MAXTON — Marshall Thompson taps his dusty black boot on the thin floorboards that make up the front porch of his Maxton home — the same floors his grandmother once walked upon.
His voice wavers low as it accompanies the sound of the thin, wooden instrument that sits on his lap. Tapping time, he holds down two of the three strings that make up the dulcimer, an Appalachian instrument that he built by hand.
“I started making them in 2008,” the 80-year-old Thompson said, holding up the first one he ever owned. “I’m a retired biology and chemistry teacher. I was interested in folk music, so I started a folk song club and I played the guitar a little bit, but not very well. In 1980, we had listened to Jean Richie, she played the mountain dulcimer. So in 1980, my wife was at a craft show and she bought this dulcimer for Christmas and I started playing a little bit.”
Known as the “Mother of Folk,” Ritchie inspired Thompson to learn to play the instrument, which he strums by using triangular cut-outs of plastic coffee lids. He makes dulcimers in his workshop that stands beside the stable where he keeps his horses.
It was the void that Thompson felt when he stopped raising horses that led him to want to build the instrument. He fell in love with the animals as a boy on the same plot of land where he now cuts wood in his workshop.
His eyes show no regret in describing the arthritis that made him quit riding and today affect his fingers.
“The arthritis got so bad I had trouble. It was getting so young horses could knock me down … . That’s the good thing about the dulcimer,” Thompson said. “You can play it with just a few fingers.”
The dulcimer, which is famously easy to learn to play, is derived from the Greek word “dulce,” meaning “sweet,” and “menos,” meaning “song.” The instrument is native to America, but resembles a thinner German instrument called a scheitholt.
“Do you know what scheitholt means?” Thompson asked rhetorically. “Firewood,” he said with a laugh.
Thompson spends up to a week making the instrument, thinning the wood and heating it to bend it into shape. He carves out patterns in its body and adds the six and a half frets that line its length.
When it’s finished, he plays the dulcimer at the weekly meeting of the Lumber River Dulcimer and Folk Song Society, which he founded. The society has an open door and meets at 3 p.m. every Sunday at River Way at 600 Kingsdale Blvd. It costs nothing to join.
“It’s just fun,” he said. “It helps me to relax.”
He and five other regular members learn and play the dulcimer in a group with plenty of instruments to practice on. Thompson has 12.
“I don’t really sell them,” Thompson said. “I have before, but don’t try to sell them. I lend them sometimes if someone wants to learn to play.”
Thompson says he plays once a day or more, sometimes after he feeds the horses in the morning, and sometimes before lunch. He also plays on paltalk.com, a website where people can log into various jam sessions. On paltalk.com, Thompson is part of the Dulcimer Club, which meets online every Tuesday at 8 p.m.
But Thompson is most at home playing on his front porch. The swing he sits on creaks like a loose floorboard as he lays the instrument across his lap. In the midday afternoon sun, a cool breeze sweeps the area and Thompson plays “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” a song written by country singer- songwriter Kris Kristofferson.
“I crossed the empty street and caught the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken,” he sings. “And it took me back to something I had lost somehow, somewhere along the way.”