Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

Local News

April 11, 2011

Sounds of time

Prairieland Pickers use old-time instruments to produce melodies

EFFINGHAM — Sweet music with the sound of times gone by filled the air at St. Elmo United Methodist Church recently when members of Prairieland Pickers gathered for their weekly practice session.

    Mountain dulcimers, guitars, a dulcimer banjo, recorder and harmonica were the instruments of choice that evening as the group of four couples played from memory such old-time favorites as “Old Susannah,” “Blue Moon,” “Red Wing” and “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.”   

    Sue Borcherding of St. Elmo, who plays by ear, first began strumming the dulcimer with a group in Highland. “You don’t need to read music, it’s music by numbers,” she said. Sue’s husband, J.R., also plays a dulcimer.

    “We took free classes while we were in Alabama,” Carol Allsop of Beecher City said about her and her husband’s interest in the instrument. Don Allsop now strums a banjo dulcimer and plays an instrument called a strumpf fiddle for the group.   

    Leatha Newberry of St. Elmo also plays the dulcimer, while her husband, Dee, adds the sound of a bass guitar to the ensemble.

    Rounding out the group — and the youngest members — are the Watsons of Altamont, Sherry on the dulcimer and recorder and her spouse, Tom, who plays guitar, mandolin and harmonica.

    All members of the group lend their voices for the vocals.

    It was interest in the dulcimer that drew the group together, and six years ago, Prairieland Pickers was formed. The group has now picked, strummed and sang its way across central Illinois and into Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky and Arkansas.

    They have played at fairs, festivals, concerts, fundraisers, nursing homes and even at a wedding. They have entertained several times at the Illinois State Fair and Effingham County Fair. When performing, the band members — dressed in matching outfits — play from memory. They have committed over 250 melodies to memory.

    Prairieland Pickers entertain often at area nursing homes — the group regularly visits 22 nursing home facilities throughout central Illinois. And it is the stories about their visits to the nursing homes that tumble out of the band members when they talk about performing. The sounds of the old songs unlock memories for many of the patients who hear them perform, and sometimes, the music strikes a chord with a patient that brings surprises.

    At one home, an elderly woman who had seemed unresponsive since her arrival at the facility began tapping a finger to keep time to the music and mouthing the words to the song, reactions that amazed the staff members. At another nursing home, a woman over 100 years of age responded for the first time to an animated chicken the band brought along to the show. She crooned “you pretty little chicken” whenever the toy came near her. It was the first words she had spoken in a long time.

    Band members look at these reactions as a reward for their time, effort and costs. Prairieland Pickers does not charge a set fee, but accepts donations for their work to help defray the costs of moving people and equipment. The group also offers for sale a CD of their music, “Melodies and Memories.” The CD is available online at Prairieland Pickers’ website, www.prairielandpickers.com or from the group’s members.

    Booking information also is available at the website, or by calling Sue Borcherding at 618-780-7125 or Carol Allsop at 618-487-5027. Sue even offers classes to anyone interested in learning how to play a dulcimer. “Many people have them, but don’t know how to play,” she said.

    The band members have grown into a close-knit group over the years. “We didn’t know each other before we started to play together,” said D.R. Borcherding.

    Now, “we spend a lot of time together,” Carol Allsop said.

    In addition to performances, the group practices together every week at the church in St. Elmo. And when they are finished practicing or performing, they head out together for a meal or ice cream.

    Mary Holle can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 134, or mary.holle@effinghamdailynews.com.

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