Monday, March 04, 2013

"[P]ut a ribbon on that dulcimer and mount it on a wall": Misc. notes on dulcimers, Appalachian crafts

Excerpts from article in website based on a 1996 series in the Enterprise Mountaineer newspaper of Waynesville, N.C., quoting local musician, instrument builder and "folklore historian" Jim Trantham on dulcimer origins and some of his own experience with the instrument. Bio of Trantham and profile of the Trantham Family singing group consisting of his children and grandchildren, on the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area website. Trantham, who builds banjos and guitars in addition to dulcimers, is quoted on the history of the instrument:
Today's dulcimers evolved from a family of long, neckless instruments.

The monochord, a singled-stringed instrument with a soundbox, was around in medieval Europe and is thought to be the precursor of the zither, which was found in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. From the zither came the dulcimer.

The French name for the dulcimer is an epinette. In Norwegian, it is the langeleik. In Holland and Italy it's known as the humle. In Germany, it's the box-shaped scheitholt, which translates into "chopping block."

"Every culture will have a form of this instrument," Trantham said.

German settlers most likely brought a form of the dulcimer over to America, Trantham speculated. Crude hand-sawed boards fashioned into dulcimers may have killed the tone quality, but were fairly easy to make.

* * *

Today, dulcimers remain popular despite being looked down upon by some native Appalachians.

When Trantham played his dulcimer at the Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the festival's founder and a well-respected name in preserving Appalachian music, told Trantham if he ever wanted to amount to anything, he'd have to put a ribbon on that dulcimer and mount it on a wall.

Michael Beadle, "The Heritage of the Mountain Dulcimer." Mountain Grown Music: Celebrating the Traditional Mountain Music of Heywood County 1999. [Haywood County Public Library, Waynesville, N.C.].

Research and documentation of the Niles "dulcimers," by Dwight Newton, organologist and web publisher of Lexington, Ky., who is a musicology graduate of UK and has a long-standing interest in John Jacob Niles:

Niles called his instruments "dulcimers." He certainly had a lot of experience with the authentic Appalachian instrument by this name, but he took the concept in a fairly radical direction. As he did with the old songs he had collected, he took the essential idea of a dulcimer and turned it into an icon. I believe Niles thought of himself as a balladeer in the bardic tradition of Scots-English poetry. Certainly his repertoire has its roots quite consciously in the British Isles. His vocal style is rhythmically free and declamatory, with great emotional expression, especially as he employs his stratospheric falsetto. The instruments were used in a minimalist way, strumming the strings in a simple down- down-down-down... stroke, or in some cases in a single rolled stroke at certain moments for emphasis in an otherwise a cappella performance.

Niles performed with at least eight instruments that he built himself. This research project focuses on these instruments as objects, but in truth, they really cannot be separated from Niles the balladeer. The reality is that these objects are not particularly good musical instruments -- their ranges are quite limited, thay have relatively poor volume considering their size, and they are all clearly the work of a folk artist, not a luthier. But their musical function was secondary to their function as theatrical props. He rarely played melodic tunes on his large dulcimers. In all cases the real star of the show was Niles himself -- his voice and his expression.

Dwight Newton, "John Jacob Niles, Luthier." All About Musical Instruments. 2006.

scantling [ˈskæntlɪŋ] n
1. (Miscellaneous Technologies / Building) a piece of sawn timber, such as a rafter, that has a small cross section
2. (Miscellaneous Technologies / Building) the dimensions of a piece of building material or the structural parts of a ship, esp those in cross section
3. (Miscellaneous Technologies / Building) a building stone, esp one that is more than 6 feet in length
4. a small quantity or amount
[changed (through influence of SCANT and -LING) from earlier scantillon, a carpenter's gauge, from Old Norman French escantillon, ultimately from Latin scandere to climb; see scan] Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

Scantling a small quantity—Johnson, 1755.
Examples: scantling of apples, 1849; of burgundy, 1765; of eloquence, 1704; of food 1835; of geological knowledge, 1876; of paper, 1743; of time, 1665; of wit, 1680.
Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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