'HARPS FOR SALE' A craftsman with pluck
By CATHY SECKMAN
HEN 85-YEAR-OLD Clyde Coursin plays the harp, one doesn't hear angels singing, but it's awfully pretty music. He stands beside the 5-foot Gothic harp, one of a pair in his living room, and plucks the colored strings with his right hand.
"There ain't a whole lot I know about harps," he says diffidently, "but if you can play a piano or keyboard, you can pick out a tune, with a little practice." Even the simplest melody has a special resonance on a harp, but they aren't popular instruments because of their size.
Coursin can't really say why he decided to build his first one about a dozen years ago. "I'm not even musically inclined, for one thing. I just decided I'd like to try it." It wasn't his first effort at instrument-making.
Though he's not a musician, Coursin has been known in the tri-state area for years as a builder and restorer of stringed instruments. His efforts include dulcimers, psalteries, mandolins, violas, violins, banjos and cellos. Gothic harps and the smaller Celtic, or lap harps, are just his latest interest.
"I had a stroke in 1990," he explains, "while I was having open heart surgery, and after that I didn't have too much use of my left hand. Couldn't walk too good for a while, either. Violins have always been my favorite, but they're hard to build anymore, so I decided to try harps instead."
Coursin, who worked 37 years in the carpentry shop at Crucible Steel, has always had a workshop at home. After retirement in 1979, he built cradles, jewelry boxes, kitchen cabinets and cedar chests. He was looking for a new project in 1981 when his mother-in-law showed him a magazine article about building a dulcimer, a stringed lap instrument. That first dulcimer was a simple box, with not much in the way of style.
Coursin couldn't get any music from it. "But then I showed it to my son-in-law, and he got sounds out of it you wouldn't believe. He made it sound really good."
Half the pleasure of the building, for Coursin, is finding someone to play his instruments. Besides his son-in-law, several friends used to come to play Coursin's creations, including a violinist with the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra.
"But most of my old friends have died," he laments. "I don't know too many musicians any more."
That doesn't stop him from building. From dulcimers he progressed to more complex instruments, eventually building a violin that was appraised at $1,600, and a cello that was appraised at $6,000.
Today he concentrates mostly on harps and small wooden music stands. Standing Gothic harps are $850, lap harps are $600, and music stands are $165. He sells instruments occasionally, though he doesn't advertise. People hear of him, or see the "Harps for sale" sign on his garage, and stop in to try out an instrument.
His daughter and son-in-law, Jeannie and Jim Ruthum of Etowah, Tenn., are also in the harp-building business, and sell far more. They have a booth at Dollywood's Harvest Celebration every fall, Coursin says, from which they sell their own harps for up to $2,000 to buyers from all over the country.
They also sell Coursin's music stands at the booth. For them, it's a living, but for Coursin, it's a gentle retirement hobby.
"It's relaxing," he says. "I can go down to the shop and spend all day working and think nothing of it."
Using wood he finds locally, Coursin can put together a harp in a week, from base to sound chamber to pegs and strings. Finishing work and leaving time for the strings to stretch out takes a little longer.
Several have whimsical heads carved into the pillars, and others are laminated in different colors of wood. No two are alike. Most of his harps can be played only in the key of C, but for an additional cost he can add levers to widen the range. Though he can't play the harps well because of his weak left hand, Coursin finds enough pleasure in creating them. "It kind of grows on you, to take a piece of wood and make something out of it. It's all I know."
XIf you go: Coursin welcomes visitors, whether to buy an instrument or just to play one. He lives at 14742 Old Fredericktown Road, East Liverpool. Just look for the white garage with a "Harps for sale" sign at one end. He can be reached at (330) 385-8768.