I was raised a flatlander (“cracker,” we used to say), a mouth-harp wheezer, and did not come to the mountain dulcimer on the porch or in the parlor. Instead, I read of Coleridge’s “Abyssinian maid” with a dulcimer on Mt. Abora (probably a zither akin to the hammered dulcimer Malcolm Dalglish played so well on Banish Misfortune). Read it for a college English class, but before I’d reckoned what sort of music the coke-dream damsel strummed, the folk revival flowed over me like a freshet, and I started listening to the Vanguard albums in which Richard and Mimi Farina played and sang his dulcimer tunes like “Dandelion River Run,” “Pack up Your Sorrows,” “The Falcon” and “Reno Nevada,” not at all the traditional highlands dulcimer repertoire. They employed dulcimers, played with plectrums and fingers, along with guitar and autoharp and backed by a range of sounds from John Hammond’s mouth harp to a celesta and an electric bass. It was all bluesy and Dylanesque, espresso, lyrical/political and supposedly earthy.
Well, I was smitten, and Farina became a hero, especially after I’d read his brilliant (I don’t use it lightly) novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. But by the time I discovered that book, he was already dead. My dulcimer interest, however, expanded quickly to more traditional players like Jean Ritchie and Oskar Brand, and I was no scholar, so I didn’t pursue much about the construction, origins, tunings and styles of dulcimers and their material. But I pushed on, and after I moved to the Blue Ridge for the first time in the seventies, dulcimers began to creep into my writing and my life, and I discovered that I had a grandmother who’d had one, no more discussed than the fiddle my father (a barefoot boy and not the F.B.I. agent he became) had played with the Ku Klux Klan dance band. I bought my first dulcy in 1975 (a three-string Ralph Hodges hourglass model with heart sound holes) and quickly learned to play it badly. The good news is that I’m not deluded on this matter and have become a front row audience member rather than pursuing stage time, since getting real melody out of me is like trying to milk an owl.
In grad school at Appalachian State I learned a bit (more dancing than making or playing) from Willard Watson, and dulcimers abounded, but my knowledge remained sketchy, random, information marbled artfully with misinformation, even though I own a couple of good dulcimer primers. After years of loose ends, what finally set me on the right track was Ralph Lee Smith’s recent The Story of the Dulcimer (U. of TN Press), 2nd edition. I missed the first one entirely, but edition two has absorbed my attention for the last couple of weeks. Ralph Lee is a scholar, a collector, a devotee and musicological bloodhound, also energetic as a worker bee and smart as a whip.
This book is not for every general reader; sometimes I think it’s not for me. The abundance and intricacy of the variations in design and tuning, the geographical eccentricities, the incremental evolution – it’s a lot to put together with all the dimensions, statistics and photographs of dulcimers, and though it’s not completely accurate to say so, there are nearly no two alike. After all, they are not mass produced but handcrafted, and even before you hear one’s voice responding to skillful fingers, it’s easy to see why so many people are eager to say they are not products or merchandise or toys; they are art, with utility. A hand-hewn cradle can qualify like that, a forged and polished skinning knife. And yet some people aren’t content without a mitigating adjective – “folk art.” If the term “folk” diminishes a noun for you, may God have mercy. . . .
I can say that this book delivers what Brother Ralph promises. It supports claims that the instrument is “a specimen of American folk craftsmanship.” It elucidates what kind of music the implement is capable of producing and the place of that sound in the spectrum of world music. It reveals the crucial role the dulcimer played “in the broader history of the Appalachian frontier.”
So suppose you’re not a player or (not yet) an aficionado? Here’s what I think you’ll come away appreciating. The history of the instrument, as it evolved from the German Sheitholt and became an altogether different instrument when it was taken down the Great Wagon Road into Virginia and then west into the frontier, is fascinating. That history is revealed both in the author’s narrative and in the many photographs of sheitholts and dulcimers throughout the hundred-page volume. I loved reading how the settlement schools like Hindman (where I briefly taught) served as hotbeds and enclaves for the dulcimer, how (but not why) the Scotch-Irish preferred an instrument with a raised and centered fretboard and tuning pegs that were wood rather than metal, flat rather than vertical. Both instruments are zithers and can accommodate various numbers of strings. The possible shapes and materials (from a cardboard box to a wild cherry coffer) are endless. Who sees one, even in a picture, and doesn’t want to stroke it and strum it and be blessed?
Because the photographs are black and white, I can concentrate on the shapes – pegs, frets, strum hollows, scrolls, the overall contours of the creature – instead of (as is my wont) getting caught up in the various colors and grains of the poplar, cherry, spruce, butternut, rosewood, bloodwood, ash. And there are plenty of places to see the wood in full splendor. The B&W images probably help keep the price of the paperback book modest, which I value.
Whenever the technical threatens to get tedious (usually due to my lack of erudition), I crave an anecdote, a stream of narrative to confer a local habitation and a name. The Story of . . . offers several of those. After all, it is a story. I enjoyed the tale of the transaction that took Granny Lee’s instrument to John Blankenbeckler, the account of traveling luthier Uncle Ed Thomas, whose dulcimers sold for about three and a half bucks and whose knowledge of how to make them was never explained, the chronicle of Jethro Amburgey of Hindman who was written up in The Times in the 30’s and the legacy of collector and preserver Henry Mercer who knew early on to value the dulcimer as more than a quirk or a whim. Ferrum’s Roddy Moore’s contribution to the lore and preservation also runs throughout the book, but my favorite narrative tells of Betsey Maggard Creech, who lost her husband Gilbert in the Civil War and traveled with her children to Big Leatherwood Creek near Perry, KY to play a tune at Gilbert’s graveside, then returned home to the Cumberland. Quite a trek, but they say the path shortens when you have a mission.
My only unfilled wish for the book would be a short section of the courting dulcimer, my favorite kind for its ingenious employment. Sometimes a young man might come calling to the homeplace of a sweetheart whose family wanted to allow the couple some private time but who were still wary of the mischief that can kindle when romance is in the air. They might allow the couple to be alone in a room with a courting dulcimer (probably on a table between them). Instead of relying on steady chatter, which is known to falter amid amorous stares, the parents listened to hear that both sets of strings were singing, all hands busy making the music, no idle ones to become the devil’s workshop. I’ve seen only five or six of those devices which help delay the honeymoon till after the vows, and I would love to know more about their history and frequency. Might even derive some satisfaction from knowing if they worked, though I am not choosing sides.
It’s worth noting that Smith makes no claim for The Story of the Dulcimer as definitive. He suggests it be read along with Allen Smith’s Catalogue of Pre-revival Appalachian Dulcimers (U. of MO Press), and I’d add Jean Ritchie’s classic The Dulcimer Book (Oak Music) and Neal Hellman’s Dulcimer Songbook (Oak). And of course, you’ll want an instrument on hand to give the whole session dimensions (Dr. Google can help you find what you want.), including depth and sound, but the images, anecdotes, explanations and examples of Ralph Smith’s account will likely lure you, so to speak, deep into the wildwood flowers of dulcet lore. I recommend the enterprise.