We live near a linguistic border that divides Ohio into North Midland and Appalachian Midland dialects. Connecticut settlers populated northeast Ohio’s Western Reserve in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the southern border of the Western Reserve running east to west near what is now U.S. Route 224. I can go a few miles south or southeast of my home near Canton and hear a marked twang in residents’ speech. Descendants of German immigrants and settlers from Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania populated the region, and my Columbiana County cousins speak with that twang. Traditional music mirrors that division in a Midwest sound that incorporates Celtic and Appalachian music, and my favorite recording of that style and one of my biggest musical influences is “Pigtown Fling.”
I found “Pigtown Fling” on vinyl at the North Canton Public Library in 1982 or so, about the same time I bought my first mountain dulcimer. I recorded the album to cassette, and it became my constant traveling companion, its mix of Irish and Appalachian tunes accompanying me as I explored Ohio’s canals and Indian sites. The record features two dulcimer players, Jay Leibovitz and Leo Kretzner, the latter the biggest influence on my mountain dulcimer playing. The two spent a lot of time at Boulder Junction, a folk music store north of Uniontown, in the 1970s, and they mention on the album jacket learning tunes at the jam sessions held on Thursdays at the store. When the store closed, the sessions moved to Quail Hollow State Park and are still held there.
Jay played with a traditional wooden noter, a wooden dowel rod that slides on the melody strings, but he uses more chords than just the usual open-string drones, whereas Leo played in a single-string flatpicking style, and I made the latter style my own in 1990 when I fell into the clutches of traditional music. You can hear the two styles together on many tunes, sliding noter and flatpick playing complex tunes that before the dulcimer revival were the province of fiddles, pipes and whistles. Some tunes feature Leo soloing, and many present a mix of fiddle, banjo, whistle, concertina, and guitar, the two dulcimer players joined by several Michigan musicians during a two-day recording session. The album was released in 1979, and I was fortunate to buy it from Green Linnet when that label was clearing out its vinyl records in the early 1990s. Leo and Jay recorded a prior collaboration, “Dulcimer Fair,” in 1977, which included fewer instruments than did PF, being mostly just two dulcimers and guitar.
Leo credits Vermont folksinger Margaret MacArthur as his dulcimer inspiration. Margaret plays mountain dulcimer in a single-string style as accompaniment to her singing in a manner similar to folk-style guitar, and Leo took that approach and moved the mountain dulcimer to the forefront, making it a lead instrument and playing instrumental tunes in all their complexity.
I copied Leo’s style as I learned the mountain dulcimer, a normal practice for the developing player, and learned most of the tunes from PF, but as I became adept at flatpicking and focused on Celtic music I went off in my own direction. I was still playing with a noter when I learned about the tunings that Leo used on PF, and for a time I played in both styles, even mixing them in the same tune, somehow holding the noter in abeyance on the part where I played strictly with fingers. I quickly abandoned the noter for good, though, and have never gone back.
I consider Leo Kretzner my dulcimer father and Margaret MacArthur my dulcimer grandmother, and I have passed on my approach to a student and an acquaintance. So goes folk music, a living, thriving tradition, where musicians transmit musical traditions and techniques tinged by their own interpretations.