LEE CAGLE OF MOSCOW, TENNESSEE
Mountain Dulcimer Player, Teacher, Collector,
Festival Organizer and Bee Keeper
Lee Cagle, dulcimer player, teacher, festival promoter, dulcimer collector, bee keeper, grew up in Blount County, Tennessee, (pronounced Blunt). “I grew up surrounded by guitar, banjo and dobro music. My uncle took me up to the mountains and sang old ballads to me. But a school teacher told me I had no musical talent and should try other things so I didn’t get an instrument of my own or play music until I was grown”.
In 1987 Lee got a job in Memphis and bought a dulcimer at a crafts fair. The makers, the Wilsons from Michigan, made dulcimers that are prized by collectors now a days. However, like many mountain dulcimers bought at crafts fairs, she bought one and then hung it on the wall. One day while she stood listening to a bluegrass jam that was going on in the clubhouse of her apartment building, an angel, disguised as an ordinary woman, walked up to her and said: “Wanna come in and listen?” A kind invitation was all it took.
The woman, Janet, was married to a member of the band The Country Gentlemen and was a friend of the leader of the group Quicksilver and was deep into the country and bluegrass music scene. She took Lee to a concert and then a bar-b-que. Since Janet owned a hammered dulcimer that she didn’t know how to play, and Lee owned a mountain dulcimer she didn’t know how to play, she thought they should both attend the “First Ever Dulcimer Festival” taking place in Memphis that year.
In 1989, with just one month’s planning, a woman named Larkin Bryant organized the “First Ever Memphis Dulcimer Festival.” There, Lee met California dulcimer maker and player extraordinaire, Janita Baker, and took some classes from her soon to be mentor, Larkin Bryant. That’s how it all started for her. Just goes to show ya, you can’t believe everything they teach ya in school! The Memphis festival continued for 13 successful years.
During those years Lee learned all she could from Larkin Bryant and soaked up everything she could from Janita Baker’s yearly visits to the Memphis festival. They taught her traditional Appalachian tunes, Celtic and old English music, traditional fiddle tunes and even swing. Around 1990, one of her dulcimer buddies invited her to the“Mountain View Jamboree,” a yearly Springtime festival in Mountain View, Arkansas in the Ozarks. She’s been going there ever since, now as a teacher and performer. I met Lee in Memphis on my way to Mountain View in 2014.
As festivals often do, the Mountain View Jamboree and The First Ever Memphis Dulcimer Festival gave rise to a group of players that met every month in someone’s home. One of the original members, Karen Weis, took charge and appointed Lee to bring dulcimer tab for 2 songs to their first meeting. And so you see the beginnings of a dulcimer club. Karen had a computer, which was rare for those days, so they put together a booklet of songs. In a short amount of time they drew such a large circle of musicians that they couldn’t fit in anyone’s living room. Lee asked a local Episcopal Church if they could use the sanctuary for the monthly group. Finding the group a new home made her the de facto new leader. And in those days, since there was no email, she hand addressed and sent out 25-30 postcards every month letting folks know the time and a list of songs. That group known as “Not Just Dulcimers” lasted 8 years until 1996 when Lee’s son was born and she stepped down.
In 1990, Jean Ritchie came to Memphis for the “Second in a Row Memphis Dulcimer Festival”. Jean was telling stories and playing play party songs, wearing her typical calico farm dress with a big billowy skirt. Lee, sitting on the edge of her chair, tells what happened next: “Jean started talking and looking right at me. I was sitting in the front row. She motioned to me to come sit with her and she placed me in the folds of her skirt and patted me like a little child. From that moment on I knew I would do anything to please her which meant never to stop playing the dulcimer.” Lee was thus anointed by the high priestess of the Appalachian dulcimer herself, to carry on the tradition.
In Mountain View, Lee befriended Jim Woods, who took over the renowned McSpadden Dulcimers from the original maker, Lynn McSpadden. She also met a very special woman named Judy Klinkhammer: a dulcimer player whose wisdom, big heart and musical touch drew countless folks to the dulcimer. Judy gave Lee one of the greatest gifts a teacher can give a student. She had faith in Lee and that faith inspired the confidence to believe she had much to give the world spiritually and musically. For example, Lee didn’t start singing until 2005. Already having defied her school teacher’s admonition to “try things other than music,” she hadn’t pushed her luck beyond being an instrumentalist. However everywhere she went people kept asking, “Sing a song for us.” She’d say, “You don’t want me to sing!” They would say, “Yes we do.” And thus Lee began to sing those old ballads so dear to her heart in violation of the infamous curse of the elementary school teacher!
Taking lessons from Larkin Bryant and Janita Baker became an important part of Lee’s life. So when the First to Thirteenth Memphis Dulcimer Festival ended in 2001, it left a void in the music community that Lee was destined to fill. Lee being the enterprising, creative, energetic, do it now or don’t do it at all kind of gal, said to herself: “It can’t be that hard”. (I know all you festival entrepreneurs are bent over with laughter right now!)
In 2003, Lee began hosting small, one day events. Then she decided to tackle a full festival in the fall of 2005. Her church music director volunteered their church so the new festival resided in downtown Memphis for 2 years. She figured: venue, instructors, a good chef, and something for the spouses to do makes a good festival. What could be so difficult? And so Lee formed The Memphis Dulcimer Gathering, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and began hosting the “Memphis Dulcimer & Folk Gathering”. The Gathering attracted 75-100 attendees per year and was held until 2014. After organizing the Gathering for ten years, Lee decided to take a break and focus on other projects.
Lee’s newest project is “Sing Me Home.” It’s a program she created adjunctive to a series of programs created by a local church’s attempt to improve conditions of urban blight and homelessness. They feed folks, have a clothes closet, shelter folks during the winter, connect people with resources for jobs and always have a coffee pot going. Lee plays her dulcimer during Sunday morning breakfasts and during breaks at events and workshops sponsored by the church. Playing music and talking to the folks who come to the programs has given her a new perspective on who and why people end up homeless.
Skye Boat Song
Lee continues to teach, perform, collect and sell dulcimers in her home in Moscow, TN, one hour east of Memphis where she also is a bee keeper and honey farmer. Her company Wolf River Honey produces more varieties of honey than I knew existed. And boy are they delicious!
Lee owns several dulcimers from Janita Baker’s (Blue Lion Instruments) and hopes one day to own an Ed Presnell dulcimer, one of the better known early Appalachian dulcimer makers, now deceased. Her collection includes her original Wilson, several McSpaddens, a David McKinney (Modern Mountain dulcimer), a Mike Clemmer (Wood’n Strings Dulcimer Shoppe), and a Bill Rich (Papaw’s Dulcimers). However, her most prized instruments include a 1969 Homer Ledford dulcimer, and a 1967 dulcimer (#170) made by Jean Ritchie and George Pickow in their Port Washington, NY studio. I asked Lee what she thought of the developments in the modern dulcimer scene: extra frets, the reliance on one tuning: DAD, baritone, bass and soprano dulcimers, solid body electric dulcimers, chromatic dulcimers, looping pedals, etc. Lee says she still prefers the older traditional music but encourages others to do whatever enhances their musical expression.
Lee likes to play in several different tunings and often brings several dulcimers, including a baritone to performances. “I especially love demonstrating the traditional way of playing with a noter (a small round dowel of about 3-4 inches) and a turkey feather quill instead of a plastic pick.”
“I love teaching even more than performing. I love watching youngsters get a dulcimer and grow up to become performers and teach at the very festivals where they learned. The dulcimer has added so much to my life. In fact the dulcimer has “saved my life. It’s gotten me through sad times when life was pretty dark. Having the dulcimer and the people I met because of the dulcimer has made a huge difference in my life. I hope when I’m old old old, I can still play something on my dulcimer.”
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