Musician and educator Don Pedi has hosted music programs on BPR since 1985, starting as a fill-in host and eventually developing “Close to Home” which brings listeners traditional, old-time and classic folk, often curated around themes, every Saturday from 8:00 to 10:00 PM.
Don is being honored this Saturday by the Toe River Arts Council during this year’s 35th Annual Music in the Mountains Folk Festival on September 18th. The Festival is recognizing Don as "a pioneer in traditional Appalachian music whose contributions over the past five decades have helped to make the sound of the dulcimer recognizable and revered.”
BPR’s Abby Bishop spoke with Don about his early introduction to music, his journey to Western North Carolina and his work to celebrate and preserve Appalachian music.
Learn more about Don’s music and work on his website.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What first attracted you to the dulcimer?
I went to see Judy Collins in a coffee house in Boston. I don't want to date myself, but it was $3 to see Judy Collins in a coffee house! To get there from where I lived, that meant taking a bus, a subway, and then an above ground train, then a subway and switching a few times to get to the coffee house. And when I got there, [it turned out] she had played the night before. But Richard and Mimi Fariña were playing there. And Mimi is Joan Baez’s sister and Richard played a dulcimer and they did very wonderful topical songs of the time. It was the sixties. There was a lot of civil rights kind of music and a lot of protest music about the war and their music was steeped in tradition, but using traditions like Dylan did and a lot of people did, they took the old songs and used the melodies or changed the themes to suit the day. And anyway, I saw Fariña and I actually went up and spoke with him and he let me try his dulcimer. And that was it, I was hooked.
Could you explain what the dulcimer is?
Basically what people agree on is the dulcimer came from older German instruments. Some people say they came from the scheitholt or zither and that is a little instrument that is a box with staples on it for frets, right on the box. They say that in this country, instead of having the frets on the side of the box they are centrally located on a fingerboard; adding a raised fingerboard to the instrument is what makes it a dulcimer. That’s the theory. In reality, hummels in Germany were built kind of like that years before. The good news is the Germans brought instruments like that to this country and they were easy to build. A lot of the old dulcimers were homemade. There weren't a lot of big producers, people could just slap one together. I have one up at the house that's made out of barn siding and still has the saw marks (laughter). Dulcimers have been around since the late 1700s
When did you come to Western North Carolina?
I ended up in Colorado and met these two fellas from Asheville that were musicians and we played a little and they asked me to finish the tour with them. And I was working out there seasonally and I came back to Asheville and basically never left, that was in 1973. And I just fell in love with the local music and just the whole history of it and everything. And that's just what I've done since then.
How has traditional folk music shaped Western North Carolina?
It's really an integral part of life here. In Madison County, for example, there is a really rich, old tradition of ballad singers. I used to run a coffee house at, I guess, what is that? The Mellow Mushroom. It used to be Stone Soup. Dick Gilbert let me run a coffee house on the weekends there and I'd have the ballad singers come in. What wonderful music. It wasn't no slick act. It was just people being who they are. People singing songs that they learnt from older generations while they were out hoeing the corn rows, while they were washing dishes, while they would just sitting around after a hard day's work, that's where the music came from.
In Western North Carolina, this has been going on for generations and generations. Bascom Lunsford was a big collector of music. He's the one that started the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival here. And that was part of the Rhododendron Festival, that was a big attraction for a lot of rich people who would come to Asheville at the turn of the century. In 1928 Mr. Lunsford was invited to feature local musicians and dancers on stage during the Rhododendron Festival. And it turned out that the Rhododendron Festival went by the wayside and the Mountain Dance and Folk festival continues to this day as the oldest ongoing festival in the country. Pete Seeger learned about the banjo by coming to Asheville and seeing Bascom play at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. It was also the model for the National Folk Festival.
What have you learned about Western North Carolina through playing this type of music?
I've learned a lot about country life. Bascom always said that music was the great equalizer. It doesn't matter if you were the President of the United States or a ditch digger, when you got into playing music, can you play the tune or not? It’s the great equalizer.
Western North Carolina, the terrain, you know, you have to know what you're doing. Our water is spring fed. It's 300 feet up above the house on a rock mountain. And so we have to deal with that if something happens. That's just normal life to people that are from these mountains. Out here, it's different in this country living and people are still connected with the old ways. It's not just music. People know how to build furniture in the old primitive style people still do that. People still know all their herbs. You can go to different folks and they can find you water on your land. I love that. After living in Cambridge and studying Zen and all this stuff, I decided to want to get back to nature and just get back to the world, I like simple.
Who are some of your Western North Carolina musical icons and why?
There are a lot of great musicians. When you talk about traditional music, great is kind of a relative term (laughter). On the radio show, I've played some of these old ballad singers. When I used to be at the station, I'd get phone calls, mostly positive, but one time I was playing a ballad singer and they said, “Why did you play this, that woman can't sing." And I said, respectfully speaking, you don't know how to listen to this. This is beautiful singing. This is not The Little Mermaid. This is not a Disney movie. This is real people with real connection to the world and day to day scratching out a living. And this is their recreation. This is lovely singing, you know, it's not pretty, but it's lovely.
We've got people like Dellie Norton, Evelyn Ramsey. These are ballad singers that I really liked lot. Lee and Berzilla Wallin, they were the older generation and then Doug and Jack were the kids. Doug Wallin, what a wonderful singer, his singing voice was just pure gold, any kind of music you're into, you would recognize how beautiful his voice is.
People like Carroll Best who was a banjo player in Haywood County. This was the kind of people that I learned a lot from. Carol was a slick banjo player, he played classic style banjo. It's like three fingers, but not bluegrass. It's an older style. And Carol had every opportunity to travel as a professional musician, but he made a choice, a life choice that he didn't want him to spend his life on the road. He was married. He lived at his grandfather's farm over in Haywood County. He took a job at a factory and he worked in that factory until he retired and that's when he started traveling because it was more important for him to have roots and be in this community.
When Carol died, all these big name banjo players, I mean, big national stars came—Tony Trischka, and John Hartford drove from Nashville, Tennessee with a broken ankle to be at Carol's funeral because he was that big of an influence. Whether they're famous or not, those are the kinds of people you find around here.
Other musicians like Byard Ray, who was just an old-time style fiddle player. I used to love to play with Harry Cagle. He was a young man when Samantha Baumgarner, she was from Sylva, Samantha and Eva Davis, they were the first people to record a banjo on a commercial recording. And Harry would learn every song from Samantha and would only play as close as he could to playing them exactly like her. She was a big hit at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. So there's so many people, it's hard to even think of who to name and who not to name. All these local folks who were wonderful musicians.
For your BPR radio show Close to Home, what themes do you like to explore and how do you put it together?
I do an hour of the traditional music cause that's important to me that it keeps going. I used to do an hour of old people and then an hour of more contemporary traditional musicians. I also do my “potluck” for the second hour. A lot of the sixties music is still relevant and it affected the consciousness of the listening audience. I'd get emails all the time about people taking heart because of the music I would play. I don't just throw stuff together. I try to have some kind of a thread, even if it's my own little mind thread, but it's thought out. Everything's a theme. It might be as simple as playing fiddle tunes and songs that talk about animals. I do birthday shows, feature the music of people born during a given month.
My mother died when she was young and we were very close and her name was Jenny. So I collect songs with Jenny in the title, there's tons of them. I could do a whole hour of songs in that fashion or else I'll take one song and play versions that are the same song in really different versions, in different lyrics, the way they've been passed down in different parts of the Southeast. Also it might be that, whatever was happening in the world. If there was a war or putting kids in cages or whatever it was, I would address those issues just through music. I never said much about any of it, but I would address those issues by playing music with lyrics that I think would go from one piece to the next, connected, to make people have a certain frame of mind about that. And who knows if it changes anybody's mind or if it at least just gave solace to people who were like-minded. It's just all I can do from my little place in the world.
Don Pedi’s “Close to Home” airs Saturday evenings, 8:00-10:00 PM on BPR Classic.