Thursday, August 22, 2013

Some tentative conclusions about Appalachian dulcimer origins ** UPDATED ** w/ article on Virginia dulcimers in current Antiques Magazine

Slightly edited version below of an email message I sent to one of the faculty at Common Ground on the Hill, with whom I talked one day after class about the difficulty of documenting mountain dulcimer history. But first, a link to an important article in Antiques Magazine that contains new information about the instrument's origin ... especially among Pennsylvania Germans in southwest Virginia.

** UPDATE **

Here's a link to the everything thread. Ralph Lee Smith: "The July-August issue of Antiques Magazine contains an article entitled, "The Dulcimer in Virginia," by Roddy Moore and Vaughan Webb. ... The article's many excellent illustrations include two instruments from my collection, with attribution. The article also contains references to my book, Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions. The text is well researched and excellently written."

Online version, w/o pix, at Among the money graf(s):

Fed by local customs, family traditions, or sometimes just the influence of one or two makers, a multigenerational dulcimer-making tradition flourished in pockets of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and North Carolina. Of those areas, the western Virginia Blue Ridge can make some claim to being the birthplace of the "American" dulcimer with curved sides and a raised fretboard.

Estate records from 1780 to 1860 in Virginia's Roanoke and New River valleys list more dulcimers (39) than any other instrument except the fiddle (103). Equally significant, the records point to the rapid adaptation of the instrument by non-Germans in the region.6 Nearly two-thirds of the dulcimers identified were owned by families whose surnames reflect British ancestry. It is reasonable to assume that these non-German owners were playing some, if not mostly, English-language songs and tunes with American and British origins.

Nothing to overturn Ralph's hypothesis but a lot to corroborate it. I think the part about Germans is especially significant, at least to my understanding.

** End UPDATE **

Here's the email message, which I wrote before I knew about the Antiques Magazine piece:

Finally getting around to sending you that information I promised on Appalachian dulcimers!

As soon as I got home from Common Ground, I got busy with a project on African American spirituals and camp meeting hymns for the Illinois Humanities Council, and I'm just now coming up for air. I haven't forgotten about it, though, and I've also been reading up on old dulcimers for an article on a 1930s photograph collection at Berea College that I'm working up for Dulcimer Players News. So, finally, I have some information to share.

Basically it boils down to this -- we have a signed mountain dulcimer from Floyd County, Va., dated Aug. 28, 1832. Period. That's about the size of it until after the Civil War. Even then there weren't very many dulcimers, except right around one of the settlement schools in Kentucky, until the 1930s crafts revival.

L. Allen Smith [in his book] _A Catalog of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers_ (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983), discuss[es] the 1832 instrument, its provenance and Smith's reasons for accepting it as genuine. There are also a few references to dulcimers in various 19th-century written sources, but the early ones are problematic because they ones don't stipulate whether a mountain dulcimer or a hammered dulcimer is being referred to. So I think the material culture really provides the only reliable documentation until people started writing articles about the settlement schools at the turn of the 20th century in which they described the instrument in some detail.

Even then, almost all of the literature before the 1930s clearly refers to dulcimers that were being made by "Uncle Ed" Thomas and sold to people at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky. There were dulcimers being made by the 1880s in West Virginia, and later copied by the Glenn family in North Carolina, and still other by the Melton family and played by the 1930s in the fiddlers' convention at Galax, Va., but again the best information on all of this comes from oral tradition in the families and surviving dulcimers from an earlier period. Ralph Lee Smith's books piece together the best secondary account of the Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky traditions. There are several good accounts of the tradition Ed Thomas started in Kentucky.

For what it's worth, I'd tentatively suggest the following timeline can be reliably documented:

-- 1830s or thereabouts, single-bouted MDs evolve from zithers in southwest Virginia;

-- 1870s, commercial makers around Hindman and Parkersburg, W.Va, begin to produce double-bouted ("hourglass") dulcimers for sale in substantial numbers;

-- 1890s-1920s, the settlement schools, especially Hindman and John Campbell, promote dulcimers as southern Appalachian cultural artifacts; and

-- 1930s onward, dulcimers reach a wider market through the Southern Highlanders Craft Guild. That takes us up to Jean Ritchie and the folk revival of the 60s.

But anything beyond that is speculative at best.

(Full disclosure: Back in the day, I got a master's in history and a PhD in English at UT-Knoxville, and sometimes I still wake up from bad dreams about my first-year historiography seminar. When I switched to English in the waning days of new criticism, we were mostly interested in textual analysis so we preferred recent scholarly editions to period sources. After I left grad school, I went into newspapering and learned an altogether more rigorous attitude about sources, because now they were alive to complain if I quoted them out of context! So it was kind of fun to go back over the literature about dulcimers with an eye to the academic standards for handling sources.)

Basically I accept Ralph's theory that the MD evolved from Pennsylvania-German zithers along the Great Wagon Road in southwest Virginia, and I think he supports it with as much evidence as will ever be available concerning what began as a folk tradition; Ralph doesn't have an academic background, but he's a first-rate collector, he's very knowledgeable about the world of antiques and he's careful about the conclusions he draws. L. Allen Smith, who is not related to Ralph, studied all the MDs he could find in the 1970s for his doctoral dissertation in English at the University of Leeds, and I'd say it's still accepted as the authoritative source for documenting the history of the instrument. [He] discusses the Floyd County instrument in considerable, and I think quite convincing, detail.

There's also a 2005 paper titled "The Dulcimer in Southwestern Virginia" by Kimberly Burnette-Dean (linked below) that I think is pretty important because it tends to corroborate Ralph's hypothesis. Burnette-Dean, who used to work at a historical theme park in Roanoke, surveyed estate inventories from 1780 to 1860 in 12 counties, and came up with listings of 39 dulcimers from 1818 throughout the period. While none were described in enough detail for us to know whether they were hammered dulcimers, mountain dulcimers or something else, I think she made a reasonable case that most of them were valued around $1 in the inventories, which would be more consistent with a home-made box zither than a HD. Most HDs occur further north, anyway, and the main outlines of her research square pretty well with Ralph's theory that the Appalachian dulcimer developed from Pennsylvania-German antecedants in southwest Virginia during or slightly before the 1830s.

What interested me the most about Burnette-Dean's study was that she found a couple of German-American extended families that apparently handed dulcimers down from generation to generation, which reminds me of families like the Hicks', Presnells and Glenns in North Carolina and the Meltons around Galax. I think that's probably typical of what we know in other areas, i.e. only a very few people played dulcimers before the handicraft revival of the 1920s and 1930s, and they tended to cluster in family groups living in what Burnette-Dean calls "dulcimer pockets" in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia and North Carolina (by way of West Virginia). There's another "pocket" in Middle Tennessee, where the "Tennessee music boxes" were made, but I think it's considered to be an outlier that didn't develop a living musical tradition. Basically we're left with a very local tradition around Galax and another tradition in Kentucky that became commercially successful because a nearby settlement school provided a ready market and national publicity. ...

Here's a link to Kimberly Burnette-Dean's blog post on dulcimers, which in turn has the link to a PDF copy of her study.

There's something else that keeps troubling me every time I get into this question of origins, and it may explain why some of the people you've spoken with are leery of mountain dulcimers: There's been a tendency over the years to over-sell the MD as an iconic representation of Appalachian culture. Allen H. Eaton, for example, in _Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands_ (1937. New York: Dover, 1973), says, "In many instances the instruments were made by the singers themselves, the one most frequently used to accompany the singer being the dulcimer, or, as it is called, the 'dulcimore,' indigenous to and still made in many parts of the Highlands" (198).

Except where the settlement schools or handicraft revival outlets like those around Asheville created a ready market for dulcimers, however, that simply was not the case. I think David E. Whisnant of UNC-Chapel Hill has the best discussion in _All That is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region_ (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1983) of how the dulcimer evolved as part of what he calls a "settlement school/Berea College/folk school/Southern Highland Handicraft Guild version of 'authentic' mountain culture' along with designer pottery, contradancing and 'Jean Ritchie ballads'" (169). Nothing wrong with any of that, but it's something I try to keep in mind when I'm playing the dulcimer in a living history context or one of the talks I give on 19th-century music. The dulcimer helps me get into the music of the period, but I don't try to pass off what I'm doing with it as a historically informed performance.

But now I'm straying off topic, and thinking aloud about what I want to say in that DPN article. No reason to subject you to that!

LATER: I'd only add that the settlement school/Southern Highlanders version of Appalachian culture is pretty much what I grew up with in Norris and got fascinated with as a grad student at UT. I think Whisnant is entirely correct when he says it only goes back to the early 1900s (in spite of what strikes me as an all-too-often ill-concealed snotty tone in his writing), but however Appalachian crafts made their way to wider markets, they have become an vibrant part of the cultural scene down home today.

1 comment:

Kimberly said...

I enjoyed reading your article about dulcimers. Here is a direct link to my paper on The Dulcimer in Southwestern Virginia.

I have actually researched about 10 more counties, but I still have to write it all up.