The first thing 83-year-old Tom Jones did when I met him was apologize for not being the famous Tom Jones, the singer. The second thing he did was invite me into his lovely home at the Rolling Green Village retirement community and show me some of the dulcimers he’s spent the last 45 years building.
The first time Jones saw a dulcimer was in the early 1970s after moving from eastern North Carolina to Pickens, when he met a local music minister who played and built the instruments. Not being a musician, Jones didn’t fall in love with the sound of the dulcimer; he fell in love with the way it looked. The instrument is typically in an hourglass shape with a tuning head at the top similar to the violin, but it’s closer to the size of an acoustic guitar.
“I think it was the uniqueness of it,” Jones says. “I’d never seen one before. It had a character of its own.”
The music minister talked to Jones about how the instrument was a relatively easy one to build if you had woodworking experience, and Jones had that. So Jones headed off to the Greenville County Library and found a book on how to make an Appalachian dulcimer. Then he saw an old door that a Baptist church in east Pickens had just taken out to enlarge a room, and it was just what he needed.
“I’d read enough to know that I needed one-eighth-of-an-inch-thick wood to make the soundbox [the hollow body of the dulcimer with sound holes], and that was the skin of that hollow-core door,” Jones says. “I took the skin off the door and then took some of the harder wood to make the fretboard and the tuner and so forth.”
But it wasn’t JUST the look that appealed to Jones; it was the intimacy of the instrument, too.
“It’s such a personal instrument,” he says. “It’s not a performing one.”
In fact, in some cases, it can be a VERY personal one.
“There was one called a ‘courting dulcimer,’” Jones says with a laugh. “It’s one that has a fretboard on one side and a fretboard on the other, and when a young man would come courting the lady of the house, Daddy would take them into the parlor and set them do
wn knee to knee. He’d put the dulcimer on their lap and tell them to enjoy playing together, and then he would leave. But when the music stopped, he would come back in!”
Jones can’t remember exactly how long it took him to build his first dulcimer, just that it took a long time. As he became more familiar with the instrument, he managed to whittle his time down to about 20 hours of labor. He reckons he’s made 40 or so over the decades, giving them to family members and selling a few, as well. And he eventually learned how to play one, taking them all around to show people what was once called a forgotten instrument.
“As time went on, I got more familiar with playing it,” he says, “and I got to do it in church groups, with youth groups in schools, and in programs with it here at Rolling Green.”
As Mr. Jones took me around his home, showing me 50 years of craftsmanship, sweat, and music, he let me in on some tricks of the trade.
“The secret is that you can make it any shape you want,” he says with a wink, “as long as the fretboard and tuners are standard.”
He also mentions that he’s got some big plans for his dulcimers, and for some of the people at Rolling Green.
“I’m talking to the activities director to use it with the memory care patients who have dementia,” he says. “It’s such a simple instrument, it’s easy to get other people involved with it.”
And then he sat down and played me a brief tune, looking down and smiling at what he built with his own two hands.