Photo Courtesy of Ralph Lee Smith, used in July 16, 2019

In Memory – 2020


            2020- –the most challenging year in the collective memory for many of us.

            2020—a year bookmarked by the passing of two Mountain Dulcimer Legends…Madeline (Maddie) MacNeil, March, 2020; Ralph Lee Smith, December, 2020.

            Today is January 01, 2021.   Today we in the dulcimer world give thanks and recall the blessings we received from Ralph Lee and Maddie.

            Each came to the mountain dulcimer tradition through none other than the direct influence of the “Mother of Folk.”

            In the late 40’s, Jean Ritchie left the high hills and hollers of east Kentucky and headed for the streets and alleyways of Manhattan’s Lower East side. She took her mountain dulcimer with her to the Henry Street Settlement House. Keyed up city kids could be calmed by her primitive instrument and plaintive ballads.  By the late 50’s Jean Ritchie was bringing mountain music the eclectic coffeehouses of Greenwich Village.

            Ralph Lee was there.  He heard Jean Ritchie play the simple tunes “Shady Grove” and “Jubilee.”  He writes, “For me the impact was significant.”  As was his impact on us.

            Maddie MacNeil trusted her inner voice.  With little encouragement and even less sense of certainty, she freed herself from public school teaching and heeded her calling —-to play music as a connection to others and to the Holy.

            At the Skyland Lodge on the Skyline Drive, Maddie discovered the mountain dulcimer.  She then introduced this largely unknown native instrument to thousands of visitors who passed through the Shenandoah National Park. 

            One day a tall woman, standing just outside the Maddie’s peripheral vision, was heard to say, “She plays and sings like an angel.”  Jean Ritchie gave her imprimatur.  Maddie was approved by the “Mother of Folk.”  Later Maddie would be known as the “Mother of the Modern Dulcimer.”

            Both Ralph Lee and Maddie became a legend in his/her own way.  Each recorded mountain dulcimer music on cassettes, then records, then CDs.  Each researched, wrote, and edited dulcimer history, tunes, stories, and books.  Each would just a graciously play for a bed-ridden friend as for a sacred gathering of strangers.

            But for all the legend they were, many of us knew them as “regular folk.”  We sat knee-to-knee learning to strum DAA tunes.  We shared meals with them and went for walks with them.  They made us laugh.  They listened to our stories.  They handed us priceless instruments for inspection.  The answered endless questions and responded to countless emails. 

            Maddie MacNeil and Ralph Lee Smith impacted our lives and significantly shaped today’s dulcimer world.  They modeled the communion of music, connecting one to another and to the sacred.  Today is January 1, 2021.  We give thanks for the blessings of and to be blessed by MADELINE MACNEIL and RALPH LEE SMITH.

by Dinah Ansley, Jan. 1, 2020

Photo courtesy of Ralph Lee Smith, share in the July 16, 2019 Connection Newspaper: