Walking Stick Dulcimer

        I once had an elderly patient, Banjo Joe, who made a variety of homemade mountain-type musical instruments.  They were excellent.  He made ’em from scratch out of wood, animal hides, and gourds.  He liked old-time open back banjos, as well as guitars and mandolins, but his most popular item was the mountain dulcimer.   They were quite good, too.  In fact, one year we had a local player, Willie McBee, place in the top ten at Winfield with one of Banjo Joe’s dulcimers. 

        Joe was so proud he went to Winfield to see it all.  After he wished Willie good luck, he took a seat in the audience to take in the show. 

        There was a lady who sat right in front of him as they watched Willie play Joe’s homemade creation on the big stage.  The woman turned to her friend and said, “Isn’t that wonderful?  You won’t believe it, but I heard that dulcimer he plays was made by some redneck in eastern N.C.” 

       Joe tapped her her on the shoulder and said, “Yeah, it’s the dang truth, and that redneck was me!”

        I liked all of his instruments, but my favorite was the walking stick dulcimer.  It was a functional cane, but Joe had rigged it up with strings and tuners, and you could sit down, put it over you knees and play the thing.  Joe would limp down the street, then stop to rest on a park-bench and play for tips.  When he went home, his hat was full.

        My favorite memory, though, was when he would play with Neuse River.  We’d call him up on the stage to claw-hammer a banjo tune.  Joe would hobble up on that cane, frail (or fram as many around here say) a banjo tune, and then play one on tenor guitar.  We’d tell the crowd ole Joe was so good, he could make a tune out of anything.  He’d play the comb or the saw, and we’d keep raggin’ him till he said he was tired and needed to lean on his cane.  Then he’d sit down and play the fire out of his walking stick!  It was always a crowd pleas-er, and Joe knew how to milk it for all it was worth.

        Joe is now in a nursing home in Raleigh, where his son lives.  He gave me the walking stick dulcimer before he left home, and it still sits in the corner of my study.  Every once in a while I take a break from my medical studies or music, and pull it out and play a tune.   I can coax a little something out of it, but no one could ever play the walking stick dulcimer like Banjo Joe. He was the best.

Dr. B

Explore posts in the same categories: bluegrass characters

17 Comments on “Walking Stick Dulcimer”

  1. Ted Lehmann Says:

    One of the things I’ve learned on our bluegrass journey is the emptiness and derision embodied in the word red-neck. Like so many words, it carries with it the pride of the working man as well as the disdain of the privileged. Music of incredible beauty can be drawn from the simplest of implements. Joe Craven, a sophisticated musician of unbelievable skill, uses almost any surface to make sounds fitting into jazz or bluegrass tunes. He drums on the head of a banjo, plays a beer can stringed instrument, and the jawbone of an ass. In Black Mtn. NC this winter, we saw the most beuatifully crafted dulcimers at a shop called Song of the Wood (http://www.songofthewood.com/Web%20Sale.htm), but the simple mountain dulcimer satisfied music lovers for generations. Hooray for the cane dulcimer! – Ted

  2. drtombibey Says:


    As I write this, it sits in the corner of my study. I think I’ll play it tonight.

    I too am amazed at what people of ingenuity can come up with.

    Dr. B

  3. veereign Says:

    Dear Doc,

    I seriously feel the need for you to work on popularizing your blog. It is very very interesting I must say and unique too. Once known, your blog’s going to cause a fame-ignition entity amongst the mindsets of many a people 🙂


  4. drtombibey Says:


    Thank you so much. Honest to goodness that just flat humbles me. I am such a blog neophyte that I don’t know exactly how to go about increasing my exposure on the Net, but I am going to talk to my agent about what you said.

    When I met my agent, he said I needed refinement, but he thought I had a great story, and he found me unique from the get-go. (I think I am the only physician bluegrass fiction writer in his stable). It is cool that you wrote today, because I am due to update him on the progress of my book. I plan to have the rough draft done by the end of this year.

    As a writer I am a bit intimidated- there is so much talent out there- but all I know to do is keep on and hope folks will read and enjoy. Thank you for your comment so much.

    Dr. B

  5. mrschili Says:

    What a wonderful gift! You should play that thing as often as you can; it was meant to make music and even if you can’t do it the justice that Joe did, I’m sure it still longs to be played.

  6. pandemonic Says:

    It’s amazing what one can do with their hands! I’ve visited a luthier in Alabama who takes old wrecks of violins, violas and cellos and turns them back into useful instruments. (In fact, I bought one of his violins – it was so sweet sounding and he told me when he opened it up he found a note in there from someone in Vermont who had last worked on it about a hundred years ago.) To have that skill is mind boggling, but to make an instrument out of anything nearby is sheer sorcery!

  7. drtombibey Says:


    As the old bluegrass saying goes, the music has to be played!

    Dr. B

  8. drtombibey Says:


    I have done three mandolins, but most of the credit goes to my wood working pal, Richard Strum. I need to do a post on him sometime.

    If I ever get out on tour, I’ll have to bring one with me.

    Dr. B

  9. halstonwilliams Says:

    Thank you for looking on my blog it’s only about a week old, anyway rockygrass is in Lyons, Colorado, and is a very popular festival. If you need anymore info. on it go to bluegrass.com-Halston A. Williams

  10. drtombibey Says:

    Cool. We are way over here in N.C. but I’m gonna keep up with all of the bluegrass scene I can.

    Dr. B

  11. Susan Shay Says:

    Dr. Tom–
    How wonderful! I really want to see a picture of your walking stick dulcimer. Can you post one?

  12. drtombibey Says:

    Ms. Susan,

    I have the walking stick dulcimer right here in my study. I’ll take some pictures and see if I can load them onto the blog. Might take a while, but will let you know when I do.

    Dr. B

  13. Jo Says:

    Please where can we see images of this walking stick dulcimer, I’ve heard it called an Indian walking stick as well. I have read that these where used to carry the fret measurements long distances.

  14. drtombibey Says:


    Hey there, appreciate you dropping by. Look under my categories and find Musical Instruments (pictures.) After you click on it the walking stick dulcimer will be in the bottom left hand corner.

    Dr. B

  15. Greg Jewell Says:

    Doc, I love your story. And don’t “refine” yourself. It ruins the soul. I grew up in the SC/NC mountains. I am still amazed by the music, and craft talent that comes from there. I proudly carry on the tradition of using whatever is handy. It’s a family tradition. And it gives me a sense of pride in my heritage. More people need to get back to it. I’ll keep looking here for more info. Thanks Doc!

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