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Contemporary Mountain Dulcimers

And the people who pick 'em

by Jerry Rockwell

[From Dirty Linen #34 June/July '91]

The Appalachian mountain dulcimer, also known as the "fretted dulcimer" or "lap dulcimer," is thought to be about 200 years old. The earliest forms of the instrument were made in Pennsylvania in the late 1780s, where Germanic settlers crafted long, thin, rectangular zithers similar to the German scheitholt. Throughout the 19th century, dulcimers of many different shapes and sizes seem to have sprung up independently over a wide range of locations: Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Very little is known about the mountain dulcimer's place in folk music of the region, but it is generally agreed that the dulcimer never had the prominence of the fiddle or banjo.

Much of what we do know about the mountain dulcimer comes from the great Kentucky singer, Jean Ritchie. Jean has been largely responsible for introducing the dulcimer to the masses, through her concerts, lectures, recordings, and publications since the 1940s. Her Dulcimer Book [Oak Pubs], which offers detailed historical perspective, photos and complete playing instructions, is still the standard. Her book Dulcimer People [Oak Pubs] is an insightful "modern history" of the dulcimer, documenting such important players as Howie Mitchell, Holly Tannen, and others.

This article will examine the recent history of dulcimer playing through interviews with six leading players of today: Lois Hornbostel, Leo Kretzner, David Schnaufer (in this installment); and Lorraine Lee, Larkin Bryant, and Barb Truex (in a future issue). There are many, other important players, and my choice of these six people does not imply an elite club or hierarchy of any sort. I decided that an in-depth interview with each player would be more meaningful than a more generalized overview of the entire contemporary dulcimer scene.

David Schnaufer is certainly one of the most visible dulcimer players today, particularly in Nashville and in the country music scene. He has appeared on albums by the Judds, Kathy Mattea, Dan Seals, Holly Dunn, and other country music acts, and he has enlisted such Nashville luminaries as Chet Atkins and Mark O'Connor on his own recording projects. In the summer of 1990, he opened shows for the Everly Brothers, introducing solo dulcimer to audiences of tens of thousands at football stadiums.

David was first drawn to the dulcimer because of a shop display. "I was attracted visually at first. I saw about 20 dulcimers in a shop window in Austin, Texas. At the time, I was a harmonica player, and noticed that it was set up like a harmonica. There was every good string sound I'd heard rolled into one. It was easy to find all the different sounds."

David lists Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons as his main inspiration for pursuing a career in music, but among dulcimer players, it was probably Jean Jennings (formerly Jean Simmons) who had the greatest impact early in his playing career. "I used to spend a lot of time at the Dulcimer Shoppe in Mountain View, Arkansas. She'd teach me tunes, she was always real encouraging, and she taught me a lot about tone -- she's still the smoothest dulcimer player I've ever heard."

David learned a lot about the positioning of the left hand and improved his left hand technique dramatically when he met Robert Force, an influential West Coast dulcimer player.

An album called Mountain Dulcimer Galax Style [County] by Bonnie Russell & Family has been an enormous influence on David's music from the beginning. "Bonnie did that when she was 12 years old. It's all noter and quill music in the D-D-D-D tuning. [A noter is a wooden slide used to fret the dulcimer and a quill refers to the traditional use of goose quills to fret the instrument.] That record, to me, stands up as one of my primary influences, because of the energy of it, the natural quality of the music. It's the only dulcimer recording you can dance to; to this day, I think! I want my music to feel like Bonnie Russell's music did."

David spent four years performing and recording with Alan Freeman, who is a West Virginia dulcimer player known for his ragtime and field tunes on a 5-string dulcimer. "I learned an awful lot from him, especially about theory. He made me learn my scales and where the chords were -- all the stuff I'd been missing."

Nashville is a very stimulating environment for David's music. "The big revolution for me now is a whole 'method' of playing in D-A-D or D-G-D -- it really doesn't depend on a particular tuning -- it has more to do with how the hand works on the instrument: how you make chords and scales available in both directions from wherever you are."

David has strong feelings about the role of tradition and roots. "The more I play, the more traditional I get." He recently spent some time with Bonnie Russell and he marvels about how powerful the Galax, Virginia tradition is: "There's a lot of joy in that music. It's wonderful! It's very advanced. I think it's much more advanced in its own way than a lot of things I try to do with modern songs. Like Bonnie says: "We've been playing these tunes a long time."

David Schnaufer's definitive recording, Dulcimer Player Deluxe [S.F.L. (1989)],is an all-instrumental recording and a true masterpiece of contemporary dulcimer playing. This CD, which runs for 73 minutes, contains most of David's first tape, Dulcimer Deluxe, and all of his second, Dulcimer Player (See review in Dirty Linen #29).

Lois Hornbostel is certainly one of the most influential mountain dulcimer players alive today. Her four instruction books for Mel Bay Publications: The Irish Dulcimer, Dulcimer Fiddle Tunes, Anthology for the Fretted Dulcimer and Dulcimer Duets, Rounds and Ensembles (and the tape companions to Dulcimer Fiddle Tunes and Dulcimer Duets, Rounds and Ensembles) have inspired countless students of the dulcimer and have won Lois an international reputation. Her solo recording, Vive le Dulcimer! [Kicking Mule (1983)] was a finalist for the 1984 "Indie" Award in the World Music category (National Association of Independent Record Distributors). Since 1984, Lois has been teaching school children to play the dulcimer. As an arts council visiting artist throughout the southeast and on private tours, she has taught over 10,000 children the basics of dulcimer playing.

Lois first heard the mountain dulcimer on a hiking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. "It was being used in a string band for a square dance. I loved the different sound -- more 'ancient' in personality than guitar, the intense drama of the drones. It had a special excitement. It also looked like fun to play because the way the instrument is 'addressed' is like a craftsman cradling a piece of handwork in the lap."

Lois describes the diverse influences that contribute to her unique, exciting playing style. "The first influence on my music was my mother, a classical pianist. She also played in a swing band as a teenager, and had very eclectic tastes and wonderful dynamics and drama in her musical expression. I remember hearing early country music on the radio when I was a child and loved it. I grew up in an Irish-American community in New York, and as long as I can remember loved Irish music. Dulcimer players who have influenced me include Frank Proffitt, Jr., a folk musician who carries on the traditional music of the famed Hicks and Proffitt families of the North Carolina mountains. He was very kind to me when I was first learning to play the dulcimer. We corresponded and he sent me a tape of his playing so I could learn about traditional mountain style dulcimer. He's a very smooth, strongly rhythmic musician. I began to develop my dulcimer technique in the late 1970s, while still living near New York City. There were few mountain dulcimer players in the area, so I gravitated with my dulcimer to the Irish music I had always loved. I became a regular at the Saturday night sessions at Wilde's Irish Ale House on 56th Street, The Eagle Tavern north of Greenwich Village, and the Irish Arts Center over on the West Side. There were several great fiddlers who influenced my rhythm, expression, sensibilities and set a high standard of musicianship. Jim McIntyre from Staten Island was a wonderful role model for me."

Lois attended folk festivals, including one of the first Cosby Dulcimer Conventions in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains. "There I met other dulcimer players who were 'pilgrims' just like me, and they were gravitating toward their own musical performances and techniques. It was a very exciting time, and a wonderful learning experience. Everyone shared and we made life-long friends. I moved to Louisiana, played my dulcimer in a Cajun band and with old time string band musicians and learned new styles of music on my dulcimer." Lois moved to Los Angeles where she taught and began giving solo performances and performing and teaching at dulcimer workshops around the country."

"In 1980 I moved to North Carolina. That summer, Jerry Rockwell, Mary Ann Samuels and I toured England and Ireland performing dulcimer music and teaching people there to play the dulcimer. We were welcomed and the dulcimer appreciated, and from that experience I decided to work at a career in music. I booked tours around the country, appearing at music festivals, folk music clubs, colleges, and dulcimer clubs."

"My favorite dulcimer event was the Appalachian State University Dulcimer Playing Workshop in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. I worked for Dr. Bill Spencer there for seven years as a performer and teacher, and when he retired I was asked to take over as director. It has been a wonderfully creative experience to write a complete curriculum for the mountain dulcimer, from beginner to semi-professional levels, in a week-long course. Lots of people are learning the instruments, and it is fun to be a part of that."

Lois sees tradition and roots as important parts of the mountain dulcimer's present and future. "At the ASU workshop we explore and celebrate the history and playing style of the dulcimer, while focusing on its continuing evolution. We have had performances and classes by Stanley Hicks, Frank Proffitt, Jr., Jean Ritchie, Edd Presnell, Ralph Lee Smith, Leonard Glenn, Jacob Ray Melton and other dulcimer legends and traditional players and builders. At the same time I like to feature the exciting innovations of modern dulcimer stylists, and to challenge our students to use their imaginations in dulcimer playing."

Lois uses her imagination in great measure throughout the LP Vive le Dulcimer!, taking the listener on a journey to many different lands; always choosing material and arrangements that seem perfectly suited to the mountain dulcimer. Lois is a very, expressive dulcimer player and often refers to this side of her playing as "schmaltz," but I prefer the term "soul" or "soulful." The passion and power she puts into "Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms" or "Hatikva" (the Israeli national anthem) is sure to move anyone. There is a generous portion of dance tunes on this recording: "Belle de la Louisiane/Indian on a Stump," a waltz and a two-step from the Cajun tradition; "Fynbo," a Danish dance tune; "Bryllupsgarden," a step-skip dance from Norway; "Pipe on the Hob," an Irish jig. All these tunes are played with great spirit -- sometimes delicate, sometimes more fiery, but always with superb control of the narrow dynamic range of this subtle instrument. In this age of increasing global consciousness, with new music marketing niches like "World Beat" or "World Music" popping up, Vive le Dulcimer! fits in perfectly and should be required listening for anyone interested in the mountain dulcimer.

Leo Kretzner is a major innovator on the mountain dulcimer, and he plays everything from Irish jigs to rock 'n' roll tunes in his own unique flatpicking style. Leo is known for his highly rhythmic, driving style, particularly as it's applied to Irish tunes and old-time American fiddle tunes.

Leo got his first dulcimer when he was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1975 and remained mostly self-taught until he discovered Margaret MacArthur. Margaret is a fine dulcimer player, ballad singer, and folksong collector from Marlboro, Vermont. "She had a way of playing fiddle tunes and generally getting more notes out of the dulcimer. She taught at Pinewoods Music Camp in Massachusetts and there I learned hammer-ons, pull-offs and 'all the strings with all the (left-hand) fingers' (which I'd been doing anyway). Margaret also had a delicate way of playing that used the drones of the dulcimer more selectively than anything I'd heard up to then and I liked that. I tried to remember that the lower strings were separate voices in their own right even as I played more with a flatpick and developed a more driving rhythmic style than Margaret's."

So for the next several years Leo continued to develop his style.

"When I encountered Lorraine Lee the following year (1976) at Pinewoods, it seemed as though we were living in rather different corners of the dulcimer world. A big part of the gap relates to string arrangement, and bears on the evolution of the 4-equidistant string arrangement prevalent in some parts of the country now: we both had 3-stringers, mine tuned D-A-D, hers A-D-D, without the bass D but with an additional high D which allowed her more complete chords and chord colors in the mid-to-upper ranges. Though I'd only been peripherally interested in chords up to this point, I saw the potential strengths of Lorraine's system. I guess she saw those in mine, too, because when we next saw each other in '77 or '78 we'd both gone to 4-strings, she adding the bass and I the additional high D tonic."

Although Leo has kept his ears open to other dulcimer artists, the "non-dulcimer" players have been just as influential to his music. "I feel I've been as much influenced by many, many non-dulcimer players -- all the pop and classical and Motown and rock 'n' roll I grew up with, then countless fiddle, banjo, whistle and concertina players (Highwoods String Band and Alistair Anderson come to mind immediately), then loads of country-blues and blues players (Robert Johnson in particular), and many recent singer-songwriters and bands, from Bill Staines to Dire Straits by way, perhaps, of the Grateful Dead. As Dylan said, 'Open your ears and you're influenced.' "

When I asked Leo about the role that roots and tradition play in the evolution of the modern dulcimer, he responded: "I think it's helpful and important for players to have grounding in some traditions or traditional styles, be they folk, classical, blues or jazz traditions. It gives depth to your music, gives you experience to build upon and branch out from. I find it hard to respect many young, pretty-boy synthesizer rock bands who don't play with reference musically to anybody before David Bowie or Michael Jackson. This lack of depth shows in their own music."

"Of course, the same thing can happen to well-intentioned Celtic musicians who only listen to, say, the Bothy Band or Moving Hearts, but ignore the sources of those players' inspiration: Michael Coleman, Seamus Ennis, etc."

"It's important to have roots even if one plays in a modern style. It's also important to have an open ear and open mind..."

"For me the Big Four historical players would be Jean Ritchie, I.D. Stamper, in retrospect, Richard Fariña and for me, Margaret MacArthur. Jean's importance is as much as a singer as a dulcimer player. Actually the 'noter-on-double-string' sound is one of the most unique mountain dulcimer sounds there is, so it's important not to lose it entirely. If it works in a piece, I use it. I've never felt constrained to play only in that style. There are plenty of players in the south and midwest especially who are carrying on strongly with that style, so I don't see any danger of its dying out."

There is much more involved in Leo's style than just an over-worked left hand with abundant hammers and pulls. Leo's right hand picking, with frequent (and often unexpected) changes in direction and accents, goes together with the left hand to create a kind of "synergy" that is truly awesome at times. For a good recorded example of this powerful, rhythmic approach to American and Irish fiddle tunes, check out the first two albums: Dulcimer Fair [Traditional (1977)] and Pigtown Fling [Green Linnet (1979)]. For excursions into the more contemporary, pop-inspired areas, listen to Bold Orion [Heartwood (1983)]. This recording contains a splendid rendition of Duane Allman's "Little Martha," as well as "The Quantum Leap Medley," which finished with the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run." Leo's most recent CD/cassette release, Not So Still Life [Heartwood (1990)] shows Leo's dulcimer skills at a new peak.


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