M. C. WORLEY - Mountain Music Fills the Air: Banjos and Dulcimers: The Foxfire Americana Libray - Eliot Wigginton, Foxfire Students

Mountain Music Fills the Air: Banjos and Dulcimers: The Foxfire Americana Libray - Eliot Wigginton, Foxfire Students (2011)


“Old people back in them times used to make everything they used. Make their chairs and tables and everything. Made everything they had to have. When I was a young man, I made the whole outfit for one of my cousins to go to housekeeping in. Bed, all the furniture …”

M. C. Worley also remembers that nearly every family had a banjo. Both his grandfather and father made them. His father used the skin of a housecat for his heads. “I’d rather skin a polecat than a housecat. They’re the stinkinest things I’ve ever seen.” Like Tedra Harmon, he’d take their hair off with ashes.

Many of the old banjos Mr. Worley remembered seeing had hoops bent out of single strips of hickory. The hickory splits were either put in a form green and left thirty days to dry and cure, or the cured wood was steamed and then bent into shape. The old necks he remembers had a long tailpiece that went all the way through the hoop and out the other side so the strings could wrap around it. There were no backs on the banjos, and the heads were hides that were either tacked on or held in place by a wooden ring that slipped down over them. He also remembers seeing wooden heads that had a four-inch circle of hide in their center.




His first banjo was a cigar box. “It rang pretty good, too.” As he began to make them regularly, he moved away from the old patterns and began to experiment. He tried out an all-wood head, for example, and liked it. Then he changed the hoop style and added the back even though he doesn’t think the back helps the sound at all. He just likes the way it looks.



And he began to run into others who were experimenting too. One man he knows, for example, saws rings out of aluminum kettles and uses those for hoops. Now he tries something different on almost every instrument he makes. The one pictured in ILLUSTRATIONS 10 and 11 for example, features a decorative metal band, tacks, and a green half moon colored on with a crayon. “I just put that on to be different. Just figured it out myself,” he laughs.

He tries his hand at instruments other than banjos, too. He once made a guitar completely out of metal except for the wooden sides. And he fashions out fiddles, mandolins and dulcimers when he tires of banjo making.

Mr. Worley never goes to craft fairs, or makes an effort to advertise. He sells his instruments by word of mouth; and during tourist season, he sets them on the porch and, “people pass by and see them and come in.” It’s an unsteady living, but it keeps him occupied—and inventive.


Photographs by Don and Jeff Williams.