By Shawn Pitts
I was grateful that the Independent Appeal ran a Discover McNairy column on the Tennessee music box a few weeks ago. It is a fascinating history and the article covered the details of how ten of those instruments were rediscovered and came to be in the possession of Arts in McNairy, so I won’t rehash those points. But people often wonder why a local arts agency would expend so much time and effort rounding up crudely made instruments that resemble packing crates more than their glamorous sisters, the mountain dulcimer. It’s a good question.
I sometimes call it attic archaeology since most of the known Tennessee music boxes have been discovered in sweltering attics, dank basements and dusty haylofts. Many more never survived such harsh conditions and others were thrown out with the trash because people didn’t know, or care, what they were. That makes the urgent pursuit and recovery of these scarce folk instruments a lot like archaeology, only with digging through castoff junk in old attics instead of digging in the earth for lost civilizations. In the end, the goal is much the same: to learn what the artifacts can teach us about the people who made and used them. In the case of the Tennessee music box, we are talking about the rural people who inhabited southwest and south middle Tennessee from Reconstruction until about World War II.
The fine details of the construction reveal much about the ingenuity of our forbearers. The rare music boxes—a form of box dulcimer—were never commercially produced. Each instrument was lovingly constructed by a craftsman from materials on hand. The bodies and fretboards are typically made of rough poplar planks. Snuff cans, tobacco tins, hinge pins, fences stables and other readily available items were often used to form the metal bridges, nuts and frets. The four tuning pegs were commonly made of eye screws. Ornamentation included recessed mother of pearl buttons, hand painted finishes, and sometimes carving on the top or along the fretboard. Creative configuration of the tone holes also contribute to the unique aesthetic character of each instrument. One music box has the faint remains of a checkerboard painted on the back. It was apparently flipped over on occasion to do double duty as a game table.
Close examination of the wear patterns on the music boxes show that they were played in a variety of ways. Some instruments have the residue of rosin on the fretboard; evidence that they were bowed like a fiddle. Turkey feathers, homemade picks and noters discovered with the instruments or sometimes in their hollow bodies show that others were strummed. It is known that some players used a pocket knife, bottleneck or short piece of copper pipe to produce a slide effect similar to a dobro or blues and Hawaiian guitar styles. No one learned any of these techniques at conservatory or from a professional instruction manual; the remarkable variety of voices given to these versatile folk instruments were developed and passed along in community and family groups. Several have a direct connection to McNairy County, which was ground zero for Tennessee music box making.
That they exist at all may be the most amazing thing about Tennessee music boxes. I don’t just mean that individuals like Ellis Truett Jr. and organizations like Arts in McNairy have shown an interest in their preservation. That’s a significant part of their story, but the mysterious, do-it-yourself origins of these instruments in the communities of the lower Tennessee River Valley speak to the universal human desire to create music. When there were no nearby music stores or family finances put expensive musical instruments beyond their reach, the rural people of our region turned to their own imaginations to develop their own kind of music. Arts in McNairy’s traditional arts committee believes that is an accomplishment worth remembering and celebrating.
This post originally appeared in the McNairy County Independent Appeal