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While the sound of the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer may conjure images of Scottish Highland bagpipes or ancient English cottages tucked deep in a misty glen it is actually a fairly recent instrument in historical terms. The mountain dulcimer is a true American folk instrument developed by the people of the Appalachian Mountains. But like the early emigrants to America, it has many relatives from the old country.
The dulcimer belongs to a family of instruments characterized as fretted zithers. A zither is an instrument where the fretboard runs along the entire length of the instrument. The German zither known as a scheitholt is closest in style to the Appalachian Dulcimer. The scheitholt probably originated in medieval times and was based on instruments from the Middle East. A scheitholt typically has straight sides and a narrow width that grows wider near the strummed end of the instrument. The frets are placed directly on the soundboard instead of on a raised fretboard as in a mountain dulcimer. However, the fret pattern is identical to that of the early mountain dulcimer. Some historians believe the scheitholt was introduced by German immigrants into the Pennsylvania portion of the Appalachian Mountains and as it spread throughout the mountains was modified into the mountain dulcimer. Several versions of the scheitholt have been found in the Appalachians with some dating back to the 1700’s.
Other relatives or "kin" to the American dulcimer are the hummel, a Swedish dulcimer-like instrument, the French epinette des vosges and the Norwegian langeleik. Each of these could have had an influence on the development of early dulcimers. However, given the predominant ancestry of the immigrants in and around the Appalachians it is most likely that our American dulcimers were alterations of the German sheitholt. It is also interesting to note that no ancestors to the dulcimer or dulcimer-like instruments have been found in Ireland or Scotland, the lands commonly associated with the dulcimer in oral history.
Most Appalachian history was passed down orally and there is little documented history of the mountain dulcimer. The little history that does exist suggests that the Appalachian dulcimer was developed during the late 1700’s to early 1800’s. Few early dulcimers survive to provide evidence of a first builder and it is likely that the instrument evolved over time with many Appalachian artisans making significant contributions. Early dulcimers were built from the wood commonly found in the mountains, such as walnut, poplar, maple, chestnut and sycamore. Dulcimers were usually made entirely of one wood, with walnut being the most common.
Early dulcimers were often crudely constructed by modern standards. Since the only tools available were hand tools the dulcimer literally had to be carved into existence. The earliest instruments had three strings, wooden tuning pegs and frets made of bent nails extending only under the first or melody string, which may indicate they were predominantly played using a noter. Although commercially produced instrument strings were available by mail order strings were often made from screen door wire. In general, the early dulcimers were smaller in terms of width and thickness of the body as compared to many modern dulcimers although the average scale length tended to be long by today's standards. These were instruments built to be played in an area and era where commercially made professional instruments were extremely rare so embellishments or ornamentation was either crude or non-existent. Soundhole designs were kept very simple with upside down hearts or circular holes drilled or carved into the top and it was common to see instruments painted with whatever color may have been available. Nearly all of the older dulcimers I've seen have fiddle sides where the top and back extend from 1/8" to 1/4" beyond the sides.
The shape of the dulcimer varied depending on the preference of the builder. Over time, regional variations became more distinct and certain dulcimer shapes became associated with particular sections of the Appalachians. Some builders were very prolific and began to produce fairly good instruments. Probably the most famous builder was J. Edward Thomas who is thought of as the father of the modern mountain dulcimer by many. Thomas lived in Knott Co. Kentucky (a few hills over from my own birthplace) and developed an hourglass dulcimer that is probably the most copied dulcimer ever produced. Thomas sold his dulcimers from the back of a mule cart. During a period roughly between 1870 and 1930 it is believed Thomas made well over one thousand dulcimers. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the first dulcimer I built nearly 40 years ago is based on J.E. Thomas' dulcimers – even down to the nails for frets. In fact, my own dulcimer building descends in a straight line directly traceable back to Thomas from my mentor back through Jethro Amburgey and on to Thomas. My Kentucky model dulcimers are based on the Thomas dulcimers which were the first dulcimers I saw in my youth.
Another early builder who was very influential is John Scales of Floyd Co. Virginia. Scales made a teardrop shaped instrument that was thicker than modern dulcimers and included soundholes in the fretboard. His dulcimers were made in the period around 1840. Although it is not possible to conclusively say he invented the teardrop dulcimer he certainly was one of its first proponents. It is also believed that one of his instruments is the oldest American style dulcimers yet found that is signed and dated by the builder (dated 1832). This style of dulcimer was widely copied and many examples can be found even into the 1930's. Below is a picture of a John Scales model dulcimer that I reproduced for a museum in Virginia. It includes nails for frets and tradition violin style tuning pegs.
Charles Hammack was a lesser known West Virginia builder who made an hourglass dulcimer style in the mid 1800’s. His dulcimer had a wider body and is more typical of the shape of many modern dulcimers. Charles Prichard made a similar shaped hourglass dulcimer first in Bolt's Fork, Kentucky then latter in Huntington, West Virginia.
Another type of dulcimer became common in and around Tennessee. It has become known as a Tennessee Music Box. You can read all about it here.
The music most suited to the Appalachian dulcimer was the old English ballads. Many of these songs were based on modal melodies which matched the modal tuning and fretboard layout of the dulcimer. The mountaineers certainly heard the ghosts of sounds in the dulcimer which hearkened back to their predominantly English, Irish, Scottish and German ancestry. Songs such as Barbara Allen, Banks of the Ohio and Wagoner’s Lad were popular melodies from the old country with words updated and adapted to the new world and local region of the singer. So instead of the "Oxford Girl" mountaineers sang about that "Knoxville Girl." The words and melodies reflected the hard life of the hard-scrabble farmers. Typical subject matter included lost or unrequited love, murder and the occasional "song of frolic" like Cripple Creek. Dulcimers were played alone and sometimes with other instruments often using a noter for fretting and a goose quill for a pick. In summertime, the lonely cabin porches provided a ready stage after a hard day of field work to play and sing and hear your songs reverberate through the hills and hollows. In wintertime, the crackling embers of the fireside hearth and creaking revolutions of the spinning wheel accompanied the plaintiff mountain vocals and ringing drone of the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer. It was a hard life with little time or opportunity for entertainment and the deep crevices in the faces of both women and men attested to their hardship.
In a time when wagon-rutted dirt roads followed along and often through creek beds cultural changes and news of the outside world were slow to reach the mountain folks. Many people were born, lived and died within a few miles of their birthplace having never ventured outside the confines of their mountain community. In some areas of the Appalachians the isolation was so complete that people from outside the mountains were called "foreigners" and places like California were thought to be "way overseas." While this type of isolation is viewed somewhat contemptuously today, it had the positive effect of establishing a mountain culture with its own dialects, beliefs - and of course music.
The invention and mass dissemination of the battery powered radio opened up a whole new world to the mountain people. It was common for neighbors to gather on a Saturday night at the house of the first family to own a radio and listen to the Grand Ol’ Opry and other popular shows. Record companies soon realized there was a huge untapped "hillbilly" market and folks like The Carter Family, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, Grayson & Whittier, Uncle Dave Macon and Jimmy Rodgers with his blend of blues and Tin Pan Alley became huge stars. But along with these familiar sounds they also heard new types of music such as Dixieland jazz that did not lend itself to the confines of the mountain dulcimer. The effects of the introduction of the radio into the confines of the Appalachian mountains cannot be underestimated. As people become exposed to to this new world of entertainment the interest in the mountain dulcimer seems to have declined fairly quickly. It was probably thought of as old fashioned and certainly did not fit with the hard driving rhythms of the new, hot groups like Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boy's.
Mass produced instruments also became more readily available to the mountaineers through outlets such as Sears & Roebuck and the handmade mountain dulcimer began to fade from common use even in the isolated Appalachian Mountains. In the guitar, fiddle and banjo, musicians found instruments that could be heard above the noise of crowds and were also better suited to modern melodies and chord changes. Other than in a few isolated outposts, the dulcimer was soon relegated to a wall decoration or totally discarded and nearly faded from history.
While early country was more modern than mountain music it still remained authentic. But by the end of WWII with big bands disappearing and the evolution of country music into "Honky Tonk" and "rockabilly" being displaced by Pat Boone's renditions of "Tutti Frutti" many people grew tired of being force fed a record company's perceptions of popular music and began to seek something more roots based.
The late 1950’s and early 1960’s saw a resurgence and renewed interest in authentic American folk music and folk instruments beginning with college students and rapidly expanding across America. Although missing the heart and soul of the originals, groups like the Kingston Trio and the Weavers with Pete Seeger were mining a rich tradition of songs by American folk music pioneers such as the Carter Family - and having huge hits in the process. Many folk music enthusiasts wanted to dig deeper and find the origins of this music. Along the way, they discovered people like Ralph and Carter Stanley, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Flatt & Scruggs and yes,...... dulcimer players like Jethro Amburgey's cousin Jean Ritchie of Kentucky.
Jean Ritchie probably did more to popularize the dulcimer outside the Appalachians, especially with people in urban areas, than anyone. She was authentic in her love for the dulcimer as was evident in here playing and singing. She introduced the dulcimer to people like Richard Farina, brother-in-law to Joan Baez and friend of Bob Dylan. Farina introduced his own non-Appalachian sensibilities to dulcimer playing and influenced many modern dulcimer players. Eventually the dulcimer was adopted by an entirely new generation and its popularity grew as it spread throughout the United States and eventually around the world. Dulcimer clubs were formed, festivals were organized and the dulcimer began to make a strong comeback. Even local music stores sometimes stocked dulcimers, books and accessories. Many talented musicians began to explore the intricacies and push the boundaries of dulcimer music to a point where no style of music was considered “unplayable” on a dulcimer.
Today you can hear blues, classical and even jazz music played on a mountain dulcimer… and with a little practice – you can probably play it yourself. After all, one of the reasons the Appalachian Mountain dulcimer is so popular is that it is the easiest stringed instrument in the world to play. While you may not be able to pick up a dulcimer and immediately launch into Bach or Beethoven – chances are that you will be able to play some familiar and entertaining tunes with very little practice. In fact, you can play the dulcimer using just one finger to fret the notes and many people play their whole life in this style without ever losing interest in the instrument.
Of course, the other reason the dulcimer is so popular is its haunting, beautiful sound. Actually, the literal translation of the word dulcimer is “sweet sound” or “sweet melody”. There is probably nothing more soothing or relaxing than to sit on your porch on a summer night and play the dulcimer – crickets chirping… night birds singing … and if you’re lucky, the water from a nearby holler splashing against the moss covered rocks or a sweet, gentle rain providing a background rhythm.
The mountain dulcimer continues to grow in popularity each year. While it is good to see so many people learning to play and appreciate the mountain dulcimer, it is also sad to see the proliferation of cheap imported plywood instruments made in Pakistani sweat shops by people who have no clue how to play a dulcimer or even what it should sound like. I firmly believe that the best dulcimers are still handmade and there are many talented builders producing highly original top quality dulcimers. There is a certain magic to an instrument that is handcrafted by a lone luthier working late into the night – testing, playing, checking, refining, experimenting. It is built into the DNA of the instrument's lineage and of the Americans who created this instrument. The magic of the mountain dulcimer comes from the heart, soul, sweat and history of the people of the Appalachian Mountains .... and hopefully, this will not be lost or forgotten.
© 2016 Ron Gibson
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