MOUNTAIN GROWN MUSIC CELEBRATING THE TRADITIONAL MOUNTAIN MUSIC OF HAYWOOD COUNTY NORTH CAROLINA
The heritage of the mountain dulcimer
By Michael Beadle
In the Bible, Daniel 3:4-5 states, "Then a herald cried aloud, To you it is commanded, O people, nations, and languages, That at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick. ..."
According to Greek mythology, Hermes found a tortoise shell on the beach one day and attached cow gut to it to make a lyre. But according to folklore historian Jim Trantham, the origin of stringed instruments probably came out of a more utilitarian practicehunting.
African hunters would stretch strands of animal gut across a hole to snare animals and when plucked, these strands would make a sound. Hunting bows could also be plucked or blown by the mouth to make a vibrating sound.
The basic idea with stringed instruments is that stringsusually made of gut, wire, nylon or silkare held in tension, and when these strings are plucked or struck, they make a vibrating sound that resonates with the help of a soundbox.
The soundbox gives a color to the sound, Trantham said.
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.
In America, these instruments didn't really become popular and sell widely until the Sears Roebuck mail order catalogs introduced a way for musical instruments to be mass distributed to the public, Trantham explained.
In a 1909 Sears catalog that belongs to Trantham, violins sold for $2.95 to $23.45, mandolins sold for $5.65 to $19.85, and banjos for $2.45 to $19.65.
"This is what kicked off stringed music here in the mountains," he said. As America expanded west, these portable instruments had gone with settlers to tell the folk stories and carry the music of the day. In fact, the hammer dulcimer was known as the "lumberjack's piano" because of its mobility.
"It moved with the frontier," Trantham said.
dulcimers remain popular despite being looked down upon by some native
When you start talking about dulcimers, Trantham explained, you need to know there's a world of difference between the mountain dulcimer and the hammer dulcimer.
The mountain dulcimer is generally three- or four-stringed, fretted, plucked when it is played and shaped as a box, triangular, hourglass or long teardrop. The hammer dulcimer is larger and trapezoidal, has more strings (about 24 to 36), put on a stand rather than played on a lap, and played with wooden spoon-like hammers like a xylophone.