I can’t remember when I first heard an Appalachian dulcimer played. Probably during the 1960s on WUOT-FM, the public radio station at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I know as a UT student I heard a lot of dulcimers at craftsmen’s fairs in nearby Gatlinburg. People still played the old-fashioned way in the 60s, at least in East Tennessee. They’d strum with a pick in the right hand, and slide a wooden “noter” with the left up and down the fretboard to sound the notes. I remember a constant melodious buzz in the background as I wandered through the old Gatlinburg civic center. I loved the sound. In time, I started learning how to make it myself. I’m still learning.
The player I claim as my first teacher, the late Dorsey Williams of Jefferson City, Tenn., sharpened a rat-tail comb for his pick and used a Popsicle stick for a noter. Like most traditional players of the day, he noted only a doubled melody string but strummed across all the strings. A traditional dulcimer-maker and a born showman, he’d flail away at a whole world of fiddle tunes and old standards like “Grandfather’s Clock” while festival-goers gathered around. He had a world of fun playing the dulcimer, and he taught me making music isn’t always about theory and technique — it can be rowdy and joyous.
Jean Ritchie, a Kentuckian who introduced the dulcimer on the New York folk revival scene in the 1950s, taught a whole generation to play it. In her Dulcimer Book, first published in 1963 and still in print, she says: “In your left hand is the noter, usually a finger-length of bamboo. … Cradle the noter along the fingers and hold it so that the thumb may press from above, and the side of the finger may glide along the side of the fingerboard to keep the end of the noter from touching the middle string. That’s because melody changes are all made on one string’ the other two are always drones” (18). She’d slide the noter up and down the fretboard while strumming her thumb or a pick across all the strings, getting what she calls “a constant harmonizing chord which gives the delightful and characteristic drone, or ‘bagpipes’ sound.”
The drone, that resonant buzz I heard in East Tennessee, is the ancient sound of the dulcimer. Music historian Charles Hamm says from the 1800s on, the dulcimer was a solo instrument “used for playing simple melodies supported by a drone, or accompanying ballads or songs with a drone or fragments of a simple ostinato” or repeated musical phrase (82). One way to get an ostinato, recommended by Jean Ritchie, was by strumming the melody string and “rolling the thumb outward across the two drones, sounding them individually for two accompanying beats at the ends of lines, and such likely places” (24).
Times have changed, and playing the dulcimer for many people has become a matter of ensemble performance of copyrighted tablature. But the old-fashioned pick-and-noter style is not yet a lost art. Some early notes and observations on playing the dulcimer, and its German forerunner called the scheitholt, follow below:
- William Aspinwall Bradley (Kentucky, 1915). “The [ballad] singer frequently accompanies himself on banjo, fiddle, or dulcimer. This last is the traditional instrument of mountain music. Like Coleridge’s Abyssinian maid, the Kentucky girl is also a ‘damsel with a dulcimer,’ or rather she was before this odd and yet elegant instrument, which descends directly from Elizabethan England, and which looks not unlike a very slender and short-necked violin, began to disappear. It is strung with three strings, which are sometimes of gut, though generally of wire. Two of them are always tuned in unison, while the third is an octave lower. / Occasionally the dulcimer — or ‘dulcimore,’ as it is called in the vernacular — is bowed, but more often it is plucked, the performer holding it lengthwise in his lap, producing the notes by pressing the string nearest him with a bit of reed held in his left hand, while his right hand sweeps all three with a quill or a piece of not too flexible leather. The two strings that are not pressed form a sort of bourdonnement, or drone-bass accompaniment, like a bagpipe. / The tonal quality is very light — a ghostly, disembodied sort of music such as we may imagine to have been made by the harp in the ballad of ‘The Twa Sisters,’ although this instrument is formed, not from the bones of a drowned girl’s body, but from thinly planed and delicately curved boards of native black-walnut. Those which, like mine, are made by an old man who lives in a cabin at the mouth of the Doubles of Little Carr are pierced with four little heart-shaped openings.” (912)
- Emma Bell Miles (Tennessee, 1909). In a romantic short story titled “The Dulcimore” set on the Cumberland Plateau near Chattanooga, a handsome young mountain blacksmith gives his true love a three-string “dulcimore … whittled with innumerable patient touches out of dark brown oak, unvarnished, the head resembling a fiddle’s, but curiously carved in an attempt at ornamentation — a thing fitted only for the wild minors of native airs.” She plays “faint monotonous chords” on it with a “triangular plectrum of smoothed bone,” after tuning the instrument “to draw the strings into the weird and plantive harmony of which they were capable.” (950-52)
- Josiah Combs (Kentucky, ca. 1900). “This strange instrument … has a slight resemblance to the violin, with a narrow and elongated body and a very short neck. It is usually made of walnut or maple wood, and is strung with three stings plucked by a crow-quill held in the right hand. One of the three strings, the one nearest the body as the instument lies in the lap, is tuned an octave higher than the third one, and in unison with the second. The melody is produced on the first string by moving a bit of smooth reed back and forth over it, pressing it down between the fret and strumming all three stings with the quill; the second and third strings are used as tonic-drones. … The ‘dulcimore’ is adapted to simple, one-part tunes rather than fast ones. Because of its simplicity many folk-airs even cannot be played on it.” (qtd. Hamm 81)
- Ralph Lee Smith (Pa.-Va., 1850-1900). Little is known about the Pennsylvania German tradition. But Smith believes the Germans played the scheitholt slowly, often with a bow, while the Scots-Irish ripped through fiddle tunes with a turkey quill. “It is interesting to note that the damage to the top of the instrument caused by the action of a swiftly moving plectrum or switch, is rarely seen on scheitholts from the areas of old German settleement … They were obviously played with a bow, with the fingers, or carefully with a plectrum. One does see some scheitholts with this kind of damage to their tops, in Appalachia.” (Story 20-21)
- Michael Praetorius (Germany, 1618). “The first account of this instrument [scheitholt] comes from Praetorius (“Syntagma musicum,” 1618) who described it as a small monochord made of three or four boards, provided at one end with a peg box in which are inserted three or four pegs for tuning the brass strings of the instrument. Of these strings three are tuned to the same note, while the fourth (which was added ad libitum) was tuned an octave higher. One of the unison strings was pressed on to the finger-board by a little metal hook halfway (?) down, so that its pitch was raised a fifth. Near the nut the thmb of the right hand made the instrument sound by crossing all the strings, while the left hand made the melody by drawing a little smooth rod backwards and forwards over the foremost string. Brass frets indicated the places where the various notes were to be found.” (Panum 263)
A note on pronunciation:
Since the Appalachian dulcimer is played now by people from New England to California, the following note is offered as a public service. People who live in Appalachia don’t say the word like flatlanders do. There’s even a poem for flatlanders who aspire to better themselves. It goes like this:
“Snake,” said Eve, “If you try to deceive, I’ll throw this apple atcha.” (Jones and Wheeler 90)
Traditional player Dorsey Williams in Smithville, Tennessee, in 1974.
- Bradley, William Aspenwall. “Song-Ballets and Devil’s Ditties.” Harper’s 130 (May 1915): 901-14.
- Ellertsen, Peter. “Music, Politics Mix at Festival.” Knox County News [Knoxville] July 18, 1974: 2.
- Hamm, Charles. Music in the New World. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.
- Irwin, John Rice. Musical Instruments of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Norris, Tenn.: Museum of Appalachia, 1979.
- Jones, Loyal, and Billy Edd Wheeler.Laughter in Appalachia. Little Rock: August House, 1987.
- Long, Lucy M. “A History of the Mountain Dulcimer.” Sweet Music Index.
- Miles, Emma Bell. “The Dulcimore.”Harper’s 119 (Nov. 1909): 949-56.
- Panum, Hortense. The Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages: Their Evolution and Development. Ed. Jeffrey Pulver. 1939. New York: DaCapo, 1971.
- Rimmer, Joan. “Appalachian Dulcimer.” 20 vols. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. New York: Grove, 1980-86.
- Ritchie, Jean. The Dulcimer Book. New York: Oak Publications, 1963.
- Smith, Ralph Lee. Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997.
- Smith, Ralph Lee. The Story of the Dulcimer. Cosby, Tenn.: Crying Creek, 1986.
- Wilson, Joe. “Jean and Doc at Folk City: A Backward Glance 27 Years Later.” Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City. Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40005, 1990.