INTERVIEW WITH DUANE PORTERFIELD
Mountain View, Arkansas 9/22/16
I met Duane Porterfield on my first visit to Mountain View, Arkansas in November of 2015. I went there to meet Judy Klinkhammer, a very special human being, dulcimer player, composer and teacher. She was in hospice and I came six months earlier than I had planned, so I could meet her in person before she passed away. I picked that weekend because Patricia Delich and Wayne Jiang, the film makers of the dulcimer documentary: Hearts of the Dulcimer, were going to be there that weekend filming the abundance of talented dulcimer players in the Mountain View area. During the filming I met Duane Porterfield, and a gaggle of other wonderful players. Duane’s rich use of chord harmonies, clean smooth picking style and his quiet gentle presence caught my attention. On my 2nd trip to Mountain View in July, 2016, I attended the three day Ozark Dulcimer Jubilee and had the privilege of performing with Duane, and Mary and Jack Giger on the Ozark Folk Center concert stage. It is my pleasure to introduce you to Duane Porterfield.
JL: You now live in Mountain View, AR, one of the mountain dulcimer capitals of the world because it’s home to the McSpadden Dulcimer Shoppe. Tell me what led you to the mountain dulcimer and to Mountain View?
DP: I grew up in Kansas City, KS. A little bit before 5th grade, I was at my grandparents house in Arkansas, and my grandpa had a harmonica. I picked it up and started picking out tunes and it amazed my folks. So when I got back to Kansas City I got my own harmonica and that started things. In 5th grade I decided I wanted to play guitar so they got me a K-Mart, almost cardboard guitar. “Learn on that until we get you something better.” A year went by and they bought me a good quality guitar.
JL: Had you heard of the dulcimer yet or were you still in the guitar mode?
DP: I hadn’t heard a dulcimer yet. A man in Kansas City, Les Crider, played guitar and taught me Wildwood Flower. That’s my earliest memory of a song I could actually play and you could recognize. That made me even more interested.
JL: Were you listening to the radio? What kind of music were your friends listening to?
DP: Probably slow rock, contemporary and some country. John Denver, the Eagles, that kind of thing. My mom and dad always listened to country.
JL: So you weren’t listening to Jean Ritchie or Richard Farina yet?
DP: Never heard of her yet. It was several years later that the guy who taught me Wildwood Flower bought a dulcimer kit. It was a cheap plywood kit but I thought: “Well that’s kind of a neat instrument!” So I bought a kit too and it had a terrible sound and really high action. I thought that was all there was to it, so I put it away. Years later, 1997, I know that because it’s on the sticker in my dulcimer, I went into Jim Curley’s Mountain Music Shoppe in Shawnee, a suburb of Kansas City. I had gone in there intending to buy a hammered dulcimer. I loved the sound. I fiddled around on it a little bit and discovered that I’m not real good with percussion type stuff. If I wasn’t able to play something the first day I usually just end up putting it up. I couldn’t just pick it up and play something.
Jim Curley had some McSpadden mountain dulcimers in there that I recognized from the kit I made, but the quality made everything. He showed me what he could do on it and I walked out with my first McSpadden dulcimer. Jim also had a couple of cassette tapes that he had made and I listened to them. My first book was Larry Conger’s September on the Mississippi. The reason I got it was because I didn’t read music. His book came with a CD. I could listen to a tune and pick it out looking at the tablature.
JL: How old were you then?
DP: I was in my 30s. My hobby was playing music. I eventually started a string band with my brother and Les. We started playing around in the Kansas City area, festivals and that kind of thing.
JL: You guys must have been pretty good?
DP: We thought we were I guess. It was small time stuff. Sometimes we’d play for travel money and sometimes we played for a jar of apple butter each. It was that kind of thing. Historical sites, living history places. That’s when I started getting into the old time stuff, enjoying that. We also got into Civil War era music which is how we got our name: “Hard Tack.”
JL: Is hard tack what the soldiers ate?
DP: Kind of the staple food, associated with the time period and the music we played. It was known for its long shelf life. So we were hoping we would last a little while.
JL: Were you playing the banjo at this point? Or did that come later?
DP: That came later. I wasn’t familiar so much with the clawhammer frailing style. Everything I’d heard was the 3 finger Bluegrass stuff. I tried it but I couldn’t get it. It took more effort than I was willing to put into it I guess. When I tried the clawhammer style, it fit the type of music we were playing better and came to me fairly easily.
JL: Well it’s interesting. Most of your dulcimer playing is picked, but clawhammer banjo is more like a strummed dulcimer. You do the clawhammer style on the banjo and finger pick the dulcimer.
DP: Well I do a cross pick, using a flat pick to pick and strum at the same time. A lot of people think I’m fingerpicking when they hear it.
JL: So how long did “Hard Tack” last?
DP: Up until the point when I retired from the police department, about 3 years ago. There was an audience for old time music. We were playing at those little fairs and stuff and it was a nice way to get away from the stress of the job. If I was playing that kind of music, I could leave the stress of the city. It was my escape. I also visited that Mountain Music Shop in Shawnee for the same reason. The atmosphere would make me think of the Ozarks where I eventually retired to.
JL: How did you end up in Mountain View.
DP: My parents and my grandparents were from Izard County, Arkansas, which is next door to Stone County and Mountain View is in Stone County. When I was little they used to take us boys to Mountain View and you know there’s someone always playing music on the court square. I just loved the area. There’s music everywhere. I remember the first time, by then I was grown and married, when I got to play with a group on the square; I thought: “Wow I’m on the Grand Ole Opry”. When I was getting close to retirement, my wife and I looked around Kansas City and tried to find something that was like the Ozarks. We finally decided: “Why don’t we go to the Ozarks.”
Today we’re having a dulcimer gathering at one of the RV Parks here. I’m teaching and doing a little concert coming up at 1 o’clock. Something is always going on around here. People come from all over: Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi, all over the place. The way it’s put together is so relaxing and laid back. Jack and Mary Giger head it up. They put up different canopies and a board. If you want to teach something you write it on a card, put it on the board, and they’ll find a time and a place for you. That’s how the whole weekend works. What a brilliant way to run a festival in my opinion. Everybody you haven’t seen for months or years comes together. It feels like you’re coming home. They say that the third time you come to Mountain View you need to bring your furniture with you!
JL: How has living so close to the McSpadden Dulcimer Shoppe and knowing Judy Klinkhammer contributed to your music?
DP: Jim and Betty Woods bought the Dulcimer Shoppe and Lynn McSpadden retired. The first time that I met Jim was before we moved here. I came to play at the Southern Regionals competition at the Ozark Folk Center. I went into his shop and told him: “Well I hope that you’ll be handing me one of these in the next couple of days.” And it turned out he did.
Real nice people. One time we came down intending to stay in our tent, and there was a storm coming in. Betty got worried about us and said: “You’re not staying in that tent, come over to our house.” We’ve kind of adopted them and they’ve adopted us, we’re some kind of kinfolk now I suppose.
And of course, Judy, she was one of the wisest people I’ve ever met. I’ve played music with her on stage and I talked to her about personal things. I could go to her with any kind of problem. She’d have the answer to it. After she gave me the answer I’m like “Why didn’t I think of that? It’s so obvious!” I love her and miss her. Matter of fact I’m going to do a little song, coming up here at 1 o’clock in her memory.
Can I tell you a story? Once when we played at the Folk Center, we were in the back practice room working out our set. It was me, Judy Klinkhammer and Mary Geiger. We’re in the back room and just started playing different tunes. We played Knocking on Heaven’s Door and had us an unbelievable moment! In fact, we were getting so loud that someone came and shut our door. We were having a blast and Judy just went back in time. She turned into a different person. It was such a moment to play that song with those two people and their harmonies and everything. It was just awesome. I’ll never forget it.
JL: I noticed on your CD, Set In Stone, that you’re writing some original tunes.
DP: What I did on Cedar Tea was put myself in the middle of a cedar grove with a dulcimer to find out what’s gonna come out of here. The other one, Ponca to Pruitt was from a hiking trip we took up on the Buffalo River.
JL: On your CD liner notes you talk about the storm coming and going and the sun shining on rim of the mountain. It’s such a sound painting, full of changing imagery like when you’re hiking and you turn a corner and you see something new or the weather changes.
Ponca to Pruitt
DP: That’s the picture I tried to paint with the music. If you listen, hopefully you can hear the storm coming in and leaving.
JL: Do you want to do another CD?
DP: I think if I did another CD I would probably use some of the live tracks from the Folk Center. Or I would set a recorder in the middle of a room with a bunch of people and just play. On the CD, I over dubbed different instruments on all but three of the songs. I’m glad I did it, but to be honest, it turned into a little bit of work.
JL: And you’re retired. That’s not fair!
DP: I’m really glad I did it because I sound like a whole band. There’s people who like to hear the “real stuff,” We’re not striving to be perfect. We don’t need every single note to be exactly right. That’s not the way it was when they played on the front porch. Somebody would hit a sour note and they’d look at each other and smile. You know what I mean! Maybe the banjo has a string out of tune. Well you better stop and tune that thing. It’s the relationship between the people that means everything. It’s what you get out of it when you’re playing with somebody.
JL: I really like the way you put that. It’s really about the relationships between the people playing.
DP: Dulcimer people are some of the best people I’ve ever met. It’s amazing to me when I stop and think about all the people that the dulcimer’s introduced me to.
JL: Would you say of all the instruments you play that the dulcimer is your first love?
DP: Absolutely, and I play about a dozen different instruments. The other thing that I’ve recently started doing has actually been since Judy Klinkhammer passed away. She always tried to get me to teach and I was always reluctant because I don’t read music. Anyway she talked me into it. After she passed away, the Ozark Folk Center approached me about teaching her class. Because it was hers, I said okay. And that first time, I dreaded it for months. Then I did it and got so much more out of it than any of my students! It was so rewarding. So now I’m teaching and hopefully she’s smiling.
JL: I’m sure she is. Are you teaching with tab? Or are you teaching totally by ear?
DP: I do both. I do one class that I absolutely love to teach and that’s on playing with a noter and a turkey feather, getting back to the old traditions. If I’m teaching a song, we listen to the tune and get it in our heads. Then we go back and apply the tab. I’ll show them different embellishments and the chords. It you’re happy strumming it, or prefer playing with a noter, then good for you. If you want to get as fancy as the best player you can think of, then work on that tune and make it your own. Don’t try to copy somebody else’s stuff. It means more to you when you make it your own.
I love Aubrey Atwater’s comment in one of your recent interviews. I tell students the exact same thing. “Take what you can get outta me and then listen to somebody else and take what you need from them. If it’s not for you don’t use it.” We don’t apply any rules to this instrument except Judy’s three rules: “Play in time. Play in tune. Play the same song as the person next to you.” Everything else, it’s your own.
JL: Is there anything else you want to tell me about how much you love the dulcimer?
DP: I have 12 of them now, I believe.
JL: Are they all McSpadden?
DP: That’s the problem. Every time I turn around they have a new model or one that has unbelievably pretty wood. I have an unusual one of their bass prototypes. They may get mad at me for telling, but on the inside sticker they spelled bass wrong. And there’s another one. I watched David Schnauffer play the Tennessee Music Box and I thought that is just the basic no frills: a box and a fingerboard. So I asked Lynn McSpadden, several years before he passed away, if he ever built one of those. He said: “I built five of them and they were prototypes for Cyndi Lauper. She wanted one.” I said: “Well I’d like to have one.” He says: “Well I may have one in pieces in my shed. Come on over to the house and we’ll see.” So I went over there and he had the pieces of it. It was a maple box with a spruce top and the rest of the pieces. I said: “How much will you take for this?” He said: “Give me $40.” I said “Lynn, there’s more than that just in the wood alone.” And he said: “Don’t argue with me boy!” I said “Will you take a check?” I paid $40 for those pieces and I took them up to George Looney’s who has also since passed away. He could build anything. Once he built a banjo out of a snapping turtle shell. I asked him if he could finish it out and he did. I said “What do I owe you for that?” He said: “Well next time you come to town (it was before we moved here), bring me a bottle of wine with a screw off lid.” So I probably got $42.50 invested in this. And inside the sticker says: #5 CL for Cindi Lauper. The fact that Lynn and George are both gone now, it’s got special meaning. And Jim Wood’s got a little bit of effort in it too. My heroes of the dulcimer world all have a little part in my Tennessee Music Box.
Duane Porterfield can be reached at email@example.com
A true creative maverick in the mountain dulcimer world, Joellen Lapidus both embraces the deep rich traditions of the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer, and creates new traditions. One of the pioneers of an equally rich California Mountain Dulcimer tradition, her rhythmic playing style and elegant shapes and inlaid dulcimers have influenced generations of players and builders. Joellen teaches at McCabes Guitar Shop and dulcimer festivals from coast to coast. (this last sentence is optional, depending on how much room you have.) www.lapidusmusic.com