Sunday, November 02, 2008

Music in the Hills: Making Instruments

Making Instruments part 3 of 3

A fiddle made by Charlie Blake, grandson of Stewart Blake of Clover Fork.

"A family of Blakes . . . lived on Clover Fork, near Orlando . . . a colorful family, many of the members go by nicknames. Hillary or 'Hilly' Blake was born on Clover Fork in 1911. He was a fiddle and dulcimer maker. He recalled that his uncle, Stewart Blake, hewed a dulcimer out of a fence rail. "Bunk" Blake either 'made or helped to make' instruments. Amos or "Daddy" Blake also became involved with making instruments. "Tater" Blake has an old chestnut dulcemer made by Stewart with an elaborately carved peg head. Hilly remembered that in hard times, Stewart made his strings out of old broom wire. I asked Audra Van Noy, who has an old dulcimer made by Stewart and [her dad] Bunk Blake, if had been written inside. She said no, neither one of them could read or write." -Central West Virginia historian Gerald Milnes, from the chapter about dulcimers in his 1999 book Play of a Fiddle. (pg. 142)

Left: James "Bunk" Blake, fiddler, son of Stewart Scott Blake, father of Audra VanNoy
Left, below: Charlie and Daisy (Heater) Blake.
Right: closeup of dulcimer maker Basil Blake at work. Basil was the son of Jack Blake of Bragg Run.

A Family Tradition
Going Back to Our Pioneer Settlers
Making stringed instruments is in the carpenter's realm. Fiddles always had, and still have, the highest status. The banjo was also popular. The mountain dulcimer generally drew less excitement, but it had its aficionados (although in researching this series on Orlando's popular get-to-gether music, none of folks interviewed mentioned the dulcimer). Guitars turn up in old photos and they are often mentioned as a secondary instrument, but no dulcimers (yet). In the Oil Creek area the Blake family, that is, the descendants of pioneers John Burton and Abigail (Crissmore) Blake who settled on Clover Fork, stand out as the makers of instruments.
John Burton and Abigail Blake had at least eight children. One son was Stewart (Steward) McClung Blake. He married a daughter of the pioneers Catherine (Scott) and Edward Posey. They stayed on Clover Fork. Another son was Ballard Smith Blake. He married Mary Jane Riffle and they set to housekeeping in the Riffle Run area, south of the Oil Creek watershed.
When the research was assembled, we discovered all of the instrument makers that came to light were descended from these brothers.
Charlie Blake
Clover Fork carpenter Charlie Blake (1877-1948), grandson of Stewart McClung Blake, son of William Luther Blake, was accomplished in the craft of making violins and banjos, as well as all manner of wood furniture. We are fortunate to have intact one of the many instruments crafted by Charlie. His granddaughter, Rose (Riffle) Crutchfield of Burnsville is the proud owner of one of Charlie’s fiddles. It is pictured at the top of this entry.
It is Charlie's cousins, the children of his uncle Stewart Scott Blake (1869-1948), who were described by Milnes at the top of this entry. Milnes mentioned that Stewart Blake swore that two things in particular were needed to make good sounding dulcimers: a hollowed out the finger board and leaving the back of the instrument unfinished. (pg 136). This observation echoes the experience of his cousin Hobert on Bragg Run in the following exerpt from Milnes' book.

Making Dulcimers
It is through Milnes' interest in dulcimers that we gain a look into the Blake family's crafting of stringed instruments. Milnes tells of Hobert Blake (b. 1900), of the Bragg Run Blakes, who helped his brothers make dulcimers beginning in the 1910s. When he was in his 80s Hobert talked about his experience with making dulcimers. .

"[My brother Lora] brung that dulcimer up there and laid it down on a paper and marked around it. About a month or two after that he went into it and I helped him plane the boards, and he made one. Somebody brung it (the first one he saw) in here from way off. Some of John Dean's people, I can't think of who it was brung it in here. I can remember seeing it, just exactly like that one. It was put together mighty poorly, had it pinned together with pins. It didn't sound good. When we got this pattern here and made these, they cut down in the edge of them and set the rim down in it. Lora was a good carpenter. He heated them bands and put them in the press. When they got dry they just set down in there and just fit exactly. He made several of them. Reva's got one. Basil made several of them at Centervlle. As soon as he was big enough to go to work [Basil started making them.]
"Jack Keith was a stave mill man. I worked for him there. Ruben [another brother] and Lora made some dulcimers. They made one for Jack Keith. They made one for a man over on Cedar Creek. Oh my God, They made lots of them. . . . We made lots of them but I never cared nothing about them. I helped make them but when they's made, I was done with them. I helped sand the stuff down and helped glue them together. Make clamps to hold them together till they dried. Make wooden clamps out of a board. Them necks is made hollow. First they made, they made them solid. Didn't sound right. They took the neck out of it and I helped them with a backin' chisel. Cut it out inside and made it thin on each side of the neck. It sounded good.
"They made them out of chestnut before the chestnut trees got too bad and got those worm holes in 'em. Chestnut wood used to be nice wood- made awful good lumber. It was light. After it dried it was perfectly light . . .
"Back at that time you couldn't hardly get boards thin enough to make a dulcimer. First one we made, we sawed an inch board open with a crosscut saw. Fixed a place to hold it and one got up above and one sawed it under. Then planed it thin as we could get it. I've worked hours planing them things for it."

Left: Ruben and Basil Blake
Right: Basil Blake at work

Milnes also tells us that in the 1950s Basil Blake took his dulcimers in a new direction. He made a small sized dulcimer for his niece Reva Cutlip. He continued to to make dulcimers in this new size. This was a remarkable innovation in the Blake family culture.
Even though Milnes makes no comment about fiddles or other stringed instruments, the skills used to produce the dulcimer would have come from experience making other kinds of stringed instruments.
Comment by David Parmer:
Not only was Bunk Blake good at making dulcimers, but Uncle Zeke reported in 1936 that “Bunk Blake of Clover Fork is manufacturing sugar scoops made out of tin cans. Mrs. P. J. [Jesse] Bragg and “Possum” Skinner are his sales agents.”
Comment by Donna Gloff

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