David E. Field ChE’52 says he’s always loved working with his hands, so it seemed only logical that, when the folk music craze of the early 1960s hit, he should take up instrument making. There was just one problem: He was a chemical engineer who didn’t know how to play any instruments, let alone make one.
“I tried the guitar, but it was clear I was never going to be very good at it,” Field recently told me. “A friend of ours who worked at a music store in Philadelphia suggested I make a dulcimer” — the fretted, plucked musical instrument he’s holding above. “As my son says [now], ‘Anyone with half a brain can play the dulcimer.'”
Soon after he created — and quickly learned to play — his first dulcimer, the requests began. His kids’ babysitter wanted one of her own. Then a friend of the family. Then a friend of that friend. And on and on until Field reached his current status as the go-to guy for handmade dulcimers.
Field estimates that over the years, he’s made about 400 dulcimers in all — including the three pictured below, which were sitting on his dining table when I recently visited his New Jersey home.
“Many musicians turn their nose up at the dulcimer,” he said, “because it’s quiet and it’s easy to play. But it can actually produce sounds of all sorts.”
To demonstrate, Field picked up one of his favorite dulcimers — made of cherry, walnut and Eastern white wood — and played West Fork Girls, using a large plastic pick to create a loud, bagpipe-like sound.
Still, the instrument is perhaps best known for the sweet, soft sounds it can produce, Field said. Then he demonstrated again:
In 2004, Field also began making harps of all sizes, and estimates that he has since built about 200 of those.
He recently received the New Jersey Folk Festival’s lifetime achievement award for instrument making and promoting old-time Appalachian music, and also plays the dulcimer in two music groups: Cheat Mountain Gathering and an Irish ensemble.