The Tennessee music box, or box dulcimer, is one of the most enigmatic musical instruments ever discovered. Little is known about its origins, but it is an ingenious folk instrument made of materials at hand in the counties of southwest and south middle Tennessee. The earliest music boxes date to the 1880s or possibly even the 1870s. Playing and construction techniques were passed from generation to generation, continuing through the 1940s.
Community scholars like Ellis Truett Jr. of Henderson County, Tennessee and Gerald Young of Giles County, Tennessee were perhaps the first to appreciate the cultural significance of these crude but beautifully resonant instruments. Scholars such as Dr. Richard Hulan, David Schnaufer, and Sandy Conatser provided valuable research, fieldwork and further insight into their history. An excellent article by Schnaufer and Conatser that first appeared in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin can be accessed online here. The essay is reproduced with the permission of Tennessee Folklore Society. That issue as well as other back issues of the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin may be ordered here.
Another excellent resource is the CD/DVD set, Stories and Songs of the Tennessee Music Box, produced by Dan Phifer and Middle Tennessee State University. The DVD offers examination of several instruments in this collection and an extended interview with Ellis Truett about their history. On the companion CD noted dulcimer educator and player, David Schnaufer, performs old-time tunes and sacred music commonly associated with traditional music box repertoires. The CDs and DVDs are available at the McNairy County Music Hall of Fame online store.
In 2015 Arts in McNairy purchased a collection of seven music boxes formerly owned by Ellis Truett. Later acquisitions and music box documentation are also part of the collection, which is permanently housed at the McNairy County Historical Museum. The collection is available for scholarly research and inspection by request. A case in the museum has instruments on rotating display, and the entire collection is occasionally exhibited at the Latta Visitor's and Cultural Center, both in downtown Selmer, Tennessee. In 2023 The Tennessee Historical Society conducted a webinar from one such exhibit. The presentation featured a mini-tour of the display at the Latta and an excellent presentation on music box history by Sandy Conatser. The webinar may be viewed here.
The original Truett Collection
Ocie Burns TMB
(100ET) Ocie Burns Music Box Acquired: September 19, 2014 Owner/Family of Origin: Ocie Pulley Burns Place of Origin:Wayne or Hardin County Tennessee Location Found:Wayne County Vibrating String Length: 26 1/16” Number of Strings: 4 Number of Frets: 15 Fret Board Width: 1 13/16” Fret Board Height: 1 15/16” Outside Length: 29 1/4” Inside Length: 29 1/4” Outside Width: 12” Inside Width: 11” Outside Height: 4 1/16” Inside Height:3 1/16”
Notes/Description: Acquired by Ellis Truett in 1988 from Ocie Burns in Waynesboro, Tennessee.Mrs. Burn inherited it from her grandmother who was born in 1870 and the family dated the box to 1880s.Mrs. Burns maintained that it was built by her great grandfather John Ford.It was retrieved from a hayloft when it was sold to Truett and still has evidence of mice nests in the body.Distinctive top carvings include shamrocks, star, infinity symbol, figure 8, letters, (MW, A, S) plant motif, stylized fowl, and other unknown symbols. Heavy poplar construction with vestiges of reddish, oxblood paint on the sides.Butt joints and recessed ends.Decorative punched metalwork.There is evidence of older, larger, frets along the base of the fretboard. Double nail string anchors and original eye screw tuners are intact.
Casey Jones TMB
(101ET) Casey Jones Music Box Acquired: September 19, 2014 Owner/Family of Origin: Old Country Store at Casey Jones Village Place of Origin:Unknown Location Found:Madison County Tennessee Vibrating String Length: 25 1/2” Number of Strings:4 Number of Frets: 16 Fret Board Width: 1 5/8” Fret Board Height: 1 3/4” Outside Length:27” Inside Length: 26 3/4” Outside Width: 10 3/4” Inside Width: 10 1/4” Outside Height: 4 1/16” Inside Height:3 1/16”
Notes/Description:Mitered corners.Hand planed rough top.Original reddish-brown paint finish with decorative black corners.Round screws are used for string anchors and tuners. Frets have been moved early in the instruments life and one fret overlaps the metalwork. Frets cover the first two strings (an unusual feature). 5 Tiny teardrop shaped tone holes are recessed into 3 irregular shallow scallops on each side along the base of fretboard.The tone holes are symmetrically paired side to side. Scallops nearest the bridge are approximately 7” long.Other scallops are 4” to 5” long and irregularly and crudely carved.
Buttermilk Blue TMB
(102ET) Buttermilk Blue Music Box Acquired: September 19, 2014 Owner/Family of Origin:Tucker Place of Origin:Lawrence County Tennessee Location Found:Lawrence County Tennessee Vibrating String Length: 27” Number of Strings:4 Number of Frets: 15 Fret Board Width: 1 1/4” Fret Board Height: 1 1/2” Outside Length:27 3/16” Inside Length:26 3/16” Outside Width:11 1/8” Inside Width: 11” Outside Height: 4” Inside Height:3”
Notes/Description:Ellis Truett acquired the instrument from the Tucker family in Tiptonville, Tennessee.The owner’s great grandmother, born in the 1850 near Collinwood Tennessee, had played it as a young woman.It was without a bridge, nut, or tuners when acquired.Crude but remarkably adequate repairs appropriate to the instruments origins were made by Truett with galvanized metal.It still has its original greenish-blue buttermilk paint finish.It is a light instrument made of yellow or tulip poplar.It only has 4 tone holes (2 on each side) symmetrically clustered on one end—a highly unusual feature.A single eye screw tuner remains but zither pin tuners have been added.
(103ET) Crump Music Box Acquired: September 19, 2014 Owner/Family of Origin:Unknown Place of Origin:Possibly Hardin or McNairy County Tennessee Location Found:Hardin County Tennessee Vibrating String Length: 26 3/4” Number of Strings:4 Number of Frets:15 Fret Board Width:1 1/2” Fret Board Height: 1 7/16” Outside Length: 27 3/4” Inside Length:27” Outside Width: 12 1/8” Inside Width: 12” Outside Height: 3 7/8” Inside Height:3”
Notes/Description:Purchased at the flea market in Crump Tennessee by a friend of Truett’s who later sold it to him.It was originally painted but the owner before Truett attempted to refinish it and replaced the original eye screw tuners with zither pin tuners. Vague remnants of a possible pattern remain on the front of the instrument.The metal work is exceptionally well done and appears to have been constructed by a knowledgeable metal worker.Seven distinct shape notes appear on the fretboard.It has 3 small feet on the bottom in a triangular pattern. 5 Tone holes are symmetrically aligned from side to side.Two of the tone holes on one side were either mis-drilled or have since been bored out slightly on the side opposite the fretboard.
Old Brown TMB
(105ET) Old Brown Music Box Acquired: September 19, 2014 Owner/Family of Origin:Unknown Place of Origin:Possibly McNairy County Tennessee Location Found:Unknown Vibrating String Length: 26 1/2” Number of Strings: 4 Number of Frets:15 Fret Board Width: 1 1/2” Fret Board Height: 1 1/2” Outside Length: 27 6/8” Inside Length: 27 1/2” Outside Width: 13 1/2” Inside Width: 13 7/16” Outside Height: 3 1/2” Inside Height:2 1/2”
Notes/Description:Mitered corners.Dark brown original finish.5 deep scallops along the base of the fretboard align with 5 tone holes on each side.The tone holes are at the front of the scallop on one side and the back on the alternate side creating a staggered effect.A wood block has been nailed to the metalworks for the tuners and shows evidence of having been strung from the added piece. A heavy line, most visible from the middle frets towards the tuners, is scribed along the center point of the frets.
(106ET) Ocher Music Box Acquired: September 19, 2014 Owner/Family of Origin: Unknown Place of Origin:Possibly McNairy County Tennessee Location Found:Unknown Vibrating String Length:26 3/4 Number of Strings:4 Number of Frets: 15 Fret Board Width: 1 1/2” Fret Board Height: 1 3/4” Outside Length:28 1/4” Inside Length:27 1/2” Outside Width:11 1/2” Inside Width:11 1/4” Outside Height:4 3/8” Inside Height: 3 1/4”
Notes/Description:Original ocher-orange painted finish.Mitered corners.5 tone holes align with the center of 5 scallops along the base of the fret board on one side.Tone holes align with the spaces between scallops on the opposite side creating the familiar staggered effect. The tone hole nearest the nut has been irregularly gnawed out into large oval and evidence of mice in the body provide a possible explanation.A fret staple and the bridge are missing (thought evidence remains of both) and the overall condition of the box is poor.Unusual 1/2” deep holes are bored out between scallops on both sides of the fretboard and a chalky white residue (possibly desiccated glue) remains in several of these shallow depressions.
Hole in the Back TMB
(104ET) Hole in the Back Music Box Acquired: September 19, 2014 Owner/Family of Origin: Place of Origin:Unknown Location Found:Madison County Tennessee Vibrating String Length: 26 1/2” Number of Strings:4 Number of Frets: 15 Fret Board Width: 1 1/4” Fret Board Height:1 3/8” Outside Length:27 9/16” Inside Length:27 1/8” Outside Width: 11 1/2” Inside Width: 11 3/16” Outside Height:3 1/2” Inside Height:2 1/2”
Notes/Description:4 tone holes on each side are spaced in relation to 8 triangle/pyramidal shaped chip carvings along the bottom of the fretboard. The tone holes alternate from side to side creating a staggered appearance. Metal work also reflects the triangle motif.A single hole in the back may have been for carrying the box or hanging when not in use.Two scored lines run the length of the fretboard and appear to have marked the locations of inner and outer strings. Original tuners have been replaced with zither pin tuners.The whole instrument has a striking uniform darkness—almost ebonized in appearance.
(119ET) Carrington Box Acquired: October 27, 2015 Owner/Family of Origin: Unknown Place of Origin:Unknown Location Found:Perry County Tennessee Vibrating String Length:26 3/4 Number of Strings:4 Number of Frets: 15 Fret Board Width: 1 1/2” Fret Board Height: 1 3/8” Outside Length:27 7/8” Inside Length:27 1/2” Outside Width:13 3/4” Inside Width:13 1/2” Outside Height:3 7/8” Inside Height: 3”
Notes/Description:Original finish has a uniform dark or stained appearance. Original metalwork and all 4 original eye screw tuners are intact. The box is moderately heavily constructed of poplar with mitered corners. 5 scallops along the base of the fret board match up to 5 tone holes which are positioned at the front of the scallop along one side and the back on the alternate side. An old crack that may have been repaired at the time of construction, or early in the instrument’s life, runs the length of the top bisecting three of the tone holes and effecting the edge of a fourth. 2 tone holes on each side show evidence of rodent damage. The box was found by Clarence Brown during a home demolition and salvage operation at the home of the Carrington family near Linden, Tennessee. No other history was known at the time of the discovery. The box was purchased from Brown in 2015.
(120ET) Gaugh Music Box Acquired: July 21, 2016 Owner/Family of Origin: Unknown Place of Origin:Unknown Location Found:Madison County Tennessee Vibrating String Length:26 1/2 Number of Strings:4 Number of Frets: 15 Fret Board Width: 1 1/2” Fret Board Height: 1 3/8” Outside Length:27 6/8” Inside Length:26 7/8” Outside Width:12 2/8” Inside Width:12” Outside Height:3 6/8” Inside Height: 2 7/8”
Notes/Description:The box has its original gray to brown finish and is in relatively good and untouched state. All of the metal work is intact but it is missing its original tuners. An additional nail with a larger head was added as a string anchor at some point. The top is slightly warped/cupped and split toward the bridge end. 5 symmetrically placed tone holes on each side of the fret board. A center scollop at the base of the fret board aligns with the center tone hole on each side and 2 unusual, wing-shape scallops—wider near the center and tapering toward the edges—align with the remaining tone holes on both sides. The instrument was discovered by Lee Gaugh in Jackson, Tennessee. He gave a small donation for the box to help out a friend in need, but did not immediately know what it was. He obtained no other history at the time. He learned that it was a music box when he saw the advertising for the Arts in McNairy music box exhibit at Freed Hardeman University. After the exhibit, Gaugh sought AiM representatives out with a desire to preserve the instrument in the Ellis Truett Jr. Collection. It was purchased from Gaugh in 2016.
(121ET) Bill Woodward Music Box Acquired: July 16, 2019 Owner/Family of Origin: Bill Woodward (maker) Place of Origin:Cedar Grove, Tennessee Location Found:Brentwood, Tennessee Vibrating String Length:26 1/2 Number of Strings:8 Number of Frets: 15 Fret Board(s) Width: 1 1/2” and 1 7/8” Fret Board(s) Height: 1 1/2 (both fretboards) Outside Length:32 7/8” Inside Length:32 1/4” Outside Width:14 1/4” Inside Width:12 7/8” Outside Height:4” (not including feet) Inside Height:3 1/2” (not including feet)
Notes/Description: The instrument is a double “courting box” with two fretboards extending the full length of the body. It is in original unpainted/unvarnished condition. It appears to be made of multiple types of scrap wood but is nicely crafted with finishing nails and wood screws securing mitered corners. Crude attempts to stabilize cracks on the one-piece top with wood glue have been made in several spots. The metalwork (bridges, nuts, and tuner plates) appears to be brass or brass alloy and is exceptionally well done. The bridges and nuts appear to be made from hinge bolts or something similar. 8 flathead brass screws serve as string anchors. There are 15 frets on each fretboard that appear to be fence stables. The fretboard that shows the most wear has evidence of being re-fretted at some point. The fretboards are hollowed out by the maker in the picking/strumming position and are recessed along the middle 16 1/2 inches of the bases on both the medial and lateral sides. Flush, circular, mother of pearl inlays mark the ends of the fretboard and center of each fret along the edge of one fretboard—presumably the more narrow gentleman’s side. The second fretboard—presumably the lady’s side—has raised, round decorative inlays (probably buttons or discarded costume jewelry with a cluster of tiny pearloid dots surrounding a larger center dot) at each end of the fretboard, but no other markings are found near the frets. The instrument has all 8—probably original—eye screw tuners.There are7 tone holes precisely positioned between the fret boards. The 2 outer holes are approximately 1 1/2 inches in diameter, and the 5 symmetrically spaced center holes are approximately 2 1/2 inches in diameter. The one-piece bottom is cracked in several spots, but no attempt has been made to affect repairs. 4 bottom feet—1 at each corner—are made of commercially available wooden drawer pulls. Gibson and Black Diamond guitar strings in their original packaging were found in the body along with a number of homemade picks formed from various plastic bottles. One flat pick is made from a 1960s era Gulf gas credit card which has been intentionally cutout to include the maker’s last name, “Woodward.” Additional documentation found with the instrument in a hand written note on a small legal pad page that reads: “Music Box or ‘Courtin’ Box’ Made by Mr. Bill Woodard of Cedar Grove, TN. He would be well over 100 years old. He is buried in the 7th Day Adventist Church Cemetery on Hwy 70. He said they would make these to take to a girl’s house to play. Boy would play one side & girl would play the other side. —Barry Sutton” The note was not dated but Mr. Sutton was located in Jackson, TN and confirmed his authorship. He wasn't able to provide much more information about the instrument but noted that Mr. Woodward was a noted music box maker who married his great-grandmother, Roxie Carroll. He was aware of at least two other boxes made by Mr. Woodward. The instrument was found and purchased at at yard sale near Cedar Grove, TN by Rick Summerville, an antique dealer and collector from Brentwood, Tennessee. Summerville showed photos to former Tennessee State Folklorist, Roby Cogswell who referred him to Arts in McNairy as a source of further information and a potential buyer. The instrument was purchased from Summerville July 16, 2019.
(122ET) Mitchell Music Box Acquired: January 31, 2022 Owner/Family of Origin: Mitchell Place of Origin:Scotts Hill, Tennessee Location Found:Edmond, Oklahoma Vibrating String Length:26 1/2 Number of Strings:4 Number of Frets: 15 Fret Board Width: 1 3/8” Fret Board Height: 1 3/8” Outside Length:27 7/8” Inside Length:26” Outside Width:12” Inside Width:11 3/4” Outside Height:3 3/8” Inside Height: 2 5/8”
Notes/Description: Original, untouched finish shows remnants of reddish-ocher paint on the body and sides of the fretboard. Construction and metalwork are rough, but typical, with round nails securing the top and bottom to the sides. It has mitered corners with overhanging top and bottom, probably all made of yellow poplar. There are five small tone holes aligning on each side close to the fretboard. One of them shows signs of rodent damage, as does the top edge opposite the player’s side. A small, dome-like central recess is carved in the side of the fretboard aligning with the center tone hole, while long, wing-like recesses taper toward the bridge and nut, terminating at the final tone hole. There are several relatively stable cracks in the top, bottom and, notably, the fretboard, but the instrument is otherwise in good condition and could be made playable. A piece of flat metal overlays the original tuning plate, presumably due to striping of the original tuner holes. It has four, unusually large, eye screw tuners with heads that resemble keys. These lend a decorative touch, but are most likely replacements. The frets are made of fence staples or something similar, and one of the four string anchors appears to be a square headed nail. The instrument was strung with four unwrapped guitar strings when delivered. The instrument originated in the Mitchell family near the Scotts Hill community of Decatur/Henderson Counties. It was first played—and presumedly made—by Elizabeth Jane Chumney Mitchell (1860-1944) and Jackson Overstreet Mitchell (1854-1928). According to family lore, Elizabeth Jane balanced the music box on her toes and bowed it like a cellist. The instrument was passed down to the next generation, Sumner Lessie Mitchell (1881-1976) and Julie Ann Powers Mitchell (1886-1952) who continued to use it. Julie Ann played the dulcimer in the traditional lap position, sometimes accompanying Sumner Lessie, who conducted singing schools in the shape note tradition. The hymn singing tradition—both a cappella and with the dulcimer—persisted in the Mitchell family through the 1970s.
In October 2021, Jack Mitchell, the son of C. Howard Mitchell and a direct descendent of the music box makers and players, contacted Arts in McNairy. He was in possession of the Mitchell music box at his home in Edmond, Oklahoma. As a music educator, Mr. Mitchell occasional brought the box out of storage to show and demonstrate for students. He recognized the instrument’s kinship with the dulcimers in the Ellis Truett Jr. Collection immediately when he discovered them on the Arts in McNairy website.
The Mitchell music box had been on loan to a private museum operated by Gordon Turner in Scotts Hill until Jack Mitchell inherited it in 1980. After exchanging emails and information with AiM Traditional Arts Chair, Shawn Pitts, Mr. Mitchell mailed the box to Arts in McNairy in January 2022, agreeing to accept the organization’s appraisal and any reasonable purchase offer. It was purchased and added to the collection January 31, 2022.