Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Mountain Dulcimer

IT was Christmas1982, and there was a very strange looking package under the tree. It was long and skinny and I knew that I had not asked for anything that could possibly be in that box.  Grandma and Daddy seemed all excited for me to open that package, so I went ahead and tore into it.  Inside the box was a brown instrument case.  Inside that case was a weird looking instrument that I had never seen before.

My first dulcimer was ordered from Sears & Roebuck!

They happily explained that it was a dulcimer and that they couldn't wait for me to learn to play. Er, okay . . . what is a dulcimer?!?  There was a little instruction sheet included with information on how to tune it and it also had the music for "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star".  I quickly tuned the instrument and figured out how to play using a wooden noter & a pick.  Needless to say, I became bored pretty quickly with that tune!  My dad immediately started requesting that I play "Wildwood Flower", which was his favorite tune.  I had been playing that tune for years on the piano, so it was not too difficult to figure it out on this new instrument.  My dad was pleased as punch to hear me playing that tune!   (An interesting side note was that I had been playing the piano for 10 years and the trumpet for 7 and I could not play either of them by ear, but with the dulcimer, it just seemed normal to do so!)

A couple of years later,  I became very involved in Appalachian Studies while attending Radford University and I met another dulcimer player, Teresa, in one of my classes.  We started playing together during the Highland Summer Conference, sitting around at various places on campus.  We played a wonderful version of "Old Joe Clark" where one of us played harmony & the other played melody.  We also played "No Place Like Home", "The Riddle Song", and "Send the Light" just to name a few. (There is an amusing story about Teresa & me getting stuck in an elevator with our dulcimers, but I will save that for another time!) That fall, I bought my second dulcimer from Audrey Hash when I attended the Ferrum Folklife Festival.  

Audrey Hash at the Ferrum Folklife Festival circa 1985

My second dulcimer--built by Audrey Hash

Over the years since then, I have went through stages where I very seldom touch my dulcimers.  These periods are usually followed by almost manic phases where all I want to do is play and buy more dulcimers for my collection!

Unfortunately, for the last couple of years, I have not been inspired to play because I so closely associate some of my best playing with when I worked in the 1837 Hofauger House at Virginia's Explore Park.  Since the park closed, it just does not seem right to play in a modern setting.  I know that eventually, I will want to play again.

NOW, I would like to share a video of me playing when I still worked at Virginia's Explore Park, but first, I would like to tell you a bit about the tune that I am playing.

In the fall of 2006, I realized that I was not going to be able to keep and maintain my grandmother's home.  One of the hardest things was going through everything and deciding what to keep, what to sell, and what to trash.  It made me start thinking about all of the questions that I wish that I had asked my grandmother before she died. Now, there were things lost to time that I would never know the answers to.  That inspired me to write "Burnette's Lament".

View my dulcimer research paper "The Dulcimer in Southwestern Virginia"

Here is a great article from The Roanoke Times by Ralph Berrier, Jr., about the dulcimer exhibit at The Blue Ridge Institute located at Ferrum College, Ferrum, Virginia.


  1. I know exactly what you mean about playing...I have just started playing my dulcimer again...tho my excuse is 3 guitars, a bass guitar, a banjo, a mandolin, a tiple, a ukulele...:))
    Dave Kirkpatrick

  2. At least you are keeping it all in the music scene, Dave! I am like this with everything that I do. Whether it is quilting, needlework, spinning, weaving, dyeing, genealogy, dulcimer playing, piano playing, photography, etc. For the last two years I have been in a frenzy to knit and spin.

  3. Thanks for the story Kimberly. I've only been a Dulcimer builder/player for 18 months, but I share the desire to play. I love my guitar, and I can thank you, and Explore Park, for introducing me to the Dulcimer. It's a beautiful instrument.

  4. Jack, your dulcimers are not only beautiful, but they sound fabulous!

  5. You can't do it'll come back to it when the spirit moves you and you get some inspiration.
    You're utilsing your creativety, so is all good. What bugs me is all the stuff you forget tho...

    Dave K

  6. Dave,
    Yeah, there is a bit of a learning curve every time that I go back to something, but in some ways, that makes it more fun to start doing again! :D

  7. I agree, revisiting stuff after a while away from it can be invigorating if not to say frustrating.
    There's no point pushing it tho, gotta be in your own time...:)


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