Friday, September 7, 2007

The Origins of the Appalachian dulcimer

“The origin of the mountain, or plucked dulcimer, and its scattered, yet rather widespread usage in the Appalachian Mountains, is still somewhat of a mystery,” reports John Rice Irwin in his 1979 book titled "Musical Instruments of The Southern Appalachian Mountains." Nobody really knows what the origins of the dulcimer are, but I like to believe that southwest Virginia was probably the “cradle” of the Appalachian Dulcimer. Actually, there appears to be only a small handful of experts on dulcimer history. These experts include Ralph Lee Smith, Professor J. Allen Smith (no relation), John Rice Irwin, and Lucy Long.

It has been said that the only instrument originating in North America is the Appalachian Dulcimer. The Appalachian Dulcimer, also known as the mountain dulcimer or lap dulcimer, originated deep in the heart of the central Appalachian Mountains, perhaps predominantly in southwest Virginia. Accordingly, Rose Hill and surrounding area is home to the Appalachian Dulcimer. Although theories about the origins of the Appalachian dulcimer trace the instrument back to the Norwegian Langelik or the German scheitholt, the trails of pioneers entering this area do not necessarily support such theories (in my opinion).

In an article by Ralph Lee Smith entitled, The Appalachian Dulcimer’s History: On the Trail of the Mountains’ Secrets, Smith reports further on the mysterious origins of the Appalachian dulcimer. Smith writes, “The Southern Appalachian Mountains are full of secrets, and the history of the Appalachian Dulcimer is one of them. The instrument arrived into the light of the 20th Century virtually without a written record. Its traditional dissemination was principally confined to the Appalachian mountain area of some four or five states. Unlike other stringed instruments that were and are popular in the mountains, you couldn’t buy a dulcimer from the Sears Roebuck catalog, or in stores. There was no printed music and there were no instruction manuals. Most makers of the instrument made only one, or a few. Prior to World War II, only two or three mountain craftspersons made dulcimers in sufficient quantity for anything like regular resale. As to where the instrument came from, if you asked old-timers, you were likely to get one of two answers. One answer was, “Didn’t come from nowhere—it was borned in these hills!”

The website reports interesting dulcimer information, stating, “The Appalachian dulcimer is shaped like an hourglass, or like a woman, as many say. In those days women playing a stringed instrument were not allowed to stand in front of the men. So, they played the dulcimer, which was played on the lap.”

John Rice Irwin is the founder of The Museum of Appalachia, located in Norris, TN. He is the author of the book, Musical Instruments of The Southern Appalachian Mountains, which was published in 1979 by Schiffer Publishing Ltd. of Atglen, PA. He explains in the books introduction, “For almost a quarter century I have gathered musical instruments from the hollows and mountains of Southern Appalachia, primarily in upper east Tennessee, southwest Virginia, western North Carolina and eastern Kentucky. These items are now on display at The Museum of Appalachia, fifteen miles north of Knoxville, TN.” Dulcimers pictured in the book include a dulcimer purchased from the Mullins family whose old homeplace was in Lee County, near Tennessee and the Powell River and a dulcimer made by George Allen Johnson in 1930 who lives in Blackwater in Lee County on the Virginia-Tennessee line. Also pictured, a dulcimer found in an old smoke house near Rose Hill at the Ely place went out on loan from the Museum of Appalachia to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN.

As to the history of the Appalachian Dulcimer, John Rice Irwin wrote in the book, “How many times have I read “authoritarian” statements indicating that the “dulcimer was the traditional instrument of the folk of Southern Appalachia”? Some would have us believe that there was a dulcimer hanging inside every cabin. My experience indicates that this is simply not true. Fully eighty to ninety percent of the older persons in Appalachia, with whom I have talked, had never even heard of the dulcimer until recent years. It is true that it was made and played by some of the old mountain people, who pronounced it “dulcymore” or “delcymore”, but its existence was spotty, to say the least. In fact, I doubt that its usage prior to the 1940’s was as commonplace as the mouth bow. Although I have not found enough of these instruments to indicate a definitive pattern, there are some areas where they appear to be more common than in other areas where they appear to be more common than in other areas. In Lee County and Scott County, Virginia, and in Hancock County, Tennessee, I have encountered more than in any other area with which I am familiar. In Anderson County where the Museum is located, I have not found or even heard a single one.”

For more information about the Appalachian Dulcimer –

The American Folklife Center, a research center of The Library of Congress, provides a Bibliography of the Plucked (Appalachian or Mountain) Dulcimer and Related Instruments. The bibliography is available online at A California musician and scholar, Laurel Krokstrom, has also developed an excellent bibliography listing literature about the Appalachian or Mountain Dulcimer. Her Bibliography is available at

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