Clifford Glenn was a traditional instrument maker and musician from the Sugar Grove and Beech Mountain area of Watauga County North Carolina. He made dulcimers and fretless mountain banjos for more than five decades in a tradition that dates back to his great-grandfather Eli Presnell. Presnell made a pattern in the 1880s from what was supposedly the first dulcimer in the hourglass pattern in the region. That instrument, according to family stories, was brought on horseback by a mysterious “man from the west” (probably Kentucky), and while he stayed the night a pattern was made. Presnell also made mountain banjos, and his banjo and dulcimer forms were taken up by his grandson, Clifford’s father Leonard (1910-1997), who was a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient.
Clifford made his first dulcimer at age nineteen, and his first banjo soon followed. At first, his instrument making took place during the winter months when there was less work to do. The Glenn’s instruments found buyers within the community among friends and then at local shops. During the folk boom of the 1960s, the Glenn’s were discovered by the folk music community and orders began pouring in from all over the country and eventually the world. Soon they made instruments exclusively by order, and the orders often backed up for more than a year.
Instrument making was Clifford’s chief source of income although he did plant tobacco and the family grew some their own food. In 1964 he married Maybelle Presnell, and both Maybelle and their daughter play dulcimer. Clifford himself was an excellent example of a true traditional musician. He was self taught and learned his old time repertoire from watching and listening to family and community members. His father used to play dances around the county. He learned banjo and dulcimer as a boy and developed an unusual style of playing banjo, in which the little finger notes the melody in between strumming with the remaining fingers and occasionally upstroking the fifth string with the thumb. He started performing as a younger man playing local instrumental tunes such as “Cripple Creek,” ” Johnson Boys,” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” In his later years, he performed in a family group that played hymns accompanied by stringed instruments.
Many artisans make dulcimers, but few make them with the beauty and variety and continuous sense of tradition that Clifford did. He had his own original patterns and others from his family. He continued to use the 1880s “Stranger” pattern, and he made dulcimers in all of the commonly found shapes: boat, teardrop and hourglass. He sometimes made instruments to specifications, such as coupled-strung dulcimers, fretted banjos, and a trapezoid-shaped guitar. He also used a variety of woods and decorative sound-hole patterns.
When asked what he wanted to impart in general to the public, Clifford said, “I’d rather the instruments I make be played rather than just hung on a wall for decoration like some are. But they’re made to be played and that’s what I’d like to see done with them.”
Clifford Glenn passed away on July 18, 2015 at the age of seventy-nine.