Clara Callahan Weave Shop Dulcimer Player 1930

11/12/19 12:26:20PM

I've been doing some research on Clara Louise Callahan, the dulcimer player mentioned in Dorothy Scarborough's 1937 book, Song Catcher in the Southern Mountains.  Scarborough visited the Weave Shop while collecting old ballads in the summer of 1930 with the express purpose of seeing and recording someone who played the mountain dulcimer.  That someone was ballad singer and dulcimer player Clara Callahan, who had a direct connection to Pine Mountain Settlement School.  Here's what I have discovered so far.  David, feel free to copy and paste for next September's dates in dulcimer history.  Clara was born on September 25, 1908.

Clara Louise Callahan’s Biographical Information


Clara Louise Callahan was born in Cutshin, Leslie County, Kentucky on September 25, 1908, the fifth of seven children (John D. Callahan, Jr., James Madison Callahan, William McCoy Callahan, Bradley Callahan, Clara Louise Callahan, Harry C. Callahan, and Martha Lee Callahan) born to John D. Callahan and Laura Catherine Causey.  The Callahan family was dirt poor.  John owned no land, and the family had to rent their home.  The children were undernourished despite John’s best efforts to earn enough money to support his family.   To complicate matters further Laura Callahan died shortly after giving birth to her youngest child, Martha Lee Callahan, who was born on January 15, 1915.

John did all he could to make life better for his seven children.  With his wife gone, the burden of working to earn a living and child care became too much for the widowed father to handle on his own.  John couldn’t afford clothing, so he made what he could.  He made sure all seven children attended the nearby school in Hazard County, Kentucky where they were taught by W.R. Brown.   Realizing things were only getting worse, John and his motherless children walked 30 miles to Pine Mountain Settlement School to ask for help.  The children’s teacher teacher, W.R. Brown, had written a letter to Katherine Pettit asking her to help the family.  In the letter, which was dated August 27, 1916, Brown vouched for the character of both the father and his seven children.  Pettit considered the request.  John Callahan pleaded with Miss Pettit to permit the children to stay.  He told her that they had been raised right and she would have no problem with their behavior.  The school didn’t have the financial resources to house and feed the family, but she let them stay.

Evelyn Wells, a teacher at Pine Mountain Settlement School, described the arrival of the Callahan family as follows:


“The whole Callahan episode has been wonderful.  The children certainly have unusual qualities and Mr. Callahan is lovely.  He has come to stay now and will live in the new house with Mr. Luigi Zande and run the furnace at Laurel House and drive the team.  He brought six goats with him as a present to Miss deLong and Miss Pettit.  He is very punctilious in his obligations to the school.”

Unfortunately, John Callahan was shot and killed on November 19, 1920 after testifying to another man’s lawlessness.  He was buried in the nearby Harlan Gas Cemetery in Harlan, Harlan County, Kentucky.   The children were now orphans, but they were permitted to remain at the school until they were old enough to strike out on their own.  Clara Callahan was only 11 years old, but she worked hard and impressed her teachers.  

In 1923 Helen Wilmer Stone, a house mother and teacher at Pine Mountain Settlement School, left the school to open the Weave Shop in Saluda, North Carolina.   Clara Callahan, now 15 years old, was asked to join her former teacher as a weaver.  At first Wilmer Stone partnered with another teacher, Clementine Douglas, to operate the Weave Shop.   But when Douglas left to open up her own weave shop in Asheville, Wilmer Stone and Clara Callahan became partners.  Clara was one of a half-dozen women employed by the Weave Shop, but whenever Wilmer Stone was unavailable Clara stepped in to manage the operation and supervise the other weavers.  The women were encouraged to be creative in producing new patterns. Over the years the Weave Shop produced a number of woolen items, including scarves, table runners, couch covers, blankets, dress materials, tapestries, and wall hangings.  The women were paid by the piece, and most were the sole source of income for their respective families.

In the summer of 1930 Dorothy Scarborough was traveling through North Carolina collecting ballads from local singers.  When she reached Asheville she visited the Spinning Wheel, the weaving and loom shop that had been opened by Clementine Douglas.  Douglas had partnered with Wilmer Stone at the Weave Shop before moving to Asheville to open her own shop.  The two women had met at Pine Mountain Settlement School.  Douglas encouraged Scarborough to collect ballads from the local mountain girls employed at the Spinning Wheel.   Scarborough was more than willing to oblige. The women had written down the lyrics to the songs they sang at work and presented the written collection to Douglas.  Douglas gave the transcripts to Scarborough so she could copy down the words.  Scarborough wanted to record the women singing the ballads and offered to return after work hours, so the women would not be distracted from their work at the looms, but Douglas encouraged her to collect during the day while all the girls were at work.  When Scarborough returned she discovered that most of the women responsible for the original collection were no longer employed at the Weave Shop.  However, she was delighted when she discovered the new employees had a number of new and different ballads to perform.  After one of the women had recorded a ballad on Scarborough’s Dictaphone, Scarborough encouraged the remaining women to sing alternate versions of the same ballad.

Before departing, Douglas asked Scarborough if she would like to see a mountain dulcimer that had been brought from Kentucky and given to Douglas as a gift.  Scarborough was intrigued by the instrument and asked Douglas to play it.  Unfortunately, Douglas could not play the dulcimer.  She told Scarborough to visit the Weave Shop in Saluda, North Carolina where a young woman named Clara Callahan sang ballads accompanied by the mountain dulcimer.  

Scarborough made plans to travel to the Weave Shop where she met Clara Callahan.  The shop’s owner, Wilmer Stone, was out of town, and Clara had been left in charge.  When Scarborough inquired about the mountain dulcimer, Callahan informed her that the instrument was not at the shop.  Encouraged by Scarborough, Callahan went home to fetch the dulcimer.  When she returned, Scarborough had set up her Dictaphone and was ready to record Clara playing the mountain dulcimer while she sang old ballads.  Unfortunately, the delicate sound of the dulcimer was not picked up by the recording equipment.  Callahan sang a number of Child Ballads, which Scarborough dutifully recorded.  Eight of the ballads were included in Scarborough’s 1937 book, A Songcatcher in the Southern Mountains, which documented her work during the summer of 1930.  Clara Callahan’s contributions included “Barbara Ellen” (Child Ballad #84), “Lord Lovel (Child Ballad #75), “Pretty Polly/The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter”, two versions of “Edward” (Child Ballad #13), “The Hangman’s Son/The Maid Freed from the Gallows” (Child Ballad #95), “Jackaroe/The Silk Merchant’s Daughter”, ”The Three Gypsies/The Gypsie Laddie” (Child Ballad #200), and “The Indian Lass/Pretty Mohee”.  Tunes were included for many for the ballads.

Wilmer Stone married Henry E. Scrope Viner on May 7, 1930 in Saluda, Polk County, North Carolina.  Clara Callahan returned to Kentucky where she married Charles Edgar Mays and gave birth to four children (Bertha Jean Mays, Paul Donald Mays, Keith Mays, and Betty Lou Mays) before moving to Franklin County, Indiana where the family is found listed in the 1940 Blooming Grove Township, Franklin County, Indiana Census.  She remained in Indiana for the remainder of her life, dying on July 19, 1979 in Laurel, Franklin County, Indiana.


Clara Louise Callahan’s Mountain Dulcimer


Clara Callahan was one of the first mountain dulcimer players to be recorded.  Her repertoire consisted primarily of old English ballads learned as a child in Kentucky.  Since her mother died when Clara was just 5 or 6 years old, her repertoire was most likely learned during her time at Pine Mountain Settlement School from other children attending the school.  However, the local mountain girls employed by the Weave Shop loved to sing while they weaved, so Clara may have added to her repertoire through careful listening during the long days at the Weave Shop.

Although no description of Clara’s dulcimer is given, her instrument was likely brought with her when she left Kentucky to join Wilmer Stone at the Weave Shop.  The teachers at Pine Mountain Settlement School were very familiar with the mountain dulcimer, especially the dulcimers of local luthiers James Edward Thomas, Jethro Amburgey, and Will Singleton.  In the 1930s, Jess Patterson, a bus driver at Pine Mountain Settlement School, began to make mountain dulcimers in the school’s woodshop between morning and afternoon bus runs.  Patterson had learned the skills of woodworking from Clara’s cousin, Boon Callahan, who taught woodworking at the school.  Although Clara had left the school and moved to Saluda, North Carolina by the time Patterson began making dulcimers, her dulcimer was most likely built by one of the local luthiers, perhaps even her 1st cousin, Boon Callahan.  

A unique feature of Clara Callahan’s playing was the use of the mountain dulcimer to accompany the old ballads.  Most ballad singers perform without musical accompaniment.  Clara may have witnessed one of the Ritchie girls at Pine Mountain Settlement School using the dulcimer to accompany their own singing.  Six of the fourteen Ritchie children (May, Kitty, Raymond, Truman, Patty, and Jewel) attended Pine Mountain Settlement School.  Most of the rest attended Hindman Settlement School.  Sabrina Ritchie, who was a cousin of the other Ritchies and the daughter of Uncle Jason Ritchie, taught weaving at Pine Mountain Settlement School and sang ballads while the girls weaved.  Most of the other Ritchie children also contributed to the musical culture at the school.  Considering Clara Callahan’s skills as both a weaver and a ballad singer, skills she learned while attending Pine Mountain Settlement School, the influence of the Ritchie family is more likely than not.  Sabrina Ritchie may have had the most influence of all.