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Contemporary Mountain Dulcimers

And the people who pick 'em, part 2

by Jerry Rockwell

[From Dirty Linen #39 April/May '92]

The first article on contemporary mountain dulcimer players was published in the June/July 1991 issue of Dirty Linen (#34), and featured David Schnaufer, Lois Hornbostel, and Leo Kretzner. In this second part, Lorraine Lee, Larkin Kelley Bryant, and Barbara Truex respond to a series of questions about their musical influences and their philosophy. Three of these sets of questions have been the focus of the entire series of interviews: 1) Who or what first attracted you to the mountain dulcimer? Do you see the dulcimer as a unique instrument with its own individual voice? What sets it apart from the steel string guitar? 2) Who are the primary influences on your own music and your playing style? 3) What is the role for tradition and roots? Have these been neglected?

Lorraine Lee, from Boston, MA, is one of the most respected dulcimer players alive today, and is internationally acclaimed as both a singer and songwriter. She has been cited in the German folk-music magazine Musikblatt as "the finest of all Appalachian dulcimer players." Lorraine has a total command of the mountain dulcimer, whether she's accompanying an Appalachian ballad, blazing through a fiddle tune, delicately rendering an Elizabethan piece, or taking a solo lead in a jazz or blues setting.

Jerry Rockwell: Question 1) Who or what first attracted you to the dulcimer?

Lorraine Lee: I first heard a dulcimer on a Jean Ritchie recording, in high school in the early sixties. I didn't know at the time that Jean was using a sliding stick, or noter stick, because I couldn't see what she was doing. I didn't have her dulcimer book, or a dulcimer. When I finally got a dulcimer of my own, I started to experiment, trying to imitate sounds remembered from the Jean Ritchie record. That was the beginning of my style -- of using my index finger on the melody string and sliding it, then laying fingers on the other strings for chords and harmonies. Only later did I discover she was using a noting stick, and by then I just had my own way of doing it, but was already bringing in chords.

Jean's use of the dulcimer emphasized the distinctive sound that comes from that particular family of instruments. All zithers have the strings stretched over the entire vibrating soundboard, and it gives them some kind of standing wave; some particular acoustic quality that you don't find in guitars and banjos.

Jerry: Question 2) Influences

Lorraine: The first dulcimer player I met was Margaret MacArthur; on my seventeenth birthday, in fact. She sat down with me, put her dulcimer on my lap and said: "Well, you strum over here and fret it over there." So that was a pretty important influence, and she was such a kind and loving person that I really enjoyed meeting her and seeing her with the dulcimer.

Later, Leo Kretzner was at Pinewoods Folk Music Camp when I first taught there, and he arrived with a 3-string dulcimer -- one wound string and two unwounds. His whole system of tuning was very different than mine; I was using only unwound strings -- I had a very treble, bright, sweet tone. So the following summer we were both there again, and we both concluded that what we could really use would be four equidistant strings. This way, Leo could incorporate my technique and tunings, and similarly, I could do the same with his music. So Leo was very influential in that way of thinking about the dulcimer.

John Molineaux had a very distinctive dulcimer style, quite unlike American traditional dulcimer playing. He had a very elegant right hand technique; he was very patient and showed me some picking patterns, some things I had not used before.

Holly Tannen had a very powerful style when I met her; she used three strings much, much heavier in gauge than mine, and had powerful rhythmic stuff in her playing -- I incorporated some of that.

Jerry: Question 3) What role for tradition and roots?

Lorraine: Always, no matter how esoteric my music is, and how far removed it may be from traditional tunes from the Southern Appalachians, I keep in my sensibility what I consider to be a traditional sound: always try to slur my notes -- slide on the melody string so that it's reminiscent of the noting stick technique and doesn't sound too much like a guitar.

Richard Fariña established a style of playing that became the standard for West Coast players. They were unaware that there was a Jean Ritchie; that there were whole collections and anthologies (the Library of Congress recordings) where people played mountain dulcimer in very simple, traditional styles. What happened to Richard Fariña happened to many other musicians, too. They were already musical, and someone puts the instrument in their hands, and they just did things with it. I think that's terrific and don't carry a sense that there are dues to be paid. I think that good musicianship is sufficient, but for myself, not understanding the background or tradition of whatever instrument I was playing would be a loss. There are things to learn about making the dulcimer sound distinctively like the dulcimer. I like the idea that players do know what the traditional voice is, and then they can choose to build on it, or not.

Certainly, if you listen to traditional Appalachian songs and ballads, you can hear a dulcimer voice. I always seem to hear what the dulcimer would be doing (if it were present), and that's helped. But I really appreciate the contemporary voices that people are finding for the dulcimer -- that's part of its tradition in any case. It has always been a very distinctive instrument: the shapes have varied wildly; the soundholes as well. The expression of the people making them has always come through in the tremendous variety of instruments that there are out there. I have a feeling that the playing styles, similarly, have been varied; and that's great -- I think it should be like that.

Lorraine has an extensive catalogue of fine recordings, and I recommend them to anyone building an "essential recordings" library. However, one recent recording is a spectacular showcase for Lorraine's instrumental work, and it deserves special mention. This album, Light as a Feather [Shanachie 95010, see review in DL #26, Summer 1989], is an all-instrumental duo recording of Lorraine and guitarist Bennett Hammond. Although Hammond is a master of fingerstyle guitar (try Walking On Air [Shanachie 95008]), the arrangements are incredibly sensitive, and the guitar never overshadows Lorraine's dulcimer. What you get, with the combination of the two instruments, is a kind of "synergy" that is totally unique. Lorraine is a very expressive, passionate player, and you'll hear the dulcimer soaring, swooping, and diving through the varied textures of the music. Beloved Awake [Front Hall FHR-043], Lorraine's most recent solo album, draws long overdue attention to her superb singing and songwriting.

Larkin Kelley Bryant, who hails from Memphis, TN, is another fine exponent of contemporary mountain dulcimer playing; she is the author of Larkin's Dulcimer Book, and has an album entitled Deep Like a River. Her music is very imaginative, and she plays with extreme subtlety and delicacy, always radiating a warm and gentle spirit that is perfectly appropriate for the mountain dulcimer.

Jerry: Question 1) Who or what first attracted you to the dulcimer?

Larkin Kelley Bryant: I was very much struck by the bagpipe quality; it was the drone that really -- somehow -- reached very deeply. I've always had a love of bagpipe music and Scottish music.

I do see the dulcimer as a unique instrument, and I do think it has its own individual voice. It has an ability for extreme clarity and purity of sound. It's very sparse; very spare, and that's something that's unique about it.

The diatonic fretboard is one of the main features of the dulcimer that separates it from the guitar. This has some advantages, in that its easy to play scales and not get off on the wrong note, but it also creates certain barriers. Learning to work with those barriers is one of the challenges of playing a dulcimer. I think all instruments have inherent limitations, but with the dulcimer, to really play a lot of different kinds of music, you have to learn to work around that fretboard.

Jerry: Question 2) Influences

Larkin: My first contact with the dulcimer was up at Mountain View, Arkansas. Jean Simmons was playing lots of fiddle tunes, and I really got into those right away.

Holly Tannen was the person who really, really inspired me to dig into the dulcimer, not only because of her playing style, but her choice of music. She was into world music; living in Berkeley, California, she went to jam sessions where folks were playing Portuguese, Indian, Lebanese, or Russian tunes, and learned how to work these tunes out. I enjoyed those, but was particularly fond of the British Isles music. She was the first that I heard playing jigs, and I was fascinated by jigs. She was the first person I heard fingerpicking in a more "classical" style, playing Renaissance music, and I was very interested in that.

Pierre Bensusan and Martin Carthy are two guitarists who have always fascinated me, and with a few of the pieces I've worked out on dulcimer, I've had their playing styles in mind.

Jerry: Question 3) What role for tradition and roots?

Larkin: As for modern playing, there are a lot of people who are trying to push the instrument. Some of this is good, but sometimes I question the musical integrity. I think you can get too carried away with fluff and lose sight of what's really important, like making an instrument musical. It has to be true to itself; it has to retain something of its essence.

I think tradition is important, and I hope that we don't forget about it. As the instrument is pushed into more sophisticated styles of playing, I think it's very wrong to discount the earlier players. There's nothing wrong with simplicity. Simplicity is beautiful; simplicity is the essence of where music began. Some of the purest and most beautiful music is simple, and I think the dulcimer is capable of expressing this simplicity, as many of the early traditional players have shown. I do think we need to remember who they are, and if they weren't out there, I certainly wouldn't be playing the dulcimer. As far as I'm concerned, Jean Ritchie gave us all a marvelous gift by promoting the dulcimer, and by playing it. Even though I may not have been as directly influenced by Jean as many other contemporary players, I've always been very conscious of the fact that she was the one who exposed a great number of people, and those people exposed other people. So, I think we're all part of a family tree.

Larkin's recording, Deep Like a River [Riverlark RL-101], is a contemporary classic, and is my all-time favorite dulcimer recording. The original instrumentals that comprise this album sometimes tell stories that unfold phrase by phrase; often, they paint shimmering landscapes, or they might portray some aspect of the natural world. Larkin blends folk, classical, and jazz influences in this recording, and Mark Nelson (another superb mountain dulcimer player) ties it all together with a first rate production effort.

Barbara Truex, from Portland, ME, has got to be one of the best-kept secrets of the contemporary mountain dulcimer scene. Barb has blended her progressive dulcimer styles into the jazz and avant-garde realm for over 15 years, teaming up with jazz violinists, trumpeters, and percussionists. She is the founder and director of the Northeast Dulcimer Symposium, an intensive week of study for the mountain and the hammered dulcimer held each June in Blue Mountain Lake, New York (in the Adirondacks). Barb and her husband Chris White also publish the NDS Journal, which is a sounding board for the ever-increasing pool of staff and students who attend the symposium.

Jerry: Question 1) Who or what first attracted you to the dulcimer?

Barb Truex: It was the playing of Richard Fariña that first hooked me on the dulcimer. When I finally got one in my hands, what I liked about it was the diatonic fretting, and the fact that it worked well with the smaller size of my hands (as opposed to the guitar).

The dulcimer definitely has its own individual voice. I have often found that the instrument will suggest interesting harmonies that I may not have come up with myself, especially when I'm experimenting with tunings. Certainly, that has to do with the fretting system, and it is this diatonic fretting that sets the dulcimer apart from the guitar.

Jerry: Question 2) Influences.

Barb: Beyond Richard Fariña, the other major influence on my musical life was Charles Ives. Certainly the music that comes out of my hands doesn't have a whole lot to do with the music that came out of Ives' hands. It was his writings, his approach to music, his philosophies on sound and on listening that I found to be very influential in the way I proceeded to think about music and approach it.

The other people who have had a profound influence on me are the people I've worked with for the last 15 to 20 years: Vin Pasternak, Ken Lovelett, Pete Levin, and Bucky Milam.

I started off in folk music, moved into pop, and then I discovered jazz. Jazz probably had a big effect on me in terms of learning more about theory and understanding the systems of music and how they were put together. From there; I've been jumping off the experimental "diving board" and experimenting with pure sounds, which some people insist are not music. Nonetheless, the more intriguing a sound is, and the more off-the-wall, the more fun I have with it.

This year, a lot of doors seem to be opening for me, particularly with bringing the dulcimer into situations it hasn't been in before: different types of ensembles and unusual instrument combinations. The Free Food Orchestra is a free-form multi-media improvisation group consisting of sousaphone, trumpet, trombone, electric violin, electric guitar, electric dulcimer (me), percussion, two dancers, and a projectionist. I was also involved in the 1991 Festival of Women Improvisors in New York City; I was chosen to perform on electric dulcimer in the Invitation Ensemble. The instrumentation for this ensemble was: piano, harp, trumpet, 2 flutes, percussion, cello, and electric dulcimer.

Jerry: Question 3) What role for tradition and roots?

Barb: I think it's very much a personal thing. When I discovered the dulcimer I felt it necessary to find out about its history and the history of its music. This catapulted me into a much broader study of music and its development, from ancient Greek times onward. It's probably not necessary for every player to do that -- again -- it has to be a personal motivation. I think there are some people involved with the dulcimer who put much too much emphasis on the tradition; they seem to fear that something is going to happen to it that's really awful if not enough attention is paid to its tradition. Yet if you look at a lot of other instruments that are played, those kinds of questions very seldom come up at all. Yes, the violin has a very long history, and it is used in a very wide variety of musical settings. Someone who plays bluegrass fiddle may not necessarily be interested in the orchestral role of the violin -- which is certainly part of its history, but a part which doesn't necessarily relate to bluegrass.

Barb is currently performing in a duo called Voluntary Relatives with Cliff Furnald (author of the Radio Planet 3 column in DL). They have a brand new recording, Almost a Big Band, which is available directly from Barb. [Barb Truex/ 90 Sawyer Street/ So. Portland, ME 04106] Archipelago and On the Button are two other fine recordings available from Barb as well. Archipelago is an early compilation of recordings in a wide variety of styles, all featuring Barb's dulcimer work, both as accompanist as well as soloist. On the Button is a more recent group effort which features many of the musicians that Barb has been working with for years. The musicianship of these players is absolutely stunning; it is very exciting to hear the mountain dulcimer add so much to the rhythmic and melodic texture of these fine compositions.

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