Dec 6, 2016

The Tom Morgan Autoharp...

Tom Morgan's unique F-hole design
Not long after I went to work for John M. Cockerham & Associates in 1984, I was assigned to work on a contract in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  I would drive up on Monday morning, leaving at about 4:00 AM, to get to Oak Ridge in time for a full work day.  I'd leave Friday evening, getting home around 9:00 PM.  The first few weeks I went up there, I stayed in a hotel.  But this was during a period when we received a fixed amount for housing each day.  (It's no longer that way -- Now we receive actual costs up to a specified maximum per diem.)

Margo and I had purchased a pop-up camper about a year earlier.  It dawned on me that I might save a few dollars by towing the camper to Oak Ridge and living in it during my week-long stays.  The next week, I towed it to Oak Ridge and found a nice state campground with trailer hook-ups for $7.00 per night!  The only problem was that they had a maximum stay of 10 days.  During the week, I explored several areas in and near Oak Ridge, looking for another campground in which I might stay indefinitely.  I finally found the Riley Creek campground on one of the creeks feeding Watt's Bar Lake.  It was scenic, quiet, comfortable, and I was able to negotiate a price of $65.00/month!  I soon was a resident with a waterfront view.
My view from Riley Creek campground

My recollection is that we received about $48.00 per day for lodging.  This meant that if I worked in Oak Ridge 22 days per month, I was making nearly $1,000 per month by staying in the camper!  I remained in Oak Ridge for several months.  Soon, we had paid off all our credit card balances and even taken a couple of short vacations with this windfall.  It was then that I talked to Margo about the possibility of buying a custom-built autoharp.

I had been playing the autoharp for over ten years by this time and had acquired 3 or 4 instruments.  They were all mass produced, and I had modified them to accommodate my personal tastes and to make them easier to play (new damping felts, lighter chord bar springs).  I felt that I was ready to describe in great detail the features and options I would want in a custom-built instrument.  Margo thought it was the right time.

I had recently bought "The Autoharp Book" by author Becky Blackley, published in September, 1983.  In that book, Becky described several instruments built by custom luthiers.  I began tracking down and calling them.  Some were no longer making autoharps.  One gentleman, when I inquired about some details of his design, informed me that I had no right to question his craft.  I wrote him off my list.  Then I talked to Tom Morgan, of Morgan Springs, Tennessee.  I looked up Morgan Springs on a map and found that it was midway between Oak Ridge and Fayetteville.  It was on my weekly route to work.

I called Tom Morgan and we had a wonderful conversation.  We discussed his design ideas.  His instruments were unique in that they had carved spruce tops like violins.  The spruce he used was 70 years old at that time.  And the exterior of his sides and backs were of Brazilian rosewood that Tom had acquired in the early 1950s at a surplus auction at the Martin guitar plant.  We agreed that the following Friday, I would leave work early and drive to Tom's shop (and residence) on my way home for the weekend.

That Friday, I followed Tom's directions, driving first to Dayton, Tennessee, and then proceeding up Morgan Mountain on Highway 30 toward Summer City.  Near the top of the mountain, I spotted a couple of landmarks and was soon turning in to the Morgans' driveway.  Tom and his lovely wife, Mary, greeted me like a long-lost friend.  We proceeded into their home where Mary retrieved her autoharp, which was the first one Tom had crafted.  It was then over 20 years old, had been played daily, and still looked like new.  She handed it to me, along with a few select finger and thumb picks, and asked if I'd care to try it out.  I strummed a few chords and the tone was like no other autoharp I had ever played.  I was sold -- if Tom had the time to build me one and if I could afford it.

Tom and Mary Morgan
at about the time I met them
Tom and I proceeded to his shop where I received the grand lumber tour.  Stacks of seasoned spruce, board-feet of rosewood, mahogany, curly maple, every kind of tonewood imaginable were in organized stacks.  And there were partially-completed instruments and repair jobs lining his workbench.  It seems that not only did Tom Morgan build coveted mandolins, banjos, guitars, and autoharps.  He was also much in demand for his top quality "invisible" repair work on damaged instruments.

We finally turned to the subject of an instrument for me.  He would build me a duplicate of Mary's autoharp in German spruce and Brazilian rosewood with ivoroid binding, and rosewood chord bars, for $1,000, including inlaying a dogwood blossom inlay in the back of the instrument.  I would create the inlay and send it to him to put on the instrument.  There would be no timetable, since repair work always would have priority.  I would pay half up front and half upon delivery.  We shook hands on it.  There was no need for a paper contract.  Tom Morgan is a man of his word.

About 2 years later, I received a call from Tom that my autoharp would be ready for delivery the following weekend.  He and Mary would be conducting an inlay workshop at Dollywood, but perhaps Margo and I might join them in Pigeon Forge and take delivery personally.  The following weekend, we did just that, driving to Pigeon Forge, meeting Tom and Mary for dinner, and receiving my new instrument.  It was gorgeous -- everything I had expected, and more.  The rosewood glowed with its multi coat, hand rubbed lacquer finish.  The tone was spectacular with a long sustain period, in spite of the fact that it was brand new.  The tone usually develops such richness over time and usage.  I couldn't have been happier.  The wait was worth it.  And Margo and I had befriended Tom and Mary to boot!

That weekend turned out to be a tragic one for Tom and Mary.  On their way home, Mary became seriously ill and Tom took her to the emergency room of a Chattanooga hospital.  They ultimately performed surgery only to discover that she had cancer.  And that disease took her life way too soon.  We were devastated.  She was a beautiful lady with a humble, generous, and kind spirit.  But Tom's friendship has grown over the years.  As a retired Air Force veteran, he often comes to Huntsville to take advantage of the medical facilities and pharmacy services at Redstone Arsenal.  We usually have lunch when he and I are in town.

And what about the autoharp that he crafted for me?  It has only improved with age.  I use it more than any of the instruments I own.  I maintain it carefully and it looks like the day I picked it up.  Tom has only built around 25 of these instruments.  I have learned that I am in good company.  John McCutcheon and Mike Seeger each had one and both of those instruments, tragically, were no longer in use.  McCutcheon's was lost in a fire. I took lessons from Mike Seeger one summer and he discussed his Tom Morgan autoharp.  He told me it was "bulletproof."  He said, "I could take on an airplane and go somewhere to perform where the temperature and humidity were totally different from home.  It would stay in tune and perform as advertised.  It was an amazingly stable, predictable instrument."

Mine is the same -- amazingly stable and predictable.  I change the strings every two or three years, keep the chord bars in good shape, and play on.  Tom Morgan's autoharp does the heavy lifting.  Thanks, Tom, for your skill and your friendship.  And thanks, Mary, for inspiring Tom.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Thanks for posting the information on your Autoharp, I was probably the last person to place an order and deposit on a Morgan 'harp. Tom's son passed right after beginning construction. Greg Schreiber has taken over the project, but I still lament the loss and what never shall be. Scott is with Mary now, and I take comfort in that.