Mountain Music Fills the Air: Banjos and Dulcimers: The Foxfire Americana Libray - Eliot Wigginton, Foxfire Students (2011)
Mike Clark, the Director of the Highlander Center near Knoxville, told us about Tedra Harmon, thinking we should meet him, and so we arranged to do just that. We got to his shop on time, and as we stepped up onto the porch, we could see him sitting inside, waiting for us to get there. It was rainy and cold outdoors, so he had his oil heater lit and had the shop warmed up for us. From the minute we stepped inside, we felt welcomed.
Inside his workshop, hung on the wall, he keeps the necessities for making his banjos: saw blades, rasps, squares, gunstock finish, etc. In one corner there is a fox hide stuck up next to a walnut gun rack that has deer hoofs for gun supports. The fox hide still has the hair and the head attached, and Tedra plans to make a cap out of it. He tanned it himself by turning the flesh side out and coating it with a thick paste of baking soda and water and leaving it for twenty-four hours.
In another corner of the room hang three of his banjos, including the first one he ever built. His workbench is stationed in the middle of the room, and on it, among the tools, were placed pieces of a banjo waiting for a skin head. Instead of completing it, he had left it disassembled so we could see and photograph the various pieces. Although he makes banjos only for a hobby, when we asked him how many he had sold, he replied, “It’d take a truck to haul them.”
ILLUSTRATION 15 For complete measurements and additional details, see ILLUSTRATIONS 78, 79, and 80.
Tedra was born in the mountains—he still lives on the same piece of land his parents settled on. He taught himself how to make and play banjos. He made his first one when he was thirteen, constructing it from poplar and putting it together with brass bolts. Since then, the hide has only been replaced once.
He’s one of the few men we met who makes his instruments totally without commercial heads or pieces. He uses skin heads which he gets either from groundhogs and deer that hunters bring in, or from animals he has hunted himself. Once he was hunting and ran into a rattlesnake: “It was as close as from me to that stove there. I was sitting down there looking for squirrels when it went to singing. That racket was all over everywhere. I looked, and there that thing was coiled, his head up about that far [a foot]. Pointed right at my face. I leaned back and took my shotgun to him and took off his whole head. I was so nervous I could hardly get up and walk.” He now has the rattles from that snake mounted on the peg head of one of his banjos.
After getting a hide, he tans it himself. He sets the hide in a trough with the hair side up, and puts two to three inches of ashes over that. Then he pours water over it until it comes up over the top of the ashes. He leaves it for three days, and by then the hair will pull right off unless the weather has been too cold for the lye to work. In that case, it takes a little longer. He then tacks the skin up on a board to dry. The skin is tacked so that it is up off the board enabling air to get under it and allowing the skin to dry quickly and thoroughly.
When the skin is dry, and he is ready to put in into a banjo, he soaks it in salt water overnight, washes it in strong soap, and lets it soak for five minutes in warm water. He puts it in the banjo wet, and it tightens up as it dries. If the skin is put in too tightly, there is a danger that it will rip as it dries out. To keep this from happening, Tedra has invented a gauge, which is just a round disc of wood about a half-inch thick, and smaller than the diameter of the hole for the hide. The gauge is placed on the table, and then the banjo is placed, top down, so that the head hole is centered around the gauge. As he puts the hide in, this pushes up on the skin and creates the right amount of slack. It tightens up perfectly every time. He prefers deer or groundhog skins because they are the toughest. “You can whop a man over the head with one and-still not bust the hide.” Complete directions for Tedra’s method for tanning hides can be found in the hide-tanning chapter of Foxfire 7.
Tedra sticks to the traditional mountain way of making his banjos. He makes the entire thing out of wood except for the head, strings, and screws. He likes hardwoods best because he thinks they create a better tone. He carves out his pegs with a pocketknife and then sands them smooth. Often he makes them out of walnut. He makes his bridges, tailpieces, and nuts the same way, favoring walnut and curly maple.
He takes pride in his work, and enjoys not only making banjos, but also being helpful and generous in the true mountain fashion. He’s the one, for example, who told us about Stanley Hicks. When we expressed an interest in meeting him, Tedra told us to come back in two days and he’d have an interview set up by then and take us there himself. He was good to his word—he set aside an entire morning to take us to Stanley’s shop and then waited patiently until we had finished. That kind of generosity is rare nowadays.
He remembers his childhood days with more affection than many: “Back then was the peacefulest times they ever was. I wouldn’t mind seeing it go back to that.” He’s hanging onto as much of it as he can—his banjos are proof of that.
Photographs by Ray and Steve Smith.