It was supposed to be a special treat — the day the dulcimers came out. We’d sit there cross-legged on the cold tile floor with this odd, oblong shaped instrument across our laps. Mashing little wooden sticks like dowel rods against the strings with one hand and strumming with the other, we’d attempt childhood songs such as “Hot Cross Buns” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
The noise was outrageous, chords all off key, as someone would inevitably lose their place in the song, and rhythm completely indicative of our incredible whiteness of being.
About the only thing worse was when we each were given recorders — a wind instrument that should have gone out with the Middle Ages — and made to publicly perform, which naturally took practice, at school and at home.
I recalled these musical experiences upon reading an essay written by comedian and banjo-player extraordinaire Steve Martin about his own efforts to hone his talent.
“My obsession was such that I would hibernate in my bedroom and slow down the [Doug Dillard and Earl Scruggs] 33 rpm records to 16, and figure out the songs note by note. This process took days. I would have to down-tune the banjo until it was in the same key as the down-shifted recording, which caused the strings to become so slack that they would oscillate like a slow-motion jump rope. It also drove my parents crazy. Imagine the muffled sound of a banjo being clunked, insistently and arhythmical, through the paper-thin walls of a tract home, of a song being played so slowly that any melody was indecipherable,” Martin wrote.
My long-harbored distaste for the mountain dulcimer meant that even later in life, when my musical tastes had grown, I still avoided anything and everything dulcimer related. Consequently, I thought everyone played the dulcimer just the way we had back in elementary school and that really it was the instrument’s fault, not the player’s, for sounding so awful.
Lois Hornbostel, founder and director of Mountain Dulcimer Week at Western Carolina University, recently disabused me of that notion.
“It depends from dulcimer to dulcimer how good they sound,” Hornbostel said.
The word dulcimer is of Latin and Greek origins, the Latin word dulcis meaning sweet and the Greek word melos meaning sound. The instrument is America’s oldest folk instrument. It is believed that the dulcimer likely came about when Pennsylvania Germans migrated into southwestern Virginia and West Virginia in the early 1700s bringing with them the schietholt, a square three-stringed member of the fretted zither family, according to an essay published by the Appalachian Cultural Museum at Appalachian State University.
Rural mountain craftsmen, using whatever wood and materials were at hand to make a playable instrument, built the first dulcimer in
the late 1700s or early 1800s. One such early instrument maker was J. Edward Thomas of Knott County, Kentucky, whose dulcimers are now particularly well known for their sound.
Participants in Mountain Dulcimer Week building classes are constructing a replica of Thomas’ dulcimer based on the original instrument’s plans.
Mountain Dulcimer Week, now in its seventh year, aims to bring together dulcimer history with musicianship, an instrument market and heritage-based continuing education classes such as shape-note singing and clogging. This year more than 250 novice and experienced dulcimer players have gathered for the week.
The dulcimer’s popularity ebbed and flowed over the years, experiencing a tremendous burst in the 1950s with the rise of folk musician Jean Ritchie. Another resurgence is happening now.
“We talk about heritage tourism and how a sense of place is gotten a lot from the music of an area,” Hornbostel said.
The renewed interest in heritage preservation consequently has helped the dulcimer survive. Mountain Dulcimer Week participants are coming from as far as California, Florida, Vermont, even Australia, where they are members of dulcimer playing clubs. It seems that while the instrument is traditionally Appalachian, its sound crosses all boundaries.
“There are other people just like me who like the sound of it,” Hornbostel said. “It doesn’t matter what state you live in.
One of the dulcimer’s appeals is that it’s a relatively easy instrument to begin playing, said Will Peebles, a professor and Interim Department Chair of Western Carolina University’s Department of Music.
Basic playing often begins with a droning style, but more advanced techniques include playing chords, melodies and even using a bow similar to that used to play a cello. Such styles are being demonstrated in a series of public concerts, the last of which will be held Wednesday, June 21.
“Any of the concerts will really blow their minds,” Peebles said. “The instruments are being played in a variety of really virtuositic ways.”
In addition, there will be recordings of previous Mountain Dulcimer Week concerts and individual performers’ albums available for purchase.
To learn more about Mountain Dulcimer Week go online to http://edoutreach.wcu.edu/dulcimer/index.html.