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Today In Mountain Dulcimer History: 25 November 1971

PostPosted: Sat Nov 25, 2017 8:40 am
by dbennett
Dulcimer maker Jethro Amburgey (1895-1971) died in Hindman, Knott County, Kentucky. Jethro was born was born in Knott County, Kentucky to Wiley J. Amburgey (1823-1916) and Surilda “Rilda” Madden (1861-1935). Jethro has a twin brother Woodrow Amburgey (1895-1950) and 20 other siblings. He was a distant cousin to Jean Ritchie. He married Lourania “Rania” Smith (1897-1969) and they had one son, Morris Jethro Amburgey (1926-2006) who served in the US Air Force and was a civil engineer. In 1971 Jethro married Florence Swanson.

Amburgey became acquainted with the dulcimer around 1910 through Edward Thomas.

Growing up Jethro attended a one-room school for six years and then attended the Hindman Settlement School eventually graduating high school there. Before graduating, when the United States entered World War I he and some other local boys walked 22 miles to Hazard and enlisted. After three months of training Jethro was assigned to the 38th Infantry, 3rd Division, as a member of a machine gun company. He saw action at the Second Battle of the Marne in July 1918 and was wounded at the Battle of Argonne Forest. The Battle of the Argonne Forest was the final Allied offensive of World War I stretching along the entire Western Front. It was fought from September 26, 1918, until the Armistice on November 11, a total of 47 days.

Upon returning to Hindman after the war Amburgey graduated from high school in 1920. While at the school Jethro worked in the school woodshop to help pay his tuition. It was in this capacity that Jethro met the well-known dulcimer maker James “Uncle Ed” Thomas (1850-1933), when Uncle Ed would come in to get dulcimer supplies. At some point, James Edward Thomas taught Jethro how to play the dulcimer. Eventually Jethro convinced Uncle Ed to sell him an unassembled dulcimer and paid Uncle Ed to teach him how to build the instrument, even though Uncle Ed knew Jethro would be a competitor. “…Mr. Thomas, advancing in years, obliged young Jethro and helped him to learn the secrets of fine dulcimer making…” Amburgey was committed to preserving the craft of Uncle Ed as evidenced from a brochure from Jethro Amburgey titled “The Appalachian Dulcimer” in which he wrote: “...I learned to make the dulcimer from an old man who lived in my neighborhood several years ago. The design you see in the picture was made by Mr. Thomas which probably began about 100 years ago. I make the same dulcimer made by Mr. Thomas and I haven’t changed the design. In my opinion and others also the design is the authentic one of the Southern Highlands...” His earliest instruments are nearly indistinguishable from those of Uncle Ed Thomas, except, according to Jean Ritchie, that they were unpainted. Amburgey made some modifications in the early 1930s to improve resonance and volume. In the 1950s he started experimenting with plywoods and by the early 1960s most of his instruments were made almost entirely of laminates. Amburgey built nearly 1,400 numbered instruments between 1928 and 1971.

Jethro became the Hindman Settlement School’s woodworking teacher in 1931 and held that position for forty years.
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