Bob Mize & Maybelle Carter Dulcimer Connection

On the back of Deb Porter’s “Carter Family Tunes Arranged for the Fretted Dulcimer”, she states that a dulcimer made for Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) by Bob Mize is on display at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Having read that, I knew a trip to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum was in order the next time we passed through Bristol TN/VA. (click on each picture for larger images)

2014 Athens Gulf Station03Karen and I had a visit to family in West Virginia scheduled so we soon had an opportunity to visit the museum and we hopped in our trusty DUV (Dulcimer Utility Vehicle). Before we left home we researched the museum’s location and history and learned that in 2006 the Birthplace of Country 100_0983Music Museum split and became two museums: the Mountain Music Museum and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. They are located just a couple of blocks from each other, one in Tennessee and the other in Virginia (Bristol is situated on the state line), so with this dulcimentary you get a twofer. Both museums are excellent and worth visiting, each having a different emphasis.

2015Bristol01The Mountain Music Museum: The Mountain Music Museum was established in 1998 and is maintained and staffed by the Appalachian Cultural Music Association (ACMA), an organization dedicated to the preservation of Appalachian musical heritage of Old-Time, Bluegrass and Traditional Country music and honoring local music pioneers of the region, as well as many prominent musicians and entertainers. The museum has many interesting displays featuring one-of-a-kind vintage photographs, musical instruments, LP recordings, and more. We even saw a “Guitarron” on display which will be of interest to Billy Craig.

Having made prior arrangements to specifically see the Bob Mize dulcimer, Suzy Gobble at the Mountain Music Museum and the staff of volunteers (Carole Thompson & Vickie Jones) met with us and showed us around. They explained that the mountain dulcimer made by Bob Mize for Maybelle Carter is on loan to the Mountain Music Museum from The Carter Fold.

As previously stated, the Mize dulcimer was originally located in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum before they split into two museums. Along with some general dulcimer history the signage with the Mize dulcimer states, “This dulcimer was made by Robert R. Mize of Blountville, Tennessee. Originally made by Mr. Mize for the Carter Family during the 1971 celebration, this dulcimer was to be the first item in an earlier Bristol Country Music Museum. The dulcimer was donated to the ACMA Museum in 1999.”

It is not known for certain (by me at any rate) that Mother Maybelle actually played the dulcimer that Bob Mize made. But I like to think that the mountain musician in her would have found it too tempting to pass up, and if she did my guess is one of the first tunes she might have played was Wild Wood Flower.

2015Bristol08 2015Bristol07After getting a good look at the Mize/Carter dulcimer we toured the rest of the Mountain Music Museum and we found another mountain dulcimer on display. This dulcimer belonged to a local educator and musician by the name of Joseph Charles “Papa Joe” Smiddy who was born in 1920. We could not see if there was a label inside the dulcimer. If anyone recognizes the maker of this dulcimer please let me know.

Before I describe what we found at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum here’s a little background info from multiple sources for those who may be unfamiliar with Bob Mize: Robert Mize of Blountville TN became interested in building mountain dulcimers after his son came home from a craft show with a dulcimer kit. The kit-maker, Homer Ledford, gave Bob a pattern and encouraged him to build more instruments. Homer Ledford’s pattern comes from Jethro Amburgey (1895-1971) which came from Uncle Ed Thomas (1850-1933).

Bob began his production of dulcimers in 1967 and in 36 years he made over 3,800 instruments. He built dulcimers for the Tennessee governor‘s office, which gave them as gifts of state to foreign dignitaries. His instruments are in the collections at the Smithsonian Institution and the Tennessee State Museum.

In 1975 Bob was featured in the Foxfire Series #3 in a chapter titled, “Banjos and Dulcimers” (pages 185-207).

Bob Mize died in June 2003 at the age of 82. His obituary states Bob was “a world-class dulcimer maker” and that he was originally a native of Clayton, Ga., but lived in Blountville, TN for many years. Bob was a veteran of World War II serving with the U.S. Army as a forward observer for the artillery under Patton’s Third Army 20th Corps.

In Dulcimer Players News, Vol. 29, No. 4 November 2003-January 2004 on page 7 in the “In Memoriam” section luthier and bowed-dulcimerist Ken Bloom wrote about visiting with Bob Mize, “I visited him several times at his home. When I would call him up to say I was coming out his way, his response would always be, “Great! We’ll go and kill one of the neighbor’s chickens!” Ken told me something else Bob Mize would say when Ken would drive up Bob Mize would call back to his wife “Hey Maud, it’s that Bloom fella come to raid my woodpile again!”

On to the next museum!

100_1092The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, reopened in a new building in 2014, its primary focus is on the artists and time period of Bristol Sessions recordings in 1927-28. The Bristol Sessions were not the first country music recordings, but they were the first country music recordings to be mass produced and distributed. Prior to “the Bristol Sessions,” as it later became to be known, anyone who wanted to record a tune, have it produced and distributed, had to travel to New York and then try to convince someone to record them. The Bristol Sessions brought a recording company to where much of the old-time music was, at the time for those in rural areas even traveling to Bristol was no easy achievement. The museum features, “technology-infused exhibits, a special exhibits gallery, education programs, multiple film experiences and a theater dedicated exclusively to live, year-round music performances.”

Having contacted the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to find out if they had any dulcimers on display prior to our visit they told us they did not have any dulcimers on display as their focus was on the Bristol Sessions of 1927. Undaunted by that news we visited anyway and to our surprise we did find several dulcimer references.

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The first evidence of mountain dulcimers we found at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum was a cutout of an Appalachian dulcimer in a hanging display high up in the main entry way, but almost at eye level from the second level.

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Then in a video on the influence of church music we saw the Poff Family singing in a church service and one of the girls is playing a dulcimer.

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Next we saw a large display with a photo of Jean Ritchie playing her dulcimer.

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 After that we came across a large board that visitors can draw/write something of their experience at the museum. I drew a crude dulcimer and put our name 2015Bristol15 2015Bristol13on it. It wasn’t until we returned home a few days later and were looking at our photographs that we noticed someone else had made a dulcimer reference as well.

Lastly as we were leaving the museum we visited a temporary exhibit from the Smithsonian, “New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music” (this exhibit closes at the end of Sept) and to our surprise as we walked in we saw David Schnaufer with a dulcimer on his lap smiling at us. In the case behind Schnaufer was a mountain dulcimer. I’m not sure who made that dulcimer, if any of you recognize it or can tell what is written on the label let me know.

2015Bristol20Karen even learned about the Hillbillies.

As stated at the beginning, both the Mountain Music Museum and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum are worth visiting if you are anywhere near Bristol.

David & Karen Bennett
10 September 2015