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Renowned Dulcimer and Banjo Maker in Watauga County, Clifford Glenn Passes Away

By Jesse Wood

Renowned dulcimer and banjo maker, Clifford Glenn of Sugar Grove passed away on Saturday morning at the age of 79.

A native of Watauga County, Glenn came from a strong lineage of instrument makers that have been immortalized in documentaries and books. His father, Leonard Glenn, was also a celebrated luthier, and his father’s father also built traditional mountain fretless banjos.

Clifford Glenn playing a banjo built by his father, Leonard. Photo courtesy of Mark Freed.
Clifford Glenn playing a banjo built by his father, Leonard.
Photo courtesy of Mark Freed.

“It’s a sad loss,” Mark Freed, a folklorist at the Jones House Community Center, said. “Clifford was one of the last links to a dying art form.”

Freed noted that up until health complications caused Clifford to stop building and playing instruments several years ago, Glenn never adopted the new building techniques.

While other traditional luthiers in the area have either passed away or adapted to the modernization of instrument making, Clifford remained steadfast to the traditional ways and built instruments they way his forefathers did.

Clifford watched his father build instruments as a child. Leonard, who passed away in 1997, began building dulcimers in the ‘50s after the boom in folk music following World War II, according to a profile of Leonard on the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area website.

“I just decided,” Leonard said, “to get me some wood and go in on the dulcimer business, and the first dulcimer I ever made I just studied it out for myself and made it.”

That was a smart decision because once the folk revival happened, all kinds of people were visiting the Appalachian Mountains, and in particular, the High Country, looking for people who knew the old ways.

Before the folk revival arrived, Clifford had already built his first dulcimer at the age of 19, following it soon after with his first banjo, according to a profile of the artist.

At first the Glenns built instruments during the winter when work slowed down and sold them at the local shops. Then came the folk revival and orders began to come in from all over the country. Soon, Clifford and Leonard had a backlog of requests to purchase instruments once they were built.

Freed said that Glenn was also an accomplished performer with a “really unique” picking style. Freed said that he is the only person he knows to have picked the melody on the dulcimer and banjo with his pinky finger and use the index finger for rhythm by playing “a sort of Maybelle Carter scratch.”

Just like his father was mostly self-taught as a luthier, Clifford developed his own picking style as he taught himself how to play. He would watch family members and folks in the community perform, and he also saw his dad play at dances in Watauga County.

But, Clifford’s – and his father’s – legacy is attributed to the hundreds of traditional instruments that they made in their time on Earth.

As one profile of Clifford reads, “When asked what he wanted to impart in general to the public, Clifford said, ‘I’d rather the instruments I make be played rather than just hung on a wall for decoration like some are. But they’re made to be played and that’s what I’d like to see done with them.’”

Glenn’s Obituary: 

Clifford H. Glenn
(Dec. 29, 1935 – July 18, 2015)

Clifford Howard Glenn, 79, of Big Branch Road, Sugar Grove, passed away Saturday morning, July 18, 2015 at Watauga Medical Center.


Born Dec. 29, 1935 in Watauga County, he was the son of Leonard Lucky and Clara Ward Glenn. Clifford was a member of Faith Baptist Mission Church, actively serving as Deacon, Superintendent and Sunday School Teacher.

Clifford was well known for his craftsmanship designing and building banjos and dulcimers. He and his dad were honored with documentaries featuring their instruments and mountain music. After his church and his family, Clifford loved collecting Indian relics and rocks. He enjoyed cutting and polishing stones to design and make jewelry.

Mr. Glenn is survived by his wife, Maybell Presnell Glenn; one daughter, Lisa Mae Glenn of Sugar Grove; and two aunts, Willis Cooper of Sugar Grove and Ruby Norris of Albemarle. A number of cousins also survive.

He was preceded in death by his parents.

Funeral services for Clifford Howard Glenn will be conducted Tuesday afternoon, July 21st at 2 oclock, at Faith Baptist Mission Church, officiated by Pastor Richard Trivette. The family will receive friends Tuesday afternoon, from 1 until 2 oclock, one hour prior to services, at the church. Burial will follow in the Presnell Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Glenn family at 631 Big Branch Road, Sugar Grove, NC 28679.

Online condolences may be shared at www.austinandbarnesfuneralhome.com. Austin & Barnes Funeral Home and Crematory is serving the Glenn family.