By Ashley Zimmerman
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By John Hood
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By David Von Bader
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These are the words inked (in Latin, no less) on the skin of John Blosser, Boca-based National Enquirer articles editor and dulcimer devotee. "I hunt people and information for a living," explains the man whose investigative skills have also been honed in learning about a lesser-known and haunting instrument played by Joni Mitchell and Cyndi Lauper. The dulcimer, which has a flat, wooden, hourglass shape, is held against the lap like a dobro. During the 19th Century, Appalachian musicians adapted it from the German scheitholt. A century later, while a student at West Virginia University in 1966, Blosser first caught wind of the dulcimer (not the hammered version).
"I was trapped the first time I heard the siren's voice," Blosser rhapsodizes in the liner notes of his first album, Coyote Dulcimer, describing "a dulcimer played with a strumming turkey quill by Dr. Patrick Gainer."
Soon after the introduction, Blosser met Jean Ritchie while on assignment for a journalism class. Ritchie is a Kentuckian who has been credited with reviving interest in the dulcimer by introducing it to the New York City folk revival scene in the 1950s. After she showed Blosser how the instrument worked, the young man bought a "dulci" for "eight bucks and a quart of moonshine" at a West Virginia folk festival.
"There's something magic about [the dulcimer]," Blosser explains. "It's like bagpipes -- it has the same soul-stirring wildness, but it also has a tenderness that bagpipes don't have." Since college, the dulcimer has been Blosser's "lifelong addiction, an antidote to the blues, a ventriloquist's dummy for things that can't be spoken."
One of Blosser's inspirations is Richard Farina, a hitchhiking, Beatles-loving writer and dulcimer musician who revolutionized the instrument's playing style. From 1961 to 1963, Farina was married to Carolyn Hester, who introduced him to the dulcimer during their brief marriage. In 1963, Farina wed Mimi Baez (sister of Joan Baez), and together they released two albums, Celebrations for a Grey Day and Reflections in a Crystal Wind. Then he died in a motorcycle accident on April 30, 1966. Farina left behind his dulcimer, which is now in the Smithsonian. No one knew who'd made it.
"Richard Farina's dulcimer was historically important," Blosser states. "The two albums [Farina] made started a lot of people playing dulcimer. He showed that the dulcimer could be a rock 'n' roll instrument. It could be wild."
In 1999, Blosser says he was compelled to find out who'd crafted Farina's dulcimer, so he contacted Farina's widow, Mimi, who was living in California. She'd remarried and divorced and was struggling with cancer -- a fight that ended in July 2001. She sent Blosser photographs of Farina's instrument, as well as a detailed, hand-drawn diagram of it.
"Here's Mimi, suffering from terminal cancer, and she still loved the guy so much, she was willing to do this to keep on his legacy," Blosser remembers. The only signature on the dulcimer was a single engraved H, which Blosser followed to Australia's Kangaroo Valley. There, he found a luthier named Terry Hennessy.
After Blosser gave Mimi's sketch and photos to Hennessy, the luthier made two more like it. Blosser has one. The other Hennessy gave to a Kentucky musician named Jerry Rockwell, then "swore he would never make another one again," Blosser explains, "because making them like that was such a huge pain in the ass."
Blosser is an unassuming, average-looking 56-year-old father of one with an affable demeanor and a calm, measured second-tenor voice. Married for 26 years, he's the kind of person who lets other people pass him in traffic and takes in stray cats. Blosser catches a show at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach every once in a while.
And he's quite a musician. He won the 2000 Florida Dulcimer Championship and again in 2001, the same year he recorded Coyote Dulcimer. Local folk songstress Tracy Sands adds vocals on two songs, but most of the album is instrumental, so unadorned that one can hear the dulcimer player breathing during clean renditions of older folk songs and popular classics like "Come Softly" and "A Time for Us." Even as instrumentals, these songs retain an organic honesty that's reinvigorated by the beautiful resonance of this simple instrument.
After playing in folk festivals all over the country, Blosser is just starting to perform here in South Florida. "The most common thing you hear when you get on-stage with dulcimer is 'What the heck is that thing?' and it pisses me off," says the man who counts himself a Loreena McKennitt fanatic. "It's the only uniquely American folk instrument. Americans should know what it is! It's up to us players to teach them."
The dulcimer may be known as a folk instrument, but Blosser enjoys experimenting with it. "Despite how old [the dulcimer] is, it's a new instrument; it's still free range. Anybody who wants to try anything on dulcimer tries it. And, believe me, people are trying everything."
In the spirit of "free-range" musicianship, Blosser recently designed his own dulcimer. Bud Ford of Colorado is putting it together. "It's a solid-body, triple-pickup, five-way-switch, fully loaded, in-and-out-of-phase-shifting, solid-body dulcicaster that I could use to front Metallica," Blosser says in one breath. "It looks like what the dulcimer might have looked like if it developed on the planet Klingon. It's all red with gold mounts. The pick guard is like a mirror with a red, lasered-in coyote. If you plug this in, you can play like Ted Nugent."