Dulcimer Tunes

About thirty years ago, my parents bought me a mountain dulcimer in Berea, Kentucky.  We were in Kentucky to attend a cousin’s wedding in Harrodsburg; it was the last Kentucky trip the three of us would take together.  Since the passing earlier in the 1980s of my mother’s mother and sisters, my parents and I were no longer making our frequent trips to Harrodsburg, where my mother’s sisters and parents had moved after my mother was grown.  While my mother and her sisters were growing up, their family had lived in the little village of Paint Lick, Kentucky, about forty miles south of Lexington.  My dulcimer symbolizes for me both my parents’ infinite kindness and encouragement and Kentucky’s vast place in my heart.  Seeing, holding, or playing my dulcimer opens a trove of memories.

When I was a child, Harrodsburg, the oldest town in Kentucky, was thriving, with Main Street filled with busy stores, including the Gem Drug Store—my uncle’s store.  The “Gem Store,” as we called it, had a jewelry counter and a lunch counter, two amenities that especially attracted me as a child.  My Aunt Winnie worked nearby, managing the office of the Landrum Insurance Agency.  She and others who worked in town regularly took their coffee breaks or ate lunch at the Gem Store, which my Aunt Ruth kept supplied with her homemade pies.  When my parents and I were visiting Harrodsburg, we and our relatives often ate at the Gem Store after church on Sundays.  I was particularly partial to the five-cent ice-cream cones.

By the time my cousin married in the backyard of his grandfather’s (my uncle’s) home, my grandmother and aunts—who, other than my parents, most meant Kentucky and family to me—were gone.  The wedding ceremony itself was something of a miracle since the day had begun with torrential rain and a backed-up sewer, but by wedding time, the backyard was dry and lovely and filled with family and friends, including a friend who sang and accompanied herself on a small harp.  Nevertheless, I strongly felt the absence of departed dear ones and later wrote a poem that began, “If you are avoiding ghosts, / Do not go downstairs in search of an extra platter or chair. / Downstairs, no living voices muffle the past.”  By contrast, “Upstairs, their voices mingle with ours, / And I watch them being as they were. / Aunt Ruth is cooking oyster stew. . . .”  I could imagine our lost loved ones mingling with us as we tidied the house in preparation for the wedding guests.

The day following the wedding, my parents and I visited some of the several friends still living in my mother’s girlhood village of Paint Lick, and I had the joy of going inside the home where my mother grew up.  What a treasure to be able to picture the rooms my mother talks about in her memoir of her Paint Lick years.  The house was torn down four or five years ago to allow for highway construction.  I feel pain when I think of my mother’s home being gone.

My mother’s girlhood home, Paint Lick, Kentucky

With its Kentucky roots and heritage, my dulcimer carries with it what was, not only for me but especially for my parents.  My father, who was from St. Paul, Minnesota, moved to Louisville for his work in May 1943.  There he met my mother, who was then teaching school in Louisville.

On another day after my cousin’s wedding, my parents and I visited Berea, not far from Paint Lick.  Berea is the site of Berea College and of numerous notable craftspeople and craft shops, many of them associated with the college.  My grandfather played football for Berea College more than 110 years ago, and my grandmother attended the academy that was on the college grounds.  My parents and I stopped by Boone Tavern, the inn where my parents had had their wedding dinner, on October 18, 1944, and had stayed before heading on to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for their honeymoon.

Not far from Boone Tavern is the shop of woodworker Warren A. May, who is especially known for his beautiful handmade mountain dulcimers.  On our visit to his shop, my parents bought me a lovely cherry dulcimer with traditional wooden pegs and a traditional fretboard (the metal spacers that make it easy to play the notes of a scale or melody).  I had spoken for years of wanting a dulcimer, and my parents, as with so many of my interests, had encouraged my desire to own and play the instrument.

I’ve been back to Kentucky four times since my parents have been gone.  Their ashes are buried in Harrodsburg in our family plot, and even though I know my parents’ souls are not there in the cemetery, I sit among the quiet stones for a visit when I am in Harrodsburg.  And I visit, too, the places that were part of Kentucky as I knew it when all my dear ones were present in this life.  When I was in Kentucky in 2015, my cousins took me to Boone Tavern for lunch, and then we visited Warren May’s workshop, where I bought a music book for the dulcimer, new strings for my instrument, and a CD of Warren May’s dulcimer playing.

But until a few weeks ago, I had far from done justice to my beautiful instrument.  I had played with it but never joined a group or taken lessons that would have given me a clear sense of the instrument.  Finally, this month I attended the Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) program Appalachian Folkways, held in south-central Kentucky near Lake Cumberland.  I chose this Road Scholar program in part because I wanted to spend time with and honor Kentucky itself.  And I wanted to begin playing my dulcimer in earnest.

Every morning of our Road Scholar program, musician-songwriter Anne MacFie played traditional music for us, often on a dulcimer.  Scots-Irish settlers in the Appalachians—perhaps some of my own relatives—played dulcimers beginning in the early 1800s.  Our music teacher, Anne, gave dulcimer lessons in the late afternoons to the four of us who wanted to learn to play.  Sitting on the porch of the comfortably rustic Lake Cumberland 4-H Education Center, part of the University of Kentucky, I didn’t want to stop playing on those afternoons to get ready for dinner.

Now I better understand my dulcimer’s range of musical possibilities.  The simplest approach is to play the melody line on the two closely spaced melody strings, with the two other strings creating a drone effect as with a bagpipe.  (Some dulcimers don’t double the melody string, or the two strings may be spaced farther apart.  Other variations include metal tuning pegs, which make tuning somewhat easier, and a 6½ fret—in the middle of the seventh space from the left—which allows the player to add a sharp.)  In the drone style, the player may use a noter, which is a wooden dowel used to press down the melody string or strings and to slide from note to note.

A noter

Dulcimer players may also create chords with their left hand, somewhat as a guitar player would.  Chords substantially expand the pleasing musicality and versatility of the instrument.  I most enjoy playing hymns and folksongs, and I get excited when a few chords make a song especially satisfying to my ears.  Whatever approach the left hand uses, the right hand sounds the strings by strumming with a pick or the fingers or by plucking the strings.

I have a very long way to go in my dulcimer learning—including building up calluses on my left-hand fingertips, which get rather chewed up now on the metal strings as I practice my chords.  But if I wait until I have wonderful skills—not to mention impressive calluses—my dulcimer will go back to sitting nearly ignored in its case for many more years.  The dulcimer is an instrument on which would-be musicians can make music from almost the first moment of holding it on their lap.  So the dulcimer offers an excellent opportunity for me to send into the past one more vestige of my perfectionism, my tendency not to do something at all if I can’t do it well.

I vow to hold in my mind—and regularly recreate—the pleasure I felt strumming away on the porch of the 4-H center in Kentucky.  In addition to the delight of its music, my dulcimer carries deep meaning.  Instead of feeling I can never do it justice, I will play my dulcimer at least a little nearly every day in honor of my dear parents who gave it to me and the memories of Kentucky that resonate through its vibrating strings.

When you create—whatever you create, from music to meals—what memories and meanings are carried on your acts of creation?

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