Sunday, October 10, 2010

Misc. dulcimer notes from my old faculty website

"Pick'n Noter Pages - 2"

A Civil War dulcimer (or scheitholt)

In the Museum of Appalachia, there is a dulcimer that has been traced back to Civil War days. It is a small, obviously homemade instrument in the shape of a long, narrow trapezoid. John Rice Irwin, proprietor of the museum, describes it like this:

"As bitter and relentless as the fighting was, there were long periods of
encampment and waiting during the Civil War, and various games and musical
instruments provided relief from the boredom. This early dulcimer is made of
black walnut, and the entire body, neck and tail piece are carved from a single
piece. The top or front portion comprises the second piece of wood in the

"I bought the dulcimer from my longtime friend, Professor
Roddy Moore of Virginia's Ferrum College on May 31, 1994. Roddy had traced its
history to the Allen family in Commerce, in Northeast Georgia. Oral tradition
passed from one generation to another was that a member of the Allen family had
carried this primitively made dulcimer with him while serving in the civil war."
While it can be called a dulcimer, the instrument has features that make it look a lot like a scheitholt or a transitional instrument. Its frets appear to be stapled right onto the soundbox instead of a raised fretboard, and its trapezoidal shape is similar to that of a scheitholt. (To see a picture of a 20th-century dulcimer, a reproduction of a 19th-century Virginia dulcimer and a reproduced 18th-century Pennsylvania scheitholt side by side, go to on my website. The scheitholt is the narrow instrument on the right.) The Museum of Appalachia is just off Interstate 75 near Norris, Tenn.


Since the Appalachian dulcimer is played by people from New England to California these days, 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 the edification of flatlanders. It goes like this:

"Snake," said Eve,
"If you try to deceive,
I'll throw this apple atcha."
(Jones and Wheeler 90)

From Wexford to Knoxville

Appalachian music comes from Anglo-Celtic roots, but it has its own sound. In a book with the marvelous title of Roadkill on the Three-chord Highway, Colin Escott, a Canadian journalist who has written about Hank Williams Sr. and Sun Records, traces it back from early rock and country music :

The Everley Brothers borrowed the sound of the Louvin Brothers. The Louvins sang
an old murder ballad called 'The Knoxville Girl,' and if you dig around you'lll
find that the Blue Sky Boys recorded an even spooker version twenty years
earlier, in 1937, and that the first recorded version dated all the way back to
the dawn of the country music record business in 1924. Dig around some more and
you'll find that the song came over from England as 'The Wexford Girl,' but
what's really interesting is that 'The Wexford Girl' isn't really 'The Knoxville
Girl.' Something happened in the darkness and isolation of Appalachia, something
indefinable. It happened before the recording machine, and it happened in the
little hollers [sic] and valleys. The American experience warped and transformed
the immigrants, changing their music as it changed them. 'The Knoxville Girl' is
eerier and darker than 'The Wexford Girl,' despite the fact that 'The Wexford
Girl' is more explicit. (vii)

The song clearly has Anglo-Celtic roots. Wexford is in Ireland, and "Wexford Girl" is variously described as Irish or English. But "Knoxville Girl" is pure Appalachian. Especially if you first heard it, as the writer did, on the jukebox at the former Yardarm tavern on Highland Avenue in Knoxville.

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.
Escott, Colin. Roadkill on the Three-chord Highway: Art and Trash in American Popular Music. New York: Routledge, 2002.
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.
Musikinstrumenten-Museum der Universität Leipzig. "Scheitholt und frühe Formen der Kratzzither." Studia Instrumentorum Musicae. 2001.
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.
__________. The Story of the Dulcimer. Cosby, Tenn.: Crying Creek, 1986.
Wehrer, Gabriella. "Geschichte der Zither." Zitherorchester Edelweiß Maulburg.
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.

1 comment:

Pete said...