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.

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.

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.

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.

For more information, go to, or write Nancy Barker, KMW Inc., P.O. Box 86, Bardstown, KY 40004; phone (502) 348-5237; or e-mail

The dulcimer king of Berea, Ky.

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."

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