Passion can be infectious – the word itself nearly contains the phrase “pass it on.” That’s exactly what dulcimer player David Schnaufer did when he moved to Nashville in the 1980’s on a quest to make the mountain dulcimer as common to country music as the fiddle and the pedal steel guitar.
Schnaufer died in 2006, but not before winning a place for the dulcimer in contemporary music and inspiring his students with his contagious enthusiasm. A display of Schnaufer’s instrument collection at the Tennessee State Museum celebrates the man and his music.
The dulcimer to me is the wild animal of the instrument kingdom – it doesn’t have an old repertoire or an evolution that is continuous. It’s reinvented over and over and over again. – David Schnaufer
The Texan re-imagined the narrow, wooden, three-stringed instrument, often playing it with a bow or amplifying it like an electric guitar. Schnaufer took the instrument beyond the borders of the traditional folk music, tackling everything from classical compositions by Bach to the idiosyncratic jazz songs of Charles Mingus.
He cut solo records, played with The Cactus Brothers and recorded with the likes of The Judds, Mark Knopfler and Sting.
Cyndi Lauper came calling for lessons. She was one of many. Here she is, self-accompanied on the dulcimer:
Nashvillian Linda Sack telephoned Schnaufer for months before her first lesson at the efficiency apartment the musician shared with his dozens of dulcimers:
He looked like someone who’d come out of the mountains. He had these little round glasses and he wore Amish jeans and boots and little suspenders. This magical little man with his little straw hat on and his dulcimers on the wall.
“It wasn’t just a lesson,” says Sack. “He would tell these wonderful stories with his raspy voice, and as a teacher he esteemed you in a way that I’ve never experienced with a teacher before. He did not have any pretense about him and I think that’s what everybody loved about him.”
Schnaufer captivated his students with tales of the dulcimer’s vagabond history, recalling its metamorphosis from its harp-like, multi-stringed European ancestors to its stripped-down, three-stringed Appalachian cousins. This performance was recorded for the Wood Songs Old-Time Radio Hour:
A Fine-Tuned Friend
Schnaufer spent most mornings sipping coffee on the porch at Bongo Java, holding court in his kind way, with both old friends and new. That’s where he met then-Nashvillian John Rogers who’s now a New York based photographer for the NPR Music blog.
“We’d hang out at his apartment and listen to music,” says Rogers. “At some point I think I said “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you play dulcimer before.” He sort just gave me the history of the instrument over the course of an hour and a half solo concert. So, that was pretty spectacular introduction.” Schnaufer’s virtuosity was undeniable, but Rogers was more affected by the musician’s ready smile and generous interactions with both colleagues and strangers at the coffee house:
He made me realize at a very young age that someone could be a musical genius but that wasn’t really enough. It more was like ‘You’re a musical genius, but how are you as a human being?’
In June of 2006, Schnaufer’s friends and students were shaken by his lung cancer diagnosis. After a lifetime of sharing his music and his knowledge, suddenly Schnaufer was the one in need.
“He had nothing when he died – except for this dulcimer collection,” says Sack. “He had given his entire life to teaching and to being a musician. He had a community of people who rallied and took care of him. He passed from this world to the next well cared for.”
The last time John Rogers saw Schnaufer, they met back at Bongo Java where Rogers snapped his portrait. After the passing of his friend, Rogers had the image made into a tattoo, joining a pantheon of musical heroes adorning the photographer’s legs.
I have Charlie Parker opposite David and then on the other leg I have Ornette and Coltrane. So I hold David in that regard: As quality a human being and a musical genius as Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. I have no problems making those comparisons.
Schnaufer always wanted his beloved dulcimers to have a home at the Tennessee State Museum and after the musician’s passing, his brother made good on his wish. The collection is on display there until the end of the month.