Edsel Martin (1927-1999) liked to refer to himself as the ‘mountain misfit of North Carolina.’ That understates the case just a tad. He was in fact a widely celebrated instrument maker, musician and artist whose work can be found in the Smithsonian Institution and the North Carolina Museum of History.
Martin, a member of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild, was the son of a regionally renowned fiddler, Marcus Lafayette Martin, and was part of a family of noted artists from Swannanoa, NC. His woodcarvings are representative of both the southern handicrafts revival and the arts & crafts revival that swept the southern highlands in the late 19th to mid 20th century.
Ed Dupuy interviewed Martin on Jan 22, 1965 at his home in Swannanoa. Dupuy’s 1967 book “Artisans of the Appalachians” contains an essay on Martin that is based on this interview:
Dupuy- Edsel, how did you get started at this sort of work?
Martin- My father did this work, and I think his father did, too. But I think it just sort of growed on us boys. This grew up with us.
d-Your father made violins and dulcimers; what else did he make?
m- I’ve seen him do some pretty good carving. Not figure carving, just stars, and arrowheads, and all sorts of things. Odds and ends, something different.
d-No doubt you got your start from him. It rubbed off on all you boys.
m- We were all brought up by ourselves. My mother and father separated; all of us four stayed and lived together. This was all we had to do, you know, to occupy ourselves. And this is what we come up with.
d-As far as you can remember, how long have you been at this sort of thing?
m-Wall, I’ve done a little of this as far back as I can remember. It was actually about 1946, maybe a few years earlier than that, when I began to put these on the market. Earlier, we just didn’t think of making any money at it, we did it just for pleasure.
d-Are you the youngest of the brothers?
m-I’m the youngest; the others are Wade, Fred, Pepper and Wayne. Wayne carves at Gatlinburg.
D-You have just lived and grown up here all your life?
m-I was born in Gastonia. I’ve lived here just about all my life. My dad was from out in Cherokee County.
d-What were some of the first things you began to make with your hands?
m-I carved some Indian door stops and stuff of that type. Door stops; and I modeled some out of clay.
d-Have you any idea how many dulcimers you have made?
m-Oh, I guess probably 175. We sold about thirty alone last year.
d-I notice one of these is made out of walnut and one is made out of cherry. Does one wood make a better dulcimer than another?
m-Well, I don’t know, Ed. You can make two just alike, and they won’t sound alike, even out of the same wood, you’d get a different tone.
d-This is patterned after the old ones, isn’t it?
d-This will have four strings?
d-Haven’t I seen some with just three strings?
m-Yes, they make them with three strings.
d-In beginning a dulcimer from scratch, what do you begin with?
m-You get a pattern for the back and the front, and the tail piece, get it straightened out and line up and glue that one first. Then you set your sides and wait for them to dry. Then you set your top and the other two pieces to make the finger board.
d-This scroll on the neck, that is entirely hand carved? That’s very much like a fiddle scroll.
m-Yes. I like to put something in them so they don’t look like any old thing. I’ve seen some violins that had some lions heads on them.
d-Even these pegs are hand carved; what would they be made of?
m-They’re made of maple; hard maple. I cut ‘em with the grain.
d-Does the thickness of the wood have much to do with the tone?
m-That one is a quarter inch, but I’m going to hollow it out. Pull in from the inside and roll it from the outside. The thickness of the wood does make a difference. You get it too thick and it won’t ring right.
d-This finger board, these are metal frets that are set in here?
d-What were the old original strings made off? Were they steel or were they all gut?
m-I’ve read literature, Ed, where they were hammered out some way.
d-They were drawn through a die, I expect. Have you any idea how long people have been making dulcimers?
m-As far as I can trace it back, was the third chapter of Daniel in the Bible; I believe it was King Nebuchadnezzar. That’s as far back as I want to take it. It pleases me that it goes back that far. And carving goes back as far as Joseph, where in his carpenter shop he told Jesus how to carve wood with the grain.
d-Can you play a dulcimer?
m-Yes, I play a dulcimer pretty good.
Source: Hunter Library Digital Collection/Western Carolina University: http://wcudigitalcollection.cdmhost.com/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/p4008coll2&CISOPTR=2955&REC=1