The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Library Graced with Man and His Dulcimer

“I’d like to get a place as the ornamental hermit at Reed. They haven’t thrown me out yet; it seems like a welcoming atmosphere.”

Melodic tunes waft through the air near the library, these days, courtesy of Portland resident John Harkwood playing his dulcimer. His large white poodle, Elvis Voltaire d’Artagnan, keeps him company.

Although he mostly plays the guitar, as well as the mandolin, Harkwood picked up the dulcimer a few months ago, and has been coming to Reed this year to play.

“It’s a research project to see how young people interact with old instruments,” Harkwood says.

Harkwood’s dulcimer has four strings that span the length of a long, thin hourglass body. He explained that the dulcimer, which is about 200 years old, is related to older European instruments from the British Isles. The instrument was traditionally used to play party songs or ballads that people would dance and play games to.

“People would play folk music out in the mountains; they would play songs that were 100 years old,” he said.

As he strummed the tune of the old English-Irish song, “Fennario Pretty Peggy-O,” and sang along, passing students turned and smiled. Whenever he stopped singing to talk, he continued to play the sweet melody.

Harkwood says that he comes to Reed so that he can be in the midst of intellectual conservation. While he has been a Portland native for many years, Harkwood completed his undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins University, and received his masters in Medieval English Literature from San Francisco State University. He noted that – if nothing else – his degree has helped in song writing.

Harkwood knows about thirty songs on the dulcimer and has written a couple himself. His repertoire includes songs by Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, as well as traditional English shanties.

“I’d like to get a place as the ornamental hermit at Reed. They haven’t thrown me out yet; it seems like a welcoming atmosphere,” he said.

Harkwood has thus far encountered students and faculty, including President John Kroger.

“Once a guy walked by and said he liked the poodle, and then someone told me that that was the president,” Harkwood said.

Harkwood enjoys coming to Reed because he can spend time with his dog, in contrast to the coffee shops he has previously played at. His plan is to come as often as possible before the rainy season. Once the rains do come, however, students may find him playing his dulcimer under the covered passageway next to the library.

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