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Madeline MacNeil

Writing on this project has enabled me to get to know and learn from a whole host of remarkable and talented people, some from within the dulcimer world, and some from other parts of the music and history world. Some informants are not-well known in either place, but have been equally helpful, kind and excited to share their own passions. In a nutshell, the people within and behind the story are one of the most rewarding parts of the book project.

One person whom I knew I had to interview was named Madeline MacNeil, known as Maddie to her friends. If you already know who Maddie was, you can skip this post; this one is for the visitors who have never heard of this remarkable woman.

Maddie MacNeil sings and performs on the mountain dulcimer.
Maddie performs in 1979 at the Rabbit Junction Festival. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Carol.

Maddie deserves to be known for many reasons, not the least of which is her impact on preserving music history so we can continue to experience it. I knew nothing about her when I began playing the dulcimer eight years ago. Even later, I only had a vague recollection of seeing her name here and there. Once I started the research for Pluck two years ago, several people who knew both David and Maddie told me that starting in the seventies, the two became friends who were very much alike in many ways: both gentle spirits, unfettered by ego, more interested in learning about you than than in talking about themselves. Both were totally dedicated to dulcimer playing, dulcimer music, dulcimer history and both understood the value of preserving

Maddie's business card courtesy of Rick Freimuth.

tradition for future generations.

Rick Freimuth was one of the people who helped me "get to know" the Maddie of the seventies (and is still helping me get to know her); Rick met Maddie and David through Keith and Mary Young. (You can read about all of them in more detail in Pluck, so I won't include that background here, although I will write about the Youngs in a future blog post.)

1976 Maddie performs on stage at the Galax mountain dulcimer competition. Photo courtesy of Rick Freimuth.

Maddie sang beautifully and played guitar. Once she heard the call of the mountain dulcimer, she became devoted to it for the rest of her life. She learned to play the hammered dulcimer, too.) Her gentle voice and perpetual smile were two aspects a stranger might notice about her, but under the surface was a benevolent force of nature who exemplifies the dictum, "Do right and fear not." She did it all : she performed on stage in music venues and competed against the best players in the country in festival competitions. She was an award-winning recording artist, became a songcatcher to rescue historic songs from the dustbin of history and then preserve them for all time in books she authored with her friend Ralph Lee Smith. She taught via workshops and classes. Gallaudet University's mission--to change students lives by teaching them the freedom to communicate easily with everyone and without barriers--must have resonated with Maddie's feelings about the parallel goal of music, because she even performed for Gallaudet's deaf students.

Newly-weds Maddie and Phil Mason on the The Dulcimer Players News 1976 Summer cover. Image courtesy of Dulcimer Players News/Ashley Ernst.

Maddie is probably best known as a former publisher of Dulcimer Players News. I learned much about her from reading her chatty columns and articles in each issue under her aegis; I learned some more from reading between the lines: how overwhelming the responsibility must have felt at times, how much stress ensued from the non-stop work of putting out a periodical on a tiny budget; the occasional irritation with complainers who grated; however, throughout it all, she persevered and loved and--I hope--understood the value of her work for the future. For twenty-eight years she captained the Dulcimer Players News ship with its packed cargo full of historic documents, photos, articles, instructions, lessons, music, biographical profiles, reviews, letters to the editor with current questions, resources and commentaries of the times that are a gold mine for scholars, researchers and everyday interested readers. If you want to understand how the history of the mountain dulcimer and the hammered dulcimer, their music and their communities evolved from the earliest American history through her time, she has it all laid out for you.

While researching for Pluck, I reached out to Maddie in early March 2020, but to no avail. Given what Rick, Bonnie and many others had told me about her, I was surprised that she wasn't returning my calls or emails. It didn't sound like the Maddie they had described. What I didn't know but finally learned was that the lovely eighty-year-old Maddie had had a bad fall, and on March 22, 2020 she passed away.

Maddie was and is a national treasure. And let me tell you, there are many more national treasures out there accessible to you if you are an aspiring dulcimer player. Pluck will introduce you to some of them, and some of them you'll discover teaching music classes today, through Dulcimer Players News, and many in festivals both online and live. When you make the decision to pick up a dulcimer and start to learn to play it, you're in for a whole lot more than you maybe you thought you were bargaining for. The dulcimer will introduce you to some of the most interesting and fun people you'll ever want to meet from the past, present and even those who will play and lead into the future. It's a great deal.

If you'd like to take a peek at Dulcimer Players News, click the link. It's a first class resource for both hammered dulcimer and fretted dulcimer players that ensures "The Tradition Continues" as David used to say. You can learn more about Madeline MacNeil in Pluck, or by googling her name.

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