Second of two posts on my recent presentation to the Knoxville Area Dulcimer Club. In the first post, I reacted to changes in "scruffy, little" downtown Knoxville and a live music broadcast on public radio station WDVX.
I've had plenty of lively audiences in small towns and community college campuses for the Illinois Humanities Council's "Road Scholars" program, and I've presented academic papers to some knowledgeable audiences over the years. But I can't remember when I've felt like I connected with an audience as much as I did last weekend at the Knoxville Area Dulcimer Club's March meeting.
We were talking about dulcimers, of course. And when you get 45 or 50 people in a room who play the same relatively obscure musical instrument, good things happen.
Our discussion even crossed the Atlantic Ocean, as we talked about where the Appalachian dulcimer fits into a tradition of European folk zithers. It's a subject I've been known to get fanatical about, and KADC member Dave Holton of Clinton, Tenn., has graciously allowed me to reproduce a timeline prepared for the Rocky Mountain Dulcimer Club during the 1990s. It suggests how the instruments have evolved over the centuries.
Timeline showing development of folk zithers, from German scheitholt, 1618 (at lower left), to Tennessee music box (upper right) and Kentucky dulcimer by Edward Thomas, 1871 (lower right). For detailed explanation of timeline, see discussion at end of post.
When I was living in East Tennessee during the 1970s, nothing like KADC existed. We had a lively traditional Appalachian music scene, of course, and those of us who played the dulcimer had records by Jean Ritchie and Richard and Mimi Farina we could listen to. I remember learning "Waterbound" up in Cumberland Gap from John McCutcheon, and taking part in another mountain dulcimer workshop at a festival in Cosby -- I forget who led it -- but the idea of playing the dulcimer with a group of people hadn't yet occurred to anybody I knew.
Mostly we were self-taught, and we played by ear. When I'm on the road now, I hear the same tunes at dulcimer jams almost everywhere I go -- like "Nutfactory Shuffle" and "June Apple" in D Mixolydian -- but back in the day I'd play the songs I heard on the radio or concerts at the Laurel Theatre, from Donovan's "Colors" and "Old Dog Blue" to the Cas Walker theme song ("Pick up your morning paper when it hits the street …"). I even worked out "Jesu Thou Joy of Man's Desiring" drone-noter style, which was probably a desecration but fun to play.
I was singing out of the New Harp of Columbia with a group from the Epworth ministry in the Fort Sanders community at the time, and I learned to love playing the old shape-note hymns in DAA. The harmonies were dark and sweet, and they reminded me of sourwood honey. Metaphors aside, the open-fifth drone with the tonic on the third fret is especially well suited to the shape-note tunes, with their harmonies built on intervals of a fourth and a fifth.
Come to think of it, I was playing the mountain dulcimer "primarily as a solo instrument," to quote Ralph Lee Smith, and "generally in the home." I don't want to raise what I did to the level of a general principle, but that's how it was traditionally played before the folk revival. It has clearly evolved since then.
Almost none of which I even mentioned at the KADC meeting!
Instead I demonstrated how instruments in my collection made in Kentucky evolved from a three-string 1966 Jethro Amburgey, with wire staples under the melody string, and my 1971 Homer Ledford with transitional fret placement, to a contemporary Warren May with guitar-style frets that lends itself to the chord-melody style of playing now current. Then I opened the floor to questions.
And the Q&A, as always, was when things began to get interesting.
We reminisced about the late Dorsey Williams of Jefferson City, whom I regard as my first teacher, and who was a charter member of KADC in the 90s. Dorsey had a dulcimer he'd painted red-white-and-blue for the Bicentennial festivals in 1976, and it remained a trademark the rest of his days. He was a great teacher and a born showman (click here for a picture, that unfortunately shows his dulcimer in black-and-white), along with other East Tennessee craftsmen of the 1960s and 70s.
Something I'd never heard before, but a couple of different KADC folks recalled, was a tradition or legend that the hearts on a mountain dulcimer were a symbol of love or fertility, and the curves on an hourglass dulcimer were somehow suggestive, almost risqué. One asked me to hold up a dulcimer to demonstrate, and I jumped back half embarrassed when he asked me to imagine what I was holding and where I was touching her! They also said they'd heard women played hourglass dulcimers with hearts while men played teardrop dulcimers or instruments with sound holes in the shape of pine trees. Folklore? Imaginative salesmanship? A mixture of both?
We talked about when the dulcimer came to East Tennessee, and I had to conclude it was with artisans of the 1960s and 70s who saw the instrument selling like hotcakes at Southern Highland Craft Guild outlets and craft fairs. Even earlier, it was picked up by settlement schools and handicraft centers, so it was part of the revival of southern Appalachian culture from the 1930s on.
A timeline of dulcimers and European folk zithers
One thing that came clear, I think, both in my talk and Dave Holton's diagram was that until quite recently dulcimers and other folk zithers have been played on one melody string, with the other strings left open to sound as drones.
The other instruments in Dave's complete timeline represent an 18th-century Norwegian langeleik (above the timeline); a Pennsylvania Dutch zither, or scheitholt, dated 1788; another scheitholt from the East Coast dated 1832 (above), a Virginia dulcimer also dated 1832 (below); a Charles Prichard dulcimer from West Virginia from about the time of the Civil War; a Tennessee music box (above); and a dulcimer by Uncle Ed Thomas of Kentucky, who started making them about 1871.
Who knows? A lot of Pennsylvania Germans migrated to Appalachia, and East Tennessee is still full of rural communities still named "Dutch Valley" where they settled. Elsewhere I have suggested the dulcimer was as much a German gift to southern Appalachian culture as "apple butter, the Kentucky rifle, sauerkraut and cantilevered barns." Maybe someday an old scheitholt will turn up in a barn around Knoxville. At the very least, it's an example of how European folk traditions were changed -- "creolized" is the technical word -- when they were picked up by people of diverse cultural backgrounds in America.
More background follows on the dulcimer's European antecedents, excerpted from my article "Drones, picks and Popsicle sticks" formerly posted to the Everything Dulcimer website:
… [The dulcimer is] part of a large family of related box zithers once played in an arc that extends from the mountains of southern Germany and France through Belgium, the Low Countries and the North Sea coast through northern Germany into Denmark and Sweden.
The dulcimer’s closest European cousin is variously known in German as a zitter (the generic word for a zither) or scheitholt; in French as an épinette des Vosges (for the Vosges mountains where it is found); in Flemish as a Noordsche balk (which translates roughly as a wooden beam from the Nordic countries); and in Dutch, German and Swedish as a hommel or hummel, depending on the language and dialect. (The word “hummel” also means “bumblebee,” so if you’re using Google’s automatic translator, you don’t want to be too literal-minded when it says to stroke the bumblebee! It’s a reference to the resonant, buzzing drone of a box zither played well.) In general, the European zithers are diatonic, like traditional Appalachian dulcimers, and they’re very often tuned to intervals of a fifth, corresponding to our DAA tuning on the dulcimer. They’re usually fretted like a traditional dulcimer, too, either by using a noter or finger-walking up and down the melody string.
Like most folk instruments, they’re played by ear. When he taught [in 2009] at Western Carolina University’s dulcimer week, German luthier Wilfried Ulrich shared a joke that could apply just as well to traditional Appalachian dulcimer players.
“You want to stop a piano player?” Ulrich said. “Take away his sheet music. You want to stop a hummel player? Give him some sheet music.”
The influential 17th-century German composer Michael Praetorius included the instrument he called a scheitholt in his catalog titled Syntagma Musicum, but he dismissed it as a ragged, lower-class instrument (a lumpeninstrumente, using a notoriously hard-to-translate word with unsavory connotations). Whatever he called it, the instrument appears to have evolved by adding resonant drone strings to the monochords or one-stringed zithers that medieval monks used to keep their singing on pitch. Ulrich said early scheitholts, like the surviving monochords, typically were “made from three or five thin pieces of wood put together in a bad way,” and he thinks Praetorius’ term originated as a joke. “It means nothing else but firewood,” he explained at Western Carolina. “Perhaps when Mr. Praetorius saw [a scheitholt], he said, ‘What’s that? It looks like firewood.’” At any rate, the name stuck.
Over time and by degrees, the instrument evolved into the concert zither, and it attained some degree of respectability, at least as a folk instrument. Published references to the instrument are few and far between, especially when compared to the fiddle or the bagpipe. If we can generalize on the basis of a few literary references, the people who played it were more likely to call it a hummel. But learned authors and musicians don’t appear to have been overly familiar with folk music, and Praetorius’ name for the instrument is still widely used.
When we do find printed references to box zithers being played, they are described as being played by working-class people, although often in terms that appear to derive from Praetorius. This leads Andreas Michel, who has written about scheitholts and other early folk zithers for a museum of musical instruments at the University of Leipzig, to suspect a “literary tradition” rather than one grounded in the oral tradition of a folk community. For example Michel cites novelist Johann Müller of Hamburg in northern Germany, who in 1779 wrote of a maid singing “sweet arias,” accompanied by a kitchen maid (Küchennymphe) playing a hummel. Even in translation, it sounds as literary and contrived as any of our homegrown airy nothings about damsels with dulcimers in Kentucky.
By way of contrast, Michel notes that Hortense Panum, a Danish scholar who cataloged medieval stringed instruments, wrote of an itinerant musician named “Karsten mit der Hommel” who went from village to village in Schleswig-Holstein playing at farmers’ dances during the mid-1800s. In fact, there was a lively tradition of playing the box zithers at dances along the North Sea coast from Holland through Germany into Denmark and Sweden. But Panum described the instrument in terms she got verbatim from Praetorius.
While the scheitholt and hummel were never played widely in Germany and according to Wikipedia the related épinette des Vosges was played only in scattered pockets in France, box zithers were fairly popular in the low countries and along the North Sea coast. In Belgium and around Ulrich’s home in East Frisia, a living musical tradition lingered into the European folk revival of the 20th century. In recent years a modest interest has arisen in bringing back the old traditions, inspired in part by the popularity of the American dulcimer.
In a series of meticulously researched essays on music in the time of 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, Adelheid Rech notes that the hommel (to use the Dutch and Flemish spelling) “still enjoys considerable popularity in folk orchestras” in Belgium and once was widely played in Holland as well. As in Appalachia, the hommel was often played by women. Rech adds:The hommel was primarily played in the privacy of the family circle of the lower classes. The great majority of the players were farmers, craftsmen or itinerant tradesmen who played at the fairs, and in years to come, factory workers. It is indeed the only folk instrument played by women, and more than half of the hommel-players still known by name today, are women.
The hommel was also known over the centuries as a soldier’s instrument, and it had other uses as well. It was sometimes used to support congregational singing before organs were widely available, and Rech says a Flemish museum destroyed in the World War I battle of Ypres “once housed a large hommel from the 17th century that substituted [for] a church organ.”
As Rech notes, the hommel is enjoying a revival in Belgium. ...