Saturday, February 23, 2019

Mountain Dulcimer Beginnings

This is a mountain dulcimer made at Boulder Junction in 1975.
At the same time I was obsessively studying the mandolin, I was doing the same with the mountain dulcimer. My interest arose from a vinyl record, a TV show, and a historical festival.
I first saw people play the Appalachian dulcimer in person in the summer of 1974 at the Buckskin Jamboree in Carroll County (Ohio). I say “in person” because I first saw the dulcimer on an episode of “The Waltons”, “The Love Story”, which aired in the first season, on Jan. 18, 1973, and showed John-Boy playing and singing for a girl he liked. Richard Thomas did a decent job of playing but was no singer. I next saw people playing dulcimer in the early 1980s at Malabar Farm State Park near Mansfield, and I finally bought my first instrument at the Mountain Arts Festival in Ripley, West Virginia, in 1982. It was a simple instrument costing only $60, with straight sides and no soundholes, but it sounded good. The festival has since moved to Jefferson County, near Harpers Ferry.

We live near a linguistic border that divides Ohio into North Midland and Appalachian Midland dialects. Connecticut settlers populated northeast Ohio’s Western Reserve in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the southern border of the Western Reserve running east to west near what is now U.S. Route 224. I can go a few miles south or southeast of my home near Canton and hear a marked twang in residents’ speech. Descendants of German immigrants and settlers from Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania populated the region, and my Columbiana County cousins speak with a touch of that twang. Traditional music mirrors that division in a Midwest sound that incorporates Celtic and Appalachian music, and my favorite recording of that style and one of my biggest musical influences is “Pigtown Fling.”
I found “Pigtown Fling” on vinyl at the North Canton Public Library in 1982 or so, about the same time I bought my first mountain dulcimer. I recorded the album to cassette, and it became my constant traveling companion, its mix of Irish and Appalachian tunes accompanying me as I explored Ohio’s canals and Indian sites. The record features two dulcimer players, Jay Leibovitz and Leo Kretzner, the latter the biggest influence on my mountain dulcimer playing. The two spent a lot of time at Boulder Junction, a folk music store north of Uniontown, Ohio, in the 1970s, and they mention on the album jacket learning tunes at the jam sessions held on Thursdays at the store, which was owned by Christian Wig and the late Dave Neff. When the store closed, the sessions moved to Quail Hollow State Park, which is now a Stark County park. The sessions diminished in frequency after Dave died, and I have not determined if they are still going. It looks as if one was held in October 2018.
Jay played with a traditional wooden noter, a wooden dowel rod that slides on the melody strings, but he uses more chords than just the usual open-string drones, whereas Leo played in a single-string flatpicking style, and I made the latter style my own in 1990 when I fell into the clutches of traditional music. You can hear the two styles together on many tunes, sliding noter and flatpick playing complex tunes that before the dulcimer revival were the province of fiddles, pipes and whistles. Some tunes feature Leo soloing, and many present a mix of fiddle, banjo, whistle, concertina, and guitar, the two dulcimer players joined by several Michigan musicians during a two-day recording session. The album was released in 1979 on Green Linnet Records, and I was fortunate to finally buy it when Green Linnet was divesting itself of its vinyl records in the early 1990s. Leo and Jay recorded a prior collaboration, “Dulcimer Fair,” in 1977, which included fewer instruments than did PF, being mostly just two dulcimers and guitar.
Leo credits Vermont folksinger Margaret MacArthur as his dulcimer inspiration. Margaret played mountain dulcimer in a single-string style as accompaniment to her singing in a manner similar to folk-style guitar, and Leo took that approach and moved the mountain dulcimer to the forefront, making it a lead instrument and playing instrumental tunes in all their complexity.
My second JR dulcimer.
I bought my second dulcimer in 1988 at the Great Trail Festival near Malvern, Ohio. It was made by John Rawdon, of Dulcimers by JR, and I got a second JR dulcimer in May 1991. A few years ago I found a Boulder Junction dulcimer for sale at a Canton music store.
I copied Leo’s style as I learned the mountain dulcimer, a normal practice for the developing player, and learned most of the tunes from PF. I was still playing with a noter when I learned about the tunings that Leo used on PF, and for a time I played in both styles, even mixing them in the same tune, somehow holding the noter in abeyance on the part where I played strictly with fingers.
My first JR dulcimer.
After attending a workshop by Missouri player Gary Gallier at the Great Black Swamp Dulcimer Festival (long defunct) in April 1990, I learned about DAD tuning, reading music rather than playing only by ear, and single-string flatpicking, and that day I retuned my dulcimer and abandoned the noter for good. I studied the notes, scales, and arpeggios on the dulcimer, and I applied those lessons to Celtic music.
I consider Leo Kretzner my dulcimer father and Margaret MacArthur my dulcimer grandmother, and I have passed on my approach to a student and an acquaintance. So goes folk music, a living, thriving tradition, where musicians transmit musical traditions and techniques tinged by their own interpretations.
In future posts I will discuss my mountain dulcimer tunings and tunes I like to play on it.

Leo has an autobiography on Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer at:
I found several articles about Margaret through a Google search, and her albums are on Amazon.
The West Virginia Mountain Heritage Arts and Crafts Festival can be found at:

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