Jan 27, 2013

The Warranty Has Expired...

Keith K.Young 1929-2012
I first became aware of Keith Young around 1984.  I had acquired a book, The Autoharp Book, which had been published in 1983, and  I was in the market for a new, custom-built autoharp.  In the back of the book were several pictures of artists playing autoharps, and one was described as "Keith Young, playing an autoharp of his own construction."  It was a beautiful instrument crafted in curly maple.  I had to find out who this person was, so I called Becky Blackley, the publisher of the Autoharpoholic magazine, who had written the book, and asked her about Keith.  She informed me that he was a dulcimer builder who lived in suburban Washington, DC, and she provided me with his phone number.

I called Keith and told him I was interested in having him build me an Autoharp.  He was delightful to talk to.  We discussed the benefits of various woods and other features, and I ordered a curly maple instrument with ebony trim, walnut chord bars, and a carved dogwood blossom rosette in the sound hole.  He was very professional and businesslike -- precise in his pricing and exact in promising a delivery date a few months hence.  The instrument arrived a couple of days earlier than promised and was even more spectacular than I could have imagined.  It is to this day one of my favorites (Can it really be close to thirty years ago!?!).  Keith stood behind his instruments, saying in his cute way that they all had a "lifetime warranty, whichever comes first, yours or mine."

My Autoharp built by Keith Young

A few months later, my late wife Margo had a librarian's convention in Washington, and she drove our little Nissan Sentra.  She asked if I might fly up there near the end of the convention so that we could do some sightseeing and I could share the driving on the way home.  I flew up, and one of the places we visited was the home of Keith and Mary Young in Annandale.  I wanted to meet the man in person who had built my Autoharp with such care and skill.

Keith explains fret slot cutting
to a member of our dulcimer-
building class in 2005
Over the ensuing years, we became good friends.  I attended his class in dulcimer building one summer at the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops in Elkins, West Virginia.  The following summer, he and I took a class together -- Kevin Enoch's Pearl Inlay and Engraving.  In later years, Keith asked me to assist him with the dulcimer building class.  It was an honor to work with him.  He started each summer session with the expected safety lecture and demonstration on proper tool usage.  For many class members it was the first time they had encountered power tools first-hand.
Keith in his shop with one of his exquisite dulcimers

But then, Keith delivered a sermon on craftsmanship.  He talked not only about being careful and finishing work in a professional and artistically pleasing method.  He also stressed problem solving as a sign of a great craftsman.  He pointed out that we would all "make mistakes" but that the real craftsman was the one who benefited and learned from the solving of such problems.  And as members of the class would encounter problems, Keith would use them as opportunities to teach this slant on craftsmanship.  He always made it clear that he was still striving toward an unattainable goal and knew that he would learn something in every class he taught.  To this day, I find myself asking, "How would Keith tackle this problem," or, "Would this be good enough to satisfy Keith?"  His legacy to me is a richer appreciation for learning through doing.  And he "did" far more than most of us.

Graduation picture -- Dulcimer and fretless banjo class,
Elkins, WV, August 2005 -- Keith in foreground
He was a respected soil scientist who served 34 years in the U.S. Dept of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service, receiving numerous awards for his contributions to a better understanding of soil resources.  He was married for 61 years to his devoted Mary, and they raised six children.  But he also crafted over 1,500 beautiful mountain dulcimers and hundreds of other musical instruments from MacArthur Harps to fretless banjos.  He never stopped experimenting with new ideas.  He founded the Mill Run Dulcimer Band, the Greater Washington Dulcimer Disorganization and taught hundreds of students to play the Dulcimer.

He was simply one of the nicest, most considerate people I've ever known.  This article that appeared many years ago in the Autoharp Clearinghouse bears testimony to his generosity.
The Mill Run Dulcimer Band
Keith is on the lower left.
Whenever business would take me to the D.C. area, I'd make it a point to visit Keith and Mary, and sometimes got to sit in on practice sessions of his beloved Mill Run Dulcimer Band, of which he was a member for over 35 years.  Sometimes, he and Mary and I would go together to one of his favorite nearby restaurants, Duck Chang's, for a fabulous Chinese dinner.

Sadly, I learned yesterday that my warranty has expired.  Keith had passed away several months ago and I was unaware of it.  I went to his Web site to get his email address to make him aware of the Banjo Boys' activities.  He would get a kick out of the very notion of building a banjo out of a car part.  I learned that "Keith had a fall in the shop... resulting in a head injury, and that despite the efforts of emergency and hospital personnel, and of Mary, his wife of 61 years, he died... February 9, 2012."

Rest in peace my friend and colleague.  I feel sure that you have long since organized a new ensemble of heavenly harps.

In tribute to Keith's legacy, a group of musicians (many of whom are friends of mine) calling themselves The Greater Greencastle PA Raffele Orchestra put the following video on YouTube last April.  The piece was composed by Heidi Cerrigione, who is playing the raffele (built by Keith) in the left foreground.  Keith would be honored in his unassuming way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My sister forwarded this to me. I am the "baby" of Keith Young and I just wanted to thank you for your kind words and wonderful writing of my father. We miss him dearly. He instilled in all of us to figure it out and make it yourself. I find to this day I "make do with what I've got" to get it done. Sometimes I amaze myself and always, as you said, wonder if he would agree. Thank you! Liz