by Steve Eulberg
There are two main kinds of dulcimer:
the Mountain Dulcimer (lap, fretted, strummed) and the Hammered Dulcimer
dulci-melos “Sweet Song”
Of the board Zither family, the Mountain Dulcimer was derived from the German Scheitholt which was essentially a narrow board with partial frets & drone strings. It was known in other European countries as Epinette des Vosges– France; Hummel/Humle-Sweden & Denmark; Langeleik-Norway; Langspil-Iceland).
In the US, the mountain dulcimer has been named for its construction: fretted, teardrop, hourglass; for where it it found: Mountain, Appalachian, Kentucky; and how it is played: Plucked, Strummed & Lap dulcimer. Some other intriguing names include: Harmonium, Tennessee Music Box and “hog fiddle.” In some parts of the Southern Appalachians, it and the fiddle & sometimes the banjo were the only instruments used for making music for many years.
The mountain dulcimer is a Modal Instrument, with the frets arranged in 7 note scales, according to the patterns that pre-date modern Western Harmonic music. Each of the modes were thought to relate to certain planets, and call forth particular characteristics in the listeners.
When it first came the US, in the memory of the German settlers in Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah River Valley in Virginia, it was played with a bow for accompanying hymns–often for private devotions. Some unknown builders began to experiment with adding a sound box for more volume and tone and some distinct traditional styles began to be identified with Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, Tennessee & North Carolina. There are very few traditional builders today. Most dulcimers are built with innovations (such as frets that extend all the way across the fret board) that are characteristic of the Urban folk/dulcimer Revival that took place following the 2nd World War.
However, it remains associated with Mountain and traditional people all across the country. And, I’m convinced, is a very friendly instrument to learn to play!
I am author of three books for the mountain dulcimer: Dulcimer-Friendly Worship Vol. I: the season of Advent; Vol. II: A Service of Evening Prayer and Vol. III‘Twas In the Moon of Wintertime: Christmas in a Mellow Mode accompanying book for the recording of the same name. Includes standard musical notation, mountain dulcimer tablature.
dulci-melos “Sweet Song”
It is the older of the 2 instruments that share the same name, originating in Persia (Iran/Iraq) perhaps 2-4,000 years ago. It is of the board zither family (strings stretched over a hollow box) and variations are found in cultures all around the world. (e.g.Santyr/Santur-Iran; Sandouri-Greece; Santoor– India; Tsimbaly-Belarus (photo of a Belarus woman playing Tsimbaly); Cymbalom-Hungary & Romania; Salterio -Italian; Humle – Swedish; Tsimbl-Klezmer; Hackbrett-Switzerland/Germany; Yang Quin (Yangchin): China; Yangum-Korea; Qanun-Egypt; (view demonstration of Qanun here.) Kanoun-Turkey.) In some places it is plucked, but in most it is a percussion instrument with the strings struck with small mallets or hammers. Together with the key-action of the harpsichord it gave birth to the Pianoforte which then eclipsed it in popularity.
There are strong dulcimer traditions in the lumber camps of Maine & Michigan where it was sometimes called the “lumberjack’s piano.” It was called the “whamdiddle” by some further south. (The most interesting name, I think!) It found its way into string bands in the late 1800’s and was available through mail-order catalogues such as Sears & Roebuck & Montgomery Ward. In one upstate New York town there were 3 full-time hammered dulcimer factories in the late 1800s!
Henry Ford, seeking to undermine jazz (which he abhorred), funded a short- lived renaissance of the instrument in the 1920s, by finding and hiring players from the midwest to come and play for regular string band dances in Dearborn, Michigan and around the midwest.
Since the 1970’s a new wave of interest has swept the hammered dulcimer back into musical focus of many people.
The Fort Collins Museum has a hammered dulcimer in its Musical Instruments display that came to Larimer County in 1869, before Fort Collins was a city. The instrument’s most influential presence, however, came with the Germans from Russia who arrived to work in the sugar beet fields around the turn of the century. The Hammered Dulcimer, or simply “dulcimer” to them, was an integral part of the bands that played for the festive hochzeit (weddings). Other instruments, such as violins, cellos & clarinets, have been replaced by the accordion, but the dulcimer continues today in what is known as “Dutch Hop” music.
Some Historical Resources
Paul Gifford has created a fine website documenting the hammered dulcimer traditions of Michigan and the Great Lakes. http://www.giffordmusic.net/