Copyright 2009-2022. All Rights Reserved.
Music has been a very important part of my life since I was a boy. It all started when I was in the third grade, and received a plastic Arthur Godfrey ukulele for Christmas. It had a push-button device for playing chords, but that soon broke. My mother learned to play the three chords necessary to play ‘Way Down Upon the Swannee River’ and taught them to me. She never learned another tune on the uke, but I will be forever grateful for her insight in showing me that it could be done. I went through a series of better ukuleles, and when I was in the sixth grade, my mother, a public elementary school teacher, came through again when she brought home an autoharp for my sister and me to try out. I was immediately fascinated with it, but the big surprise came when my father came home that day and said ‘You know your Mam-Maw used to play one of them things’ (I remember the exact words) and described how she plucked the strings and played melodies. (Maw-Maw was our pet name for my paternal grandmother, Julia Foy Pratt.) She had never had an autoharp during my lifetime, and had never talked about it, but when we gave her one for Christmas that year, she sat right down and played a tune as if she had been playing all along. From that day on, I was an autoharp player. I learned what Maw-Maw had to teach me, and then picked up more techniques from TV. A big eye-opener was seeing Maybelle Carter play on the Saturday afternoon Flatt & Scruggs show, holding the autoharp vertically, ‘Appalachian style’. I never convinced Maw-Maw, who played in the traditional lap style with a sound rather like that of Pop Stoneman, to play that way but I never went back to lap style myself. When I got to college at the height of the ‘folk scare’, I was influenced by the autoharp recordings of Mike Seeger, and was fascinated by the peculiar left-handed style of Kilby Snow, whom I met at the Union Grove Fiddlers’ Convention. Those were the only serious influences on my playing for the next four decades, and I developed a unique style of playing that was strongly affected by picking styles I learned first on other instruments (see below) and the fact that I rarely played by myself but preferred to play in ensemble settings. That environment led to my development of a ‘resonator back’ to enhance the volume of the autoharp. (Click here to view my article for Autoharp Quarterly about the resonator back.)

Other Instruments
In the meantime, I had also been playing other stringed instruments. In the sixth grade, I moved from baritone ukulele to guitar and later was fortunate to have a neighbor, Eula Baucom, who taught me flat-pick style and lots of little runs and frills to dress up my playing. My first semester at Davidson College, I discovered Joan Baez and eventually learned to finger-pick every song on her first two albums. My banjo-playing friend from down the hall, Rob Whitton, and I together figured out and mastered the “double-thumb” picking style I still use today on both autoharp and dobro. I had been fascinated by the dobro (resophonic steel guitar) from those Flatt & Scruggs TV shows featuring Josh Graves who was an early master of the instrument. I finally bought a cheap knock-off of a dobro and started to learn. It was a tough slog, because not many people played the instrument at the time and I had few mentors, but eventually I learned well enough to keep it from sounding like a cat fight, and graduated to a better instrument. As with autoharp, I was, to steal a phrase from my friend Michael Poole, ‘raised in the wilderness by wolves’ and developed a distinctive dobro style. I love playing bluegrass, and the dobro gets me past the Bluegrass Police so that I can occasionally do some bluegrass on the autoharp.

Walnut Valley Festival and the International Autoharp Championship
In 2003, at a dulcimer festival in Port Allen, LA, just across the river from Baton Rouge where I was living then, I met Ann Norris, 2002 International Autoharp Champion at the Walnut Valley Festival held each September in Winfield, Kansas. She encouraged me to enter the contest, and I did later that year. The experience opened up an entirely new world of autoharp for me. On my first try, I made the contest finals, but did not place 1, 2, or 3 to win a prize autoharp. The next year, I was “loaded for bear”, played well (I thought), and failed to make the finals! In 2005 I had just moved to North Carolina and was unable to attend the Walnut Valley Festival, but in 2006 I returned, having learned much about playing in contests, and won! Click below to view the award-winning performance at the 2006 Walnut Valley Festival International Autoharp Championship.

Old Piano Blues / Victory Rag
Muskrat Ramble / Wheels
Award Presentation

One of the rules at Winfield is that a winner may not compete for the next 5 years, so I did not participate in the contest again until 2012, when I came in second. I was gratified by that, because it showed that the first win was not a fluke. In 2013 I placed third, and in 2014 was a finalist only. So my trajectory was not promising, and I did not compete the next year as I was recuperating from chemotherapy. I missed the festival 2016-2018, but in 2019, I came roaring back and once again took First Place. It was a 13-year gap, but it proved I still had it. One improvement since my first win was the size of the trophies. The new ones are smaller, so easier to transport, and I think much more elegant. To hear the interview I did for the festival radio broadcast immediately after the contest, click HERE.

One of the perks of winning the contest at Winfield is that you are invited back the next year to perform in a Winners Showcase that opens the festival on Wednesday evening. I was not able to participate in the showcase in 2007 after my first win, so I was really looking forward to this new opportunity. Unfortunately, covid-19 caused the postponement of the 2020 festival (which means I will be among the first class of winners to hold the championship for 2 years). However, the festival organized a virtual event, including a video Winners Showcase. To view my 20-minute contribution to it, recorded in my living room, click HERE. I did the showcase live in 2021, but do not have a recording of it.

Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering
This event, begun many years ago by the late autoharp luthier George Orthey, is held each June at Little Buffalo State Park near Newport, PA. It also features an autoharp contest which is, among aficionados, more prestigious than the International Championship, and for me, a lot harder to win. I have placed third twice, and made the finals without placing several times, but winning the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Contest remains one of my life goals.
I had the honor of being a performer and instructor at the 2018 gathering, so could not compete that year. I made the finals once again in 2019, but did not place. A much more significant MLAG event for me happened in 2011 when I became the first winner of the Mountain Laurel Cohen-Grappell Endowment, established through the generosity of M. I. T. professor Robert Grappell and his wife Lynda Cohen to enable the production of first-time CDs featuring autoharp. With this generous grant, I could hire some wonderful side musicians, including my sister Julie Blackwell who helped with vocals (she got most of the vocal talent in the family). "You Can't Play THAT on the Autoharp" was issued in June 2012. The title comes from a Davidson College classmate's taunt when I mentioned I wanted to learn "Sweet Georgia Brown", and the collection features tunes, including 7 with a full bluegrass ensemble, that are outside the autoharp "box". For a review of the CD from Autoharp Quarterly, click HERE. Click the links below to hear tracks from the CD.

Row, Row, Row
Sweet Georgia Brown
El Cumbanchero

How to order: The easiest way to get the CD is to send me a check for $18.00, which covers postage and handling. If you prefer, you can order it from CDBaby, but I make more if you order direct. If you need to use a credit card, you can send payment to my PayPal account associated with the email address dpratt14 AT

Other Recordings and Videos

Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering
These selections are from the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering Contest and my performances in 2018. Remember that it is a contest, with all the nervousness that entails, and not a studio performance. All the glitches and mistakes are recorded for posterity!
Over the Waves (Sobre las Olas)
Are You from Dixie?
Bye Bye Blues
Muskrat Ramble
Mississippi Rag
Alabama Jubilee

Strike the Harp
Members of the Cyberpluckers listserv have produced two CDs of Christmas music on the autoharp. These were my contributions. Thanks to Michael Poole for vocals on Most Wonderful Time. For more information about the CD, click HERE.
It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Christmas Island

YouTube Videos
Some Day Soon
When You're Smiling
Walk Right Back
The Old Piano Roll Blues
Alabama Jubilee
The Entertainer
Oh, My Little Darlin' [at Galax]

My Instruments
I play a 21-chord chromatic autoharp handcrafted by Warren Fisher of Selinsgrove, PA. It features a spruce top with black walnut back and sides, and plays in the major keys of F, C. G, and D, with associated minor keys. It has a resonator back of my design.

In December 2012, I gave myself a Christmas gift (should cover the next 10 Christmases!). It is a beautiful resophonic guitar (aka dobro) handcrafted by J. P. Johnson of Sanford, NC (Pearl River Resonators). It replaces my 1975 Dobro®. It has a spruce top and Hawaiian koa back and sides.

Current Activities
I do not currently have a performing band, and I am getting a little old to go on the road, but I have a regular bluegrass group that I play with, called the "Barn Jam" because the place we used to practice looked like a barn. This group has done some public performances in the past, but not lately. I am also active in the Triangle Autoharp Circle, of which I am a founding member, which meets on the second or third Saturday of each month in one or another member's home. Anyone who plays autoharp and lives in the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) or nearby is welcome to join (email olson4912 AT Several members of the Autoharp Circle, including me, also participate in the Triangle Folk Ensemble. We play for local retirement homes, hospitals, libraries, and civic events, especially around Christmas and Independence Day. The covid-19 pandemic disrupted all this, but TFE played a few civic events in December 2021, and other activities are starting back up as more folks get vaccinated.

Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention, 1971, playing mountain dulcimer built by my father, Harold D. Pratt
Winning autoharp contest at Fiddler’s Grove, 2009
Performing as Ranger-Naturalist, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 1970
Wallace C. and Julia Foy Pratt
Playing the dobro, circa 1978
Playing with Jerad Perck at Museum Holiday Party, LSU Museum of Natural Science, circa 2003
Tom Cat Ramblers, Davidson College, 1966 (L to R Doug Pratt, Henry Whitfield, David Fore)
My sister Julie Blackwell and me at our mother’s 90th birthday party, Charlotte NC, 2010
Recording at Thread Audio in Raleigh, with banjo player Trent Boutz, 2012
Doug with Autoharp, 2012
Playing dobro with good friends Wayne Long and Arthetta Faye at MLAG, 2008
At the Busy Bee Café, Raleigh NC, with co-host David Hedrick and PineCone board member Monty Smith, 2011
Sunshine Spasm Band, 1970
In competition at the Walnut Valley Festival International Autoharp Championship, 2019