Music & Man
Instrument builder finds harmony in woods
Story by Molly Roper Jenkins
Photos by R. David Duncan III
The News & Advance, Lynchburg, VA
Sunday, February 7, 1999
'To be creating things that other people amplify - that is a source of great satisfaction. People will always need the experience of music from hand-crafted instruments. Like the hand-thrown mug, the hand-stitched quilt - these are the things that individualize our lives.'
The story of James Jones should begin "once upon a time." The slender giant, bent over his workbench and surrounded by piles of multi-hued sawdust, brings back images of the Florentine Gepetto, carefully carving his beloved Pinocchio. But the Scandinavian Jones, with two living sons of his own, has no need to carve a make-believe boy. Instead, he creates musical instruments - and leaves it to his customers to breath life into the configurations of wood and strings.
Many of the instruments Jones creates are more ancient than the mountains that shelter his workshop, tucked under the arms of a fir tree on the woods of Bedford County. There are zithers and bowed psalteries, Irish Bouzoukis and mandolins, dulcimers, thumbed pianos and wooden drums. From time to time, he creates a folk harp.
There are, he said, 860 hammered dulcimers "out there," each made by his hand. Carol Goldman of Lynchburg has one of them. "I have played a long time," she said, "and I suppose it was 10 years ago that I had the opportunity to hear Sam Rizzetta [the man Jones cites as his inspiration] play in West Virginia. My instrument is as beautiful - if not more so - than Rizzetta's. It is not only physically beautiful in its craftsmanship; the sound is just lovely." Because it is more efficient to work on pieces of similar configuration, Jones may spend several days creating multiples of the same instrument part: bridges with their row of holes through which strings pass, face plates with intricately-designed air holes. There are delicate arcs of wood waiting to be bows. There are piles of small paddles, looking more like kitchen tools than the long hammers that bring forth the unique dulcimer song. The shop is filled with every imaginable woodworking tool - sanders and lathes and presses. Two side-by-side benches hold the bodies of dulcimers, each held together with as many as 16 paddle clamps - tight enough to hold each piece in place, loose enough to avoid making marks on the precious wood.
The shop is filled with every imaginable woodwork-ing tool - sanders and lathes and presses. Two side-by-side benches hold the bodies of dulcimers, each held together with as many as 16 padded clamps - tight enough to hold. A long narrow closet is stacked with more woods than many have ever seen raw: ebony, rosewoods, mahogany. Paduak, an African wood, is redder than cedar but will, in time, turn a deep maroon. It is used for trim and accent work, Jones said. Boards of cherry and walnut, ash, maple, and oaks are stacked on shelves in another closet, where temperature and humidity are carefully monitored. The shop itself is heated by a woodstove in the base-ment. Special vacuums draw up as much sawdust as possible. Like pieces of mannequins stored in the back room in a dress shop, parts of instruments occupy all but small paths throughout the Shop.
Jones has not always crafted musical instruments. Raised in the rural Midwest, Jones is the son of a classical music professor and an English teacher. While music was part of his early experiences - he played the violin - his desire to work as a wildlife conservationist led to a degree in biology. Still, some elective courses in art had initiated some new stirrings.
The draft put other pursuits on hold - but, fortunately for him, the Army sent the 6-foot 8-inch recruit to play basketball, not war. Sculpture and printmaking courses at Murray State University followed the Army, then a couple of years playing and coaching basketball in Portugal. Collages and prints created in his apartment studio were even exhibited in a Lisbon gallery.
Back in the states again, Jones headed for Boston and a job with VISTA volunteers in Service To America). The printmaking contin-ued, taking him into the MFA program at the Massachusetts College of Art. It was here that Jones was first exposed to the art of wood-working.
A return to music was initiated by Jones' sister, then playing with the Real World String Band. She encouraged him to start playing again after an 18-year break.
Music plus art plus a desire to be self-employed: the formula was right to lead to building folk instruments. His first hammered dulcimer took Jones nearly six months to design and build. It sounded awful, he said, until a teacher suggested he tune it up an octave. The change "magically transformed that collection of wood and strings into an instrument," Jones said in a previ-ous interview. "I started another one and the evolution had begun."
Jones' wife Karen really wanted to move away from Boston, he said. Their relationship depended on it. So when a school friend with con-nections to Emerson Creek Pottery suggested a transfer to Bedford County, they packed their bags and moved southward.
"For eight years we lived in a two-story house in Huddleston - for which we paid $50 per month in rent and almost got our money's worth. I kept my tools on the porch and built in an upstairs bedroom where I had to cock my head to stand up. When we could stand the crowding no longer; we added a trailer. Its roof leaked," Jones related, then let the laughter spill across his face.
"When we began - almost 20 years ago - we were living on less than $5,000 a year. You just have to keep at your vision. Finally, 10 years ago, we had saved enough to buy this farmhouse near Sedalia. I built the shop myself."
Finding enough work to support a family is no longer a problem, Jones said. "Now that I have more than 800 hammered dulcimers out there, that instrument alone solves the problem of people hearing about my work," Jones explained. "I used to do craft shows but I only do one a year; in Lancaster; Pa., now. And I have a Web page. I have orders now in process for eight or 10 hammered dulcimers, two large harps and a mountain dulcimer. Delivery may take between two and four months."
It is a good life, but not always as easy as it may seem, Jones said. "There's not a lot of flexibility," he explained. "When people pay you to do something, you do it. The customer calls the shots.
"But to be creating things that other people amplify - that is a source of great satisfaction. People will always need the experience of music from hand-crafted instruments. Like the hand thrown mug, the hand-stitched quilt - these are the things that individualize our lives. There are people who never go to those places, have no idea of that beauty. It's sad. It used to be that the handcrafted was the norm - and the consumer was in communion with the process."