By Scott MacClelland
You could spend all day trying to catalog the different types of zithers, ranging from the relatively simple fretted epinette from the Vosges Mountains of France to the grand concert hammered cimbaloms popular in Austrian and Hungarian folk music. And you could probably spend the next day arguing over which of them has proved the most successful by volume of sales. (Hint: come down on the side of the mountain dulcimer from Appalachia, which can claim the epinette among its ancestors.)
Meanwhile, minstrels like Woody Guthrie and novelists like John Steinbeck drove Americans downtrodden by the Depression and Dust Bowel tragedy toward a new communal humanity where identity required solidarity, a ‘communist’ mentality in the face of universal disaster. When Guthrie and Pete Seeger sang Brother can you spare a dime, more Americans than not understood.
Yet the mountain dulcimer didn’t emerge from the rural south until the mid 20th century. The revival of American folk music that peaked during the Flower Power era of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, powered by opposition to the Vietnam War, drove a whole generation in search of its moral roots—meaning its rural roots. Jean Ritchie (now, at 92, back in her native Kentucky) had already taken up the Appalachian, lap-held dulcimer to accompany her singing some of the Celtic-inflected rural American folksongs, like Shady Grove and Go Tell Aunt Rhody. The instrument, soft-spoken and ethereal—dulcimer means sweet song—seemed to impart an ancient truth to folksong lyrics.
Around the same time, Phyllis and Ron Patterson imagined and enacted a Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Southern California. A demand for mountain dulcimers erupted, and Howard Rugg, an antique furniture restorer, along with his brother Michael, who seized the day to entertain at pleasure faires as they burgeoned in various California locations, formed a partnership, Capritaurus, to create handcrafted arts. “He was the front man,” says Howard, “and I made dulcimers” (see a recent model, left). He describes Michael as “a premiere dulcimer player at that time,” explaining that, “he learned new chops, set precedents, did designs and made changes that got us our so-called fifteen minutes of fame.” Rugg estimates that they made and sold about 20,000 dulcimers, “four to six a day, up to ten a day during the Christmas season, really cranking them out.” He credits the pioneering Jean Ritchie and, later, folksinger/novelist/poet Richard Fariña for popularizing the dulcimer. The Ruggs wholesaled them, and even produced kits with instructions. Then, in the ‘80s, the market collapsed. In 1989 they agreed to sell their interest to Folkcraft Instruments of Woodburn, Indiana.
In 1952, when Rugg was in high school, his parents bought a cabin in Felton. In 1963, he moved to the small San Lorenzo Valley town “full time.” He and his wife Linda with their two sons, ultimately bought the house they had rented for many years, close to the entrance to Henry Cowell State Park on Highway 9, near the Big Foot Discovery museum. “Michael is the curator of the museum. He saw one when he was about four years old near a sawmill in Garberville,” Howard explains.
Howard Rugg started making ukuleles (right) about five years ago, as a “semi-retirement project for the rest of my life.” He consulted with the Monterey Bay’s pre-eminent violin maker, David Morse, who helped pick out the wood and provided valuable advice on such things as the best kind of glue. Rugg used walnut in many of his ukuleles (pictured) and lots of koa, the common acacia wood of the Hawaiian Islands. “I made about 30 of them,” he says, but, speaking of their relative complexity, “They got too difficult.” Still he has four begun but, for the moment, unfinished.
Calling it “Rugg’s Rut,” Howard still takes pleasure in making dulcimers. “I’m working on four of them right now.” While he says he is no musician, he did learn to play accordion and harmonica. “I’ve got the music in me,” he says, but “I have a mechanical mind.” Yet, a restless one. “I’m not locked into making the same thing over and over.” As a result, no two of his dulcimers are identical. “The best part is designing the jigs.” Dulcimers are gauged by their “scale lengths,” the length of the strings that stretch from end to end. He’s used heavier walnut, maple and rosewood. “I made a dulcimer out of an old redwood plank,” he says with pride. “It’s light, and with a sound all its own, a black color fading into red, a silk purse out of junk.” His latest development is using Piezo pickups used to run the delicate sound through amplification.
Of his instruments, “I still have a bunch in the shop.” They can also be seen at the Big Foot Discovery Museum. Sales today, he says, are “mainly by word of mouth.” The eye and the ear also find much to feast on.