Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Before "bim-bim-BOM": Pre-folk revival descriptions of tuning and playing the mountain dulcimer, Kentucky, 1900-1920

What came before Jean Ritchie's "bim-bim-BOM" tuning?

When she's speaking, Ritchie makes it clear the "BOM" is a fifth below the "bim" on the melody and middle strings -- corresponding to our contemporary DAA tuning or CGG in her Dulcimer Book. (In her instructional material, she tunes to C. And she sings "bim-bim-BOM," so it's clear she's referring to the interval of a fifth.) But I've also heard somewhere, although I don't remember where -- Ralph Lee Smith? Phyllis Gaskins? -- the unison high D tuning (dddd) around Galax, Va., is probably the earliest American tuning.

And when I played one of Ralph's 19th-century instruments (pictured at left) a couple of years ago at Common Ground on the Hill, he had it tuned Galax style. It was as bright and clear as a bell, by the way, even though I had to struggle with the tuning pegs and the whole thing looked like it was slapped together out of barn wood.

So it may well be the unison tuning is the earliest, at least in Virginia.

But the earliest published American sources that mention a specific tuning are from Kentucky, and they suggest that both the equivelant of DAA and a unison tuning that would be equivalent to the modern Ddd -- or "bagpipe" -- tuning (with the bass string tuned a full octave below the others) were used in Kentucky at the turn of the 20th century.

Anyway, I decided to look it up when I mentioned the "bagpipe" tuning in a Nov. 30 post to Nina Zanetti's thread "DAD or DAA for beginners?" on the Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer website and another contributor suggested, "I'm almost convinced (admittedly a gut feeling, but a strong gut feeling after years of study and instrumental experimentation) that octave tuning, combined with playing in a true Mixolydian scale (flat seventh, "no 6.5 fret" in modern terms), was common early on in the history of the dulcimer." I promised to get back to him with a new thread, _______. Never did find what we were looking for, but I did get some evidence both tunings were being used by the 1910s in Kentucky.

Of five references I've located, they're about evenly divided. Josiah Combs, an early graduate of the Hindman Settlement School, and Harper's magazine correspondent William Aspinwall Bradley said the strings were tuned an octave apart, while visiting musicians Josephine McGill, Loraine Wyman and Howard Brockway said the bass drone was tuned down a fifth. Olive Dame Campbell's account was ambiguous, referencing "two (or three) ... tonic-drones" but not specifying the interval. (I'm leaning toward thinking that means the drone was an octave lower than the tonic, which would suggest a Mixolydian scale starting on the open melody string and Ionian on the third fret, but that's guesswork and I think I'd still better put it down as ambiguous.) They all visited the Hindman and/or Pine Mountain settlement schools, and it is entirely likely that most -- perhaps all -- of them heard dulcimers that were made by Uncle Ed Thomas.

So the published descriptions reflect the regional tradition in a very limited area, and I don't want to generalize too much. But they clearly suggest that tunings equivalent to the post-revival DAA and Ddd were in common use around the Kentucky settlement schools. Brief verbatim excerpts follow, with a list of references:

  • Josiah Combs (ca. 1905). [In his 1925 dissertation at the University of Paris, Folk-Songs du Midi des Etats-Unis, native Kentuckian Combs described the dulcimer as follows.] 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 strings plucked by a crow-quill held in the right hand. One of the three strings, the one nearest the body as the instrument 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. (Hamm 81)

  • Josephine McGill (1914). The Musician Jan. 1917. Like the German zither, it is a long, narrow and shallow in structure, pointed at the ends, curving at the center. It is thirty three inches and a half long, six inches and a half wide. It has three metal strings, two of which are tuned in unison and one to a fifth below. Under the first, the melody, string, extend the seventeen frets giving a range of two octaves and a half, very feeble on the upper tones. Oak or cherry frequently serves as material, though there is no fixed prejudice among the instrument makers on the choice of wood. No high degree of craftsmanship is displayed in fashioning the dulcimers -- which, however, vary somewhat according to the artistry of their makers, occasionally achieving considerable grace of contour.

    The player holds the dulcimer flat on his lap; with his left hand he plays the melody, using a reed to press down the string; with his right hand he strikes across the strings, using a piece of leather or anything else flexible and durable that he can find. … The tone is thin and has a melancholy character; but its droning monotonous character is not without charm. An expert player from time to time plays a melody note on the third string, when the tone runs below the range of the first string and can be reached on the third. (Smith 14-15)

  • __________. Musical Quarterly No. 3, 1917. This instrument, in the vernacular dulcimore, is nearly a yard in length and resembles an elongated violin. It has three strings, the first and second being tuned to the same pitch, the third a fifth below. Two prime effects are obtainable from the instrument; one similar to that of the ancient drone; the other, like the twanging of a banjo or guitar. … As may be fancied, the chief variety to be obtained from the dulcimer is that of rhythm.

    The tune of "The Turkish Lady" is very scarcely departing from the tonic harmony; it suggests the drone of ancient music. The dulcimore afforded an appropriate accompaniment, as it did also for the singer's version of "Barbara Allen." Some versions begin:

    All in the merry month of May
    When the green buds they were swelling

    But my host's rendering not unfittingly transposed the episode to the melancholy days:

    Late in the season of the year
    When the yellow leaves were falling
    Young James James Graham of the west country
    Fell in love with Barbara Allan

    With considerable charm, the children of Hindman Settlement School sing, "All in the merry month of May," as well as that beginning, "Late in the season of the year." The latter, in minor key, lends itself to the plaintive effects achievable on the dulcimer. (Smith, Folk Songs 18-19)

  • William Aspinwall Bradley (1915). The 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)

  • Howard Brockway (1916). At rare intervals in our search we encountered a fiddle … More frequently, we found the ‘dulcimore,’ which is the real indigenous Appalachian instrument. It is made in the mountains and fits its environment in quite a charming and piquant way. It seems most thoroughly a part of the spirit of the culture represented by the old songs. In shape it is most like a ‘pochette,’ the little instrument carried by dancing masters in the olden days, although very much larger, of course. It is strung with three strings, either gut or wire. Two of these are tuned in unison while the third is tuned a fifth below. The outer one of the two is the only fretted string, the others supplying a drone bass, giving somewhat the effect of a bagpipe. The dulcimore (accent on the last syllable) is held on the knees and the strings are plucked with a piece of leather or a quill. The melody is played upon the fretted string, for which purpose a quill or a small stick is employed. We found that the dulcimer players were very particular as to the media employed, and that the adherents of the different schools, divided by use of quill or leather, were distinctly temperamental in their allegiance.

    I have heard one man sing and accompany himself most skillfully, and the effect was extremely delightful and quaint He was apparently a virtuoso, and his performance will always remain in my memory as the unique one of my experience in the Kentucky trip.” (Smith 39-40)

  • New York Herald (1916). [From interview with Brockway and Loraine Wyman promoting concert at Cort Theatre, West 48th Street, NYC.] … and Miss Wyman took from the top of her piano a "dulcimer," practically the only form of musical instrument the mountaineers know except the banjo. It is indeed a type of "instrument ancient" and is something like a rough violin, with the body extending clear up the neck to the keys. Two strings safe tuned together and the third a fifth below. Miss Wyman gayly strummed "Yankee Doodle" on it. The mountaineers know that tune, and it was played expertly for Miss Wyman by Bristol Taylor, who lives on top of the mountain." Unfortunately Bristol will never see his name in print, for there are no mail routes near him. But he doesn't care, Miss Wyman said. (Smith 30). [Punctuation, including floating quote mark, in original.]

  • Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil Sharp (1917). [In his introduction to the preliminary collection of English ballads in the Southern mountains, Sharp quoted Olive Dame Campbell, who later founded North Carolina’s John C. Campbell Folk School.] Mrs. Campbell … tells me that in Kentucky, where I have not yet collected, singers occasionally play an instrument called the dulcimer, a shallow, wooden box, with four sound-holes, in shape somewhat live a flat, elongated violin, over which are strung three (sometimes four) metal strings, the two (or three) of which are tonic-drones, the melody being played upon the remaining and uppermost string which is fretted. As the strings are plucked with the fingers and not struck with a hammer, the instrument would, I suppose, be more correctly called a psaltery. (Campbell and Sharp x)

Works Cited

  1. Howard Brockway (1917). "The Quest of the Lonesome Tunes" Art World June 1917. Smith 34-40.
  2. Bradley, William Aspenwall. “Song-Ballets and Devil's Ditties.” Harper's 130 (May 1915): 901-914.
  3. Campbell, Olive Dame, and Cecil J. Sharp. English Folk Songs from the Southern Mountains. 1917. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger. 2008.
  4. Hamm, Charles. Music in the New World. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.
  5. McGill, Josephine. "Following Music in a Mountain Land." Musical Quarterly No. 3, 1917. Smith 17-27.
  6. __________. "The Kentucky Mountain Dulcimer." The Musician Jan. 1917. Smith 14-16.
  7. "Miss Wyman Brings 'Lonesome Tunes' of Kentucky Mountains to New York." New York Herald 29 Oct. 1916. Smith 30.
  8. Smith, Ralph Lee, and Madeline MacNeil. Folk Songs of Old Kentucky: Two Song Catchers in the Kentucky Mountains, 1914 and 1916, with Arrangements for the Dulcimer. Pacific, Mo.: Mel Bay, 2003.

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