Play the dulcimer
In June I joined almost 200 people on a musical mission in Bardstown, Ky. We had traveled from every corner of the United States, as singles, in pairs, and in groups. Cars and RVs were packed with hammered dulcimers, mountain dulcimers, banjos, autoharps, and penny whistles.Skip to next paragraph
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We would spend the next five days learning how to play these traditional Appalachian instruments, and during the evening we would listen to performances and jam.
Welcome to Kentucky Music Week, where the sweet sounds of the past still echo through the rolling hills and farmland. For more than 20 years, KMW has done its part to keep the state's artistic heritage alive.
"When I first started playing dulcimer [30 years ago], there weren't that many young people playing dulcimer," says Nancy Johnson Barker, the founder and director of KMW. "But how it has mushroomed. It seems everyone is playing, or knows someone who does."
To non-Kentuckians that might sound like an exaggeration. I had never even seen a dulcimer until a few years ago when I came across one in a craft shop in Berea, Ky. (See sidebar.)
I play the piano. But I had been searching for another instrument to learn, one that I could master quickly and carry around. I thought strumming some "old-timey" music on a traditional instrument would be the perfect antidote to the frantic, work-driven pace that seems to consume all of us.
Maybe that's why America's oldest melodies are still striking a chord in the hearts of many. For instance, the bluegrass soundtrack from the 2001 movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" won a Grammy for best album in 2002. And bluegrass artists such as Alison Krauss continue to draw large, mainstream crowds to concert halls.
But more and more people are choosing to go beyond just buying CDs and attending concerts. They are picking up instruments and traveling to camps and weekend festivals throughout the US to make roots music their own.
"The dulcimer world is like an extended family," says Ms. Barker. "We have an awful lot of folks who come back year after year."
This extended family doesn't mind too much that there aren't many tourist attractions in Bardstown.
Yes, an outdoor amphitheater featuring "Stephen Foster, the Musical" runs with Disneyeque precision throughout the summer. Or you can spend a night in "jail" in the renovated 1819 Jailer's Inn. But otherwise, the town, which is 60 miles west of Lexington, Ky., can only be described as quaint.
Horse and wagon rides amble through the leafy streets. My Old Kentucky Dinner Train blows its whistle twice a day to take diners on a two-hour meal tour.
The real attraction, though, is Kentucky Music Week, the second largest camp of its kind in the US. And at $195 for a week's instruction from some of the most talented in the field, it's also a bargain.
When I first arrived, with my dulcimer slung across my back, I had hoped for an experience rich with rustic ambience. I imagined that I would learn the dulcimer under a tree, perhaps wearing overalls. But KMW is a serious music camp, indoors and air-conditioned to ward off the effects of humid air. Classes were held at the local high school. My overalls stayed in the suitcase.
Barker, whose role during the week is part fairy- godmother, part drill sergeant, advised that we not overdo it. "Pace yourself, don't take five music classes, take a craft class," she said. Her words rang in my ears as we shuffled our instruments from room to room. Learning was hard, but enjoyable, work.
To relax after three intensive hours of counting and memorizing fingering, I spent the afternoons stitching together a blue-button-eyed sock monkey (I call her my Bardstown Babe) and learning some basic contra dancing steps.
But my goal was learning how to sound like I knew how to play the mountain dulcimer. I'm fortunate in some ways, because hardly anyone I know has ever heard of the dul- cimer, or knows how it should be played.
The dulcimer gets its name from the Latin word dulcis meaning "sweet" and the Greek word melos for "sound." The instrument has three or four strings, but simple melodies are mostly carried on only one (or two) strings. The others act as a drone note - making it sound a bit like a bagpipe.
Nobody seems to know where the mountain dulcimer came from, though theories abound. Some say it had ancestors in Europe. Others insist it is completely original to the New World. Still others think the Germans brought it, the Norwegians influenced it, and the English wrote music for it. But everyone agrees that the dulcimer somehow evolved - like the rest of America - with numerous shared traditions.
On the first day of camp we learned how to tune, strum, sit correctly, and use skid pads to keep our dulcimers on our knees. And we played music from the get-go.