Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What happened?

Ron left a comment after my last post in which he said:
"I want to enjoy the dulcimer, not make it a project or an ordeal...No one told me that if I want to learn dulcimer, there were two ways to go---chording or melody/drone."

This got me to thinking...What has happened in the past several decades to so completely change the way beginners are introduced to the Appalachian dulcimer, to the point where many beginner dulcimer players aren't even told about the existence of traditional melody/drone style playing anymore? How did these changes happen, and what is the result? I fear this will take more than one post for me to ponder...

Let's start with some of the verified facts we do have about how the dulcimer used to be played long ago in Appalachia. One reliable source for this information is Jean Ritchie, who has written a great deal about her family, neighbors, and music players near her childhood home of Viper, Kentucky. Much of Jean's information comes from both before and after the 1920's when she was born.
We know that Jean's father Balis Ritchie (born 1869) used to play his dulcimer in melody/drone style, without playing full chords, and that according to Jean he only played in one tuning: CGG, which is the ionian tuning for the key of C. This is identical to our DAA tuning for the key of D, but tuned one whole step down on all strings, to play in the key of C instead. Many early church hymns and simple older folk tunes were played in the key of C in the old days.
Jean grew up in a time when people in the mountains were beginning to listen to the radio, and when she was a young lady she said that many of her friends scorned the 'old' music that their parents played in favor of more modern dance music and swing that was on the radio during the 30's and 40's. Jean experimented with different dulcimer tunings and with playing harmonies to compliment her singing. By the late 1940's the folk music boom was beginning, and Jean went to NYC with her dulcimer and her mountain repertoire and became a hit with the burgeoning folk scene there. Guitar playing folk musicians were everywhere, and they accompanied most songs with full sounding guitar chords.
Most of us have grown up deeply influenced by this folk boom era of the 1940's-60's, and we all grew up hearing our popular music framed in neat and resolved chord structures. Non-chordal 'archaic' drone based music was heard less and less. When it was heard, the usual reaction was that it was lacking something, or that it would sound more complete and thus better with a guitar chording backup.
This appetite for full chord structure spilled over into the dulcimer of course, and by the 1960's-1980's, a whole new generation of young urban dulcimer players were busy building dulcimers and exploring new frontiers of playing modern music on the dulcimer. This did a lot to popularize the dulcimer beyond even what Jean Ritchie might have imagined. But these talented young folk players overwhelmingly liked their music accompanied by standard Western chords, and chord playing/flatpicking guitar-like style was what most people could relate to- especially people who did not grow up hearing an older generation's traditional Appalachian music sounds. The addition of the 6 1/2 fret made this transition to chords even easier, as it enabled people to play in ionian mode while in mixolydian DAD tuning.

Thus it was that between about 1945 and today (over sixty years later) there has been a steady movement away from the more archaic interval and drone based music, and towards modern Western chord-based music. One could say that this is neither 'good' nor 'bad' just is.

Looking at dulcimer insruction books, one can clearly see this trend in action. Books written in the 1960's and 70's (starting with some of Jean Ritchie's instructional materials), will often be structured around the key of C, in ionian tuning (CGG or DAA) and playing noter style- or at least presenting the first chapters in learning/explaining the dulcimer in noter style, even explaining how to tune to the different modes. Some had their songs written out in standard music notation, with a single melody line. Later books begin to emphasize the key of D instead of C, the mixolydian tuning of DAD, and encourage the use of chords over the 'limited' use of a noter, and they often encourage the use of capos and the addition of added frets to change keys as opposed to re-tuning. If the book did contain a chapter about modes and other tunings, the reader would likely skip over that part as being too full of complex and unnecessary 'music theory'. Stuff for eggheads or music scholars. Chording the diatonically fretted dulcimer while playing the melody too was hard enough as it was without having to learn various new sets of chords for different tunings and keys!
The generation that learned dulcimer from these later books of course became the new teachers, and they began to teach DAD chording style to the legions of beginner players attending the new popular music camps, festivals, and workshops, and buying CD's, teaching DVD's and more books.

The end result of all this is that the beginner dulcimer player of today is typically presented with learning material that focuses heavily on chording/flatpicking style of playing, in the key of D and tuned DAD. The occasional switch to DAA or the idea of tuning to another key or mode is now seen by beginners as being scary and difficult- something to be avoided if at all possible.
Instead of learning only a simple melody line and letting the drones flesh out the sound, students must now keep giant binders full of tabbed chords in front of them at all times. The older beginner especially, with limited musical experience, may find the many chord fingerings to be daunting and complex and he/she winds up having to juggle flat picking on various strings, stretching fingers into difficult-to-reach chord formations that change quickly, and keeping track of the tabbed chord fingering numbers on the page...all at the same time. Yikes!
More about simple playing in my next post.


  1. Yes, I agree with you on this. Just look at the clawhammer forums on BHO and some of the discussions on Banjo-L and you will see many players promoting "change the style to add modern schemes". While I can't deny them their right to do this, I was drawn to OT music (my definition is Southern Appalachian/Mountain music) for the archaicness and simplicity of the music. Too bad there aren't more of us trying harder to preserve this music.

  2. I think it also has alot to do with having the willingness to train your ears to appreciate the difference of a drone sound as opposed to a chordal sound. Both forms have unique and varied tonal quality's and as far as I am concerned you lose out on a vast amount of musical possibiltys if you dont look to educate yourself to the alternatives of convention.

    I have only recently bought a Dulcimer and DAD tuning is at this moment in time the conventional starting point that most beginners will confront as was the case for me, but in spite of it all I found this place and I am glad that there are still people who keep Traditional music alive in it's many forms all over the world.

  3. What a comfort to read your post, Strumelia.

    I started learning from a traditional player here in Piedmont North Carolina in 1981 and after playing almost 10 years I got "out" into the "dulcimer world" and had to fight the tag 'dinasaour' because I didn't play chords. (I noted that same attitude applied to the oldest player at the event, none other than Jacob Ray Melton, so I felt in good company)! A kind person informed me of the existence of Phyllis Gaskins and the instruction I got from her the next year saved me committing from mass murder. I'd be in NC Women's Prison today if it weren't for PG! No joking.

    Anyway, it's nice to know there are other assertive noter/melody string players around!

    BTW the "dulcimer" entry in ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTH CAROLINA, though shortened from the original, is about pre-revival dulcimers and playing and I hope sets a historical baseline.

    Carole Watterson Troxler

  4. Carole, thank you so much for your nice comment and your wonderful story. You are indeed VERY LUCKY to have had instruction from Phyllis Gaskins . I wish I was able to as well! :)

  5. Strumelia,
    Thanks ever SO much for this blog. I had been fascinated by the dulcimer for years, being a native Kentuckian. About 3 years ago, I had the good fortune to stumble into Warren May's shop in Berea, KY, and fell in love with/purchased my first dulcimer, a beautiful cherry instrument (no 6+ fret). As he was stringing it, Warren taught me how simple it would be by playing "Joy to the World", a straight run down the octate. I also had the good luck to pick up a couple of books in DAA tuning with many familiar songs. I could easily hear the melodies, and was quickly playing lots of things and learning to strum. No pressure, just great fun and relaxation. I retired just over a year ago, and wanting to start out with DAD tuning, have been taking lessons for 9 months from Kara Barnard in Nashville, IN. I am learning chording very quickly, playing with a small group in Indianapolis, and enjoying this, too. (Needed to buy another dulcimer with a 6+ fret - Bill Berg student with a beautiful walnut top) But I will be forever grateful that I found DAA first, so that I could immediately feel comfortable playing. And now I'm keeping the prize dulcimer tuned DAA so I can keep up with this great style of playing, and continue to study Jean Ritchie's songs. By the way, my dulcimer group friends are very envious of the way I can use a noter! It works perfectly on many of the rag and fiddle tunes.

    Thanks again,

  6. Susan, thank you so much for your kind words and for telling your story. It's great that you can now play 'both ways'. I find it somewhat amusing that chord players would be envious of the much simpler noter method of playing. ;D

  7. Hi

    I recently bought a fifteen year old Warren May Standard Hourglass cherry dulcimer.

    Is it a good one?


  8. Hi Marc,
    Yes that should be a very nice dulcimer.
    Warren May is a well respected builder over here.
    Congratulations! :)

  9. Thanks.
    Oops, I should have read the other posts...