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Nancy Barker and Jean Ritchie

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

Nancy Barker, dulcimer player, performer and founder of Kentucky Music Weekend and Kentucky Music Week.

Today I want to write to you about this lovely woman, Nancy Barker. She is one of the reasons that the subtitle for Pluck reads, "The Extraordinary Life and Times of David Schnaufer." Pluck includes vignettes about Nancy who has had an extraordinary life as well and that includes both David and Jean Ritchie.

Nancy first met Jean Ritchie in person in 1972 after driving all the way north to Mariposa Island for the Mariposa Folk Festival near Toronto, Canada. Jean was one of the stars Nancy was eager to see perform; she had grown up collecting Jeans albums and used them to teach herself how to play the dulcimer once she received one for her birthday.

Once she arrived at Mariposa, Nancy heard Jean singing before saw her on a late afternoon, close to twilight. Jean's voice floated across across the low hills of the island, drawing Nancy to her with her song, "Cool of the Day." Nancy managed to introduce herself to Jean after the concert; little did she know that her first meeting with her idol would not be the last time. Years later, when Nancy decided to start her own festival, she dialed a phone number someone had given her thinking it was Jean's agent. To her surprise, Jean answered the phone and asked her to hold on awhile "...'cause honey, I'm fryin' chicken, give me a minute." Thanks to Nancy's extraordinary work as the founder of two Kentucky festivals, Kentucky Music Weekend and then Kentucky Music Week, she and Jean would eventually become good friends, and Jean would perform at Nancy's festivals whenever she was able.

By 1980 Nancy had a thriving and acclaimed Louisville weekend festival on her hands that featured acoustic musicians and craftspeople to showcase the best in music and crafts for festival goers.

She was in the middle of planning her followup dream, Kentucky Music Week which she envisioned a weeklong gathering of musicians and craftspeople that would include five full days of classes and workshops, performances by the instructors, after-class parties, and an unparalleled opportunity in this region for dulcimer players of all levels to meet and get to know each other.

Nancy communicated with a young David Schnaufer in the days before he moved to Nashville to invite him to appear at Kentucky Music Week. He replied in part that he hoped lodging would be included in the instructor fee, but if not, he would work with her. Most surprisingly, he wrote, "I would like to do a lot of jew's harp stuff along with some dulcimer things, too. I'm able to do workshops on both instruments." His placing the jaw harp before the dulcimer surprised me; I wonder: at the time, did he feel more comfortable with his skills on the former rather than on the latter, so promoted the jaw harp first? If so, then that is astonishing; even before 1980, his virtuosity as a dulcimer player was without question. At the very least, it suggests that the jaw harp was near and dear to his heart, perhaps because it was a lasting, singular gift that his parents gave him when he was five. Indeed, when he finally did meet Nancy at her home, he eagerly shared his extensive jaw harp collection and played for her; he didn't even take a dulcimer with him on that first visit.

The extraordinary intersection of all three lives--Nancy's, David's and Jean's--inform Pluck. All three eventually became good friends who shared mutual admiration for their exceptional kindness and work on behalf of performing and promoting music through the dulcimer. When Nancy told me the story of her first sight of Jean Ritchie, and how it thrilled her, it made me very happy for both women; hindsight allows me to know that eventually the Muse brought them together time and again through Nancy's festival work. David was the icing on that cake. And for David, the dulcimer did make its way front and center in his life, but it never nudged those jaw harps completely out of the picture; there was room for both.

After a long Covid hiatus, Kentucky Music Week is alive and kicking for its 2022 meeting, and you can still register to enjoy this historic festival where you can meet its really remarkable director and her talented crew in June. Visit the festival website here.

If you'd like to read another friend of Jean's and his similar experience inspired by her song, "Cool of the Day", read about it here.

David played the jaw harp throughout his life on many recordings. If you'd like to listen to him perform with it on his friend Rocky Alvey's original composition, "Blackberry Jam", click here. Make sure you listen to him take off with some unexpected, wildfire playing at the end--that was all David's idea. Rocky told me that he and the other musicians were doing their best to keep up with him. Listen for Rocky and friends' reaction, "Call the fire department!" Doesn't that make you smile?

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