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Dulcimer Boomer: Neal Hellman

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

Remember the old Reader's Digest recurring series, "My Most Unforgettable Character"? Well, Neal Hellman is in my Top Ten list of most unforgettable characters.

I actually met Neal when he visited Nashville, long before I started thinking about writing Pluck. Like many traveling musicians, he needed a place to stay the night before he did a workshop for our dulcimer club, so we invited him to stay at the farm. He ended up staying a week, and was so much fun that he could have stayed a month if he wished. What can I share about Neal for those who don't know him or wonder why we had such a good time with him?

Neal Hellman with dulcimer on Dulcimer Player News.
Neal on the 1979 Fall Dulcimer Player News cover. Courtesy of Ashley Ernst/Dulcimer Player News. Neal has appeared on and in the magazine several times.

There is never a dull moment when you're around Neal. I loved his bicultural NewYork-City/California personality. In theory it shouldn't work, but it certainly does. He's very laid back, but energetic. He is passionate about music; throughout his life he has been a master musician, arranger, writer, music teacher, producer, composer and author of multiple books, consultant and a hell of a storyteller. He loves to think, talk, teach, play, explain, demonstrate, tell stories and share his interests which are many both about and beyond music.

Second, his roots originate quite deeply into the seventies Dulcimer Boom; he was right in the thick of things making countless contributions to mountain dulcimer history (and is still contributing.) You'll read about his friendship with David in Pluck.

Musician Neal Hellman posing with Shiloh
1979 Neal Hellman with son Shiloh. Courtesy of Bonnie Carol.

Neal knew everybody and everything about

the origins of folk music in general and the dulcimer in particular. He paid homage to and preserved Richard Farina's music for history in one of his first songbooks.

It wasn't long before Neal founded his own record label, Gourd Music, which he still operates today. (Gourd is paradise for people whose tastes run toward historic folk music from around the world. One of my favorite albums from Gourd is Lauda, by legendary producer and cellist Barry Phillips, Neal's long time friend/collaborator.)

Oh, and did I mention Neal is one of Ken Burns's go-to authorities on historic music?

Third, he's yet another acoustic Boomer gift and role model we desperately need in these trying times. He treasures his friends, goes above and beyond to help when asked, and has never lost his youthful exuberance for life. He was of tremendous help in the research for Pluck, and had seemingly endless patience with my questions. Neal's many stories inspired me to broaden my original focus from "just" a biography of David Schnaufer to delve into and write about a music and socio-cultural context for David and his friends: the "Astonishing Times" of the book's subtitle.

Yes, I'm a big fan of Neal's. Please visit his website Gourd Music if you're looking for some of the best music out there to enhance your home's ambience and your own enjoyment. You'll find plenty of his books as well.

Neal's latest consulting with Ken Burns can be heard in Burns's newest documentary, Ben Franklin.

And, luckily for those of us who enjoy good storytelling, Neal has preserved some of his writing at his Neal's Tales Blog. Take a peek.

Watch Neal teach "dampening" on his song, "Azika Tali", or visit to see this mini-tutorial as well as his explanation of getting through a tricky part of "Arkansas Traveler".

Finally, if you like the history of the Dulcimer Boom, you're in for a treat if you visit Neal's essay, "Liberating Richard" on the website. In it Neal tells his audacious story about how he came to publish the Richard Fariña Songbook, and you can download a copy for free at the end of the essay.

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