Play the dulcimer
(Page 2 of 2)
Instructor Maureen Sellers gave us stickers when we did well, which was every day, of course. Steve Seifert commanded that we "strum the air!" on the off-beats. And Michael LeCompte, a 17-year-old mountain dulcimer state and regional champ, had us burning up the fretboard with the sounds of "June Apple" and "Gray Cat on a Tennessee Farm" in jam class.Skip to next paragraph
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On the second night, I sat down next to Betty Kelley, a classmate who is a retired schoolteacher from Lowell, Ind. It was Luau Jam Night beside the pool at the Days Inn. Betty wore a festive dress. I had on a splashy shirt. We may have been just beginners, but, by gum, we were going to strum.
"Here we go," said Betty, "just play the chords."
Betty's confidence was contagious. I pushed out memories of the jam class that afternoon when our group had sounded like a car with a flat tire when we played "Mississippi Sawyer."
Instead I started to perfect the bump-diddy-bump strum. That's the Johnny Cash train rhythm. I practiced air strumming, flicking my wrist back and forth making no sound: out, out-in, out. By the time we chugged through to "Bile Them Cabbage Down," I was ready to make some music.
There were about 50 of us jamming away, playing one song right into the next. Three hours passed before I knew it.
By week's end, I had a whole repertoire of songs I could play - and a Band-Aid on my thumb.
Betty e-mailed me from Indiana not long after we all returned home. "Sandy [who plays the hammered dulcimer] and I have been meeting on Monday evenings at the gazebo by the 'lake' in my subdivision to play music," she wrote. "Each time we are gathering a larger crowd of folks who come to sing and to listen."
Inspired, I pulled out my own dulcimer at a barbecue recently and played a few songs. It was my first solo act. Someone said, "Wow, you can really play now."
And maybe, in some ways, I really can.
The Appalachian mountain dulcimer has been a presence in Kentucky since folks first started settling the Southeastern mountain range, and in 2001 it was finally declared the official state musical instrument. The Kentucky state road map even has a tiny dulcimer next to Berea.
"That's a nice plug for me," says Warren May, a traditional woodworker. "I've made more dulcimers than anyone in Kentucky history."
It's true. Mr. May has carved, fretted, and strung more than 13,000 mountain dulcimers since 1972.
The Appalachian town of 10,000 is considered the folk arts and crafts capital of Kentucky. Craft and folk festivals occur nearly every month.
May's shop is where I spotted my first dulcimer four years ago. A handmade sign on his store wall caught my eye: "The easiest of all stringed instruments to play." Sure enough, during that first visit, May taught me how to sound out "Joy to the World" in 10 minutes. A year and a half later I went back to buy a dulcimer of my own. I stopped by again recently on my way to Kentucky Music Week.
May knows that not everyone has had great experiences with music teachers. "I absolutely love to get people to play when they don't think they can," he says.
Efforts by musicians such as Kentuckian Jean Ritchie during the 1960s folk-music revival kept the dulcimer from disappearing. Today, some rock musicians, Cyndi Lauper for one, have used the dulcimer to compose music. But May isn't interested in famous "jazzy players." He preaches music to the common man.
May uses only local wood. He uses strings two melody strings (instead of one), carves rounded pegheads and wooden tuners, and inlays a fretboard that follows the traditional mountain scale (as opposed to perfectly pitched modern dulcimers with flat pegheads and metal tuners). His are beautiful instruments with hummingbird or heart-shaped sound holes - some have knotholes shaped into trillium flowers. The old-time scale, which might sound slightly off-key to some, is a natural fit with the human voice.
But even May has parted with tradition a bit. The process of turning out 500 instruments a year with the help of two assistants prompted him to come up with the Hourdrop - a combination of the traditional hourglass and teardrop shape.
The Hourdrop does add strength and body to the dulcimer sound, which is why I bought one. Each dulcimer takes about three weeks to make and costs from $275 to $600.
"People are looking for simple recreation," says May. "People want to do more casual, more interactive social things. And music is definitely the way to go."