Mountain Music, Dance and Dulcimers
Text and Photographs by Mark Crabtree
for Goldenseal Magazine, Summer 1992
"That old man who played the dulcimer would come to your house and play all day if you gave him a meal. If you had moonshine to drink, he'd play better and stay longer."
That old man, Simon Meyers, and his hammered dulcimer playing started a lifelong love of the instrument for Worley Gardner.
It doesn't take a free meal or moonshine to get Gardner to play music. You're likely to find him playing dulcimer, mandolin, fiddle or banjo at most any gathering of old-time musicians anywhere near his Morgantown home, at festivals around the state, and, of course, at the Winter Music Festival he directs.
Playing what he calls "mountain music" started early for Gardner, but it wasn't until many years later that he learned to play dulcimer, on an instrument that had been played by Simon Meyers himself. It's a long story, and a good one.
Worley was born February 19, 1919, in rural Monongalia County. "I grew up on a typical West Virginia farm--it was hilly as the devil! It was halfway between Blacksville and Daybrook, four miles to either place. All the work was done with horses. We didn't have a tractor back then. We raised cattle and grew our own food."
"The paying crop on the farm was cattle. We didn't take them to auction in those days. Buyers would come around every fall. They'd make you an offer by the pound. You'd either take it or hope someone would come by with a better offer. When you did sell, they'd take your cattle off and weigh them, then you'd get your payment. That was the farm's earnings for the year. We also had a gas well on the farm. We got a royalty check for that every three months."
"There was a gas boom then. My dad, William Gardner, worked a team of horses in the oil fields when he could. What he did was put the casing in the wells. Sometimes he'd be gone for a week at a time making the rounds of the wells in the territory."
Music was the main pastime at the Gardner farm. "We didn't have a radio, except for a crystal set, so we played our own music. My dad and my grandfather played fiddle. Most of my brothers and sisters played an instrument." Worley was the youngest of 12 children, so there was quite a lot of music. "We would play at the house, whoever was there and wanted to play. We played a good bit. I learned some songs from my dad, like `Bull Pup,' that I've never heard anywhere else."
Worley played guitar first, but it wasn't long before he picked up mandolin and banjo. Banjo was the only instrument he ever took lessons on. "I play two-finger picking," Worley says. "It's the old type that was out in the country around that time. You use your thumb and index finger. It's not a style you find much anymore. This fellow in the neighborhood, Elva Foley, came and tried to teach me lessons. Practically his whole family played banjo."
It wasn't long before Worley started playing guitar for square dances. He remembers, "I helped play for dances up there. I don't know how old I was, but my sisters would have to carry my guitar, because it was too much for me to carry that distance."
"In those days they had dances in people's houses. They'd empty up a room in the house. Sometimes they'd have two adjoining rooms and we'd play music in the doorway between the two rooms. They always had a caller for each set of four couples. He'd dance within the set and call while he was dancing. It was up to each caller what dance he wanted to do. When you'd look out over the sets there'd be four or five different figures going on at the same time."
"That went on for a long time because there wasn't all these mikes and power equipment. I played dances in '42 in Fairview at a great big dance hall. They had 10 or 12 sets in there and every one of them had a caller within the set."
Worley played regularly for dances, but the first time he danced himself was in 1936 at the Fox Hunters Reunion in Daybrook. "Even after I wouldn't dance. I thought it was crazy. I couldn't remember all that stuff."
Margaret Tennant remembers that as her first dance, too, but evidently her future husband failed to make an impression. She says, "I knew Worley but I don't recall seeing him there. We grew up about six miles apart as the crow flies over the hills, but that would be a long walk following the roads. I didn't know him at all until we started high school together." Margaret started dating Worley when he came home for weekends while attending West Virginia University. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in January.
The Gardners had the first of four daughters before Worley left for the war in 1943. He spent 22 months with the Second Division Artillery as a high speed radio operator, leaving the service as a T4 Technical Sergeant.
When he returned from World War II, Gardner went back to his job with Monongahela Power Company. "After the war I wasn't involved with music or dancing in any way, shape or form for a number of years. I was concentrating all my energies into making a living for my family. I didn't think I had time for anything else."
It was about ten years before Gardner was drawn back to playing music. "The company was going to have a square dance. They got me to come and help play music. Then I played for years at square dances, but I didn't call and I didn't dance."
Margaret remembers that it was in the '60's they started dancing and Worley got interested in calling. "We went to Waynesburg, Pennsylvania to dances in the firehall," she says. "Buckwheat Lemley from Blacksville called. Worley liked him so well that he took a tape recorder and taped Buckwheat's calls."
Worley says, "I thought he was the best caller I'd ever heard. He had almost perfect timing. He made his calls go with the music, but it was also in perfect time with your motion on the floor. That's what I liked about Buckwheat's calls. It wasn't just standing up there yelling words at different times. I call it singing calls. Maybe he had different words for it."
With singing calls each dance fits a particular tune, Worley explains. "You sing the calls to the melody. Buckwheat was the one that introduced me to that. I used those tapes I made to learn the figures, then I started calling them myself."
"I picked up dances from other callers, too. I used to think that was a real hard job, but it's not that hard to learn if you break it down. The only thing you have to do is learn to take one couple through."
"I called at the Big Country Ranch in West Finley, Pennsylvania, every Saturday night for two and a half years. But it just got to be too much. It tied up every weekend. Dancing is a lot more fun than calling, I'll tell you that right now. Now, playing for a dance is work. Calling figures is work. It's nice to know how to do it, but the enjoyment is out there on the floor."
Worley obviously enjoys the work, though. In 1972 he started calling for a monthly square dance at the Marilla Recreation Center in Morgantown. After a time it got to be every two weeks, and it continued for nearly 18 years.
The Marilla dances were featured in West Virginia Square Dances, a book by Robert C. Dalsemer, published in 1982 by the Country Dance and Song Society of America. Worley taught at the society's summer camp near Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1982.
Gardner does one thing a little differently than other callers. He explains, "They always used to line up the set a certain way. Your head couples was always facing you or had their back to you. They did it traditionally that way, and people still do it that way. Well, that's just not necessary. It doesn't matter who starts off. Then, the others just follow in turn. That really puzzled them up in Massachusetts. They thought it was funny how we started dancing and it didn't make no difference who was head couples."
About the time Gardner started calling dances, he heard that a childhood neighbor, Dora Foley, had died and a hammered dulcimer was going to be for sale in the estate auction. Dora was the brother of Elva Foley, Worley's banjo teacher in the 1920's, and the nephew of Simon Meyers, the dulcimer player who had visited the Gardner farm when Worley was a boy.
"I always did like the sound of the dulcimer, and I wanted to learn to play it. I had gone to the sale when Simon Meyers died, but there wasn't any dulcimer there. I heard that Simon's dulcimer had burned up in a fire at his house, and that the dulcimer he played in later years was owned by his nephew Dora Foley."
"I went to the sale and bought that dulcimer for 30-some dollars. It was a match to the one Simon Meyers played in the '20's. They'd both been made in the Foley family. The one I bought is over 100 years old."
"I didn't know anything about a dulcimer then. My neighbor in Morgantown was a professor of music at the university and he helped me figure it out and restore it. That's the one I learned to play on."
"Learning to play was just trial and error. It really isn't hard. I could pick out `Red River Valley' right off. Then I was hooked."
Worley's style of playing isn't like that of most dulcimer players. "Most of them play notes with this hand, then that hand. What I'm doing is beating time with my left hand. I play the tune with my right hand, and my left keeps time while playing notes in the chord."
"That old man must have played something like that. I think I just had the memory of the sound of it, and copied that when I was learning. You really don't know what makes you do it a certain way."
Worley's brother Asel retired and moved from Washington, D.C., to Kingwood, Marion County [sic], about this time. "His first year there he almost went stir crazy," Worley says. "He was interested in dulcimers, so I said we should try to make one. The first one we made just fell apart. It wasn't strong enough and the string tension buckled it up. The next one we made I kept to play myself. Then we started selling them."
The first few dulcimers the Gardner brothers built were copied after the old dulcimer Worley owned. Then Worley started experimenting. "I designed them and Asel built them. I had been playing dulcimer with square dance bands. They let me play, but you could tell the musicians didn't give a damn for the sound of that dulcimer. The strings were real short and they were just too high pitched. They didn't blend with the other instruments. What we did then was lengthen the strings to bring them lower on the scale. When you lengthen the strings, you end up with a bigger box. All of that made for a more pleasant sound."
"Another thing we experimented with a good deal was the number of strings to a group," Worley adds. The Gardners' dulcimers have up to 27 groups of strings. Each group is tuned to the same note. "When you add more strings to a group, you get more resonance. We tried from two to eight to a group. The quality of sound was improved by up to five strings in a group, but from five to eight I didn't really hear much difference."
Another problem with the original dulcimers was that they were hard to carry. "They were trapezoid-shaped and you had to cover them up with something to carry them. We just decided that if it's a box, let's make it a box and put a lid on it. Putting it in it's own case was our own idea, but when I went to the Smithsonian I found out it was nothing new. They had dulcimers like that in their collection made in France in the last century."
Worley's visit to the Smithsonian Institution was in October of 1977. He was there as a featured performer at the museum's Festival of American Folklife. Four hammered dulcimer players from around the country were brought in to demonstrate their craft each day at the Museum of History and Technology.
"Two things were really special that week," he recalls. "We played for a luncheon that Mrs. Mondale, the Vice President's wife, was giving for the foreign ambassadors and their wives. The other thing was a square dance. I told them, `Forget it! You can't have a square dance here. Nobody will pay attention to it.' Well, I was surprised, but we had a good square dance. Those people could really dance. So, that was fun. These things just happen to you as you go along."
Something else that just happened to Worley was a feature on CBS Radio. "Well, this fellow called and said he was from CBS. I thought he was just trying to put one over on me." But Rob Armstrong flew in the next day to record Worley and some friends playing and talking about their mountain music. That was broadcast August 2, 1985, on CBS's Newsmark Magazine.
By this time the Gardner's dulcimers were selling well. A lot of people saw and heard them at the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair in Ripley.
"Our first year at Ripley was 1969," Worley recalls. "We didn't sell a single dulcimer. Then they took off. Word got out we were doing this. We shipped them all over the country. Asel was making them year-round. My brother Willis wanted to learn to play the dulcimer, so we built him one. He played with me until his death in 1979."
Then Asel died in 1983. "We'd been partners for 18 or 19 years," Worley says. "We'd had a good relationship."
"I thought about getting someone else to build dulcimers for me, but I never did. After all, this was a hobby for me. I just wanted to see what we could do with it. I figure we made between 400 and 500 dulcimers altogether.I didn't go to Ripley that next year, since I didn't have any dulcimers to sell."
But Worley found out that he was in demand at festivals whether he sold dulcimers or not. Now he performs at Ripley, the Vandalia Gathering in Charleston, and the Stonewall Jackson Jubilee at Jackson's Mill every year.
He puts on his own festival, too. It started one winter when he had driven to an old hotel in Burlington, Mineral County, to play music with his friend, banjo player Sloan Staggs. "There wasn't all these things going on like now," Worley recalls. "I told Sloan we ought to have a regular get-together so musicians would have something to do in the winter." Worley sent invitations to his friends and acquaintances, and hosted his first Winter Music Festival that same winter.
This past March 140 musicians from six states joined Worley in Morgantown for a weekend of non-stop music at the 14th annual Winter Music Festival. Now the festival is sponsored by the Board of Park and Recreation Commissioners of Morgantown, but Worley Gardner still runs the show. He's often too busy to play much music himself, but always makes time to call for a traditional square dance on Saturday night.
Does he have any more projects in the works? "Man, I'm 73 years old," he says. "I just want to play music and enjoy myself. But, I tell you, I would like to see somebody building the dulcimer I designed. I think we made a good dulcimer."
This story first appeared in the Summer 1992 issue of GOLDENSEAL (Volume 18, Number 2) and appears in the book Mountains of Music published by the West Virginia Department of Culture and History. Worley Gardner died in November 1992, shortly after this article was published. His annual Winter Music Festival continues each February in Morgantown. Worley's talents are also spotlighted in Robert Dalsemer's book, West Virginia Square Dances.