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By RALPH BERRIER JR.
Landmark News Service
FERRUM — The mountain dulcimer is the quiet child in the Appalachian musical family.
Not as flashy as the fiddle or as brash as the banjo, the gentle tones of a dulcimer strummed rhythmically and melodically still stand out from its showy siblings and make the instrument a lasting staple of old-fashioned mountain music.
Like other instruments and the people who play them, the dulcimer is the child of immigrants, brought to America by German settlers in the 1700s. The dulcimer made its way down the Great Wagon Road of the Shenandoah Valley and into the Blue Ridge, where local makers reshaped the instrument into something distinct.
The Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College is paying tribute to this quintessential mountain instrument with an exhibit of more than 90 handmade dulcimers, many of them a century or more older.
“The Virginia Dulcimer: 200 Years of Bowing, Strumming, & Picking” is on display at the institute’s DuPont Galley.
“We’ve spent 30-plus years on that exhibit,” said Roddy Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute. “A lot of looking went into it. A lot of talking to families and collectors. Several of these instruments have been in the same family for years and were passed down.”
The signature touches of craftsmen abound. A dulcimer built in Knox County, Tenn., boasts a hand-carved scroll, much like the headstock of a fiddle, and a heart carved in the tailpiece. Its tuning pegs are made of wrought iron.
Most of the dulcimers on display are on loan from private individuals.
The exhibit includes instruments made in Franklin, Floyd and Carroll counties in the 1800s and early 1900s.
The dulcimers feature many personal touches and flourishes, such as the teardrop-shaped dulcimer — dubbed “the Virginia form” in the exhibit — built by John Scales of Floyd County in 1832. Moore called it the oldest signed-and-dated dulcimer in the United States.
A dulcimer made by Wythe County maker J.M. Neff includes the inscription, “May 22, 1890. It is raining today.”
Many of the American-made instruments are built from maple, have four strings and are easily identified by their familiar hourglass shape.
Several feature intricate inlay patterns and sound holes (also known as f-holes) shaped like diamonds, hearts, teardrops and birds.
A sign in the exhibit claims that “the western Virginia Blue Ridge has a strong claim to being the birthplace of the ‘American’ dulcimer,’ distinguished from its European ancestors by its style and shape.”
The German Ancestor
The early German instruments were called scheitholts, which most likely evolved from Middle Eastern stringed instruments such as the lute and the zither. Scheitholts had long, straight sides with multiple strings running along the top, usually offset from the center.
By the early 1800s, English-speaking Virginia makers had changed the shape and included a raised fretboard right down the middle of the instrument — the mountain dulcimer was born.
The dulcimer is played while resting in the musician’s lap (some musicians call it the “lap dulcimer”) and strummed with the fingers or a light pick as the notes are made by pressing the strings with a “noter,” usually a piece of wood. The result is a sound that evokes harp-like chimes mixed with a touch of guitar or mandolin.
The simple playing method and the soft tones make dulcimers a popular instrument for children. In fact, the exhibit calls the dulcimer “one of the most approachable of Virginia’s folk instruments.”
The hammered dulcimer, whose music is made by striking the strings with small mallets or hammers, is more prevalent in New England, although it occasionally makes appearances down South.
In 1818, mountain dulcimers began popping up in Virginia wills and estate inventories. For a few decades, dulcimers were far more common than fiddles or guitars in mountain homes.
That all changed by the mid- to late-19th century. Interest in the dulcimer was revived in the 20th century at mission schools, which were established by churches to educate poor mountain children and which included healthy doses of music education in the curricula.
The folk revival of the 1950s, especially the music of Kentucky-born dulcimer-playing Jean Ritchie, provided another boost.
The instruments will remain on display through the end of this month at the Blue Ridge Institute, which is undergoing a renovation and expansion.
The exhibit might remain longer, depending on the progress of the renovation.
CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE AND HEAR SOME DULCIMER TUNES:
Kimberly Burnette-Dean is a former interpreter at Virginia’s Explore Park, who has played and researched dulcimers since she was a teenager. She is now library assistant at the Roanoke County Library’s Vinton branch.
In this video, hear her play the "Galax Style" dulcimer on "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss"