Thursday, November 11, 2010

New Salem workshops on 1830s-appropriate music

Emailed tonight to members of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings, Springfield.

Hi everybody -

Our off-season music workshops at New Salem got off to a good start last week. We had a half dozen people there, and we decided on an interesting approach for the December, February and March meetings.

(I'm getting back to you a little late because I was in Minnesota for a funeral at the beginning of the week, and I'm mailing everyone on the list because I think more people might be interested in what we decided to do with the workshops. If you missed the first one, it's still not too late to start.)

After kicking a couple of ideas around for a few minutes, we decided to go through Ralph Lee Smith and Madeline MacNeil's "Songs and Tunes of the Wilderness Road." It's a Mel Bay book, and it's available for $10.16 at and $15 directly from Ralph's website at ...

Ralph is literally the guy who wrote the book on the Appalachian dulcimer's history. In fact, he's written several of them! "Wilderness Road" is one of the best short histories of the instrument available anywhere, it it has tablature for a good dozen songs that are appropriate for New Salem. (Some of the oldtimers in our Thursday night Prairieland Dulcimer Strings group will recognize the "Devil's Nine Questions" that Joyce Cary and I used to sing.) An awful lot of the early settlers, including Abraham Lincoln's forebears, came down the Wilderness Road through Virginia and up through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky on their way to the lower Midwest. It's also where the dulcimer was developed, so we'll learn a lot from reading it.

We also liked "Songs and Tunes of the Widerness Road" because it's such a good introduction to the old open modal tunings ... DAA (Ionian), DAC (Aeolian) and DAG (Dorian). Ralph explains them clearly, and he has some beautiful songs in all three. There's one, maybe two, in DAD (Mixolydian), too. In fact, some of our group were especially interested in learning more about DAA. Ralph's book will tell us how.

So we kind of set as our "homework" for the next session, at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 4, to order the book and read up a little on the history and the tunings.

Another book that's good on the traditional technique and modal tunings is Jean Ritchie's "Dulcimer Book." Her tablature is a step down from Ralph's -songs are in the key of C instead of D - but the intervals are the same. And the technique is, too. Between the two of them, they offer a good supplement to chord-melody playing that brings out the traditional voice of the dulcimer.

I'm attaching lyrics of a song that has a strong connection with New Salem. It's one of several that John Armstrong, son of Jack Armstrong of Clary's Grove who got in the famous wrestling match with Lincoln, sang for Edgar Lee Masters on a visit back to the Sangamon River country, and Masters felt like he was "re-creating the past of the deserted village (New Salem) for me." It's called "Tipping it up to Nancy" (or the "Old Woman of Wexford"), and there's dulcimer tab available on the Digital Tradition website at:;ttMARBONE3.html

If you're like me and need to hear a song before you play it, YouTube has a version by the Clancy Brothers in concert that's pretty close to the same melody, altho' with slightly different words. Link here

The song also comes up in "Huckleberry Finn," so it's right in our historical period. There are several versions floating around, so I combined a few of them for my talks and performances.

If you want to get a feel for the way DAA and DAD relate to each other, you can do it by playing "Tipping it up to Nancy." Just click on "Dulcimer tab" and choose the "Ionian AAD" button for DAA and "Ionian DAD" for DAD (the two at the upper right of the "experimental dulcimer tab" directory). Print out both, play them in the appropriate tunings and you'll get a feel for where the notes are in the two D tunings.

It's a fun song, anyway. Mike Anderson sings another version, also attested in Illinois, called "There Was a Woman from Slab City." I think it'll be a good one for New Salem, also after Christmas for our Thursday night sessions of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings in Springfield.

- Pete

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