Thursday, February 13, 2014
Exploring the origins of the Appalachian dulcimer
Among the possessions Grandpap Brandt left behind after he died in 1972 was an unfinished Appalachian dulcimer. He built a long fingerboard that would have run the length of the instrument, its head a delightful carved violin-style scroll and its base consisting of a strum hollow where the pick would pass over the strings. The scroll has three peg holes but only one peg, and the underside of the flat fingerboard is hollowed out. The curved sides, now gone, were mounted on a board and held in place by sets of nails, and several small pieces of wood would probably constitute interior parts.
I asked a mountain dulcimer builder long ago if he could finish Grandpap’s dulcimer, but he said it would take more time than to start from scratch, so I discarded the curved sides but kept the fingerboard and the small pieces. For now I display the fingerboard in my music room, but it calls to me — it may be unfinished, but those pieces of wood beg to release the mountain music that is the instrument’s heritage.
The Appalachian dulcimer was virtually unknown outside the Appalachians until the folk revival, beginning about 1940, brought it to the attention of a generation of college students. Instrumental in the revival was Jean Ritchie, born in Viper, Ky., and now age 91. She grew up hearing her father, Balis, play the dulcimer, and she is the grand dame of the Appalachian dulcimer. Ritchie recorded the mountain ballads of her youth for Folkways Records, the label started by Moses Asch that preserved an incredible wealth of traditional music from around the world. The Smithsonian now owns the catalog and retains in print every recording ever released, now in CD format.
Ritchie writes in the foreword to “A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers” that, until the folk revival, the mountain folk simply called the instrument the dulcimer, but when she began playing for city audiences in the 1940s she began calling it the Kentucky dulcimer to distinguish it from the hammer dulcimer, a horse of a totally different color. But players from other states objected to “Kentucky,” so she switched to mountain dulcimer, then to Appalachian dulcimer to specify the specific mountain chain that gave rise to this oh so American instrument, the simple zither that accompanied the singing of the descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants on the ancient ballads they brought from the British Isles. It turns out, though, that quite possibly the Appalachian dulcimer wasn’t Appalachian at all, nor did it originate in the Isles.
Ritchie explains in “The Dulcimer Book” that she concluded, after a chance sighting of a German instrument in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and after research and collecting that included Fulbright studies in the British Isles, that the Appalachian dulcimer evolved from Continental zithers: the German Scheitholt, the Norwegian langeleik, the Dutch humle, and the French epinette des Vosges. Nowhere in the Isles did she and her husband find anything remotely resembling an Appalachian dulcimer.
This took some getting used to because I believed for years in the British Isles origins of the dulcimer, the Appalachian dulcimer being so perfectly suited to those ancient ballads. But the German origin demonstrates how resourceful mountain folk in their highland isolation adapted the music of their ancestral home to a zither borrowed from their German neighbors.
And I find it ironic that Grandpap, who took inordinate pride in his German heritage, began building an instrument of the Appalachians that, it turns out, quite possibly had its roots in Germany.