AOH Charlie Whitaker
On a warm spring day, Joyce Whitaker sits at her kitchen table in the place she has called home for more than 80 years. This homestead, far up Bull Creek hollow, is the house where she was born. We sit quietly together as the warm sun streams through a large piece of brown stained glass, outlining the curves of a dulcimer, and down to the kitchen table below. Joyce gently runs her fingers along the strings of a few of the hand-carved wooden dulcimers her husband, Charlie, whittled over the course of a lifetime and reminisces.
Mountain life has been good to the Whitakers. Charlie and Joyce met in fifth grade at a small one-room schoolhouse, Carcassonne. In 1949, they began dating while students at Alice Lloyd College. It was during those college years they married. Both went on to receive master’s degrees from Peabody College in Nashville but eventually settled back home with their growing family to the Floyd County hills of eastern Kentucky.
Charlie Whitaker is known in these parts as a fine educator, a respected principal, a famous square dance caller, a good basketball coach, and a skilled basket maker. But to many, Charlie was a master dulcimer maker—quite an accomplishment for a man who wasn’t grandfathered into a crafting way of life. Charlie’s mother was legally blind, and his father was a coal miner with little time for whittling wood or weaving baskets. In fact, Charlie claimed he couldn’t draw a straight line and didn’t put a knife blade to wood until his mid-20s when, as a teacher at Pine Mountain Settlement School, he was asked to work in the fledgling crafts program. What began out of necessity—stepping in to fill a vacant spot as a shop teacher—soon turned into a hobby and eventually would chart a course Charlie Whitaker never could have dreamed.
By 1965, Charlie had become the dean of students at his alma mater. With nearly a decade of shop teaching under his belt, he took that knowledge and singlehandedly started what would become Alice Lloyd College’s most popular program: the crafts course. The college initially didn’t have tools or space to devote to the new program, so Charlie whittled items, sold them at local craft fairs, and used the money to purchase supplies and equipment. He used the basement of his home as the classroom until eventually the program was transitioned to space in a former science building.
Charlie estimated that 85 percent of all Alice Lloyd students elected to take his course during their college years. The crafts program there became a successful avenue to reach mountain communities. Charlie’s dream was to bring awareness and interest in mountain artistry back to its people. He made this dream a reality by training his students to run recreation centers in isolated rural hollows. His feeling was that, if you could arouse people’s interest in mountain crafts, you had an opening to find out what their needs were and begin meeting those needs.
His hunch was spot on. Indeed, there was great interest from people beyond the reaches of campus to learn the “old-timey” ways. His workshops and classes grew dramatically throughout the state in the three decades that followed, forging a path for generations of Appalachian people to come.
The bonding of families and friends over music has held these tight-knit mountain communities together through the harshest of times. Charlie knew this well. And he knew the dulcimer was an avenue to ignite the passion in his people to celebrate and preserve their heritage.
Charlie taught his students a dulcimer pattern he created based on one from Old Man Thomas of Carr Creek. Charlie often shared the story of Old Man Thomas who, in the early 1900s, would tie all the dulcimers he had made onto a mule-driven wagon. He would travel more than 30 miles to Whitesburg in Letcher County on Saturday mornings to play his dulcimers and sell them when the train rolled into town. Back then, his dulcimers sold for $5. Today, one would sell for well more than $1,000.
Although Charlie patterned a signature dulcimer shape and style, he was never rigid in his approach, and no two Charlie Whitaker dulcimers are alike. This approach also gave his thousands of students during the course of 45 years the opportunity not just to replicate but to create. A former student described it this way: “I was amazed that I could even begin to make a dulcimer, since I had never whittled before. But Charlie starts you from the beginning on small scraps of wood. So much goes into making a dulcimer, including numerous pounds of love and affection and lots of pride. I think that’s what makes it shine.”
Charlie Whitaker passed away at the age of 80 in the fall of 2009. The home in which Joyce was born, in the hollow in which they met, was where she and Charlie finished with excellence—a rewarding life together. After Charlie’s passing, Joyce had a bench placed at a high point on the homestead. The cleared, flat land on the otherwise steep terrain was their favorite spot. From that small outlook, the landscape opens up, and you can see mile after mile of the Appalachian Mountains. As we approach the bench and look out on the horizon, Joyce quietly shares, “When I sit out here in the mornings, the tall trees stand like islands in the fog.”
Charlie Whitaker, too, was one of the tallest trees these mountains have ever had.