Lack of pen didn’t stop reporting

Published 2:27 am Saturday, September 7, 2013

There I was sitting next to a column in the making. And I was unprepared. No purse, no pen, no notepad. It was time to improvise. I borrowed a pen and moved everything off my placemat so I could make notes on it. Then I turned to guitarist, dulcimer player and newspaper columnist Archie Lee. “Tell me about yourself,” I said to the man who had played Little Clifford on the Renfroe Valley Barn Dance in the early 1940s.

I found myself sitting next to the amiable Mr. Lee at a meal attended by close to one hundred dulcimer players, spouses and friends during the 1991 Southern Appalachian Dulcimer Festival. The people who play the delightful musical instrument called the lap dulcimer are a lot like Methodists. (Well, some are Methodists.) No matter their denominations, they like to get together and they like to eat. We had gathered in the restaurant at Tannehill Historic State Park following the final festival performance.

A column topic seldom just sits down beside me. I could not pass up the opportunity. I had to interview him. I had heard the Renfroe Valley Barn Dance on the radio when I was a child. Archie told me that he did pantomime on the radio and people came to performances to see what he looked like. “Aunt Idy,” a blues singer, who acted country on her role in the show, scolded him over such antics as eating goldfish and Aunt Idy’s hat. He claimed he landed the role for his comedy act because of his skinny legs.

Lee’s dulcimer connection was part of his heritage. His grandmother left him one, but at the time, it meant nothing to him. When he heard a dulcimer recital at the University of Kentucky by a Dr. Grimes of Nashville, it piqued his interest in the instrument. He pulled his grandmother’s dulcimer out of the attic and discovered it was dated 1817. When he told me about it, he said it was the oldest authenticated dulcimer in existence. Mrs. Lee showed it to the audience during his performance at the festival that year. I later got a close look at it. Since he already played the guitar, I assume that it must have been easy for him to quickly learn to coax sweet sounds out of that dulcimer.

Years back when the Lees moved to Alabama, they could not find any dulcimer players. As time passed, dulcimer groups started up. He told me he belonged to six and was president of the annual Alasippi Dulcimer Association Festival held at Tishimingo (Mississippi) State Park.

Folks who live in the Red Bay area of Alabama knew Lee as “Old Arch.” They looked forward to his weekly homespun philosophy in his column, “Archways,” in the Red Bay News.

I do not know when Mr. Lee died, but he apparently endeared himself to dulcimer enthusiasts. They remember him through participation in the Archie Lee Memorial Dulcimer Festival at Tisimingo every October.