berea. St. Hubert’s is a small church, measuring twenty-five by fifty feet and seats 135 people.  It is built of native Kentucky limestone, and all of the wood used in the church was grown in Kentucky.  John Jacob Niles, musician and balladeer, carved the massive oak doors, chiseling the Eighty-fourth Psalm, with ivy and tobacco leaves as a border.

We all had a great time during the weekend in the Southern Highlands of Kentucky around Berea and greatly enjoyed the field-trips. It was especially great to have the opportunity to spend nearly four days with people we’ve known on the Internet but had never met in person. It was a treat to share stories and play dulcimores with them. As disappointed as we were that the Hindman Dulcimer Homecoming was cancelled, I’d have to say that this turned out to be one of the best dulcimer events I’ve attended.  In fact, before we parted ways Sunday morning we had already started brainstorming about a possible future event, hopefully a little later in the Spring when it’s a bit warmer.

A short video of Hindman In Exile: A Few Scenes From A Dulcimer Festival

And last but not least… Photo Gallery:

Now the Bereans were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”   Acts 17:11